The following is a chapter from Paula LaRocque’s recently released “The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well,” reprinted with permission from Marion Street Press. Get further information online at www.marionstreetpress.com.
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
– Willa Cather
The word narrative is sometimes spoken in hushed and bewildered tones – especially by media writers, whose immersion in the “inverted pyramid” can make storytelling a foreign notion. The word could hardly be easier to apprehend – it means story, plain and simple. To narrate is to tell, as with a story, or to provide a spoken commentary, as with film or television. The narrative is the story itself. And the narrative or story line is the thread upon which the “beads” of the story are strung.
Inverted pyramid or summary organization is a report-writing, not a storytelling, style. It organizes material in descending order of importance – not for interest, but for quick and easy transmittal of information. It’s efficient for news and therefore appropriate for much informational and media writing.
Narrative, however, differs from reportorial writing in that it seeks to immediately create curiosity rather than to immediately satisfy it. The inverted pyramid – because it’s a summary of result or consequence – gives away the end at once, while narratives usually begin on the low end of a rising curve of action that builds to climax and resolution (or dénouement).
The word narrative comes from a Latin root that means “to know.” That derivation underlines the traditional respect for storytellers. Those who “have the story” not only pass on truth, or history, or culture, but also are assumed to know and understand it. And, in fact, the more writers know about storytelling and its elements, the better writers they will be in any genre.
The necessary ingredients of narrative writing are characters and conflict, and its chief organizing elements are chronology, point of view and setting. Stripped to its most basic, a narrative involves a hero (or heroine) facing a difficulty that the hero either vanquishes or is vanquished by. The narrative form is of course the natural vehicle for fiction. But the term “true story” is not an oxymoron. Narrative is also suitable for factual writing when there are characters and conflict and an over-arching question that drives story and reader toward the conclusion. The basic question in narrative writing is what happened? Will the hero or heroine live, die, win, lose?
Stephen King relates in “On Writing” how he wrote “Carrie.” Two unrelated ideas had come to him: adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, and he thought he could put them together in a yarn for a magazine. So he worked on the story for a while but didn’t like it and threw the work away. Later, he writes, his wife presented him with the discarded pages:
She’d spied them while emptying my wastebasket, had shaken the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper, smoothed them out, and sat down to read them. She wanted me to go on with it, she said. She wanted to know the rest of the story.
In wanting to know “the rest of the story,” she was asking the over-arching question: What happened? And that compelling question led to Stephen King’s finishing “Carrie,” whose paperback rights alone sold for $400,000.
The secret of a good narrative is that it entices and grips the reader by regenerating in the readers’ minds the same curiosity that first involved the writer. What question drives the action and the reader forward in “The Wizard of Oz?” Will Dorothy get home? “Moby Dick”: Will Ahab get the white whale, or will the white whale get him? The television hit of a decade ago, “Twin Peaks”: Who killed Laura Palmer?
Murder, of course, offers the quintessential question – whodunnit?
What are the over-arching questions in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic “Crime and Punishment,” considered by many the first modern “psychological” novel? The initial question: Will Raskolnikoff kill that old woman? Then: Will he cause himself to get caught through his own guilt and paranoia? Then the biggest question of all, posited by the novel as a whole: Which is the true punishment – being caught, or the fear of being caught?
Archetypes, too, drive a story forward – not only by creating questions, but also by creating expectations. The world’s greatest and most memorable stories from “Oedipus” to “Hamlet” to “Old Man and The Sea” have been archetypal. They involve universals – principles that hold up over centuries and that our ancestors recognized as readily as we.
The archetype is as complex as the narrative is simple. Archetypes and the constructs of myth have great impact on us both emotionally and intellectually, as psychologist Carl Jung demonstrated when working to support his theory of the collective unconscious. Joseph Campbell also has done fascinating work on archetype and myth, as has J.G. Frazer, Maud Bodkin and Ernst Cassirer. The study of archetype, myth and language offers a rich field of inquiry for writers who wish to better understand and harness the power of story.
Archetypes are in a sense unknowable and ineffable. They can be like the shadow on a wall of Plato’s cave: We see the shadow, but not the “thing” that casts it. It’s necessary to realize this because to misunderstand the archetype and its function is to risk making of it a mere stereotype or cookie-cutter.
Archetypes are never stereotypes. Whether archetypes of character, action or theme, they are atavistic and universal products of that Jungian “collective unconscious.” They are the story behind the story, and outside the setting. Sometimes a story in a particular period or culture sweeps people off their feet, and copycats get busy, supposing that the setting was the attraction. But, as I read somewhere, setting is the gift wrap; story is the gift.
For our purposes, we can define the archetype as a template, prototype, model or exemplar of an abstract idea – or of a character or scheme of action. We could also call the latter plotting, of course. (In fiction, you create a plot; in fact, you recognize and uncover it.) The point is that archetypes offer recognizable arrangements of behavior and action in which certain elements are predictable, or at least expected. (If the expected does not occur – in event, reward, or punishment – the work may seem lacking in artistic unity, coherence and integrity and can sorely surprise or disappoint the audience.)
Before we discuss specific archetypes of action, theme, and character, let’s briefly consider the distinctions of three major story types: tragedy, pathos and bathos. There are others, of course. (We’re saying nothing, for example, about comedy.) But those three will suffice for this discussion.
Tragedy yields the greatest, most compelling and most memorable stories. It teaches, awes, provokes thought, inspires fear and compassion, and saddens because it involves waste. A heroic figure, larger than life, noble, promising, multidimensional, has a flaw, a “fatal flaw,” that brings about his or her downfall. The flaw often involves some form of hubris, which is Greek for “wanton insolence,” and causes the hero to transgress or ignore natural law, rule, more, or convention. The hero’s flaw may be pride, ambition, greed, lust, jealousy, a desire for revenge, naiveté. Whatever, he or she fails to see consequence. The tragic hero is his own victim.
Real life “tragic hero” stories are likewise compelling and often excite a good deal of public attention. Consider former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton – one an ambitious and seasoned leader who could have been a great statesman, but whose paranoid suspicions caused him to violate the very laws he had sworn to protect; the other a bright, charismatic leader who squandered his great promise on tawdry sexual shenanigans.
Now consider actor Marlon Brando’s anguished “I coulda been a contender!” in the 1950s film “On the Waterfront.” Was Brando’s misfit character a tragic hero? No, he was pathetic – he was not his own victim but a victim of people who betrayed him. Nor was he multidimensional. He had one gift; he could box. Outside the ring, he had neither promise nor particular coping skills.
A chief difference between tragedy and the pathos is that in the latter, the principals are not active agents in their own destiny. Tragedy is more deeply satisfying than pathos in part because tragedy suggests causality or free will. The popular saying “let me at least be the hero of my own life” expresses both the fear of being someone else’s victim and the need for personal autonomy and control.
Pathos, then, presents a victim who is helpless in the face of circumstances not of his or her own making. If the story concerns only that victim, it’s often reduced to a depressing one-dimensional drama with no real conflict between good and evil. (Many-layered stories such as “On the Waterfront,” where other characters and action lend dimension and meaning, are exceptions to this generalization.) Coincidence or acts of nature may play a part in pathetic drama, thereby heightening the audience’s frustrating sense of helplessness. Pathos is sad and inspires pity, but is not very interesting because there is nothing to learn from it; the audience experiences mostly pity and futility. Saint and martyr stories often fall into this category. That’s why such tales are often spectacular failures with the public – to the surprise of their creators, who never seem to learn that something else must be presented besides the merely saintly or the merely martyred.
Bathos presents a victim in maudlin, sentimental and melodramatic action. Often the wholly good are destroyed by the wholly bad. Think of the characters in silent films – for example, the villain stroking his mustache and chuckling malevolently. Such characters were one-dimensional representations rather than real people. Bathos presents gratuitous moralizing, but there is nothing to learn and no dimension. It was popular at the height (some would say depth) of Victoriana, but is out of fashion and repellent to modern audiences. Bathos still exists in the melodramatic potboiler, but for the most part, modern readers don’t want a story “milked” or moralized. They want it told with restraint, clarity and artistry, and they want to make their own judgment and interpretation.
Archetypal tales, from fairy tales and Aesop’s Fables to “Madame Bovary” and “The Sweet Smell of Success,” are in their essence moral or cautionary tales. In contemporary art, they are sophisticated and subtle extrapolations of universal patterns. They seek cause, consequence, reason and order. So does humankind. Accident or chaos terrifies us because we can’t control it. It’s unpredictable and ungoverned by natural law. All bets are off – nothing we can do will guarantee our safety. Most human activity is in one way or another a search for guarantee, for a sense of autonomy and control. Our abiding interest and satisfaction in archetypal stories spring in part from that search: I see that if I do A, B might happen – therefore I will do A. Or: Therefore, I’ll refrain from doing A.
True horror always suggests chaos and unpredictability – think of Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho,” for example, or Stephen Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Better, let’s go straight to Shakespearean tragedy, which has thrived for more than 400 years. At play’s end, the stage is littered with principal characters, and the audience is left trying to figure out what each did to cause such mayhem. The drama ends when a knowledgeable survivor steps onstage to make sense of it all and to offer rousing remarks about restoring order. The audience needs and welcomes that promise.
We prefer the tragic mode because of that promise of causality and ensuing order. How strong is our natural antipathy toward the chaos and “victimhood” of pathos? It makes us seek a reason for victimization – in a sense, blaming the victim. Such behavior is common: If he hadn’t gone to that bar after work, if she hadn’t worn such suggestive clothing, if they hadn’t befriended the wrong people, if she hadn’t been involved in drugs, if he hadn’t picked that day to go to the park, if they hadn’t changed their flight arrangements …. Those responses may seem callous or even silly, but they show a natural rejection of happenstance (against which we have no defense) and a desire for a reason, for cause. We’ve been reared on archetypal lessons since Oedipus and before: Be warned! If you sleep with your mother, you will put out your eyes before the play is over.
The primary realities of our existence reflect thematic archetypes: birth, coming of age, struggle, maturation, death. Some other obvious theme or action archetypes are quest, search, journey, pursuit, capture, rescue, escape, love, forbidden love, unrequited love, adventure, riddle, mystery, sacrifice, discovery, temptation, loss or gain of identity, metamorphosis, transformation, dragon-slaying, descent to an underworld, rebirth, redemption. The road up and the road down is a common archetypal extension – an account of one who rises high but sinks low because of his or her own actions.
When an archetype is made flesh, how might it look? Let’s make a quick run through some archetypal characters. It might be the hero: “Here I come to save the day.” If that’s all he amounts to, the hero will be one-dimensional, not quite believable and not very interesting. The white-hat hero is reassuring to children, however, and should be a part of children’s art. But the adult audience wants the perfect hero offstage as soon as he has swooped from the sky and cracked a few heads – that’s his only identity and function. We don’t see him at the supermarket or washing the car.
Unless he’s Clark Kent. As every comic book fan knows, the godlike hero is more interesting if he has another and less perfect identity – Clark Kent before the phone booth. The superhero archetype gains dimension and layers by melding with other archetypes of character, theme and action. Conflicting identity, in which characters are not at their cores what they seem on the surface, has been a storytelling staple since the gods moved incognito among earthlings. Characters of enduring interest often have layers and contradictions in identity. Ian Fleming’s beloved hero is a multidimensional character in part because of the contradiction between the wise-cracking, womanizing, fashion-plate James Bond, and the dead earnest 007, a superhero who’s there to save the day.
Another hero archetype is the flawed hero, which we’ve already discussed and which presents fertile ground for the writer. Some celebrated flawed heroes in Shakespeare are Hamlet (dithering and indecision), Macbeth (excessive ambition), Othello (jealousy and gullibility) and King Lear (naiveté).
And there’s the antihero – pure badness and purely interesting. The antihero creates half the necessary tension between “white hats” and “black hats” – between good and evildoers. Think of Shakespeare’s Iago and the generations of captivated audiences who have asked why is he doing this?
But the antihero represents evil, not insanity. The question why is he doing this asks for reason and motive. If the answer is that the character is insane, the character loses dimension, and the audience loses interest. Like the happenstance act of nature or act of god, insanity is its own answer – there’s nothing to learn from it. We see this in life as well as art. When a heinous criminal is seen simply to be mad, the public in essence shrugs and walks away. There’s nothing left to say; nothing to wonder about; the over-arching question dies.
Extremist personalities – the possessed, obsessed and compulsive – also are common archetypes. This archetype is an enriched version of the tragic hero: They may know what they’re doing is wrong, but they can’t stop. Think of “Moby Dick’s” Captain Ahab, who can’t stop his vengeful pursuit of the White Whale who left him with one leg and so finally goes with him to the ocean’s depths. The extremist archetype may reflect some awful excess. Al Pacino’s “Scarface” is an example. Such tales often demonstrate the hazards of excess as well as the virtues of moderation. Dante’s Rings of Hell punish excess, for example, even that of gluttony.
The virtuous but abused “princess” archetype is omnipresent in art and is sometimes paired with the themes of lost or preserved innocence, as well as captivity, escape and rescue.
The earth mother archetype is the enduring fecund protector and caretaker prominent in many archetypal tales.
The underdog, outcast, or rebel also is a common character archetype.
The Cinderella archetype is represented by a commoner, male or female, who becomes real or figurative royalty. We find this archetype in such tales as “The Prince and the Pauper,” along with other potent archetypes such as adventure, metamorphosis, identity, coming of age and discovery. Rags-to-riches and Horatio Alger tales often reflect the Cinderella archetype as well.
The clown, fool and trickster are figures that provide comic relief and perspective. They often comment on the action and point out hypocrisy or foolishness. Fools are “fools” only in antic or appearance; they may in fact be philosophers or have a certain wisdom. (Think of many Shakespearean fools, or of Forrest Gump in the movie of the same name.) Here’s the idea, again, of things not being what they seem. Contradiction and complement are deeply satisfying in storytelling, as I suggested earlier – in part because complementary halves approach the yin and yang of wholeness.
We’ve seen how the archetype might function in art – now let’s look at how it might function in life. Consider two riveting stories from the late 20th century: O.J. Simpson and Princess Diana. Many were bewildered by the hold these stories had on the public, but each was a potent amalgam of archetypes.
Simpson was a hero turned antihero and pariah. He was a charismatic black man of celebrity, charm, promise and physical prowess who married a beautiful white woman and then was accused of killing her out of sexual jealousy. This is, of course, “Othello,” a Shakespearean tragedy that has captivated audiences for more than 400 years. And Shakespeare himself borrowed the story from a much earlier Italian tale – in short, it’s an ancient drama. Unlike Othello, Simpson didn’t kill himself, but in that farcical slow chase in the white Bronco, he threatened to do so. If he had, it would have been life imitating art perfectly.
Archetypally, Princess Diana was an even more complex composite. In her, we saw both the princess and Cinderella archetypes. After her transformation, she represented not only the fairy princess betrayed by a cruel husband and mistreated by a “wicked” queen, but also unrequited love, gain and loss of identity, metamorphosis, and escape. For years, she was tireless in a quest; she wanted her true prince, the one she thought she had married. Her early history flirted with archetypes of the possessed and obsessed and, later, with underdog, rebel and outcast archetypes. And through it all, Diana was a model for motherhood, reflecting the earth mother archetype.
No wonder she stuck in the public’s imagination. She was much more than celebrity or royalty – she was flesh-and-blood story. The world has many celebrities and royal figures, but there are few Dianas among them. That explains in part the world’s paroxysm of grief over her death. Some asked why this great suffering over Diana but not over Mother Teresa, who died about the same time and was after all a noble and saintly person with none of Diana’s personal flaws. They thought the outpouring of grief over Diana demonstrated the public’s shallowness. It didn’t. It demonstrated the public’s love of story.
We’ve already discussed the fact that saintliness alone is not interesting. It’s true that Diana was damaged and needy, and that she made mistakes. But many saw that humanity and identified with it – there’s power in the story in which the audience sees itself. Few could see themselves in Mother Teresa, however, whose story held no tension, no fatal flaw, no hazard.
Further and equally important, Mother Teresa’s story was told; Diana’s was not. Mother Teresa died an old woman and of natural causes; Diana died young and violently. Mother Teresa’s promise was fulfilled; Diana was a character still in conflict, and her audience awaited the dénouement. The last words Diana spoke to the press: “You won’t believe what I’m going to do now.”
What was it? No one will ever know. So we can add riddle to Diana’s archetypal mix.
Remembering that narrative means to know, writers will better tell their tales if they understand the archetypal trappings of story and character. They’ll know better how to shape and organize the story, what matters and what doesn’t. Understanding the archetype means we can harness its considerable strength and use it to drive our story forward.
Paula LaRocque was writing coach at The Dallas Morning News for 20 years. E-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.