Friday, December 2, 2011

Why is Classic Story Structure So Universal?

During a recent SVA senior portfolio class that I teach with Klaus Janson, I reviewed the basics of classic story structure.
The students were interested in why classic story structure seems to be so universally appealing.

Here's what I mean by classic story structure -
- A protagonist (or a group of protagonists) encounters a catalytic problem that disturbs their status quo.
- That catalyst propels him/her actively into an escalating series of events/conflicts.
- The events reach a climax and then a resolution
- The protagonist is changed by his/her experience and a new status quo is established.

In most cases, the protagonist is a character the reader can identify with on some level, helping the reader vicariously share the aspirations, dangers and adventures that the character experiences.

There are many works of fiction that don't follow this basic arc - there are character sketches, mood pieces, minimalist and anti-structure tales. However, the vast majority of classic tales that have stood the test of time, as well as the most popular counterparty works of fiction, generally follow this basic arc.

So, why is this classic story arc so consistent throughout history, across cultures, genres and media?

What is it about this arc that is so attractive to us?
Here's a possible answer from John G. Cawelti's book, "Adventure, Mystery, and Romance":
"...formulas are ways in which specific cultural themes and stereotypes become embodied in more universal archetypes.

Certain story archetypes particularly fulfill a man's needs for enjoyment and escape.

But in order for these patterns to work, they must be embodied in figures, settings, and situations that have appropriate meanings for the culture which produces them."

Cawelti quoting Harry Berger:
"Man has two primal needs. First is the need for order, peace, and security, for protection against terror or confusion in life, for a familiar and predictable world, and for a life which is happily more of the same...But the second primal impulse is the contrary to the first: man positively needs anxiety and uncertainty, thrives on...risk, wants trouble, tension, jeopardy, novelty, mystery, would be lost without enemies, is sometimes happiest when the most miserable. Human spontaneity is eaten away by sameness: man is the animal most expert at being bored.

The audience's need for both familiarity and novelty are met by giving them classic genre model stories that include unique twists on characters, plot elements, themes and so on."

In other words, as a writer, "Give them what they expect, but not in the way they expect it."
(I've been using this phrase for many years but I'm not sure of the original source of the quote (or paraphrased wisdom). If you have that info, please let me know.

The aesthetics of the times also play a big hand in how a work of fiction is structured. Much of beginning of Victor Hugo's extremely long novel Les Misérables is spent describing the life and character of the kindly Bishop Myriel. The Bishop's part in the story is to be nice to the protagonist Jean Valjean - when Valjean is finally introduced - and inspire Valjean to lead a righteous life.

The aesthetics of contemporary writers, editors and audiences would probably dictate that the huge number of pages establishing Bishop Myriel's history and character are not needed and should be cut. I'm trying to remember if the Bishop even seen in any of the more contemporary screen or stage versions of the novel. I don't think he is.

Even with such differences in aesthetic tastes and judgments over the years, if you boil down most classic tales to their most basic arc, they will look much like the arc outlined in the 3rd paragraph of this blog entry.

Within the familiar classic story arc are an almost infinite number of ways to generate tension, jeopardy, novelty, mystery, etc. thus pleasing our contradictory needs for structure and novelty. Classic structure is the most gratifying to the largest audience - and therefore the most popular type of fiction structure.

Your thoughts?