Showing posts with label folk tales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label folk tales. Show all posts

Thursday, November 20

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Archetypal Openings

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Archetypal Openings

A well-written opening reflects the kind of story you’ve written. If it’s a horror then the opening should communicate this; similarly for romances, mysteries, westerns and so on. While many stories employ archetypes—in fact, I think that the very best stories always do—the level of involvement varies.

Before I discuss that, though, lets talk about the difference between archetypes and stereotypes.

Archetypes vs Stereotypes

I think of a stereotype as a solid unchanging but shallow impression, with the added sense that it doesn’t truly reflect the person portrayed. That is, it doesn’t accurately represent the humanity, the deeper truth, of the situation.

An archetype, on the other hand, is something we’re connected to on the basis of shared experience. For example, I think we’ve all had the experience of hearing something that shouldn’t go bump-in-the-dark go bump-in-the-dark. 

We have all been alone in the cold dark and felt things glide silently through the darkness, coming for us. When we write a story about such things, such shared experiences, even though we might not have the writing skill of, say, Gillian Flynn, our readers are there with us. They are inside our character’s skin and it is the reader’s awareness of being in similar situations, that archetypal awareness, that connects them to that character.

Now, I can hear you asking ...

Given that definition aren’t all openings archetypal?

 I believe that all effective openings are archetypal to some degree, but that some are more so than others. For example:

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” (The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford)

Anyone who has ever been very sad (and who hasn’t?) can connect with this. In that sense, this is an archetypal opening. It would have also worked if instead of “saddest” the author had used “most horrific” or “bloodiest” or “most profane,” and so on. Choose your superlative ... though “most boring,” although archetypal, wouldn’t have the same punch.

Mythology, Urban Mythology and Archetypes

Carl Jung was one of the first to notice the archetypal nature of myth, folktales and what, today, we call urban legends. Take, for instance, one of my favorite folktales: Baba-Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Here’s how one version of that tale begins:

“A long time ago there lived a merchant and his wife; they had one child, a girl called Vasilisa. One day the mother placed a little doll in the child's hands, she said, ‘My child, I am dying. Take this doll as my blessing. Always keep it with you and never show it to anybody. If anything bad happens to you, give the doll food and ask her for guidance.’ Shortly afterwards the mother died.”

This opening got my attention. Yes, a question has been raised here (If the child feeds the doll will it give her guidance?) but I feel that the archetypal nature of the story is announced by the mother’s death. 

The death of those who raised us, who nurtured us when we were children, is (unfortunately) something that connects us all. It is something that, even though Vasilisa’s character is never really fleshed out, connects us to her and makes us care what happens to her.

Death As An Archetype

What I’m about to say doesn’t have anything to do with openings but since we’re discussing archetypes I think it’s relevant. Often at the middle or two-thirds point of a story a major character dies, or comes very near death (occasionally a character seems to die but is resuscitated).

One of the archetypes that runs through the fabric of human existence is our shared realization of life’s inevitable end. When a character dies we cannot help but be gripped by it. When a character almost dies and somehow finds a way back, we cannot help but be moved by the experience. 


By weaving these archetypal experiences and events into our stories we increase the reader’s involvement in that story. (And, yes, of course, this involvement would be helped along by creating rounded characters.) (See: Crafting Interesting Characters; Creating Vivid Characters for NaNoWriMo; Preparing to write a story: characters.)

And that’s it for archetypal openings! Granted, much more can be said about this, but not much more can be said in under 1,000 words! If you’d like to read more about archetypes in the human experience (and you haven’t already) pick up a copy of Carl Jung’s “Man And His Symbols.” Although you may not agree with everything Jung says it is an interesting read.

This is the last, the final, post in my Six Ways To Begin A Story series (click on the link to go to the first one which contains a handy-dandy index), I hope you enjoyed it.

If you have any questions, or any suggestions for future posts, please leave a comment or contact me.

Photo credit: "Love is in the Air..." by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, June 13

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp And The Narrative Structure Of Folk Tales

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp And The Narrative Structure Of Russian Folk Tales
Today I'd like to talk about the underlying structure of stories; specifically, folk tales.

I've been meaning to write a blog post about this for some time, but Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp identifies--as Shawn Spencer of Psych fame would say: wait for it--31 plot points.

That's a lot of plot points!

Still, it's valuable information. So I'm going to take this in chunks. I'll start today with the first plot point and then pick the topic up again in a few days until I get through all 31.

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp's Morphology Of The Folktale

0. Introduce the hero

This isn't one of Propp's steps but, as the author of Vladimir Propp's Morphology Of The Folktale writes:

A folktale usually begins with some sort of initial situation. The members of a family are enumerated, or else the future hero is introduced (i.e., a soldier) in some manner; either his name is revealed or his status is indicated. 
By the way, what follows draws heavily on the above article. All I'm doing here is laying out Propp's points with a bit of commentary.

 1. ABSENCE. One of the members of a family is absent from home.

This can come in many forms:

a. Absence. Someone, often a parent or hero him/herself leaves

Here are a few possibilities:
- The person absent is a parent or caregiver
- A ruler (prince, king, etc.)
- Merchant or business person who goes off on to ply his/her trade
- Hero goes to work
- Hero goes exploring (into the deep, dark, forest; into a bad part of the city; into a diary/journal that isn't his/hers)
-  Soldier goes to war
- Hero's parents leave (one way they may leave is through death)
- Children walk over to neighbors/go fishing/explore an old mine
- Children go for a walk in the forbidden forest (the bad side of town) to pick berries (to see a movie)

b. Interdiction. Hero is told not to do something

- "Take care of your brother, do not venture forth from the courtyard."
- If someone you don't recognize comes to the door, don't talk to them. (Or, more simply, 'Don't talk to strangers.')
- King/merchant/father: stay in the tower and do not leave.
- Do not pick the apples in the neighbor's yard/Do not get your ball if it lands in the neighbor's yard.
- Do not open the chest.
- Do not kiss the girl/boy.

However, rather than being told not to do something, the hero may be given a command:

- Bring your father/mother his/her lunch as he/she works in the fields.
- Take your brother/sister with you when you go fishing/to the amusement park/out to the movies with your friends.

c. The possibility of misfortune

The possibility of misfortune is what is nascent in (a) and (b), above. Combining the two we have:
- The merchant has a tree that produces golden apples but the moment he or his offspring injure another tree it will die. The merchant tells his son/daughter to stay out of the woods, fearing they will inadvertently injure a tree. One day when he is out of town ... You know the rest.

Generally, this seems to be the formula for this first of the 31 points: If you X then your prosperity will end, but you're not allowed to tell anyone why. For instance, the merchant with the tree that bears golden fruit would not tell his children why they couldn't go into the woods.

Well! That's the first of Propp's 31 points and we've just gotten started.

Photo credit: "Surfin in the Sun" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.