Friday 26 February 2021

How to think about the structure of stories?

Stories have structures. 

We are used to talking about stories having settings, characters, plots and themes. Slightly to one side of these or incorporating these are structures. How should we describe these or study them so that young people can get hold of them easily?

One way that is ok (not perfect) is to use a metaphor: 'cogs'. Cogs as we know are the wheel-like things in gears that 'engage' and then 'disengage'. When they engage, they affect other cogs. When they're disengaged they're sitting there not being used for the time being. 

Let's apply this to stories. We might think of a character, a setting, a group of characters, a couple, as cogs. Perhaps others aspects of a story. If we take a seemingly simple story like 'Little Red Riding Hood', there first two cogs are LRR and her mother. The mother invokes two other cogs - granny and the wolf and perhaps we might  say, the cog of the forest.  LRR disengages from her mother and engages with the setting of the forest. Depending on what telling of the story, the forest either prefigures the cog of the wolf through LRR looking out for it, or the wolf cog actually engages for some threatening dialogue. Then at granny's house the wolf engages with granny and eliminates that cog and it's where we think LRR engages with the granny cog (already mentioned), she is in fact engaging with the wolf cog. Then depending on how the story is told, either a brand new cog turns up to save the say, the woodcutter, or LRR herself deals with it all, (elimination of wolf cog), LRR is reunited with granny cog and then all three reunite when mother cog turns up.

So we can see how these cogs engage, disengage, disappear or re-engage. 

Because it's a fairy story, there aren't complex cogs from before the story starts (flasbacks), or sub-plots where we go off to another gear box, as it were. 

Cogs are inanimate objects but they are moved by eg a driver. So this gives us an idea of authorship: someone who moves cogs. And when the driver moves one cog, it moves another. It's also possible for more than two cogs to be engage with each other. 

The snag with the cog metaphor is that it's not very good for describing characters' minds, ('interiority' so called). And most stories have some sense of that. Many stories are more about that than anything else. The cog metaphor is not very good for describing that.

People who write film scripts and make movies are very sensitive to something else going on: how you structure feeling through a story. They have various formulae and graphs to do with building emotion, building jeopardy, causing false alarms, creating expectations, disappointing those expectations, prefiguring the end point with mini-versions of that end point, creating sub-plots that invoke parallels with the main plot, creating 'depth' or 'thickness' to character through flashbacks, using the settings as 'harbingers' or as 'pathetic fallacy' by way of commentary on the emotion of the scene(s) and so on. 

A more useful metaphor for a lot of this are graphs. The horizontal axis is the time of the story. The vertical axis is 'amplitude' or 'volume' or 'amount'. A line on the graph might be 'sadness'. Another might be 'tension'. Another might be 'conflict'. You decide. As the story unfolds and the amount of that emotion that is 'going on' either in the story or in  yourself as the audience can be charted on the graph. It's amazing to follow the peaks and troughs. Even more amazing to see how these lines cross over: tension goes up as sadness recedes. Humour suddenly appears and then goes. And so on.

This is how 'drivers' (authors) try to structure feelings through a story. Hollywood does this by formula too. That's why we sometimes groan when we feel a good tense story is spoiled with too much sentimentality in the last ten minutes. The drivers have injected what they think is the right amount of that feeling into the feelings structure. 

Using the word 'injection' makes me think of another engine metaphor...or perhaps it's a print machine, Printing machines use colour. Depending on how they've been programmed, colour comes out of them at the moment of printing to give the printed sheet the 'right' colours. 

Perhaps we can use this for our feelings graph. The printer (driver/author) injects emotion/feeling colours into the text, as the story unfolds. 

Once we've identified that this is what's going on, we can ask how? This is less to do with structure and more to do with content and style. It's a matter of how the cogs engage. The cog metaphor is stuck with fast, medium and slow.  As we know, the driver has many more methods at their disposal than speed. Broadly speaking they have the tools of stylistics, motifs, symbolism etc. 

More on that next time.