Plot Structures: My Favorite Folktale Formula (NaNo Prep 12)
My parents gave me C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and T.H. White, but I think I was supposed to grow out of them. Which makes me think of that famous China Miéville line — when people ask me how I got into fantasy, I ask them, how did you get out of it? — Lev Grossman
Plot structures are like country or property borders. They define the edges of a particular “flavor” or culture of action, and there are a variety of structures to choose from.
They will have much in common– main characters, antagonists, problems and conflict– but that is like the difference between bagels, baguettes and tortillas. In most cultures there are major elements that may change name or shape but continue to serve the same purpose.
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I used to *hate* The Hero’s Journey as the “standard” plot form (more about THJ tomorrow). There were too many steps, and some of them (Refusing the Call? Really? How long is that going to last? We know you’re the main character!) seem ridiculous to me.
To my delight I found a structure there as well, and my closure-loving self (I’m a J on the P-J spectrum) had a form that didn’t make me crazy.
This model covers pretty much all the complex folktales I am drawn to, showing relationship development (usually in a nutshell), and allowing both the man and the woman to think and affect their “destinies.”
- Opening state. Usually there are some inherent qualities of the MC
- Birth; e.g. royalty, other significant parentage (optional)
- Attitude; which attitude depends on the needs of the story
- Other intrudes
- Does M.C. notice?
- How does M.C.respond? Acceptance (in this model), but how?
- with fear?
- Physical separation from the known
- Frequently this includes an emotional connection with a former stranger
- If the emotional connection is skipped/missed there are deeper regrets and pain in the next step
- Physical separation from the new known
- Opportunity for character discovery- self and/or others
- Journey to return
- Sometimes a series of tasks/helpers to process
- often anguish of seeing things changed while gone
- The closing FIND, usually with a final twist that is victory beyond mere achievement.
I like how this formula provided me with a structure to look at individual story lines for each major character.
To show you how I apply the formula, here’s an example using The Ebony Horse, since I already have a version of it on my other blog:
A prince (1) flies away on the magic horse (2)-(3), meets and absconds with a princess (3.1) and brings her home for a happily-ever-after. The bad-guy tricks the foolish princess and steals her off (4), the prince disguises himself to search for her (4.2.1) and the princess, after changing hands once more, concocts a ruse of her own (4.1) to protect herself from the sultan who would force her to marry him. The rescue involves more than escape, it also includes a clever outwitting (5).
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This is only one model, but it is an effective one, and can be a starting place or a comparison with more examples.