Rx for Plot-Blindness

Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale. 

Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.

Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev

Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”

Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?

The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:

INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.

VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.

VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.

HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.

COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN

VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.

VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.

HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.

Now, about those details….

Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.

Eat Me!

The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.

Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.

So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?

I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”

I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.

Win-win.

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About Heidi Wilson

I'm currently writing a mystery that takes place in New Hampshire and a novel about an artist who's working in Ireland and Hell. Former incarnations: stock market economist and professor of Greek. Go figure.

Posted on June 16, 2018, in books, Heidi Wilson, location, Plots, Structure, Thursday Night Writes, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Eleanor Ingbretson

    Please, please do this story. Please do not eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.
    If I had read this post before our last meeting I think some of what you said could have crept into my brain and set up housekeeping. Now I am curious to hear about the rest of the functions.
    Mr. Propp certainly had a lot of time on his hands.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just click on the link “31 narrative events” next to the picture of Afanasyev, and it will take you to a neat list of them. Or read the book. Knowing your fantasy stories, I know you’ll be right at home among Propp’s examples from the Russian folktales. If Baba Yaga’s house can walk on chicken legs, why shouldn’t your cowboy wrangle a walrus?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Heidi, so sorry to have missed the “???” group the other night! I would so love to know what was going on in that mind of yours when you did this exercise—or would I???

    Liked by 1 person

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