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Plot III

4: Adsense

As research for my novel I recently bought the book _Animal Myths and Metaphors in South America_ Ed. Gary Urton. So imagine my surprise and delight to discover that the second paper in the collection, _Animal Symbolism, Totemism, and the Structure of Myth_ by Terrence Turner, turned out to be an insightful (although densely written o.O) dissection and structural analysis of a taming-fire myth with a few brilliant insights about what plot is in this myth and, more importantly, narrative in general.

Turner writes (pp. 99-101),
[The structure of narrative] - as embodied in the invariant principle of dynamic coordination between the paired operations and sets of operations composing the content of the narrative - is intrinsically 'diachronic'.

...Yeah, just a tad densely written. o.O Well, "[The structure of narrative] [...] is intrinsically 'diachronic'." means, as I myself stated in a previous journal entry, that every story is a journey through time.

The middle bit has to do with contrast - to talk about any subject in a story you also have to include its opposite. For example, you can't just talk about the idea of lying, you have to show people lying and contrast that by showing people telling the truth, as in the myth _The Boy Who Cried Wolf_. You can't just talk about generosity, you have to contrast it with greed as in _Stone Soup_, and _A Christmas Carol_.

The Dramatica story engine is based on this principle. Some of its axioms are:
- The main character and the impact character are opposites; one must change and the other remain steadfast, they must have either opposite purposes (goals) or opposite methodologies (but not both).
- The plot has a physical side and a mental side, an outward focus and an inward focus, and when you combine these two axes you get a grid of the four throughlines of your story; the main character's story and the impact character's story must be at opposite corners of this grid.
- Each throughline is a journey through a smaller quad of elements; this journey must begin at one corner (for example, Being) and end at the opposite corner (in this case, Becoming).

Anyway, back to Turner:
...[A]nalyis of the relations among the components of a mythical narrative [...] reveals a 'syntagmatic' structure. [...] ...[P]roperties of this structure [are] listed as follows: [blah blah blah] ...the principle of reversability...

The principle of reversability is the narrative equivalent of "What goes up must come down." I mentioned in a previous journal entry that a story begins when an initial incident disarranges a stable situation into an unstable situation, (the instability is conflict), and the story ends when the climax resolves the conflict, making the situation stable again. The principle of reversability adds to this the idea that the stable situation an the beginning and end of the story is fundamentally the SAME situation, it's just the main character's perspective on the situation that has changed. For example, many stories begin with the main character as a student of another character, and end with the main character taking the role of teacher to a new student. And many other stories begin with the main charater facing a seemingly insoluble problem, whisk the character away to go through an adventure that will change their purpose or methodology, then return the character to the original problem, where the changed goal or methodology now makes it easy to solve. So in a sense, every story could be titled _There and Back Again_. ^_~

So what's so brilliant about this idea? Well, it explains how stories transmit memes. (What's a meme?) Anthropologists theorize that the earliest, most primitive form of story telling, where cavemen acted out a hunt, developed because people needed to teach their children memes about how to hunt. So narrative evolved as a format for communicating memes. As writers of fiction we are not ussually interested in teaching our readers how to do something (although there are still many stories written about how to become an adult or how to fall in love); instead we are interested in teaching our readers what to think about something or how to think about something - in other words, we want to affect our readers' purpose or methodology, which is exactly why we want to show a contrast between the main character and impact character in this area, and why we want to show one of them changing over the course of the story.

So how do we affect our readers' puropse or methodology? The premise of our story is the meme we want to teach; if we want our readers to learn that "honesty is the best policy" we can show a truth-teller getting rewarded and a liar getting punshed. We want to take the reader, send them vicariously on the educational adventure with the main character, and return them back to the original setting so they can compare before and after versions and see how the new meme would be more to their advantage in that situation.

So perhaps teleology is simply the need to complete the cycle of reversibility in the story, because all stories are circular, they need to confront their beginnings in order to have complete, dramatically satisfying endings.

Anyway, that's the theory. I'm not enirely certan whether it's correct or what its implicatios are, I need to think about it some more. What do you think? (Hint: Leave a comment darn you! ;) )

Mar 30 2006 04:18 PM
I suppose that diagraming the relationships described in the first half of the essay would make it too much like something from a textbook.

It seems to me that reversibility would involve an unwinding rather than a completion, moving backwards along the story arc rather than forwards and that the advance of the main character's perspective renders the cycle of events more spiral than circular.

Does Turner employ any particular definiton of syntagmatic? Does he make his use of that term explicit or does he leave it tacit? How does his use compare with the one given here: Semiotics for Beginners?

What is the difference between "how to do something" and "how to think about something"? Is thinking doing? To what degree is thinking doing? And what about the relationship between "how to do something" and methodology? It is simply that one is practice and the other theory? One a study of the logic of the method, the other the method itself?

Why not show both the main character and the impact character changing over the course of the story? Many kinds of comparisons can be made when contrasting the beginning and ending states of a story and the progress of different characters.

Perhaps the teleology results from the pedagocic needs of the story teller? That is, dramatic satisfaction enables the successful implantation of memes? Perhaps it makes the story memorable and the memes sticky?

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