Motifs, Tale Types, Mythemes and More

How does your story work? Can you take elements from it to transform other stories? Can you mix elements to create new immersive experiences?

I love breaking down stories and poems to see how they tick. This probably stems from my elementary and secondary schooling, but a big motivator for me is jubilant curiosity.

Stories have certain tricks and tools they use to help them flow.

Mechanical elements of story and poem: Setting, alliteration, character and more

Mechanically, they have beginnings, middles and ends; rising and falling action; climaxes; conflict; atmosphere; setting; denouements or fifth acts; conflict or struggle; and characters. These instrumental elements parallel the mechanical devices of poems, like lines and stanzas; rhythm and rhyme; and literary devices and figures of speech.

The good folks at Literary Devices unpack these mechanical devices into literary elements (theme, character) and literary techniques (alliteration, personification), which they rightfully apply to prose and poetry.

But there is more to poem and story than mechanical elements. In fact, without meaning there is no story.

Cognitive and emotive components of story and poem: Motif, tale type, function and mytheme

The heart of poetry and story is more intuitive than their mechanics. A poem does not have to have any literary techniques and it can still be a poem. So also can a story.

Every idea, every word has story in it; it would lack meaning and influence otherwise. Stories are built from tinier stories, poems from underlying poetry. It is more than subtext. It is structure and motif and interpretation.

These cognitive and emotive components bring affect and meaning to poem and story. Unpacking story in search of meaning reveals these components.

But what are they?

Motif

A motif is a packet of distinct narrative, a persistent, indivisible and defining detail of story, more than an idea, but less than a complete story in itself. One might equate it to a prompt, a prod that arouses imagination. A motif is specific enough to direct that imagination yet not detailed enough to close a story. Because motif is a component of story, narrative is a better descriptor of it than prompt.

Motifs are units of story meaning. Combining motifs builds story; you can unpack stories into their component motifs. These motifs are different from story elements in that they carry narrative or meaning in them. They also exist across many stories, building stories both similar to and very different from each other.

Stith Thompson studied motifs in folk literature, finding that stories with common and related motifs frequently were related to each other, often being versions of common ancestral stories. Story migration is then possible to map by tracing motif correlations and mutations.

Tale Type

When motifs combine and form self-sufficient groupings or plots that occur in several stories, the stories with these common plots or motif groupings are called tale types. Like motifs, tale types suggest story trees, indicating versions and mutations of story, and their localizations and migrations.

Tracing story origins and evolution through their motifs and tale types can be very entertaining and informative. Many people make careers out of studying these story relationships. Others, like me, use them to unpack stories and inspire new ones.

Unpacking stories by analyzing shared structure and analogies

Motifs and tale types analyze story through its narrative components. They illuminate story relationships and cultural exchange as well as story evolution and origin.

Another way to interpret stories is through their structure. Structure is more closely related to the literary elements than motifs and tale types.

Propp Function

Propp functions are components of plot. They are unpacked by extracting the details of story elements, particularly plot, then analyzing the relationships and order of these details. Propp functions are common, ordered kernels of plot. They are like landmarks most stories pass through.

There are many analyzes of story plot similar to Propp functions, some longer, many shorter. They are all related to what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey and what Claude Bremond and Elaine Cancalon dub the network of possibilities (initial situation, actualized event, non-actualized alternative events). What these analyses do is map out how a story unfolds. They unpack the elements of story.

Mytheme

Mythemes are contextual analogies that expose subjective culture-specific meanings. Lévi-Strauss argued that story meaning is culturally subjective: what you read is all in your interpretation. Stories, particularly folktales, enable us to make sense of our world by setting up parallel, yet unreal, situations in the stories. The situations in the stories are usually comparisons, and so are the situations in our world. The function of stories then is to create analogies drawn from the stories to our understanding of our world. These analogies Lévi-Strauss calls mythemes.

Mythemes are structural and subjective components of story. They do not make sense across stories nor across cultures, so they differ from motifs and tale types. They are contextual and dependent on interpretation — you and I read different stories in the same text. Yet, like motifs and tale types, they are built into many stories. They also do not follow an ordered pattern of elemental components, making them different from Propp functions and their ilk. In fact, Lévi-Strauss rejected plot as an important element of story.

To Lévi-Strauss, story models the world to reveal everyday enigmas. Mythemes provide meaning in the story that translates to our experiences and world. In this sense they are cognitive components of story, like motifs, tale types and Propp functions.

Unpacking stories by extracting shared defining-components

A few years back I curated the 1958 Stith Thompson Motif Index for private research and reference. I used a Russian reference as a base. I since added research into AT and ATU Tale Types, Propp Functions and Lévi-Strauss Mythemes to create a thorough, though hardly exhaustive, study of story, particularly folk literature.

I recently edited and updated that reference and made it responsive to different screen sizes for others to enjoy and use as a resource.

My mirror is now easier to navigate with executive indices and links to the longer, unabridged list. I also cite a few examples of motifs in tales. I also link to sites that hold many examples of AT and ATU tale types, including the Ashliman Collection and the Multilingual Folk Tale Database and to sites that demonstrate Propp function analysis.

My analyses of Propp Functions and Lévi-Strauss Mythemes are more original syntheses of the literature and less curation of others’ work, like my motif and tale type sections.

The reason we study stories and poems

Story comprehension or appreciation is often the least favourite component of language studies. It is easy to understand that readers and listeners would rather listen to and read a story than analyze it. Yet there is a joy in picking the mechanics and concepts of a story out. And there is a function for a writer and teller to do so. Deeper meaning is revealed and more elegant story creation is possible through story unpacking.

From a teaching perspective, I believe the best way to appreciate and comprehend story is by writing story. Place the appreciation in context, give it a purpose and make learning it fun. And don’t forget to include analysis of the cognitive components of story. For writers, story appreciation or comprehension models examples of story creation. And for readers, it can reveal deeper details.

I’d appreciate your thoughts on my updated reference — particularly if you find errors — and your interpretation of motifs, tale types, Propp functions and mythemes.

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777 Challenge Untagged

Its origins are mysterious, its age unknown, its call impelling. I stumbled upon a post that responded to a networking and writing exercise called the 777 Challenge.

 

 

The Challenge is quite simple:

Post 7 lines (at least) from the 7th page in prose or poetry you are currently writing, then challenge (tag) 7 other writers to do the same.

I am new on the scene — at least to the online writing community — yet I think the 777 Challenge will be fun … and revealing. So I’m trying it. Yep, I’m self-tagging. And the writers I will tag are strangers to me. I am interested to see who I meet and how this goes.

Seven Lines

I decided to pick seven lines from (the seventh page of) the second chapter of a novel, called Heartlodge, that I am working on. This chapter is entitled Stories.

In this passage, Abby encounters a magic book — though, aren’t all books magic?

The black letters in the book moved. They swooped out of the darkness surrounding the stars, landed on the open page near its bottom right, flowed across the sheet as if it were a stream and lifted off at the top left as the words they formed were pronounced. They disappeared into sound as the words were spoken, almost as if they became Uncle Wit’s voice as he talked. Yet the darkness around the stars did not diminish.

‘Uncle Wit? Where did these words come from? They weren’t here before.’ Yet they seemed to have always been there like Uncle Wit’s voice, the breeze and the warmth of Simon beside her. “

~ © 2012 Shawn Urban, Heartlodge

You might think that five-year old Abby is about to go on an incredible journey. The fact is however that she is in the middle of one in this passage … and her destination will be even more incredible. You might also think that Heartlodge is a children’s book. It is not. It gets dark and deep, starting in the first chapter. In this passage, for instance, Abby already lost her parents, is alone and is about to realize that she is lost. It all leads to a cosmic conflict.

Seven Challenges

Since I am new to the online writing community, I will pick, with a die, seven writers with blogs who I follow on twitter. That should randomize my choice of victims um … tagged writers to pass this challenge on to.

And the winners are:

This is not the most diverse list. I was hoping for more genres and writing forms, and writers from other cultures. But the die rolls as the bell tolls as they say.

Enjoy your 777 Challenge, everyone.

So, what do you think? Did I meet the challenge? Are you intrigued by the passage? Leave a comment, or a question. I would love to hear from you.

Inspiring the Next Generation

I have some interesting news to share.

The Grade 10s in one of the schools where I sub began their poetry unit in English this week. I subbed for them yesterday.

One of their tasks yesterday was to write a poem in one of the forms they had already learned, then share these with the class. There were some very reluctant students; they had a low opinion about this sharing business, particularly their contributive involvement in it.

 

 

I decided to break the ice by sharing one of my poems. And I had access to two: those I published in this blog.

The poem I chose to share was Van Gogh and the Moon. It was a hit, particularly when I explained to the kids that the poem was an in promptu (five minute) response to a writing prompt in the local writing club.

So, yes, I got a chance to plug the Write Group as well; I told the kids that students from the school were part of the group, which peeked more interest.

But more importantly, it got each of the students to open up and share some of their poems, not just those they wrote in class yesterday, but those they had access to through their iPhones and other devices.

It was a perfect marriage of teacher and student sharing, technology (I used the Smart board; the students used their devices), and encouragement and modelling by example.

It never ceases to amaze me how well these teachable moments go when the teacher releases control and opens up to her or his students. (Of course, it also never ceases to amaze me how badly such moments go as well at times. There is a definite case for timing and thoughtful and responsive judgement here.)

These students have everything to be proud of. They have incredible imaginations, and a deep and active appreciation for written communication.

Moments like these remind me how much I love teaching, and learning with, these students.

This article is cross-posted in Digital Substitute and Stefras’ Bridge.

Van Gogh and the Moon

One of the many things I love about writing clubs, such as the Write Group, is the surprise writing exercises we do in them. Today, two of my students — not already members — joined the Write Group and I prepared tic-tac-write prompts to inspire our creative juices.

This was the perfect exercise to entice my students and draw them in. They enjoyed themselves, which really is the point, and one even overcame his shyness and read his response plus a few other works aloud.

Prompt: Tic-Tac-Write

The tic-tac-write board is a 3×3 grid with nine prompts in it. These prompts have setting, character, plot, event, perspective, atmosphere, starters, object and random slants to them. They are arranged so that prompts along a single line — either row, column or main diagonal — could form a story with some creative thought.

These combinations are not so obvious that a story can be written without some thinking, and the writer need only pick any three prompts on the board, rather than only those in a line. This arrangement ensures that the writer has plenty of story prompt options to choose from.

In today’s meeting, I handed out four unique prompts (given below), which increased the variety of story writing that the group shared afterward. The group loved them and the stories they produced.

Board 1

Humour Write a letter to yourself. Was it my fault the doorbell rang?
House in the middle of the block This morning, in my garden, I had a conversation with a little bird. He told me everything! About time I got out of that cookie.
Someone dies. Give your favourite item baggage using anthropomorphism. Solve a mystery using clues left behind.

Board 2

Rewrite a nursery rhyme from a character’s point of view. You got laid off today. Caramels
Smelly as a skunk Van Gogh Shut up and deal!
Procrastination Raisin pie Let us go then, you and I.

Board 3

Easter without eggs Write a palindromic piece. Sisters
I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be. Baby blankets Minor character takes over scene, then leaves.
Beer, book, bed Promises made Bumblebees

Board 4

Your car shutters. Straight, crooked Drawing straws
The train whistle blew. Stop scratching! A banana, marbles and a bag
Orange The wind picks up. What’s that?

Van Gogh and the Moon

I picked Nursery rhyme — Character POV; Van Gogh; and Let us go then, you and I from Board 2, and worked in Procrastination and Caramels from the same board. Here is my response.

Van Gogh and the Moon
© Shawn Urban

Let us go then, you and I,
over the moon and across the sky.
No there is no time to paint.
The sun comes up,
then it will be too late.

Yes, the stars are beautiful tonight.
And the sickle of the moon is great.
But look there now,
the moon nigh fades.
Let us go then, you and I.

Van Gogh, Van Gogh,
why do you procrastinate,
admiring the dish and the spoon?

The cat on his fiddle
will play all night,
though that will end soon.

Van Gogh, Van Gogh,
chewing on your caramel,
with sugar rotting your teeth,
the dog is not barking to play with you,
but to tell you that time will not wait.

Let us go then, you and I,
Van Gogh, before the moon disappears.
Look already your stars are gone.
There is nothing left for you to paint.

Van Gogh, spit out that caramel.
We must jump and leap over the moon.
And look here what you have done.
The sun is up, the moon is gone
and you have ruined this nursery rhyme.

I wish you all a great today and a creative tomorrow.

Prompt Sources

@djeurope

This morning, in my garden, I had a conversation with a little bird. He told me everything!

Figment Daily Themes

Write a letter to yourself. — January 5

Give your favourite item baggage using anthropomorphism. — January 6

Solve a mystery using clues left behind. — January 24

Weird Fortune Cookies

About time I got out of that cookie.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock — C.S. Lewis

Let us go then, you and I.

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be.

All other prompts were supplied by members of the Write Group or me. (Just in case some of these come from elsewhere, let me know and give me a reference and I will check it out and credit the source here.)

10minutes by Malyn Mawby

UPDATE: Due to Twitter’s buying and shutting down of Posterous, Malyn’s 10minutes sketchbook blog has been moved to WordPress, The Sketchbook Project 2012 – 10 minutes. Please visit the new site, enjoy Malyn’s sketchbook and sign her guestbook.

I am excited to present my first featured site, 10minutes, created by Malyn Mawby of Sydney, Australia. This post also features my first interview, which I conducted with Malyn about her site.

10minutes is a mini- or finite blog, having approximately twenty entries, but it is the context of these entries that makes it unique. The real work is the sketchbook the blog complements, documents and interplays with.

This sketchbook is the personal artwork and journey of Malyn as she explores her creative and playful side, and “endeavours to become a less frustrated artist”. The stories of Malyn’s sketches and journey are told in her blog.

The following video showcases her sketchbook. I think you will concur from this video that Malyn’s artistry and creativity are spectacular. Her blog showcases this work, Malyn’s thoughts and the meanings her sketches have to her in even more detail and with more love.

 

I had the honour of interviewing Malyn about her Sketchbook Project and this is what she had to say.

SU: How did it feel to put yourself “out there” for the world to see? Would you do it again?

MM: I was comfortable putting myself out there because I didn’t think it was particularly personal. Besides, I was always upfront that I wasn’t a true-blue artist; on the contrary, I was working on getting better. The blog auto-posted to twitter so I got feedback on both channels. The feedback was worth the putting myself ‘out there’ so-to-speak.

“I would definitely do it again. My youngest daughter (10 y.o.) voiced that she would join me, too. This is quite telling in itself, i.e. the effort I put in was well worth the results in more ways than one. She did clarify that she didn’t have to blog about it. 🙂

SU: Were there any surprises that you encountered during and after your project?

MM: Yes! I didn’t think that many of the entries would be inspired by my Twitter friends, most of whom I haven’t met in real life. Strangely enough, too, the realisation that ‘time is not my cage’ came as a surprise even though I suspected this to be true even before embarking on this project. Obviously, this played in my mind and influenced my choice of theme.

SU: You mentioned in your Prince and Picasso reflection that you realized Picasso’s work, and the work of all people who create things, is an autobiography. How did your sketchbook project capture your autobiography?

MM: It captured the people who moved or inspired me at the time. It hopefully showed the things that inspire me. It even captured an epiphany. That’s pretty awesome for something that only took 2 months.

SU: Okay, I would like to ask you an artist to artist question now. Do you feel that your sketchbook project captured story both in of itself and transcending to your life and the world around you? Did you see this story in your mind before you began each sketch or did it develop as you sketched?

MM: I didn’t expect this project to touch as many lives as it did. I should add that as a surprise, shouldn’t I? I think most artists only have a rough idea to begin with and then let loose, as part of the creative process. I did not know going into the process that Picasso would move me so, or that I was even going to a Picasso exhibition – that was such an impulsive thing we did as a family. I loved the idea of seeing inspiration everywhere and trying to capture a bit of that. I think I even ‘searched’ for inspiration and that’s a good thing!

SU: What advice and recommendations do you have for others – artists, professionals, learners, practitioners – who wish to journal their own journeys of activity?

MM: Inspiration is everywhere. Sometimes they come easily and sometimes we have to search. It’s so human to try to capture a bit of that somehow, through words, pictures, music, whatever. In this sense, we are all artists BUT not all of us make time to unleash the artist within. My advice then is this – time is not your cage – let the artist in you fly!

“And this applies to me as well!!

“This post “On Creativity – How?” is relevant.

SU: What did you want to share with your sketchbook and blog? What did you want to keep? You expressed a conflict about preserving the personal facets of your sketches. Now that you have had time to absorb your sharing of your work, do you feel you betrayed this preservation or ensured it?

MM: Creating the videos and final piece – mail art – helped me let go. Reflecting back, I don’t have many original pieces at home. I often make things to give away. It was a little tougher with this one because, as mentioned, it involved so many people and became quite a personal journey. It is no surprise that I got attached to it as I would to a personal journal.

“Interesting point on feeling betrayed. I think I would feel less true to myself – and thus feel betrayed – if I didn’t submit the sketchbook. Does that make sense? I was always going to let it go. I just didn’t realise it would be as hard as it was.

“In all authentic connections with people, we show a bit of ourselves; authentic connections are personal. I am negotiating the blurry line of what’s really personal and not to be shared BUT that is a different learning journey again. You can get a hint of that in this post, “Of hopes and dreams“.

For more of our interview, please visit my full Malyn Mawby interview document. And please also visit 10minutes. You will be spellbound.

 

While you are visiting 10minutes, sign Malyn’s guest book and let her know what you think. All comments there, here and on the interview are welcome.

Read my previous posts on Malyn’s Sketchbook Project.

UPDATE: Due to Twitter’s buying and shutting down of Posterous, Malyn’s 10minutes sketchbook blog has been moved to WordPress, The Sketchbook Project 2012 – 10 minutes. Please visit the new site, enjoy Malyn’s sketchbook and sign her guestbook.