Saturday, July 05, 2008

Children and Storytelling: human needs and plots; recommended book

Universal plots and children’s needs in storytelling
from The Seven Plots in Storytelling by Christopher Booker, 2004
Paschal Baute: I am excerpting one passage to illustrate the power and encyclopedic range of this highly recommended book for story lovers and storytellers and for the sake of the Lexington Spellbinders training to be held July 15-17. See end note

“Early nursery tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears show us a little hero or heroine who begins the story living safely at home with mother. They then go out into the mysterious outside world, a forest, where they encounter a terrifying and threatening figure. This threat comes inexorably closer until it seems like a nightmare, they are trapped, facing death. But then, at the story’s climax, comes the thrilling escape when they can run home to mother.

What all these stories for young children are doing are awakening the child’s mind to the same basic message. Introduced to a central figure, the child identifies with a child like itself, who begins surrounded by the security of the home, living with a loving and protective mother. Then it sees this little hero or heroine ventured alone into the great outside world beyond the protective home. There they encounter a terrifying presence so hostile that it spells death. In symbolic fashion, the listening child is being introduced to the idea that somewhere in this unfamiliar new world it finds itself, there is mysterious and deadly dark power. Far more frightening that it has encountered in real life so far/ in the end, the reassuring message of the story runs, it is possible to escape from this fearsome enemy. With a mighty sense of relief, the child identifying with the story can imagine returning to the safe place it knows, back home with mother.

Next is a development of plot in stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Hansel and Gretel. Again the child is introduced to a hero or heroine living dependently at home. Again they venture into the mysterious outside world where they fall under the shadow of a terrifying figure, the giant, the witch. Again the story builds to a climax where they are about to be killed. But the significant think the child now sees is that it is up to the hero or heroine themselves to overcome the dark power. They must actually slay the giant or the witch by their own efforts. Then the reward is not only to escape from death and winning a fabulous treasure.

Because these are still familiar tales intended for young children, the hero or heroine returns at the end to the familiar security of home. Only in the third step does the story add a further ingredient. In tales such as Three Billy Goats Gruff or the Three Little Pigs, we begin with the same scenarios....but in the third scenario, we no longer see the hero or heroine return home; instead, they move forward rather than back. Having crossed the bridge, the goats begin their new life feasting on a meadow of sweet grass up the mountainside. The third little pig lives happily ever after in his house made of bricks. Thanks to their victory over the Dark Power, they have established a new secure home in the outside world where they are free to live their own independent lives.

Finally we come to all those stories, in which the hero or heroine transition all the previous scenarios, such as Snow White, or Aladdin, in which the ultimate reward takes a more specific form. A loving union with a Prince or Princess and a rule over a kingdom.

We thus see them having completed perhaps the most fundamental transition in human life. They have gone out into the great world, to face all sorts of ordeals and adventures. But the end up having established an entirely new base of their own, united with a loving partner and presiding over their own little kingdom. The transistor from childhood to maturity is complete. And the key to reaching that goal is to emerge victorious from a series of battles with dark power.

Indeed, what we also come to recognize from such tales are those essential elements making up what Aristotle identified as the beginning, middle and ending of a story which, expressed in more sophisticated outward forms, remain central to our experience of storytelling for the rest of our lives.

BEGINNING. The beginning of almost any story shows us a hero or heroine who is in some way undeveloped, frustrated or incomplete. This establishing of their unhappy, immature, or unfulfilled state sets up the tension to be resolved which provides the essence of the story.

MIDDLE. This shows sooner or later a falling under the shadow or the dark power, the conflict with which constitutes the stories main action. In early life stories, this darkness is outside the main characters. Later this dark power is shown to be lying inside the hero or heroine. We see two realms, one in which the dark power holds sway, but another in which the forces of light remain in the shadows.

ENDING. Action build to a climax where the force making for threat and confusion rise to the highest point of pressure on everyone, and this paves the way for the reversal or Unknotting, the moment when the dark power is overthrown.

The nature of the ending depends entirely on how the hero or heroine have aligned themselves with the dark power. If in opposition, the final act is a liberation with a prize of infinite value to be won. ...We se that the hero or heroine have ended up fulfilled or complete in a way that previously was unthinkable. They have reached some central goal to their lives.

On the other hand, when the hero or heroine become irrevocably identified with the dark power, the story will end in their destruction. But even this comes about according to the same rules that govern stories with a happy ending. So much have the central figures of Tragedy become the chief source of darkness in their story that only when they are removed by death can the light emerge from the shadow. For all those forced to live in that shadow, this in itself can end the story on the familiar note of liberation. The wider community is restored to wholeness. Just as in a story with a happy ending, it is a victory for Life itself. What distinguishes different plots is that each looks at this common theme of overcoming darkness with light is that each looks at this common theme from a different angle. “ Cf., pp 217-219, Booker.
I highly recommend this book. It is 728 pages, encyclopedic in range both of content, analysis and explanation. This is a lifetime of work, some 38 years, by Dr. Christopher Booker, and every storyteller will be a better storyteller by understanding the role of plots with their connection to the human imagination. I already envision ways to enhance some stories I have been working on for several years and further, to make my telling of stories to various ages of children more relevant to their age.

Every storyteller will want a copy of this book. The Seven Plots he plumbs are” Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Tragedy, Comedy and Rebirth. I suggest your enjoyment and your telling will be enriched by this book.


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