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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, there was a king riding in the woods. In the distance he saw a peasant maiden. She wasn't beautiful, but even so he fell in love with her and decided he wanted to marry her. He rode away, thinking about how he might be able to do this.

He was a good and wise king. The king was so wise that he knew love --true love, sacrificial love -- was more valuable than anything else. If he came to the maiden, majestic in his kingly robes and surrounded by servants, then of course she would go with him, but he didn't want this. He wanted her to go with him without being overwhelmed, because she wanted to. He wanted her to love him.

After long thought, he decided he might be able to have her fall in love with him if he came to her door dressed as a peasant, and humbly wooed her. However, this posed a tremendous risk for him: he might be rejected. As king, he was used to having his slightest wish obeyed instantly. Dare he risk rejection?

He dressed himself in rags and knocked at her door. The maiden almost shut the door in the king's face, but he smiled at her and she decided to take a walk with him...


This is the fragment of a fairy tale that I don't know where I heard it from. It's all I remember, and I've never run across it again -- possibly when I was very little my babysitter just made it up for me. I've always loved it. I've kicked around the idea of adapting this into a premise for a modern novel, so if I do this you'll know where it came from.

Story is a powerful medium, I believe, because it can resonate. At its best, story touches something deep within our hearts and therefore allows messages to penetrate into the mind. While writing my first novel, I became fascinated with the structure of story, and in my typical obsessive-compulsive manner tore apart many films and novels to see how they were put together. I timed or word-counted each scene, calculated percentages etc., then laid different stories side by side to understand the patterns that might be present.

Recognizing the pattern in story is not a formula. I liken it to sketching a face. An artist will tell you that a person's eyes are about halfway down the head, and are separated by another eye width. The tips of the ears land at an imaginary horizontal line about eyebrow height. The bottom of the nose lands an eye-width below the bottom of the eyes, and so forth. Faces are infinitely varied, yet if the artist ignores these rough proportions, no matter how beautifully drawn the face will always look "wrong."

As I analyzed story after story, I was struck with how there was only one pattern. It is as if we humans have an innate sense of story that is detailed, yet unvarying. The closer the novel or film conforms to this innate pattern, the more it resonates within us. I am currently developing an algorithm for step-wise story development, and writing up my findings.

Interestingly, the story of the last week of Jesus' life before crucifixion as recorded in the Bible completely follows the story pattern:

Ordinary World: Jesus is an itinerant preacher...

Inciting Incident: who decides to enter Jerusalem for the Passover by riding in on a donkey.

Argument: He antagonizes the Jewish authorities who don't know how they can get rid of him.

Door: Then, Judas approaches the authorities and offers to betray Jesus.

Adaptation to the New World: In the meantime, Jesus preaches, visits friends, then prepares with his disciples for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Last Supper).

Midpoint: Judas runs off to tell the authorities where Jesus is.

Solving Hidden Need: After dinner Jesus leads disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane and prays for strength.

Antagonists Get Stronger: The authorities arrest Jesus.

Protagonist Disintegrates: The apostles scatter and run away.

Slide: At trial the Sanhedrin find Jesus guilty and worthy of death. In the morning Jesus appears in front of Pontius Pilate so that Pilate can ratify the verdict. (nature of the climax is now clearly seen; this point includes the characteristic "whiff of death" identified by Blake Snyder).

Darkest Moment: Jesus is crucified and dies.

Help from Outside: Two days later Peter and John go to the tomb and find it opened.

Climax: Jesus appears as a conqueror of death that demonstrates his death was sufficient payment for sin.

Resolution: Jesus stays on Earth 40 more days before ascending into Heaven.


Since I believe that everything is related to everything else, sometimes I wonder why it might be that the story is shaped like this. I've previously mentioned that I came to faith in the Christian God under protest through study of the historic circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus -- there is good objective evidence for the resurrection; check out my website HERE for some of my thoughts on this. I like to think that maybe God Himself placed this story structure within us as yet one more way that humans may respond to His call.

Hmm. It's nice to think about, anyway. Have a wonderful day, my dear friends.

1 comment:

Mid Stutsman said...

Wow...never thought about all this ... I just write. How cool to analyze and come up with an algorithm! Clever Girl!! Still, not-so-smart-me will just have to stick with writing the story and hope it conforms!!! :)
Pretty neat stuff, Amy!