Jungle gyms for the artist: Fairy tales and formulas

Wayne Young’s “Raven Steals the Light.”

Last time I was talking about structure and formula, I was talking about music — songs that are formulaic and modular, and the way their relatively rigid structures allow for creative expression. Today I want to look at (or at least start to look at) that concept in storytelling.

This is gonna be harder for me to pin down, I can already tell, for a number of reasons. First, there are so many different story structures out there, including many I’m probably not even familiar with. Second, because I think it’s really easy to just slip into kind of a Joseph Campbell/Edward Casaubon “key to all mythologies” mode, and that’s not exactly what I’m interested in. The hero’s journey and its related archetypes are certainly examples of this concept, but they’re not the only ones. How about we call what I’m talking about “formula stories,” to get away from the term “archetype” and its associated baggage a bit, and move on from there?

And having agreed on a vocabulary, let’s dive in.

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But he seemed so nice: Hannibal, Little Red, and the stories we tell

I think sometimes I underestimate the value of stories. Don’t get me wrong: I am always going to be on the front lines saying that stories have an enormous effect on culture, on our values, on our psychology. It’s just that I think I, personally, have tended to discount the effect stories have had on me and my development. When I first started thinking about a post about stories, I was going to write about Cinderella and Snow White and Savitri and the anxiety-inducing myth of perfection. And that’s a post I’ll probably write one day!

The story on my mind right now, though, is Little Red Riding Hood.

As many of my friends have been forced to hear over the last couple months, I am an enormous fan of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter books and movies. All two of them. Boy, isn’t it a shame he didn’t write more about what Lecter got up to after escaping? I’m sure it wouldn’t have gone off the rails into creepy Freudian shenanigans and death by Moray eel at all. But I think we’re all glad he didn’t write some kind of phoned-in prequel giving Lecter a bizarre excuse for being a monster, just because Dino de Laurentiis wanted to milk the franchise for every penny it was worth.

Even if he had, we’d still have the exquisite Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, and any insanity that crept into the franchise later in its life couldn’t change the fact that those are excellent books and Silence is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I just love Will Graham and Clarice Starling, okay? Especially Clarice. Talk about an awesome role model for a young woman.

Diminutive ladies kicking ass and taking names: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) doesn't care that she's shorter than you.

Diminutive ladies kicking ass and taking names: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) doesn’t care that she’s shorter than you.

(Beyond this Read More I’m going to be talking about content from and spoilers for NBC’s Hannibal, including the season finale, so consider yourself warned.)

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