What Do Fairy Tales Teach Us About Storytelling?

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If you start reading one story after another, you’ll notice how certain elements like reoccurring characters and plots twists keep reappearing in each of them. In terms of genres, you might even see that comedies and horrors are both based on the same storytelling trick of breaking your expectations. The question arises of how many elements keep roaming among stories.

As explained in the previous article, most stories can be analyzed through the three-act structure. The main weakness and strength of that approach are that it conveys a very broad explanation of a story. While this formula allows you to experiment with the format and just hit certain turning points when needed, it also leads to a number of unexplained moments in between the turning points. For amateur writers, the three-act structure, while being useful, is not ideal.

Because you might need to use a step-by-step storytelling formula before starting to experiment and adapting a format to your own needs, let’s discuss Vladimir Propp’s narrative structure that consists of 31 main elements and seven main character types.

Propp introduced the storytelling formula in 1928 after analyzing 100 Russian folktales and finding reoccurring elements in each of them. You can apply this formula to movies, video games, and practically any story. Out of all the storytelling structures bested.it discusses in this series of articles, Propp’s structure is the most complicated yet flexible. The formula achieves flexibility since all the elements of his structure can be present in a story, but not all of them need to be.

Character Types

Before explaining every step of the structure, let’s discuss the seven major character types. These are hero, princess, villain, donor, princess’s father, helper, and false hero. While all characters might be present in the story, not all of them appear in every single fairy tale. The most important characters are the first three from the list. However obvious it might sound, we usually read stories from a hero’s perspective. Meanwhile, a villain is a hero’s counterpart and a princess is a hero’s objective.

You should understand that these character types shouldn’t be perceived literally. In a story, the role of a princess might be played by an object that a hero needs to find. Even the suitcase from Pulp Fiction (1994) can represent a “princess.” Similarly, “a villain” might be just an idea rather than a person. Likewise, a “princess’s father” is supposed to convince a hero of the necessity of a journey. This illustrates a classical representation of such characters in fairy tales.

Each of the seven characters serves a particular role. A villain’s purpose is to oppose a hero and nothing else, while a donor must help a hero at the beginning of a story. Without proper execution of these roles, in most cases, the story won’t happen. Still, depending on the story type, the roles of some characters might be combined. Thus, a donor and a helper, who are supposed to aid during hero in a journey, might end up being the same person. For example, Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson, from Zombieland (2009) both sends Columbus, played by Jesse Eisenberg, to a journey and helps him throughout the story.  Similarly, a villain and a false hero, who is shown as a hero’s competitor in a journey, can serve the same purpose.

Four Spheres of Propp’s Story

Propp’s 31 steps of a narrative structure can be separated into four main spheres, similar to the three-act structure discussed in our previous article. The first sphere consists of the first seven steps: absentation, interdiction, violation, reconnaissance, delivery, trickery, and complicity. According to this structure, during the absentation, a hero or a family member leaves home. We are introduced to an unfamiliar situation. In comparison to the three-act structure, this step is the inciting incident.

First 16 steps of Vladimir Propp’s Narrative Structure

Then a hero becomes subjected to an interdiction, an act later to be violated. According to Propp, as a villain can’t be a villain without a hero, the violation can’t happen without a prior interdiction. Meanwhile, a story introduces the audience to a villain seeking information about a hero during the stage of reconnaissance. During the next three stages, a villain learns how to “trick” a hero and then manages to do so. A hero’s defeat during the seventh step allows the audience to move to the second sphere – the body of a story.

During the second sphere, you can realize the evolution of a villain’s and hero’s relations. This evolution starts with a villain in the superior position at step eight, known as villainy and lack. At this stage, a villain takes away an object or a person from a hero. Following steps nine and ten, a hero realizes the loss and prepares for the 11th step, a hero’s departure. Unlike the three-act structure, Propp’s formula makes the second sphere relatively short leaving more time for the third domain – the donor sequence.

During this part of a story, a hero receives a challenge in step 12. He responds to that challenge in the next step, and later he claims a magical object that will help defeat a villain (step 14). This exemplifies a step-by-step structure where one step can’t happen without or before another one. Thus, you don’t see stories about a hero completing a challenge, and only then learning that it was a test.

Last 15 steps of Vladimir Propp’s Narrative Structure

After claiming a magical artifact, a hero opposes a villain at step 15. The result of their fight is shown through a hero’s tremendous physical or psychological change at steps 16 and 17. After a hero defeats a villain (step 18), a hero completes a journey at step 19. A fairy tale might stop here because a hero’s arch is completed, but some stories use an additional fourth sphere – a hero’s return.

The fourth sphere reveals what happens to a hero after a villain’s defeat. All these steps are optional and might be used in different combinations. After returning in step 20, a hero gets chased and then rescued in the next two steps. Later, a hero doesn’t receive recognition from others since a false hero claims to be the real one. To prove which hero is the true one, a hero receives another challenge. A hero completes a challenge and earns recognition. As the result, a false hero gets exposed, a true hero changes, a villain gets punished, and a hero marries. This is the ultimate end of a story.

All these steps demonstrate how stories can be structured into one formula. However, the fact that a story can be presented as a set of elements shouldn’t mean that stories can’t be original. As shown before, not all characters need to be present, and not all of them play the same role in each story. In terms of steps, most of them can be combined, avoided, or altered. The idea of this structure is not to claim that all stories are the same, but to allow you to see similarities and use them for your stories. When you become experienced with these structures, you can start experimenting. After all, you can’t break the rules if you don’t know them.

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