Structure in Folktales, continued

Red Riding Hood, by Gustave Dore

In my last post, I said I was going to review some folktales to see if any conventions of the “three act structure,” used in contemporary fiction and cinema, apply.  Lest I be accused of hubris, I did not say I was going to be systematic about this.  My qualifications are simply a lifetime of love for this stuff.  Here are a few random observations.

The first thing I noticed – and I should have expected this – was the apples and oranges nature of my comparison between long fiction and short, between modern novels and screenplays and the kinds of tales you find in Grimm and other folklore collections.

Some longer epics do mesh with the three act structure.  In Homer’s Iliad, plot point #1 is Paris taking Helen to Troy, and plot point #2 is the Trojans wheeling the horse into the city – this is how the 2004 movie, Troy, is structured too.  It seems the three act structure only really fits longer fiction.  This leads to the question of whether the concepts apply to short fiction at all and to folktales in particular.

Every one of the folktales I reviewed has what Syd Fields called, an “inciting incident,” an event or situation that sets the action in motion.  The king is sick, the princess is missing, a dragon is loose on the land.  Often this is right where the tale begins, without any other preamble.

In terms of the major plot points, most of the folktales I looked at only have one.  Some have two and a few do not have any.  Are there any plot points, in the sense of a major crossroad, in the tale of Red Riding Hood?  Not really.  The unfortunate girl obeys her mother – “Take this basket to grandmother” – and events roll on to their unfortunate conclusion.

Cinderella has a single plot point.  The fairy godmother asks, “Do you want to go to the ball?”  When Cinderella says yes, her happy fate unrolls like destiny.

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

Another common folktale set up has just one decision point:  three brothers or three sisters set off on quest.  Each of them meets an “insignificant” or repellant creature as they set out.  The older siblings are arrogant and come to an unfortunate end.  The younger sibling behaves with respect, and the creature’s advice and boons are key to fulfilling the quest and often finding love and riches as well.

A Grimm’s fairytale, “The Water of Life,” is a good example.  The king is sick and only the water of life will heal him.  Two brothers set out, but disparage an “ugly little dwarf” who offers advice.  They wind up stuck – literally – in a mountain pass.  The youngest brother, who is open to help, receives it in abundance, both for the immediate quest and in overcoming the treachery of his brothers later on.  Although the action is rather complex, the only real decision the brothers face is whether or not to befriend the little man at the side of the road.  That choice determines their fate.

Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble

Some stories with two plot points echo the three act structure.  An example is, “The Pedlar of Swaffham,” which I discussed here a year ago:  A poor pedlar in the English village of Swaffham dreams he will find gold if he travels to London Bridge.  Unlike most people who do not act on their dreams, he decides to go (plot point #1).  He spends three days waiting fruitlessly.  His decision to stick it out, to believe in his dream, is the second key plot point and is rewarded when a shopkeeper asks what he’s doing.  When the pedlar tells him, the shopkeeper says dreams are a lot of foolishness:  “Why just last night I dreamed of a bag of gold under the peddlar’s oak in the village of Swaffham, wherever that is, but you don’t see me running all over the countryside, do you?” 

A story like this seems so modern in it’s emphasis on trusting oneself and following dreams, it may be surprising to know that Rumi recorded the first version 900 years ago.  In other variations, the poor man travels to Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Krakow.  Still, in conforming (sort of) to the three act structure, “The Pedlar of Swaffham” is the exception and not the rule.


Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  How long the sections are and how we move between them is the province of structure.  If you’ve ever heard a good storyteller, you’ve seen them adjust the pacing to match the mood of the audience.  You’ve seen gesture, expression, and silence used to enhance the tale in ways a written transcription can never capture.

It’s easier to gain an intuitive sense of how to tell a story aloud than to write one, and easier to structure a short story than a novel or screenplay.  Some people may gain a sense of how to structure a novel by reading them, but for the rest of us, constructions like the three act structure form a useful skeleton to build a story.  It isn’t the secret of what makes a novel or movie compelling, but I find it a useful bridge to that destination.

In a similar way, structure alone does not explain the magic in my favorite folktales.  For that I will have to slow down and consider each one more closely.  And there is a topic for more than one future post!

Puss In Boots by Gustave Dore

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.

Three Requirements of a Book Review (?)

In a post entitled, “How Not to Write a Book Review,” Robert Pinsky, who has been writing reviews since typewriter days, discusses a famous and venomous book review a critic leveled at John Keats in 1818.  The review, by Irishman, John Wilson Croker, founder of modern political conservatism, became known as “the review that killed Keats.”  Croker really is nasty, but by himself,would not inspire me to write a blog post.

What I found noteworthy in the article are the basic principles Pinsky has used for decades to write his reviews.  In the 1970’s, when he wrote freelance for newspapers, one of them gave him a mimeographed style sheet with three rules  for every book review:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

At first reading, the list seems to apply to non-fiction more than fiction.  Novelists don’t really say things about what their books are about except during interviews, but if we are less literal, do these criteria work?  As an experiment, let’s consider Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which I’m choosing because it’s pretty well known.

Criterion #1 is really the synopsis:  A lonely orphan discovers he is a wizard and finds allies as well as a deadly enemy at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  I like to set a story in context with (relatively) objective information.  For the first Potter, I might discuss characteristics of middle-grade fantasy – a magical world must be internally consistent, but does not require a detailed explanation:  some people are wizards and some are muggles, and that’s how it is.  This is common in middle grade, while adult fantasy needs more – a theory of mutant genes or something like that.  This first criterion, a summary of what the book is about, is essential for any review.

Criterion #2, is phrased in a strange manner.  An author writing a history of the Third Reich will have things to “say about that thing that the book is about,” but J.K. Rowling doesn’t.  For fiction, I interpret this as detailing what the author does to flesh out the plot and make it dynamic.  Rowling’s main characters, for instance, are so well drawn that they feel like people we’ve known.  You feel like you’ve met Hermione, Snape, and Hagrid, whether or not you have.  In addition, this is where I would speak of the richness of the world of Hogwarts, and maybe research a brief history of academies of magic in fiction and legend.

Criterion #3 is a tongue twister that boils down to my take on #1 and #2.  For Potter, I might talk about how it evokes the longing for connection; how sometimes we all feel like orphans longing for a virtual family  of kindred spirits like Ron, Harry, and Hermione.  How Hogwarts is an endless world our imaginations want to explore.  In other words, if I can find words for my deepest reactions, presumably – hopefully, others will know or echo what I am talking about.

I enjoy reading and writing book review as do a lot of bloggers I follow.  The exact phrasing of Pinsky’s rules seem a little too cutesy, but they got me thinking and I can come up with lots of ways to conceptualize the same thing. Here is one, off the top of my head:

1.  What is the story about?
2. How does the author make it uniquely their own?
3. Does it work for me?

Can you write an effective review with less than these basic criteria?  Are there others that will make it more effective?  Is it possible to do all of this and still wind up in left field?

Midnight in Paris: A Movie Review

Midnight in Paris, written and directed by Woody Allen, is a delightful romantic comedy and another of Allen’s meditations on the relationship between art and life, this time with time-travel in the mix.  Want to see Ernest Hemingway speaking exactly the way he wrote?  Kathy Bates holding forth as Gertrude Stein?  Want to see an insufferable pseudo-intellectual get his comeuppance, and the right couple go walking off together in Paris in the rain?

Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter visits Paris with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her family.  Gil dreams of moving to Paris to finish his novel about a man who opens a nostalgia shop.  Inez wants her parents to help her talk sense into Gil and get him to settle down in Malibu.  Gil wants Inez to walk with him in Paris in the rain.  Inez tells him not to be silly, they would get wet.

After a wine tasting with Paul (Michael Sheen), the sort of pompous know-it-all that Allen loves to parody, Gil decides to walk home by himself.  At the stroke of midnight, an old-time car pulls up beside Gil.  Revelers invite him in and transport him to a party where he meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who introduce him to Hemingway, who takes him to Gertrude Stein, who agrees to read his novel.

Even Inez notices how strangely Gil begins to act – sequestering himself to write by day and taking long walks at night.  He tries to demonstrate how he travels into the past, but she stalks off just before midnight and misses the car when it pulls up.  Gil meets Pablo Picasso and his beautiful mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who instantly captures his heart.

While shopping for furniture with Inez, Gil meets a sweet young antiques dealer, Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux), who shares his love of the 20’s and Cole Porter.  He discovers a battered copy of Adriana’s diary and finds a loving passage describing himself.  Returning to the past, he confesses his love to Adriana, who has left Picasso.  That night an ancient coach pulls up to carry the pair to her Golden Age, La Belle Epoque.  They stop at Moulin rouge and meet Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, and Paul Gauguin.

Adriana begs him to stay, but as Gil sees the famous painters dreaming of the Renaissance, he sees through his Golden Age illusion and decides to return to his present.  On the way, he stops off to see Gertrude Stein, who has finished his novel.  She likes it but thinks it needs a touch of the supernatural.

Back in his own time, he confronts Inez about her affair with Paul (Hemingway brought it to his attention).  She and her family leave.  Gil is left by himself in a storm, on his own, in the “ordinary” streets of Paris – which might not be so ordinary.  He runs into Gabrielle who loves to walk in the rain and says she would like it very much if he walked her home.

My brief description does not do justice to story and all the whimsical sub-plots – like the detective that Inez’s father hires to follow Gil, who makes a wrong turn and winds up lost in the court of Louis XIV.  This is a delightful movie.  If the story seems at all intriguing, I guarantee you will laugh out loud during the movie and walk out with a smile on your face.

Kung Fu Panda 2: A Movie Review

Figuring that the return of Captain Jack Sparrow was an excuse to venture out to the movies again, I suggested to Mary that we see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, but she had other ideas.  She showed me the 4-star review of Kung Fu Panda 2.  Ever since Up, 2009 I have been ready to see any animated movie with that kind of review, so off we went.

Here’s my summary:  if you trust any book or movie review I have posted here; if you think there is any chance my opinions align with your own, see this wonderful film.  Take the entire family.  This is an absolute gem.

Po the Panda seems like an unlikely Dragon Warrior – think of Jack Black, who does his voice – but likely or not, there he is with his allies, the Formidable Five, defending the Valley of Peace.  That peace is shattered by Shen, the evil peacock, who has a terrible weapon and the ambition to conquer all of China.

Po has other concerns as well.  His kung fu master tells him he must find inner peace to have any hope of success.  “Inner piece of what?” Po asks.  Memories from his past arise too, drawing Po into the question of who he is and where all the other Pandas have gone.

I didn’t see the first Kung Fu Panda (I plan to now), so I cannot comment on the comparisons between the two movies other bloggers make, but I can say this story was flawlessly paced, the visuals were spectacular, and the 3D did not bother me as it has in the past.  In addition to being marvelous entertainment, I was delighted to see a “family film” pose some very serious spiritual questions and values in a completely non-preachy way:

  • Upon a foundation of inner peace, you can accomplish what needs to be done.
  • “Who am I, really?” is perhaps the most important question we all have to ask.
  • Courage matters, as does loyalty to your friends and a worthy cause.
As I left the theater, I thought of one of my heroes.  Recently I said on this blog that I didn’t have any heroes, but that was not correct – Jim Henson (1936-1990) has always been a hero of mine, and I thought of his breakthrough animated movie, Dark Crystal.  Anyone who harbors a lingering notion that animation is somehow “less than” other sorts of films should check out this pioneering effort, made in 1982.  I like to think how much Henson, who died tragically at 53, would have loved the newest developments in animated filmmaking, and how much he would have enjoyed this offering.

Four Key Ingredients – Part Two

Wrestling with Originality:  A real-life Example.

It’s easy to talk in the abstract about things good fiction needs, but “originality” is an issue I have been wrestling with for real lately.  Recent “market research” – checking book jacket blurbs in stores and online – revealed a mass of new titles in the fantasy sub-genre where I have been working, in a two steps forward one back fashion, for several years.  Now that even the diehard fans are satiated with vampires, many hopeful writers have trooped to Faerie.

How many?  Well, two of the first half-dozen titles I sampled featured half-human/half-fairy protagonists – like mine.  A few discoveries like that throw the very possibility of being original into question.

I noticed something else too – several of these new books reuse a plot that was common in 1980’s adult fantasy – a war of good and bad fairies in which a human participant somehow tips the balance.  What I suspected then, I am sure of now – that storyline originated in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and online role-playing games.  It is simply not present in the original sources.

Given this seeming recycling of recycled plots, my choice seems fairly straightforward – give it up or dig deeper.  Donald Maass’ writing is full of encouragement for the latter choice, and I’m getting excited about some of the new ideas welling up since I started this process.  Here are a few of my current thoughts:

  • Go back to original sources.  In traditional fairy stories, there are no “good” and “bad” fairies – all encounters are problematic for humans.  Maass’ criterion of “inherent conflict” is built into the old tales and ballads of the relation between humans and the fey.
  • I’ve found a simple way around my heroine’s ancestry, since being half-fairy is now a cliche.  I like this even better.
  • I am probably going to rename the fairies and Faerie the way Sharon Shinn did in her 1995 YA story, Summer’s at Castle Auburn.  There the land and people are called, “Alora.”  Everyone gets it in “quack like a duck” fashion.

The point of giving these personal details is to underscore my belief in Donald Maass’ suggested lines of digging deeper.  “What if?” is a good question for any storyteller.  I have a long way to go, but I am enjoying the process again, and confident that I am on the right track.

Gut Emotional Appeal – Donald Maass’ Fourth Criterion for Really Good Novels:

There’s a formula for this:  create a likable character who must struggle to achieve something important.  Good as far as it goes, which is not very far.  And never mind that someone like Jonathan Franzen can throw out the advice and still win critical acclaim – the rest of us should not try that at home.  Most writers I know really care about their characters; the problem is how to make an audience care.

At a recent conference, a presenter used the Michelangelo analogy – chipping away what doesn’t belong – for the writer’s craft as well.  I think this is pertinent to the character breakthroughs I watch others make – they keep working, and eventually come to characters who somehow embody some of their own deeper truths.  In practice it isn’t nearly as weighty and ponderous as it sounds.

One critique group friend has long been enamored of Raymond Chandler type hard boiled detectives, with a dash of James Bond thrown in.  My friend worked and worked, creating better and better versions of characters we have seen before.  Recently, his own humor and mischievousness got into the mix, and a hero emerged who parallels, in my opinion, the tongue-in-cheek charm of the chick-lit detective who curses the bad guys if she breaks a nail while taking them down.  My friend’s character, Jonathan, a wastrel ex-Royal Marine, returns fire when assassins attack him on the golf course, furious that they ruined his score.  The battle had me in stitches as it caught up a foursome of startled ministers who realize the Lord moves in more mysterious ways than they had imagined.

Another critique group friend, writing about a troubled teen, made a quieter but equally profound breakthrough.  You see it in a little shift.  The bravado falls away, and the character is quietly real and telling her truth beyond any stereotype.

We have to start with characters and situations that matter to us, and then go deeper into ourselves that we expected – this much I am sure of.  How and when that happens is a mystery.  None the less, I find Donald Maass’ criteria:  Plausibility, Conflict, Originality, and Gut Emotional Appeal valuable questions to ask of my own or anyone else’s writing.

You can’t always say what or how but you know writing that has these things.  And if they are missing?  It simply means there is more chipping away to do.

Four Key Ingredients – Part One

Stories begin with ideas and these can come from anywhere. For some writers, some of the time, they may arrive fully formed, but I suspect that for most of us, they show up as seeds which we have to nourish and grow, in acorn-to-oak fashion.

Since I have allowed myself to drop back to the “acorn stage” of my own story, I turned once again to Donald Maas who has a lot to say about brainstorming and the care and feeding of story ideas as the critical first step in writing what he calls, “the breakout novel.”

Another name for that is simply “publishable novel,” because according to Maass, good is not good enough anymore.  I see antecdotal evidence to support his claim.  I still find the phrase “breakout novel” a bit high-falutin, so I just tend to think of “really good novels.”  Really good novels begin with a really good premise.

Maass uses the word “premise” both for the initial seed idea (“What if there were a whole other world at the bottom of that rabbit hole”) and for a more polished, high level description (“A girl named Alice follows a talking rabbit and…”).  He insists that really good, breakout ideas can be made.  He gives many useful examples of brainstorming and suggests that a key skill is learning to ask “what if” questions and then throw away one’s first responses which are likely to be obvious and cliched.

In the second chapter of Writing the Breakout Novel, he asks the reader to go find their three all time favorite books – the one’s we have read so many times the bindings are cracked.  The ones that have nourished our hearts and spirits for decades.  Maass suggests that four elements common to our favorite stories are likely to be, Plausibility, Inherent Conflict, Originality, and Gut Emotional Appeal.

Plausibility is perhaps the easiest of these concepts to understand and build into a story.  Avoid the extremes of the obvious and the impossible; according to Maass, we want our stories “surprising yet credible.”   As a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I would add that this applies to alternate universes as well.  Google on “world building” and you find a ton of information – much of it coming from gamers – on constructing internally consistent fantasy or extra-terrestrial worlds.  The internal consistency is what matters.  Orcs are all right in Middle Earth, in fact we expect them; Martians would be over the top.

Inherent Conflict:  If the story is set in an era and world where conflict is part of the situation, it aids the writer, but with craft, we can find or create conflict anywhere.  The nominally placid suburbs can be battlegrounds according to John Updike, and now Jonathan Franzen.  Anywhere you have teachers and students, parents and children, boys and girls you have the raw materials for conflict and tension.  Even better, according to Maass – you have conflict between groups or individuals who both have a claim to be “right.”.  It is our job as writers to find the conflict and keep in in the spotlight, for this is the stuff that generates excitement.

Originality:  This is one of those magical qualities – we know it and applaud it when we see it, but can we set out to deliberately be original?  To a degree, I think we can.  If we can allow ourselves to brainstorm or play with ideas, and are willing to reject our first (and usually obvious) solutions, we put ourselves in a place where something new can emerge.  (strictly speaking there may not be any “new” stories, but in practical terms, there are books that make us think, “Wow, I wish I had thought of that”).

I assume we all have practical ways of generating ideas – taking a walk, sinking into reverie, listening to music, keeping things silent, free writing, or some combination of methods like this.  The next step is to apply it.  If one can pull an entire plot out of ether, like a magician pulls an endless string of scarves out of a hat, bravo, but at some point, we’ll get stuck or have decisions to make.  I cannot remember where I got this piece of advice but I find it effective.  Ask an important plot question.  Write down 20 solutions.  Throw out the first 19 and the one that is left will be something original.  Twenty or ten or pick a number that works, as long as it doesn’t make things go too easy.

NEXT:  A real-life example and the fourth ingredient

Water for Elephants: A Movie Review

There surely has been a drought this spring of movies worth venturing out to see, so I was pleased when Water for Elephants, based on a best selling novel, hit the theaters.

The story is narrated by ninety year old Jacob Janowski after his family forgets to show up at the “home” where he lives to take him to the circus.  He relates how a personal tragedy interrupted his plans in 1931 and sent him out on the rails where he joined the Benzini Brother’s Circus as a vet.  Times were tough and circus life was gritty and often violent.

Jacob falls in love with Marlena, wife of August, the ringmaster, whose brutality sparks the biggest disaster in circus history.  Jacob and Marlena survive, rescue Rosie the elephant and a Jack Russell terrier, and after a successful stint with Ringling Brothers, settle down to raise five sons who forget about Jacob when he is 90.  The circus boss he tells the story to offers him a job, and Jacob feels like he’s coming home.

It’s a decent story, but…

The “but” is that I never really engaged with the characters.  What is the magic that causes us to bond and identify with a character in a movie or a novel?  You can’t say what it is, but you know it when it happens and you know when it doesn’t.  I actually felt worse when Rosie the elephant was beaten that when the goons beat up Jacob.

In contrast to Water for Elephants, my heart was really gripped by another movie about an old man who loses his wife and home but reinvents himself at the end of life.  This was the animated feature, Up (2009).  Up required a surreptitious kleenex in the theater.  Water for Elephants?  Not even close.

I would be curious to hear a response to the movie by someone who read the book first.  In retrospect, I feel like the movie made unsuccessful attempts to manipulate me.  Take August, the villain.  At one point during the movie, Mary leaned over and whispered, “bipolar.”  I said, “alcoholic.”  On the way home we agreed on a dual diagnosis, and now, on Wikipedia, I read that in the book he was pegged as a paranoid schizophrenic – not that circus roustabouts in 1931 knew what that is.  And regardless, if understanding of the villain’s bad behavior depends on a diagnosis, something is missing from the story.

I’m not sorry I went to see this movie, but unfortunately, I have to suggest that others save their money.