There is evidence, though I am not up to date and need to check out the latest research, that telling stories is one important way that we can make sense of our lives. Similar story lines appear and reappear in many different cultures regardless of the time in which they were written. Great examples of simple plot construction start with children’s stories. At another level, yet still simple, there are the birth of the world stories.
An exhaustive and exhausting account of story-telling is contained in The Seven Basic Plots, written by Booker. Sometimes repetitive, sometimes confusing, it is nevertheless possible to pick out consistent recurring principles which can begin to describe our own lives. The work of Jung is drawn upon to explain how our subconscious influences our waking thoughts and feelings and how these are shared with others through time and across cultures:
“Below the level of conscious awareness there is some shaping mechanism in the human psyche which not only assembles images into patterns but does so according to consistent rules.”
Burr, coming from a social construction perspective, summarises the main research areas. No one has discovered a neurological locus for story-telling, just as no one has found where personality lives. Alternatively, it is learning from our and other people’s experiences that leads to a gradual awareness of consistent patterns of behaviour which make up our own identities and help us to make sense of the world in which we live. We also rely on others to agree with our stories and hence validate what we have learnt about ourselves and the world. Language is the logical method of understanding what each of us is getting at. Burr is not a good advert for a shared understanding through language – like many specialist texts there is a private language which is inaccessible to the average reader.
Burr makes a great point that we construct our self and life as a theme – comedy, tragedy etc. and she agrees that there are a limited number of themes. We select and reject material according to our preferred theme – hence coherence especially as an organising principle for memory. She also suggests however that we must guard against rigidity as this will prevent change, something that is as integral to the human condition as story-telling. Indeed writing any piece involves revision, revision and more revision. Revisiting and revising personal stories over time encourages reflection and an acknowledgement as to whether change has occurred, internally and in behaviour. Have these been checked out with the other actors in our stories?
Harari describes two selves which are intertwined – our experiencing self and our narrating self. Stories use experiences for raw material. Stories in turn are contexts within which we have experiences. Fasting for Lent will produce a different experience of hunger compared to having no money. Our narrating self helps to make sense of things, even though it may not always be true.
Is it all this simple? No! Just as Brian Cox tells us that one subatomic particle equation describes everything and all music is based on eight notes, so the seven themes outlined by Booker lead to an infinite number of stories.
Whilst he writes about seven basic stories, he does boil them down to one universal tale. The components he suggests are:
Beginning – The hero – immature, incomplete – tension needing resolution.
Middle – problem posed by ‘dark power’ even to point of facing death – source of action. External figure or innner force. Upper realm where dark power holds sway and inferior realm where forces of light remain in shadows.
End – resolution from confusion and threat -‘thrilling escape’ or ‘overcoming dark power’ – returns ‘home’ or moves on. Where hero and dark power separate, end is great prize and hero fulfilled and complete. Where hero is dark power tragedy and destruction – wider community from the shadows has happy ending.
Booker expands the ‘universal’ plot into seven, each emphasising one component above the rest. From Wiki:
Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. Monster as egotistic, all imperfection. Hero works toward maturity in process.
Examples: Perseus, Theseus, Beowulf, Dracula, The War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, The Guns of Navarone, Seven Samurai (and its Western remake The Magnificent Seven), James Bond, Star Wars.
Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result. Transformation is the key element.
Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, The Prince and the Pauper, Brewster’s Millions, The Emperor’s New Groove.
The Quest – The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location. Distant prize and tortuous journey, growing as person along the way. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.
Examples: The Odyssey, The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Lord Of The Rings, King Solomon’s Mines, Watership Down.
Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to them, they return with experience. Shift in psychololical centre, different from start, moving from egocentric to whole.
Examples: Ramayana, Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Orpheus, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, The Hobbit, Mad Max: Fury Road, Brideshead Revisited, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gone with the Wind, The Third Man.
Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Booker makes sure to stress that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. The majority of romance films fall into this category.
Examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Music and Lyrics, Sliding Doors, Four Weddings and a Funeral
Tragedy – The protagonist’s character flaw or great mistake which is their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character. Destruction whilst everyone else released from dark shadow.
Examples: Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Carmen, Bonnie and Clyde, Jules et Jim, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, John Dillinger, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar.
Rebirth – An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better person. Long difficult period under the dark force prior to liberation.
Examples: “The Frog Prince”, “Beauty and the Beast”, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Peer Gynt.
What is it of priceless value that can be won from the shadows?
What is it that casts a shadow?
What is required to achieve liberation?
In practice, I’ve never managed the long game (the novel), largely because I never made it to the discipline of writing regularly and ignoring everyone else, something I did successfully at work. So do I need to go to disappear?
On the other hand there are loads of short pieces – what best to do with them? I did consider writing for others on a potentially commercial basis, but that is no longer important. The goal now is to organise them into coherent groups, and publish them for the benefit of family (and any friends who are interested).
There are efforts that are half finished:
(1) Nothing to play for – an account of a social cricket team in parallel with my life story.
(2) Escape stories – walking and other activities with pals in the Lakes, the Dales and Scotland, against the backdrop of personal tragedy.
(3) Letters to my grandchildren
Lots of personal stories that have no home.
All of these are stored and archived by www.shallilo – foreveryoung.org
As far as short stories go, the guidelines are as follows:
- Told from the point of view of the central character or hero in most cases.
- Conflict or the dark power is introduced early on.
- Suspense as the readers wonder how things will go.
- Resolution at the end.
- A single event, a crisis in the hero’s life.
- Avoid narrator intrusion – show not tell