Narrative theories to apply to your fiction

Okay, so why know about narratology? Well, in order to write a story effectively, one must deconstruct the essential components of fiction. Frankly, every theory focuses on a different aspect of fiction which stories must have or need to have.

1. Propp and folklore

In Morphology of the folktale, Vladimir Propp identified some key stages commonly found in folklore. He identified a sequence of 31 functions that take place in folktales and fairy tales. Some of these include trickery, (where the antagonist disguises themselves, being deceptively friendly or using harmful magic), delivery (where the villain gains information about the hero) and liquidation (where the spell is broken, curse is lifted etc.) these traits can be applied beyond fairy takes and folklore, and we can still see characters that might be Donors or helpers

2. Todorov

Tzvetan Todorov is noted for his ideas on the fantastic; where anything bizarre, supernatural or magical has a rational explanation according to the laws of reality. Some of his explanations include hallucinations, drugs, dreams, sensory illusions and madness, all of which are psychotic states-of-mind. He believes that if bizarre phenomena is considered normal in the story, then said laws of reality must change. This explains why the fantastic events in Magical Realism are believable. He also believed that stories followed 5 stages; equilibrium, disequilibrium, realisation, resolution and new equilibrium. First we have a status quo or harmony, then it is disrupted, then people recognize the problem and attempt to find a solution, and a new equilibrium where the characters/situation have changed and order is restored.

3. Levi-Strauss

He believes that we are surrounded by conflicting binary oppositions – which might be considered as the most primitive and basic forms of antagonism – which create conflict. A few of these might be man vs machine, man vs nature and order vs chaos. These conflicts can be illnesses, states of mind, ideology (religion, society, law), or people. He coined the term mytheme – which might be considered as ‘myth theme’ – which are the fundamental aspects of mythology, an essential ingredient. Some stories like this might include Pocahontas, Romeo and Juliet and The Matrix.

4. Barthes codes

Barthes identifies 5 codes when interpreting fiction; cultural codes, action codes, hermeneutic codes and symbolic codes. Hermeneutic codes are concerned with enigmas and truth; thematisation, equivocation, fraud, suspended answer, promise, positioning, disclosure, formulation and blocking. Any crime, detective and mystery fiction might be symptomatic of this. The proairetic or ACT code is about narration that needs any further action and what the consequences might be. The semantic code is about the names that we give to things and the way(s) in which we associate them; a mansion is a seme for wealth, for instance. A symbolic code is about taboos in society, and falls under either rhetorical, sexual and economic. Cultural codes any any body of knowledge – education, science, or religion and which we can see as literary, historical, psychological, medical, physical or literary.

5. Freytag’s pyramid

I’ve referred to this in a previous post, but it works nicely for this post too. It’s great for dramatists; because it talks about rising and falling action in plot. Renaissance drama in particular follows this five-act structure, particularly Shakespearean and Ancient Greek tragedy. Aristotle started it all off with his Poetics but Freytag continued this idea. Whereas Aristotle came up with the three-act structure – beginning, middle and end – Freytag has what’s known as a dramatic arc.

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