Myth and Story Structure

Once upon a time there lived a…

  • fair young maiden
  • down-and-out private eye
  • little old lady with cats

in a…

  • land far, far away
  • drug-riddled alley of Major City
  • sleepy village of 200 tucked between rural fields

who…

  • 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

Sound familiar?

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.

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8 thoughts on “Myth and Story Structure”

  1. So true, Sue. Those elements are in any story and when the writer doesn’t have them – or doesn’t meet the expectations of the “slant” of those elements, as you say, we readers feel ripped off. I think I heard it from James Scott Bell that storytelling, along with those elements, are hard-coded into humans as we’ve been using them since the dawn of time. The cavemen sitting around the fire telling stories probably started with “Once upon a time…”!

  2. What a delightful place to spend the holidays.

    Story and structure are the meat of any tale. It is amazing how constant the concept is and yet how flexible the execution is that the precepts lend themselves so well to the multitude of stories that are told so no two stories are ever alike.

  3. Oh, how was Grimm Brothers museum? Sounds amazing. Love folk and fairy tales, too, and am always instantly delighted whenever an element or allusion appears in non-fairy-tale texts…

  4. Mary, I can see those cavemen! “Once upon a time…” is a trigger phrase.

    Absolutely, Kait, delightful! Isn’t it interesting how there are only a few basic plots?

    Cynthia, the museum was fascinating. Most of it is dedicated to the dictionary project and the brothers’ lives. Here is their website:
    http://www.grimmwelt.de

  5. I had no idea a dictionary was the Grimm brothers’ mission–how cool!! I love that the art of storytelling has been around for ages, and I think you’re right, classic story structure is subconscious.

  6. Right, Peg! I wish I’d had more time there, but as I understood it, the brothers were researching words through the oral tales and took a detour to write them down.

    Kate, the dictionary project was finally completed (sometime in the 1990’s if I remember correctly?)

    Becky, definitely a bucket list item!

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