Story structure in different cultures
July 9, 2013 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Are there recognisable patterns, trends or structures in the way that different cultures tell stories? If so, where can I learn about this?

Looking at big-budget films over the last few decades, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that storytelling in this medium tends to follow fairly slow-moving fashions. A basic structure or idea (e.g. superheroes, westerns, musicals…) emerges, gets done to death and then is largely left behind. More generally, there seem to be patterns in storytelling styles, e.g. Disney’s recent films seem much more self-aware, even self-parodic, than their films in the 70s/80s, which strike me as very sincere, almost naive. French cinema seems very different in style from US cinema, and Bollywood dramatically different from either. A lot of these are due to emerging technologies and techniques in film, and a changing aesthetic sense, but I can’t help thinking that some of it is due to differences in expectations about how a story is supposed to work.

I recently read about the three-act structure in film-making, and have been amazed by suddenly seeing it everywhere in modern American and British films. A friend of mine who grew up in Hong Kong once commented to me that a film I was describing – I forget which one, but it was a typical “hero overcomes the bad guys, wins the girl” story -- was very typical of Western storytelling, and that “our stories are very different”, although I never fully understood what she meant.

So, is there a field of study that looks at different cultures’ expectations of what a story should look like and how it should be told? Given that people often seem to think of our lives in terms of narratives, would having different expectations about story structure (It’s about a hero, a flawed hero, an everyman, an abstract concept…) have an effect on people’s perceptions of themselves and the worlds they live in?

While I've only written about cinema in the question, I'm just as interested in literature, theatre, spoken word, etc.

As is pretty obvious from my meandering and poorly-defined question, I have very little humanities education and absolutely no background in this subject. I’m mostly interested in finding an accessible book or lecture series, but anything as simple as basic vocabulary to help refine my searching would be welcome too.
posted by metaBugs to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
How about the Aarne-Thompson classification system?
posted by alphanerd at 9:19 AM on July 9, 2013

You know the story about the kid whose parents die so the kid goes to live with aunts/uncles? And the kid's life kind of sucks? And then something happens and the kid gets to go to a magical land and gets endowed with magical powers and hooks up with a rag-tag bunch of friends and together they all defeat the evil guy and everyone lives happily ever after?

You know that story. It's called Wizard of Oz. Er...Star Wars. Er...Harry Potter.

In a soc class in college we touched on it, and of course I can't remember the specifics, but my professor related a very similar story that existed in a south Asian culture. The orphan-child-defeats-evil trope is a pretty common one worldwide.
posted by phunniemee at 9:21 AM on July 9, 2013

Story is a topic of study in a lot of disciplines: anthropology, neuro/cognitive science, performance studies, literature, psychology, folklore, etc. So there is a lot of work being done (it is also a very hot topic right now) but not in any one specific field - more like subfields or interdisciplinary groupings of larger fields. Try just Googling "storytelling" + search terms like narrative structure, culture, cultural differences, names of fields, etc. Some of these are restricted access but they were quick things I could grab that should provide some keys for further search.

Traditional Storytelling
(a survey piece)
Storytelling, American Style

The Cultural Evolution of Storytelling and Fairy Tales
Cultural Background and Storytelling: A Review and Implications for Schooling

posted by Miko at 9:25 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might enjoy Joseph Campbell's works on myth.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:04 AM on July 9, 2013

Ha! I think we had been talking about Joseph Campbell and the monomyth in that class I mentioned earlier.
posted by phunniemee at 10:08 AM on July 9, 2013

JOSEPH CAMPBELL - Hero with a thousand faces

Teach Yourself Screen Writing
- ruined 99% of films for me

Charlie Kauffman is a well-known writer who often breaks out of the 3-act structure. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind only has 2 acts.

Stories are ALL the same

Seriously they are all the same

..because people's feelings and wishes and conflicts are all the same, in essence.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:26 AM on July 9, 2013

Extremely frequent: boy meets girl, boy losses girl, boy gets girl. Even in LOTR.
posted by Cranberry at 10:51 AM on July 9, 2013

A few examples of how stories are not all the same:

- The Natyashastra describes how dramas are supposed to focus on particular relationships (like, say, brother-brother or mother-son, although I'm not sure those are on the list) to elicit a specific "rasa" or juice, emotionally, and it's not hard to find examples in modern Hindi dramas of long scenes of two people staring at each other and emoting as music plays. In the 20-something hour TV production of the Ramayana, those scenes can go on for up to a half hour. If you boil the Ramayana down to just the plot, a la Joseph Campbell, you've missed an essential point.

- Janet Hoskins argues in Biographical Objects that folks on Sumba in Eastern Indonesia have a noticeable aversion to narrating their own biographies but instead dwell on biographical incidents obliquely by telling stories about everyday things or possessions--material goods that provide a topic for indirect discussion of people's lives.

- Some languages mark evidentiality extensively, e.g. in Jaqaru no sentence is complete without a sentence suffix that tells you what evidence the speaker has for what they're saying (direct, personal knowledge; knowledge through language; indirect/inferred knowledge; legendary stuff people say; etc.). Bible translators working with Jaqaru have supposedly found it sort of vexing to have to mark a bunch of stories with markers that suggest no one can possibly know the truth of what's said.

- Plenty of groups worldwide have narrative traditions that focus on genealogical recitation. So that's a kind of story (one you'll find embedded in plenty of old epics and whatnot--sections of the Old Testament leap to mind) that you certainly don't see in Hollywood films.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:52 AM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Kurt Vonnegut's thesis at the University of Chicago was about story shapes. (It was rejected, IIRC.)
posted by seemoreglass at 10:56 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

You want narratology!

The Wikipedia article linked above is a really good starting-point for gathering terms, exploring categories (e.g. comparative mythology) etc. Have a good root around and you should pick up some good leads.
posted by lokta at 11:29 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

A fascinating Tumblr post on kishōtenketsu, which differs from the traditional (Western) structure of rising conflict.

Ursula Le Guin has an essay criticizing the heroic story and offers another model instead.

Ditto the recommendations for Campbell's monomyth, narratology resources, and folktale classification (see also: Propp's Morphology of the Folktale).
posted by xenization at 12:33 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Early weblogger Jorn Barger classified plots using a system he called AntiMath.
posted by eritain at 1:06 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also recommend the book Story Proof, which identifies near-universal elements of story and why they are so memorable for the human brain. I have participated in two of the author's presentations and they are pretty mindblowing.
posted by Miko at 2:22 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Narratology it is. See V. Propp.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:45 AM on July 10, 2013

You might find Franco Moretti's work interesting. Here's his essay "Conjectures on World Literature."
posted by raisindebt at 5:36 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all of the suggestions, folks. I have a lot of good reading ahead of me!

xenization's linked Tumblr post is, I think, exactly what my friend was trying to convey, about stories not necessarily built around conflict. I'll try to dig into that, and into narratology, to get an idea of where I should go next.
posted by metaBugs at 10:39 AM on July 15, 2013

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