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Mar 20, 2009

What if Your Story Were a Fairy-tail?

Scott Bailey asked on his blog today, "What is a story?"

Why do stories have a beginning, middle and end? Obviously, they start somewhere and end somewhere physically, textually or orally, but is that alone what gives us the urge to give a story form?

I have a talkative relative (let's call her a great aunt, like my MC's Great Aunt Sullana) who is always telling me about incidents, people, and events in her life. Never, however, does she arrange these into stories with clear beginnings, middles and ends. Instead, her chatter strings along a seemingly random assortment of sentences about a friend's gall bladder operation, a sock she lost, what she's reading, the weather on her drive to my house and instructions to her dog. You will wait in vain to hear about whether the operation went smoothly or where the sock was found or how any of these things relate to one another.

On the other hand, I knew a fisherman who, under the guise of chit-chat, would tell the most hilarious and fantastic stories, with a complete cast of characters, plot tension and twist ending. Though he never announced, "I'm going to tell a story," his stories had a clear beginning, "So this one time...", problem, bigger problem, even bigger problem, climax and conclusion. "...and I swore I'd never go fishing with him again. Nah, I did, but can you believe his balls?" Sometimes even a moral: "Man, if you're that drunk, vomit before you try to talk to the Coast Guard."

The structure of a story can be boiled down, like a fairy-tail, a joke or an SAT essay, to five paragraphs.

1. Once Upon a Time (Introduces Main Character and Setting)
2. The Problem (First Time is Coincidence)
3. The Bigger Problem (The Second Time is a Pattern)
4. The Biggest Problem (The Third Time's the Charm Which Breaks the Pattern)
5. Happily Ever After (Reward for the Good Character Or Moral Explaining Failure of the Wicked Character)

* * *

This is simple; I'm sure you've all seen something like this before. Why, however, do we crave fisherman stories with this explicit structure, above and beyond random great aunt tongue-wagging? In a sense, great aunt stories better reflect real life. Her words are verbalized stream of consciousness.

Indeed, one of the experiments of modern fiction (and I don't use Modern as a technical term, though I'm sure there is one; forgive my ignorance of lit crit) is to create fiction disguised as stream of consciousness. Fairy-tales make no bones about where they start, "Once upon a time..." Nineteenth Century novelists often felt obligated to start with plenty of backstory, "I was born..." or sometimes even, "My grandfather was born..." but this is frowned upon now. Contemporary novelists can't get away with three chapters of backstory.

Modern novelists like to pretend our stories start in the middle of things and end in the middle of things, as if we simply happened along somewhere, witnessed some random transactions, and then departed. In some genres, this impulse is stronger than others. Scott mentions he prefers "indeterminate endings." Literary fiction, which is most concerned, I believe, with mirroring "real life", is also most likely to disguise beginnings and endings as "unprivileged" moments in a long series of moments. A literary telling of St. George besting the dragon would not necessarily begin with George seeking out the dragon, or end with the dragon being slain. It might instead, start with a middle aged George drinking at the tavern with his buddies, talking about his exploit, trying to decide if he will go back home to his dingy hovel, wife and seven kids, or take off down the road to look for more dragons.

Of course, this is just frosted glass over the naked fairy tale, shattered as soon a you have to tell an agent, editor or consumer in a pitch why does this story matter? In my example, the point of the ending is George's uncertainty, the moral is about how aging action heroes may find nostalgia for action a constant strain on settling for a "normal" life. There is still a story, still a beginning, middle and end. So it is not really that ending is undetermined, but that indeterminacy is the ending. The moral at the end is that things never end easily wrapped up in bows.

A modern story may introduce a character already beset by problem, and show the world through the eyes of the character, but like a fairy-tale, must still introduce character and setting. The story may meander through the middle, but must, like a fairy-tale, still have conflict. The elements it introduces must not be lost socks. They must have a purpose.

In an earlier post, I looked at bad endings. LIsted #3 was "no actual resolution." A well-crafted story must resolve the questions raised in a plot, but it doesn't have to answeranswer them.

* * *

Here's a fun thing to try.

Suppose you were to re-write your story as a fairy-tale. What would it be? Who are the crucial characters, what are the crucial conflicts? Could you boil it down to five paragraphs? At least under two pages? It's kind of like trying to write a synopsis, except fun. I dare say, it's the more fun the further removed from being fairy-tail like your story is. My novel is based on a fairy-tail, so distilling it back to that form is interesting (I can see what I've changed more clearly) but probably not as amusing as if I tried to tell Gone With the Wind beginning, "Once upon a time..."


Janet said...

You, Tara, are a wealth of information. Thank you - I'm going to try out your theory as I struggle again with writing a clear and concise synopsis.

I love this blog :)


Ban said...

DITTO ! this sounds like fun ... gonna give it a try using the above little outline :)

Davin Malasarn said...

This is great information and really useful. I'm going to try it. There is some great dialog happening among the blogs! I have to get to bed unfortunately, but I'm going to get back to this tomorrow!

Tara Maya said...

Janet, thanks so much. You are such a sweetie for saying that.

Ban, let me know how it goes. I'd be curious to see what you come up with.

Davin, I'm really enjoying the discussion on the blogs too.

lisa and laura said...

This is great. I can't wait to look at the synopsis for Book 2 in this light. I actually think it might help us organize things a bit. Great post!

scott g.f.bailey said...

Tara Maya,

Wow, this is a much more helpful discussion than my post was. I am going to try the 5-sentence experiment with my novel. I am also going to have a more thoughtful and better-written comment than this, but not now. Right now we're heading out for a late breakfast!

Tara Maya said...

Scott, as Davin said, it's a dialog. I really enjoy your blog because you think so deeply about things, it gets me thinking too. I hope to hear more.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Tara Maya,

A late response, but one nonetheless.

As Davin says, this is a really useful observation about stories. I do think that no matter how much you dress up a story in "modern" or "literary" language, a story is at heart a simple tale about how one person deals with conflict, and a good story--be it an action adventure, literary story or a romance--will tell us something about human nature, as fairy tales do, and will resonate with readers for that reason. We all have to overcome obstacles and resolve conflict, changing ourselves or our world in the process, or there will be consequences.

"Indeterminate" endings usually leave the reader with an idea of how the characters *should* or *could* overcome/resolve their problems, but either don't show the resolution or show that the characters cannot make those steps even if they should/could. Or, you know, indeterminate endings show that there are either a multiplicity of possible outcomes or even that there is no good solution at all. I'm being deliberately vague so as not to oversimplify, sorry.

I love the idea of St. George as Falstaff, by the way.

"re-write your story as a fairy-tale" could be a very useful exercise to help a writer better define the story for herself. I've been thinking of my own story in those terms since you first posted this. Thanks!