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Challenging Exceptions to the Laws of Fiction


In studying these fundamentals about fiction and how it operates, sometimes someone challenges one of the principles by trying to find an exception to it.

Occasionally, it is suggested that these universal laws that govern story-telling don’t apply to this or that example. And it’s true that, in any attempt to communicate maxims so profound, it seems that some special kinds of examples are left out. But this needs a closer look.

If we accept that at their heart most stories are to do with two poles being brought together - a core vacuum, an emptiness, a deep craving and need being fulfilled with something - we can immediately also see that some stories do not conclude with fulfilment of any meaningful kind and therefore we can jump to the conclusion that our definition of a story is incomplete. But stories which end with a core vacuum or central emptiness being filled are categorised as Comedies or Epics - these are the stories with ‘happy endings’; their opposites are Tragedies and Ironies, stories which end sadly or with gloomy introversion or even horror as their prime effect. How do certain principles come into play in these stories?

We saw in earlier articles how the two poles in stories are pictured or represented as archetypal figures. One end of a spectrum we could see represented by the antagonist, while at the other end was a wise and usually balanced old figure. Between them lay the full gamut or range of characters, from the shadow protagonist to the comic companion. The movement and interrelationships between these roles then ‘acted out’ the coming together of the two poles of the tale. At least, in Comedies and Epics, which form over 90% of stories, the two poles come together in a happy ending; in Tragedies and Ironies, the two poles remain painfully apart, creating entirely different effects for the reader or audience.

A Tragedy is the story of the shadow protagonist. A tragic ‘hero’ is someone who falls into, or perhaps never escapes from, the grip of the antagonist or core vacuum in a tale. Rather than rising above this emptiness, he or she is doomed by it and descends closer and closer to its edge. Macbeth, Othello and Lear do not have the capacity within themselves as characters to throw off the force that holds them - or perhaps they do, which is why we as audiences are so enthralled. If only they would behave like protagonist and reject the darkness within! But we watch fascinated as the negative pole of the story triumphs over them and they die. Warrior, Comic and Wise figures feature as well, but are usually weak or in the background. The arc of the tale progresses towards the dark core.

The story of the antagonist is the heart of an Ironic tale. Though these also usually have Warrior, Comic and Wise figures, the main point or drive of an Irony is to reveal the hopelessness, emptiness or horror of the central figure. In Ironies we are encouraged to stare right into the heart of darkness (Joseph Conrad’s novel of that name being a good example of an Irony).

The story of the female figure is the core of a Comedy. Comedies usually end in marriage. Oddly enough - something which is explored in greater depth elsewhere - the female normally ends up marrying the male, and he is not just any old male but a warrior figure, someone who has emerged from some kind of darkness and redeemed himself in some way, so that the union between the female archetype and the male suggests a complete union.

Needless to say, the stories of the protagonist and the warrior are the core of an Epic. As Epics form by far the bulk of all stories told, they are most often recognisable in any demonstration of the laws of fiction. But as we can see, the supposed ‘exceptions’ of Tragedies and Ironies also fit into this scheme of things.

Each character arc defines a genre; each character arc indicates increasing or decreasing awareness; increasing or decreasing awareness results in whether the two poles of a story blend into a happy ending or remain apart in a sad one.

There's much more about this in How Stories Really Work.

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