The Many Forms of Form

Literature and philosophy have been inseparably entwined in the thoughts of humankind since we first had such thoughts about such things. Almost all our modern thinking about narrative structure and form has its foundations, at least in part, in Aristotle’s famous examination of story, Poetics, which itself was a product of centuries of development of dramatic art and narrative experimentation.

school of athens

The stories we tell have impact far beyond narrative content and plot elements such as character, place and time. Indeed the way we say something is just as important as what we are saying when it comes to the influence and interpretation of meaning in narrative art.

Form is a many-faceted concept for just this reason. When we try to list form or define it in some way, we inevitably find a myriad of cross-overs between other literary elements, most particularly structure and genre (even Wikipedia has trouble). These techniques and concepts become indelibly linked in our cultural consciousness as a byproduct of the way we develop certain constructions around certain types of stories.

Literature can be said to be divided into the grand dichotomy of poetry and prose. But even there we have problems when we start to identify the way in which these two literary metrics can be presented.

Then we may try to list the grand narrative media in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of constructs, from longer narratives:

  • Novel
  • Epic poem
  • Drama

To shorter narratives:

  • Poem
  • Novella
  • Short story
  • Vignette
  • Legend
  • Myth
  • Folk tale

And then we should consider the performative arts who often have their own distinct formal constructs:

  • Theatre
  • Film
  • Song

And then we ask, should dance be included or is it non-literary, even though it is also a narrative form?

Then consider informative texts. Do they have their own structural conceits? Do they classify as separate forms of writing?

  • Historical novels
  • Literary non-fiction
  • Biography and autobiography
  • Documentary
  • News
  • Persuasive arguments
  • Thesis & analysis

What about functionality and purpose? Does that play into the divisions of form?

  • Fairy tales
  • Morality tales
  • Teaching parables
  • Analogy & symbology

And of course broad-spectrum genre is a major form qualifier:

  • Fantasy
  • Epic
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Drama
  • Quest

And the many derivative narrative structures that have sprung up over the most recent decades as technology plays into the way we communicate our stories to each other:

  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Music videos
  • Short films
  • Tweets
  • Status updates
  • Flash fiction
  • Vines

All of these forms, from the grand multi-volume works to the one-hundred and forty characters, have intricately linked cultural associations attached to the way they are presented. A play in the Shakespearean style may have five acts, employ poetic metre, follow the conventions of tragedy or comedy, and even include songs and musical numbers. A fantasy narrative may take the form of either a multi-volume novel or an epic poem, media themselves bound in pre-conceived structural nuance, employing well-rehearsed act-divisions and conventional literary techniques such as catalogue, dialogue, monologue, and even deeper formative layers of allusion to legend and myth.

Narrative form as a classifiable entity came under specific academic study in the 1950s, after the great revolutions of the Modernist period threw all previous conventional understandings of form into flux. Since then several schools of thought have sought to demystify the question of form for philosophical and technical reasons, in aid of both the audience and the auteur.

Clearly this is a topic too vast for one discussion, or even one series of discussions. So over the coming weeks we will explore the modern concepts of form and structure and how they apply to narrative art in contemporary practice, examining the theories of narrative form developed since the 1950s. We will touch briefly on the works of structuralists such as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, to that of post-strcuturalists like Michel Foucault and then on into the most recent decades where the advent of screen culture has brought about the revival of the oldest known form of story-telling, the ubiquitous and oft-bemoaned three-act narrative.

To get yourself started, have a look at the seasonal myth theory of Northrop Frye and then this brilliant introduction to Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative.

Look close enough and you will see these monomythic stories everywhere, leaving us to wonder whether there are a myriad of different forms as diverse and nuanced as life itself, or if there is really only one true story, told over and over again in many different guises, tracing back over all narratives since the beginning of time.

 

Elise Janes

 

The (Super)Hero’s Journey

(Or, what we can learn from the rise of the caped avenger)

superhero picThe hero, it seems, will never die. From the ancient empire-creating adventures of Odysseus to the poetic quests of Sir Gawain, masterpieces that have truly stood the test of time have been tantalisingly heroic. Why? People like them.

Fast-forward a millennium or two and the narrative world is overrun with neon spandex and flying shields. Almost forty superhero blockbusters have been released since 2000. One has even made it into the top ten most popular movies of all time (according to the IMDb). Guardians of the Galaxy is already at 8.5 (at time of print) placing it on the same rung as Taxi Driver, American Beauty, even Citizen Kane. And this is a movie that features Bradley Cooper (two-time Oscar nominee) as a talking raccoon.

A talking raccoon.

Let’s not get into a debate about what is literary and what is not, and the fact that movies are a visual medium so of course everything with flash-bangs is going to be popular. And before you roll your eyes and go on about the difference between quality cinema and blockbuster material, and how you yourself have never even seen Spider-Man (the first or the second or the third, or the remake or the sequel of the remake), consider what the facts are telling us: people like them.

So a superhero movie has never been listed on the AFI’s Top 100, or taught in any serious cinema course, or even won an Oscar for anything besides technical production (except for Heath Ledger, but come on, he was astounding) but that doesn’t mean we, serious people who read Booker-prize-winning novels, can’t learn us a lesson or two about What People Want From Their Stories…

  1. A hero. Simple. A guy or girl who is strong or tough or can do awesome shit, and will pretty much save the entire known universe. Probably in New York City.
  1. A vulnerable lead. One with flaws and a past and tough, personal choices to make (italics necessary). Self-doubt is the key. A tragic orphaned upbringing? Great! If they have to sacrifice their greatest love/best friend/mentor/home planet or even a limb in the course of true justice, even better!
  1. Crazy, made-up shit (as long as it’s justified (or sometimes even if it’s not)). People love it. They love stupidly-named planets and weird teleport gateways, and bizarre fighting implements. They love flying submarine-ships, rocket-powered suits, web-swingers, or guys who can just plain fly (of course he can fly, he’s from Krypton!). They love alternate universes, mythological gods, magic crystals and glowing blue cubes of whatever-the-hell-that-is. The weirder, the better. Our audience may be getting more sophisticated, but they’ll never be too sophisticated for crazy, made-up shit.
  1. A good villain. Gone are the days when the bad guy is just a two-dimensional bad guy bad guy (or girl). No, no, no. There must be a reason. They must be vengeful, or misunderstood, or mistreated, or horribly disillusioned, or just plain unfortunate. Or played by Tom Hiddleston. That helps.
  1. A kick-ass supporting cast, not just a sidekick anymore. The funny-guy is mandatory. It’s even better if they can all crack a joke at some point. A range of genders, ethnic backgrounds, fighting abilities, and/or species is appreciated. The quasi-mentor who the audience gets attached to and then dies is always a winner (hey, you can always bring him back in the TV series).
  1. A dark ending. Is the hero dead? Did the bad guy win? Is our world destroyed? Is all hope really lost? Think The Empire Strikes Back, then add some more budget.
  1. Intertextuality and framed narratives (now we’re getting there, lit nerds). What’s better than one superhero? More superheroes! Get them together and let them push each other’s buttons. Develop a bromance or two. Run out of ideas? Write it again, only different! Create entire histories that no-one cared about before. Let worlds collide. There’s nothing a character-loving audience likes better than you exploring their what-ifs for them.
  1. A never-ending chain-link of narrative hooks. Damn you, black screen chapter-break, I want to know what happens next! How could they possibly resolve this terrible situation when there’s only ten minutes left?! No, that can’t be the end! What if that is the end? Surely there will be another sequel! Who was that guy we saw at the end of the credits? Who the heck was that? Tell us!
  1. Themes, themes, give us righteous themes! Good vs evil. Power vs sacrifice. Pride vs humility. The big guy vs the underdog. Forgive yourself! Let go of the past! Work as a team! Please, just teach us something about the nature of humanity.

A closing thought. James Joyce (arguably the best novelist who ever lived) based his masterpiece Ulysses on the heroic epic that started them all: The Odyssey. If he were alive today he might be tempted to write an indecipherable, genre-mash-up, satirical epic based on the formative years of Rocket Raccoon. Well, you never know.

And if it’s good enough for him? Well, then it’s good enough for you.

Elise Janes