Structure in Folktales

I found a great post on story and movie structure on one of the blogs I follow, Albert Berg’s Unsanity Files.

Despite Mr. Berg’s caution that discussions of structure has been known to cause some Californian’s heads to explode, I suffered no ill effects (well, maybe a facial tic or two, but I’m still perfectly normal…honest!).

Actually, I credit a Californian, Syd Field, a hugely influential teacher of screenwriting, with formalizing the three act structure as we know it in movies and novels.  You hear Field’s book, Screenplay, recommended at writer’s workshops and conferences.  It is one of the best references I know on plot and structure. For anyone interested in writing, the “Three Act Structure” is required learning.  Even to rebel against it, you need to know what it is. Here is a simple diagram:

This, of course, is a variation on Aristotle’s observation that every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  In modern usage, it has become more formal than that.  The length of the acts in movies and in books is not arbitrary:  it’s 25%, 50%, 25% by default.  These numbers are sometimes even spelled out in screenplay contracts, and they are quoted in numerous other books on writing.

In a similar way, the plot points are not just ordinary troubles:   they are sometimes called, “doorways of no return.”  Examples of Plot Point 1, the first doorway, are when Luke leaves with Obiwan, when Frodo agrees to carry the ring, and when Louise pulls the trigger.  After a character steps through the first doorway, plot point #1, their old lives are gone, no longer an option.  Plot point two is when the last battle is joined.  When Frodo and Sam gaze down into Mordor, they still have an option to cut and run.  That choice disappears once they continue.   Once they reach the valley, their only options are victory or death.

If you know the running time and have a watch, you can spot these plot points occurring right on time in recent movies.  One thing I like to do, because I love old films, is try to see when and if they occur in the classics on TCM.  I watched for this recently as I viewed Lost Horizon, and sure enough, this structure was there.  I’ve come to the realization before, that Syd Field was not creating something new, as much as clarifying and codifying something successful screenwriters had already been using because because it works.

Which finally brings me around to the point of this post:

I was paging through some Google search results on “three act structure” and saw one author claim it was “fundamental to storytelling.”  As someone who spent 20 years in the Sacramento Storyteller’s Guild, I thought, “Wait a minute.  If you want to get ‘fundamental’ you aren’t going to do it with written fiction.  Fundamental storytelling means our worldwide oral tradition.

You find it in collections of folklore, the older the better:  in epics and fireside tales and sacred stories from all cultures:  in recordings of storytellers from library archives or recent storytelling festivals.

It also means stories we can hear at this years Tellabration, a day of storytelling that will happen around the world this year on November, 19.

What I am going to do is informally browse and listen to some of my favorite folktales to see what relationship they may or may not have to the three act structure as it has evolved in our literary and cinematic arenas.

We know that every story has a beginning, middle, and end – if it doesn’t, it may be a vignette or a character portrait, but it is not a story. We also know that the progression of folklore and myth tends to be “simple” rather than “complex.” In other words, you aren’t going to find a lot of twists and reversals.

What else?  That is what I am going to explore for next time.

5 thoughts on “Structure in Folktales

  1. Being the nerd I am, I regularly listen to the Writing Excuses podcast (link on my blog) where they talk about various elements of writing and storytelling. One topic that they’ve discussed on several podcasts is story structure. The three act structure is one that shows up in many stories, but you can also break down most stories into a 7 point system, or by using Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient. (Those are various story structures that they have discussed over the several years of the podcast.)

    It’s always interesting to try and break down a huge series such as Lord of the Rings into the three simple acts and narrow everything that is going on down to the three significant plot points that really drive the story.


    • Those podcasts sound interesting. I will check out the link.

      On one hand, almost anything you say about structure can seem arbitrary from one point of view, but most of us require a framework of some sort to work in.

      Interestingly, in the most recent edition of his book, Syd Fields discusses the screenplays for both, Lord of the Rings, and Pulp Fiction. He wondered at first if looking for a 3 act structure in Pulp Fiction was like, “putting a square peg in a round hole.” But when he examined the three interwoven stories in isolation, he says they all fit the paradigm.

      I don’t have them right at hand, but I know there are sites where you can find the screenplays of well known movies online to review.


  2. Pingback: The Tales of Beedle the Bard « Reviews and Ramblings

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