Once upon a time there lived a…
- fair young maiden
- down-and-out private eye
- little old lady with cats
- land far, far away
- drug-riddled alley of Major City
- sleepy village of 200 tucked between rural fields
- had an evil stepmother
- found the mangled body of an ex-gangster in a dumpster
- learned that her pastor’s nephew’s cousin’s brother-in-law had died suddenly
Character. Setting. Problem.
This is the classic story structure, and it builds readers’ expectations. Once we readers know the slant of these three elements, we know what to expect from the story. We anticipate what type of reading experience the story will deliver, from its tone all the way through plot twists and even to the resolution. We feel satisfied when the story meets those expectations (sometimes surprises are part of the expectations), and we feel disappointment when the story doesn’t deliver what the reader subconsciously expects.
And mostly, this process is subconscious. We readers have subconsciously learned story structure all our lives, starting with the very first stories we were told as children. Which finally brings me to this month’s point: myth.
Over the holidays, my family and I gathered in Kassel, Germany, where we learned that the Grimms Brothers had spent most of their lives. There is a museum there, dedicated to the brothers. Of course I had to go. I have always loved their fairy tales. It was the very first book I ever owned as a child, and I read those tales over and over. They endured for me, and I think it’s because the stories feel comfortable. They follow a classic structure. In spite of their dark moments, I know there will be a happy-ever-after moment at the end. It’s part of the expectations.
I was surprised to learn in Kassel that the fairy tales were only a byproduct of the Grimms’ original mission, which was to compile a German dictionary. They didn’t finish that monumental project, but along the way, they wrote down the oral tales that have become our beloved fairy tales. Story structure has been around long before stories were written, since the earliest storytellers, who handed down myth by word of mouth. They used myth to tell a good story, and it boils down to character, setting, and problem. Thanks to myth, we know that justice will prevail at the end of a mystery. Thanks to myth, the involved reader will tirelessly go along for the ride as the character solves (or not) the problem.