The narrative form

Lately I’ve been thinking about the narrative form, which could be thought of as the structure that stories follow. These stories could be novels, comic books, movies, even music. I think there’s one basic form that all stories adhere to and we’re all familiar with this form even if we don’t think about it. And we know it when it’s wrong. For example, consider this story:

Bob wakes up and goes to work. He has a project due but since he did a lot of work on it early he has no problem making his deadline. Suddenly a ninja with a sword appears and chops of Bob’s penis. Bob spends several months in the hospital. He begins to question what he wants to do with his life. He meets an older nurse and they begin a platonic relationship. Bob moves in with the nurse. A fews years later he takes up windsurfing. Both he and the nurse find their relationship fading. Bob eventually moves to Arizona and takes ownership of several cats.

That’s an example of not following the narrative form. That story was weird and boring.

Good narrative form should have contrasting sections of drama and calm. (The story above has one dramatic bit and a lot of weird calm) with the dramatic parts becoming more prominent, rising to a crescendo which resolves all or most of the problems.

One thing I find interesting is that this form applies to music even though music can never actually tell a story (unless it has accompanying lyrics or film or some other storytelling device.) Music has dramatic parts and calmer bits and good music contrasts them. Even pop songs often follow a model like: Verse (calm) / Chorus (dramatic) / Verse (calm) Chorus (dramatic) / Bridge (calm or dramatic)/ Chorus (dramatic)/ Another chorus (Even more dramatic!) (How can a chorus be made to be more dramatic? It might be louder or have more instrumentation or “busier” melodies or chords.)

So why is this? Why do humans prefer this narrative form? Why don’t we tell stories like my story about Bob above? Is it somehow ingrained into our genes in some way? Or just a fluke?

Another question: is this form consistent across all cultures? Maybe Easter Islanders did tell stories like my story of Bob above.

My suspicion however (backed by being familiar with stories and music across various cultures) is that there is a kind of universal narrative.

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