Story Structure

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Because I’ve already spoken on narrative structures, the title probably deserves clarification. For my purposes, narrative structure is the shape of the story – how it’s told. Story structure, by comparison, is the form of the story – what makes it a story. A story needs to be built around a narrative structure; any story can be analysed according to any story structure.

There are a potentially unlimited number of story structures, but the two most well-known structures are the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Three Act Structure.”  As had been previously stated, these are structures that can be applied to any story.  Therefore, a story structure is only valuable as an analytical tool. “A man goes to the fridge to get a beer” is a complete story. You can break down the actions, from him deciding he wants a beer all the way through him returning to the couch, into the Three Act Structure or the Hero’s Journey. I state this because many people think a story structure is a guideline to building a good story. Following a story structure, especially slavishly following a story structure, only guarantees that you have crafted a story. It is natural to tell stories, and one can instinctually tell whether a story exists. Story structures are good for analysis and interpretation – nothing more, nothing less.

As has been previously established in my musings on art, interpretation is key to experiencing art. Similarly, analysis is integral to forming a coherent interpretation. Therefore, story structures are quite useful – in their proper place.

The Hero’s Journey has been addressed by many people far more eloquent than I (banana), and I’m not sure I’m really qualified to add to the conversation, but the worst I can do is make a total ass of myself and be wrong on all counts. So on we go!

As you likely already know (especially if you read the links), the Hero’s Journey (AKA the Monomyth) was popularized by Joseph Campbell, breaking the story down into 17 distinct parts.  Dan Harmon cut it down to 8, because he’s twice as good as Joseph Campbell.

Many people get frustrated with the Hero’s Journey because, as already noted, it has a tendency to be used as scaffolding to build, rather than a tool to analyze. For the sake of absurdity, let us apply the 17 steps of the Monomyth to the guy getting a beer:

1. Call to Adventure – The guy is thirsty.

2. Refusal of the Call – If the guy wants a beer, he’ll have to get off the couch. The couch is comfortable. Besides, his show is on.

3. Supernatural Aid – A commercial comes on.

4. Crossing the First Threshold – The man gets up.

5. Belly of the Whale – The man steps away from the couch – it will now take effort to return.

6. The Road of Trials – The man’s kid left his toys all over the floor, the kitchen tiles are cold, and the beer’s hidden behind a watermelon.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess – The man grabs a beer.

8. Woman as Temptress – The beer needs a bottle opener. It might be easier to grab a swig of milk from the carton instead.

9. Atonement with the Father – Rifling through the drawer, the man seeks out the bottle opener.

10. Apotheosis – The bottle opener has been found, and the beer is liberated.

11. The Ultimate Boon – Still in the kitchen, the man tastes the sweet nectar, the fruits of his achievement.

12. Refusal of the Return – It’s not that bad standing in the kitchen. Besides, he has his beer.

13. The Magic Flight – Seeing as it’s 11 AM, it might be best to not be caught.

14. Rescue from Without – The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” shouts his wife.

15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold – The man returns to the couch, more aware of his kid’s toys.

16. Master of Two Worlds – The man is back at the couch, beer in hand, and the commercials are just ending.

17. Freedom to Live – Life is good.

While, in theory, my slavish adherence to the Monomyth has made a rather compelling version of “Guy goes to the fridge to get a beer,” it’s still about a guy getting a beer. Also, were all those steps really necessary? Do we care that the guy was comfortable on the couch watching his show? Did we need the ordeal of procuring the bottle opener? Arguably, the story was made worse by insistence on hitting every beat. Especially when equal time is given to each step.

In fairness, using the Hero’s Journey as a tool for analysis is itself fraught with peril. Taken to the extreme, the Hero’s Journey means that Everyone is Jesus in Purgatory(Warning: Link to TVTropes). This should not discourage the use of a valuable tool – it should be an admonition toward moderation. Any interpretation can be applied to any work of art – what matters is whether the interpretation fits. The Hero’s Journey is excellent at decoding allegory, as well as developing analogies. But it is only a tool. It is one way to connect the dots, but not the only way, and not the best way. The Hero’s Journey will connect every set of dots into a dog, but not every set of dots should be a dog.

The Three Act Structure is a more general approach, as are any X Act Structures. Arguably, the Monomyth is a 17 Act structure. Because it’s more general, it has more flexibility, but that also means it has a greater potential for abuse. When crafting from an act structure, the inclination is to separate everything into equal parts – the story suffers because the important stuff is crammed into a tight space, while boring and unimportant elements are stretched. Because three acts means three equal parts. While this may be mitigated by a theoretical perfect number of acts properly defined, it simply serves to reemphasise the point previously made – story structure is a tool for analysis, not for construction.

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Narrative Structures

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Time for a change in pace.  Narrative Structure, in the sense used in this post, refers to the flow and progression of the story.  Arguably, the narrative structures mentioned here are more prominent in interactive media, but they can just as easily appear in books or movies.

Linear

This is the simplest and most straightforward structure.  You start at the beginning and continue forward until you reach the end.  Strictly speaking, Linear structure tends to be the superstructure of any narrative, but there are rare cases where there is no sense of Linearity.

Branching

This is a slight variation from Linear.  In a Branching narrative, there are side paths, but they return to the core narrative while retaining the status quo.  A filler arc in a television show is a Branch.  A scene in a movie that provides no contribution to the plot is a Branch.  In dungeons in RPGs, Branches manifest as “go the wrong way for more treasure.”  Branches aren’t always bad; they aren’t always detrimental to the narrative.  For example, a Branch can provide characterization of other insights into the narrative or interpretation, without actually pushing the plot forward.  Arguably, Citizen Kane‘s narrative is a reporter trying to figure out what “Rosebud” means.  90% of the movie, then, is Branches.

Multipath

Another variation of linear.  Multipath is like branching, but the branch rejoins the story at a different point than the departure, allowing two routes through the narrative.  This is easier to see in video games, where one path takes you over the mountain, while another takes you through the mountain.  At the end, you’ve arrived at the same point, but you took different routes to get there.  Super Mario Bros. is on the surface Linear, but secret pipes, beanstalks, and warp zones reveal the hidden Multipath aspects.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan)(AKA The Lost Levels)  added reverse warp zones, making the narrative recursive, but still a Linear Multipath.

Forking

Unlike Branching and Multipath, a Forking structure never returns to the source.  Most Choose Your Own Adventure books used a Forking structure, with the occasional instance of Multipath.  The movie Clue was presented in theatres in a forking structure, with three different endings, randomly chosen.  The DVD version presents a choice at the beginning, between the theatrical random ending and the VHS all three endings.  Therefore, the DVD version actually has two Forks – one at the beginning, and one at the end of the former path.

Network

A Network is, in its purest sense, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Linear structure.  In a Networked narrative, there are several Nodes, or points of interest, and paths between the Nodes, connecting many – but not necessarily all – to each other.  There are few examples of a pure Network narrative, but, in fairness, there are few pure Linear narratives as well.  Memento is probably an effective example of a Network used in a non-interactive medium – there are several points of interest throughout the presentation, but they are not presented in a Linear manner.

Gated Network

A Gated Network is essentially a Network with a mild Linear superstructure.  There is something necessary to progress the plot forward, but there is no narrative compulsion to achieve that goal at any specific point.  The Legend of Zelda is a simple Gated Network – you have freedom of movement among nodes, but need some items to bypass obstacles (soft gates), and need to complete narrative goals to reach the final dungeon (hard gate).

Putting it Together

Any specific example is likely to use many of these structures in a nested format.  The Megaman series is a gated network with a hard gate (defeat all the robot masters) leading to a linear second half.  In the earlier games, the Network is a Linear Network, as each node can only be visited (completed) once.  Each node within the Network (as well as the post-Network levels) is itself a Linear narrative, generally with Branches and the occasional Multipath.  Later games even experiemented with Forks in the sub-nodes.  Mass Effect 2 presents Linear interpersonal narratives with Forks.  Each conversation is a combination of Linear Multipath and Linear Fork, as well.  This is all encapsulated in a Gated Network which is seeded with a few linear nodes.  And event hat comes off as an oversimplification.

Flags and Variables

Flags and Variables are not inherent to narrative structure, and largely only present in video games from a technical standpoint, but they are necessary in understanding and dissecting a narrative structure.  Branches, Forks, and Multipaths are occasionally presented as a direct choice, but they are often the result of flags and variables set by previous choices.  Flags are a binary value – it is true or it is false.  When an event triggers a flag, the flag is set to “true” or “false” or, in some circumstances, is toggled (i.e. switched from true to false or vice-versa).  Flags occasionally appeared in Choose Your Own Adventure books that included Branches or Multipath – “If you have the MacGuffin, turn to page 20.  If you do not have the MacGuffin, turn to page 127.”  Variables work in roughly the same way as Flags (i.e. as logic gates), but are incremental.  When an event triggers a variable, a number is added to or subtracted from the stored variable.  In a Choose Your Own Adventure book, they would be presented as “If you have five or more vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 63.  If you have fewer than four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 16.  If you have four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 140.”  Returning to the Mass Effect 2 example, certain conversation options require a minimum variable (generally Paragon or Renegade value).  After the loyalty arc for any potential romantic partners, the “Interested in Romance” flag for that individual is set to “true,” and remains true until the wrong thing is said.  When the “Interested in Romance” flag is false, the characters have much less to say, though they may have new dialog due to the “loyalty” flag being true.

Inflammatory Content

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The focus of this topic is going to focus on the cross section of art called “media.”  This encompasses books, radio, plays, movies, television shows, video games, sculpture, etc.

By inflammatory content, I refer to certain elements that tend to evoke a strong visceral response – violence, sexuality, foul language, religion, philosophy.  Specifically, whether and when it’s appropriate to include inflammatory content.

If you’ve read my past two posts, you can likely see the direction this is headed.

This is very much a case when you apply the principles of judging art in a concrete sense.  You identify the interpretation/function that most closely identifies with the art, and apply the nobility of the function.

Warren Spector recently made news with his claim that the video games industry is “fetishizing violence.” It’s no secret that video games have a history of violence, and that there have been some particularly violent and graphic games in recent history. The question becomes “to what end?” Is the purpose of the game to revel in the violence and gore? Is the purpose of the violence to carry the narrative? Is the violence simply there to “spice up” the narrative? Mr. Spector seems to imply that we are at best “spicing it up” and at worst revelling in violence in games. In competitive first-person shooters, this is particularly prominent, rewarding the player for headshots and kill streaks.
In all honesty, there is likely an element of all three in many recent games. God of War and Mortal Kombat are particularly severe examples of revelling in violence – the point seems to be to go as over-the-top as possible. On the other hand, we have the Call of Duty Series, or the Mass Effect series. In these games, the violence is primarily to carry the plot – the violence isn’t the raison d’etre, but it is a very real element.  Even in these games, however, there’s a push to use the violence as a stylistic flourish, to emphasise the “cool” factor.

But that’s all from the design side.  I would argue, in fact, that it is the design side that fetishizes violence.  I like to imagine that gamers played God of War because the gameplay was enjoyable.  I realize that many people played Mortal Kombat for the over-the-top violence, but I also note that it’s relatively unpopular among fighting games – it’s sold more on the name and controversy.  A game may get lots of attention for its inflammatory content, but few people seek out games for that reason, and the sales numbers tend to carry it out.  Violence won’t sink video games for the same reason that storytelling won’t elevate them – the core demographic remains focused on gameplay.

So the extreme violence in games doesn’t really add much to a game’s value, and actually devalues the game as it fetishizes violence.  But violence doesn’t necessarily hurt a game.  Half Life is quite violent, but the violence is in the surface of a greater narrative, executed in a manner that enhances the overall story.

Movies work the same way.  Guns and explosions-fests are recognized as cinematic junk food – a low value entertainment, though some argue that it’s actively detrimental to agency and self-actualization – Maslow’s highest hierarchy.  The catch, however, is that much of experience, especially the act of consumption, can eb argued as detrimental to this highest hierarchy.   While this argument seems to make sense, it is absurd.  Maslow’s hierarchy is illustrated as a pyramid for that very reason – you cannot adequately fulfill the higher needs without a base of the lower needs.  While one shouldn’t become absorbed in consumption, it is equally detrimental to neglect your basic needs in the pursuit of self-actualization.  So a little junk food can be okay.  In fact, as it can serve the lower needs, it is in it’s lesser sense a good.

And, of course, this carries over into foul language, sexual content, and all those other sorts of content.  Is it in the service of the greater experience, or is the experience in the service of the content?  In pornography, the entire product is directed toward sexual gratification.  In quite a large section of media, however, sexual content is directed toward a higher purpose – generally progression of the narrative.

And we then return to that third possibility – inserting inflammatory content to “spice it up.”  Generally, this is gratuitous violence, or a gratuitous sex scene, or gratuitous foul language.  In other words, it is unnecessary, and likely detrimental.  Unfortunately, it is often difficult to separate “gratuitous” from “contributory,” and there is often a difference of opinion on the matter.  However, the distinction between gratuitous and contributory is the key element in judging the value of such inflammatory insertions.  It is relatively obvious, by comparison, to determine if the inflammatory is in the service of the art, or if the art is in the service of the inflammatory.

The Value of Art

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Taken by itself, my previous post seems to imply that art, and all experience, essentially, is nothing but a subjective matter.  Essentially, it seems to promote a solipsistic understanding of reality, or at least  an unsatisfying Kantian of phenomenological understanding.  Therefore, I’m going to address another important element of art – the intrinsic value.  Without intrinsic value, everything is entirely subjective.  Michael Bay’s movies (generally) cause an enjoyable experience, so they are good.  Applying hedonic calculus, we potentially reach absurdities such as Transformers 2 being objectively better than Casablanca, because more people have had an enjoyable experience from the former.  Similarly, the Big Mac is a greater artistic achievement than the Mona Lisa.

As formerly established, I am using art and author in an extremely broad sense.  “Art” is “something that is crafted,” be it a sentence, a painting, a sculpture, a tool, a house, or, any (crafted) object.  The author is the person(s) that do the crafting.

The value of the art can be measured on the basis of the function of the art.  The function is – essentially – an interpretation of the art.  The function is generally understood to be the interpretation based on the author’s intent, but this is not necessarily the case.  Art can be directed toward any function, just as it can be interpreted in any manner.  As an interpretation, some functions fit better than others.  This is usually stated as “X is a [value] Y.”  A pillow is a terrible hammer.  Breakfast is an excellent way to start the day.  A coat is a serviceable blanket.   These judgments measure the validity of the interpretation.  For art as it is more generally understood – books, films, painting, sculpture – the function is often more complex, or simply directed to a higher end than basic utility.  They are often understood in terms of catharsis, paths to self-knowledge, or analogies providing context, among many other functions.  This leads us to the second prong of determining the value of art – the nobility of the function.

“Nobility” is a loaded term, but one I feel appropriate for the discussion.  In this case, I associate “nobility” with something I believe to be uncontroversial – Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Essentially, the higher up the hierarchy, the more noble the function.  This nobility functions as a sort of “multiplier” of value.  Something that is nourishing is inherently good, but not as good as something that elevates the soul.  Something that is harmful to the body is not nearly as bad as something that harms the soul.

Applying this nobility, we have a meal set before us.  If the meal is nutritious, it is good, particularly in that one functionality.  If the meal is a still life, it is bad as a source of nutrition, but is of a higher value than the simple meal, as it engages the audience at a higher level.  Following Maslow’s hierarchy, we should not reject the lesser art, as we need nutrition to survive, and we cannot appreciate the more noble needs while the baser remain unmet.

This leads us to where the judgment gets particularly nuanced – art that affects the different hierarchies in variance between the positive and the negative.  If you skip dinner and stay up late to read a book, the experience of the art is bad for you on the baser level, but, for the sake of the argument, it is assumed that the experience of reading the book fulfills more noble needs, creating a net good.  It is acceptable, at the least, to occasionally forego the baser needs for a more noble occupation, though continued neglect of any need is itself bad.

Another example, let us consider the MMO – the Massively Multiplayer Online game.  These games generally encourage factionalism.  On the positive side, you have a kinship with your faction, fostering friendship, even a sense of family, as well as building esteem in your respect for self and others.  But factions also encourage division, and a loss of respect for others.  The value then becomes a question of the function.  If a player plays a MMO to “pwn n00bs,” it is much more likely that, though he likely builds he own self-esteem, it comes at a loss of respect for others.  If, on the other hand, one plays for the sense of camaraderie and competition, he will build up on many levels of needs, with few needs being neglected or harmed (except, of course, those pesky bottom rung needs).

But this then turns from objectivity back to subjectivity, or at least, it appears so.  We then return to the nature of “interpretation.”  You cannot judge art without interpretation, as art cannot be experienced without interpretation.  Michaelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and thousands of other works of great art can be interpreted in a base, prurient sexual manner.  According to art critics, anything vaguely rectangular, triangular, or circular is sexual in character.  A meal can be appreciated for flavor or appearance as easily as nutrition.

So we must judge art in light of a certain function, and make that function clear in our judgment.  Furthermore, it is best to judge art by its most common function (the cultural reception), or perhaps its most fitting functions.  A butane lighter is (generally) a terrible painting tool, but people assume that a terrible butane lighter is one that fails at the most fitting functions of a butane lighter – creating sparks and producing flame.  The nature of this judgment is probably best recognized among film.  Schindler’s List is a terrible feel-good movie, but it is recognized that the function of the movie is catharsis, not feel-good, so people consider it a good movie, not a bad one.

So, in conclusion, the value of art lies in comparing the function (interpretation) to the object, to determine applicability.  Then, after determining the proper function, is should then be judged on its nobility.  A filling meal is good, but not great.  A sublime feast that changes how you look at the world is great.  Junk food may be on balance bad, but entertainment designed to fulfill base desires at the expense of your faith in humanity is terrible.