I recently received the following note as a response to the writing tips newsletter I publish:
How do you think you going to learn how to be a teacher when you talk in jargon?
What is structure?
What is a protagonist?
What is Narrative?
What is a Log line?
What is truth when none exist?
We live in a world where truth is what every Malcolm Turnbulll says it is.
Well, I’ll tell you, Len. Here’s how I have managed to teach for the last 25 years. First, I don’t try to put everything I know into one single article. In fact, I have an article called “What is Narrative” and one called “What is structure” and one called “What is a protagonist” and a whole series of articles on truth (both capital “T” and small “t,” ranging from David Hume’s definition through the Tao.
And also, one cannot always write for beginners and define everything nor can one always write for advanced students and define nothing. Since both levels of experience are present in the 16,000 folks who follow my newsletter, I try to include articles over the whole range of levels, if not in every newsletter, at least over the span of a few issues.
But since you asked, here are some answers to your specific questions, just for you:
What is narrative?
Narrative is our attempt to see our problems from all useful angles so that we might better understand how a specific situation operates and how best to maximize it to what we’d like it to become. When we documented that approach that we all use intuitively into the conventions of storytelling, we called it narrative. And nowadays, we turn our understanding of how we explore a situation to find the greatest meaning (narrative) back to the the real world so that we might understand our selves, our roles in society, and how others interact, and how they might behave in the future. Of course, that’s just an opening paragraph for a full exploration of the topic.
What is a protagonist?
A protagonist is an archetypal character, which means that it is a character who represents a fundamental human quality, in this case, our initiative – our motivation to move forward and affect change in our lives. In a story, the protagonist is the primer mover of the effort to achieve the story’s goal. The protagonist is often mistaken as being the main character, but the main character in a story is the one who grapples with the personal issue at the heart of the story’s message – like Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” The reader or audience tends to stand in the shoes of the main character, or at least to look over their shoulder, and the passionate side of the story seems to revolve around them. When you give the job of protagonist AND main character to the same person in your story, you end up with the typical “hero” who fulfills both roles. But, those two aspects of structure don’t have to always go together. For example, in the book (and movie version) of To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch (the Gregory Peck part in the movie) is the protagonist, trying to get a fair trial for the black man accused of raping a white girl in the 1930s South. But the main character is Finch’s young daughter Scout, as we see this story of prejudice through her eyes, and she must grapple with her own prejudice against the local Boogey Man, “Boo” Radley, who she has judged without having any direct interaction with him, in parallel to the prejudice of the towns people against the man on trial.
What is structure?
Structure (narrative structure specifically) is built from a number of story points that appear in every complete story, such as a Goal or a moment at which the main character will either change their long-held view of how to solve their problems to adopt a different approach or will hold onto their resolve and remain steadfast in their outlook. Consider a Rubik’s cube in which there are only 27 pieces yet by moving them around, it creates more than forty trillion trillion combinations. Still, this is not without form. In a Rubik’s cube, corner pieces always remain corner pieces, no matter how you twist it. So, it always remains a cube. This creates form without formula, and that is what narrative structure does as well.
What is a Log Line?
I believe I actually defined this one right in the newsletter… A log line is a one-sentence description of what your story is about. It defines the core of your story and is useful in keeping your story focused on its essence as you write.
What is truth?
You ask what is truth when none exist? Well, if you had read my article on truth, you would know that your question is actually what the article is about. It describes the relationship of subjectivism to objectivism, and how each can only see a part of the complete picture. It wades in to deeper water with a philosophical discussion, but then turns practical with an exploration of how the search for truth (asking the question, what is truth?) is the essence of a character’s dilemma in not know for sure the best way to respond in a given situation.
Summing up, whether it is Malcolm Turnbull or Donald Trump, we all have our self-purported truth-sayers. But simply labelling something as the truth does not make it so, no matter how much a person wants it to be or believes it to be. In fact, as they say in the East, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao,” which means (for our purposes), that you can’t step into the same river once. Or, less cryptically, there is no truth that can be fully defined.
Melanie Anne Phillips
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