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?

Unpacking stories by extracting story components

There are two types of cognitive story components: brick-like story chunks and skeleton-like story structures. The story chunks are pieces of story or groups of these pieces that serve as building blocks found across stories. Motifs and tale types represent this type of component.

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.

A revised curation of motifs, tale types, functions and mythemes

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.

The Edge of Magic, the Land of Tals and a Soundtrack

A few months ago, I described a dream I had of mapping several of my magical-realism shorts together to create a world and a short-story collection. This post is an update of my progress.

Since the stories are fantastic folktales — magic-realism shorts, I decided to title the book The Edge of Magic and the land Tals. Yeah, Tals ranks right up there with Fantasia, Wonderland, Faerie and similarly trivial names, but for now I like it.

Obviously, many of the tales are complete. A few need polishing to make them publishable. Consistency and unity are concerns, since the stories were never written to fit together. I am undecided whether I want to rewrite them for consistency or publish them as is.

However, I have outlined a few connector and origin stories and am currently writing one of these. This story, Glint and Bite, will serve as the origin story of two of my already complete ones, A Pril of the Thirst and A Giant or a Nack?. It is coming along well.

I even mapped the landscape where this short is set. The map is not necessary, but I wanted to materialize the Stair that I visualize for the story.

I also created a soundtrack for the story, something new for me that was actually quite revealing. This is what I wanted to share with you today.

Glint and Bite: The Soundtrack

The music in the soundtrack captures the tonal flow of the story, rather than the events and characters. The lyrics in some fit the story, but those of others do not. Some work well on their own; others interact. Some juxtapositions are creepy. They will definitely pull you in and raise the hairs on your neck. The songs mirror the mood I want you to feel when you read the story.

Several of the songs go together to stimulate an overarching mood. I rarely listen to music, so I made the best selections I could from dozens of YouTube searches. No doubt other songs would capture the mood I want you to feel better than these. If you have suggestions, by the way, I’d be willing to consider them over some of these songs.

I compiled the songs on a playlist on my Youtube channel. Here I categorize and describe them in more depth.

Glint and Bite Soundtrack
© Compiled by Shawn Urban, June 29, 2017
 

Theme

The Living Years — Mike and the Mechanics


Valley

This is the setting of the story as viewed from one of the characters who live in the valley. The songs, except the last one, reflect this character’s love of the valley. The last song is actually a playlist of ice-thawing sounds.

Beauty : Start of Time — Gabrielle Aplin

Paradise : Children (Dream Version) — Robert Miles

Echoes of Ice : Playlist of Videos


Watching Glint

Here the viewpoint character is rejoicing in the life of a loved one, who also lives in the valley.

Proud, Happy, Serene : Happy — Marina and the Diamonds

Nostalgia : Childhood Nostalgia — Emotional Film Soundtracks

Owe : I Am — Nichole Nordeman

Gratitude : Gratitude — Nichole Nordeman

Care : Lullaby — Libera


Enter Kids

Two young teens intrude in the valley as the viewpoint character watches Glint. Here I wanted to capture the spirit of adolescence and all the freedom, potential, hope, dreams and audacity of this age.

Narcissism : Children of a Miracle — Don Diablo and Marnik

Own It All : The World is Ours — Eleven Past One

Able : Young Blood — Bea Miller


Ah, flirting. The boy’s efforts to woo the girl and her aloof teasing causes him through the next three sections to up his game toward recklessness.

Boy Hitting On Girl (Part 1)

Promise : Rule the World — Take That

Infatuation : Magic — Coldplay

Desire : Music to Watch Boys To — Lana Del Rey

Woo : Can’t Pretend — Torn Odell

Impress : Everyday Superhero — Smash Mouth


Girl Admiring Boy

Notice : Secret Admirer — Lisa Punch

Falling : No Name — Ryan O-Shaughnessy

Encourage : Keep Holding On — Avril Lavigne


Boy Hitting On Girl (Part 2)

Want Me : I Want You to Want Me — KSM

Pay Attention : Attention to Me — Nolan Sisters

Together Strong : We Can Move the World — Alessandro Fortin

Entice, Exhilarate : Everything is Happening, the Clouds Have Parted, I’m Free — City of the Sun


Glint Dying (Part 1, Placeholder)

The killing of Glint is sudden and surprises everyone. The story skips from the recklessness of Everything is Happening, the Clouds Have Parted, I’m Free to the anguish of Wait. In the story the transition is abrupt, but the soundtrack makes more sense with this expository placeholder. What do you think? Do you like the soundtrack with or without this song?

Earth Song — Michael Jackson


These next two sections are my favourite in the story and soundtrack.

Bite Angry (Part 1)

Glint’s death is the inciting incident. It pivots the story which quickly turns dark. So obviously in the soundtrack I want to build Bite’s loss and anger.

Sad, Loss : Wait — M83

World Changed : Slipped Away — Avril Lavigne

Slow Rage : Arsonist’s Lullabye — Hozier

Revenge : Everybody Wants to Rule the World — Lorde


Bite Attacks

This is where the action peaks. This is also where the soundtrack reveals a surprising (to me) twist and dramatic irony in the story. Notice the change in tone from the last song to the next one. I hope the story is just as creepy.

Disarm, Lure : Children of the Night — Kate Covington

Promises : Paparazzi — Greyson Chance

Attack : Wild Hunt — Dorian Marko


In the story a lot of events occur quickly and simultaneously. So while Bite is overwhelmed with loss and rage then attacks the confused teens, Glint tries to calm Bite, and the girl begs for forgiveness and peace.

Kids in Danger

Trouble : Run Boy Run — Woodkid

Confusion : Hide and Seek — Imogen Heap

Trapped (Betrayed), Regret : Toy Soldiers — Martika

Anguish, Determination : Star Trek Voyager Pop Intro — Jerry Goldsmith


Glint Dying (Part 2)

Forgive, Accept : Daddy, You Can Let Go Now — Crystal Shawanda

Love, Goodbye : My Heart Will Go On — Celine Dion

Always With You : I Will Always Be With You — Sheena Easton and Jesse Corti


Girl — Sorrow, Forgiveness and Peace

Girl to Bite : While My Guitar Gently Weeps — Regina Spektor

Girl to Boy : Silhouette — Aquilo


Glint Dying (Part 3) — Girl Dying

Both the girl and Glint die here. This section bridges Glint and Bite and A Pril of the Thirst.

Glint’s Gift : Live Your Life — Yuna

Transcend to Pril : Music to Help You Uplift to Higher Frequency (0-282 [4:42] sec) — AwakenByArchangels


Boy — Sorrow

After Glint and the girl die, shock and regret overwhelm the boy.

Regret : Forever Young — Alphaville

Miss : I Found — Amber Run


End Theme

Resonance : Time — Libera

Silence : The Sound of Silence — Simon and Garfunkle


Epilogue — Bite Angry (Part 2)

The story ends with this bridge between Glint and Bite and A Giant or a Nack?.

Boy Anger : Evil In Me (Requiem for a Dream Remix) — Thomas Edwards

Descend to Nack : Footsteps — Pop Evil

Dream Grammar : Elan — Nightwish



 

Synergy and Convergence

I just saw a commercial for an interesting-sounding movie, called The Odd Life of Timothy Green, about a boy who is born out of his parents’ wishes and the Earth. That is all I know about the movie.

But that reminded me of a short story I wrote a couple of years ago, about a girl born of Water and her parents’ wishes. How neat is that?

They say that ideas flow until they meet in a node and while in that node many people combine these ideas into similar constructs. So it was with Darwin and Wallace, so it is with many literary works. It has happened many times to me and tonight it happened again.

I can’t help but smile.

 

 

I called my story A Pril o’ the Thirst. It is a Jack tale, only the main character is April. And yes I wrote it to be read at the March 31, 2010, meeting of the Write Group, the closest meeting to April 1 of that year.

The premise is that during a severe drought, the girl was born of the last bit of Water to a miller and his wife, who lived in a water-mill at the edge of a village. The girl, made of wish and magic, spreads magic and hope during her “typical-Jack” adventures. But she is also made of Water and upon her death, after a short life, Water returns to the village.

It is not coincidence that I equated the name April with Jack, nor that I thought of writing a Jack story for April Fool’s Day. I took a Storytelling course in 2004 from Gail de Vos at the University of Alberta. One of her grad students converted a Jack story into a contemporary April story to celebrate the approach of April 1 in 2004. All I can remember of that story is that it involved highrises and the Edmonton river valley. Yet the synergy of Jack, April and April 1 made an impression on me.

A Pril o’ the Thirst was a fun tale to write. I look forward to watching The Odd Life of Timothy Green when it comes out.

What do you think about idea nodes and converging creations? Have you ever experienced similar phenomena?