Friday, January 7, 2011

It Always Comes Back to Aristotle

Okay, so I think I've mentioned a time or ten that I've been reading these anthropology structuralist dudes from the mid-20th century, mainly because I wanted to expand my knowledge of superstructures beyond the basic Campbell mythic quest structure. And as part of that exploration, I've been reading Claude Levi-Strauss, a French academic who collected Pan-American myths and analyzed their structure until they cried uncle. Or oncle, actually, in deference to Levi-Strauss's nationality.

Anyway, he's taken a lot of heat for the way he tried to disconnect story structure from time. The basic idea here is that there are two kinds of structure. The first is what we describe as linear -- events unfold along a timeline, and generally have to occur in that specific sequence in order for the story to make sense. The girl can't fall in love with the boy before she meets the boy, right? Temporality is key to understanding most story structures. First this, then that.

Levi-Strauss, though, wanted to unhook structure from time. So he developed a theory of latent structures -- he called them paradigmatic structures, or, depending on the translation, structural paradigms. He said that structural paradigms are oppositional structural elements which can be uncoupled from the story's timeline and moved around. These can be reduced to single-word concepts which are the opposite of each other: love/hate, life/death, and so on. The order in which the concepts are presented isn't important (according to old Claude), as long as they both exist within the tale.

This can make your brain melt if you think about it too hard -- it nearly melted mine, until I realized he's basically talking about (wait for it) (and sing along if you know the words) one of Aristotle's ideas. Reversals. Yummy, delicious, drama-making reversals.

What's a reversal? It's when a story element becomes its opposite. Life/death, love/hate, and so on. Why did Aristotle care about it? Because reversals create drama: the essence of drama is change. And when we're talking about rising action on Ari's incline, we're talking about ways to pump up the drama. A reversal is a structural element with a big built-in dramatic oomph because the nature of the change is big.

The difference between a reversal and another kind of change is the oppositional nature of the elements. One is either alive or dead (excepting certain zombies and other paranormal creatures, of course *ggg*), and there aren't degrees of deadness or aliveness (again, excepting zombies, etc.). What are examples of non-oppositional changes? Anything that changes not in essential nature but rather in degree (mist to rain -- it's still precipitation, just more of it) or quality (green to blue -- color is still present, but it's a different color) is a non-oppositional change. These things might also have some dramatic value, but they don't pack quite the same pop as a reversal.

Why should writers care about this? Two words. Sagging. Middle. If your story slumps along through the middle, if reviewers described chapter eight as the perfect cure for insomnia, then think about the changes presented by the action in the middle of the book. What changes? Does it change in degree, or does it completely reverse itself? How can you magnify that change for more drama?

What are some other examples of oppositional pairs -- or, as our buddy Claude would have it, structural paradigms?



Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Slavery / freedom
Truth / falsehood - though that could be too small.

This post is going into my favorites list!

Edittorrent said...

Yes, Deb, those are great examples. If you had, for example,

slavery/indentured servitude

we wouldn't be talking reversal but ordinary change. Ditto lie and white lie. So if you had a white lie in your text and wanted to make a bigger impact with that story element, you could turn it into an actual lie, and then give consequences to the lie.

Aristotle was a genius. Understand the Poetics, and you understand structure.


Joel Q said...

What about a legend or myth that becomes real?
Or a person who believes he is one thing, but finds he is another. Orphan/Son.

I am guessing these dramatic changes like these be the twists we add to the plot.


Edittorrent said...

Sure, that works, Joel.

And reversals are definitely one form of plot twist.


Denny S. Bryce said...

I love the way you broke it down for my minion thought-process - excellent. It's also timely for my research on ocean movement and bio-diversity. Not a scientist by a mile, but it's the way the story is shaping up in the early sharing your commitment to discovering new things through research is inspiring (and very useful for Sagging. Middle:). Thank you.

Unknown said...

Reversals yes, but not just a dual opposition, like life/death. Levi-Strauss's contribution was to realize that mythic stories are four-parters, as codified in his Canonical Formula. Two opposites are twisted about to create the reversal, but its not just a reversal of attribute "good vs evil" but also a reversal of actors "Hero takes on attributes of villain to triumph over villain." Thats what creates the dramatic tension that drives the story.

Edittorrent said...

Yes, Robert, but then how do you unhook it from time? That's the part of his theory I've been tugging on, the whole timeline issue.