GOOD QUESTIONS / A beginning, a middle and the absolute end

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ANOTHER instalment of our intellectual agony column, with a curious selection of readers' problems, all held together with sticky- back plastic.

I keep coming across Media People saying, as a rule very smugly, something along the lines of '. . . all literature is derived from seven basic plots, of course'. I can only some up with three: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl; Boy gets girl, boy loses girl; The Journey. So which are the others? (J D Holzhauer, London W4)

That's a good question. The seven basic plots of fiction, like the seven basic jokes, seem to be one of those old deconstructive wives' tales that provide a ready-made excuse for lack of creative inspiration. There is no shortage of taxonomies for narrative structure, but no two theorists seem to agree on any single system. Even if one does end up with seven basic plots (and there are several ways to do so) there seems to be no standard set.

Aristotle was the first to lay down criteria for a plot. It had to be whole (that is, have a beginning, middle and end), have unity of action, in the sense that the removal or displacement of any single part would disjoint the narrative. He stressed the importance of change of fortune with or without 'peripeteia' (a sudden reversal) or 'anagnorisis' (ignorance giving way to knowledge).

Those components alone could be said to provide seven plots, with fortunes changing or not changing, sudden reversal or no sudden reversal, and ignorance overcome or not overcome. Of the eight possibilities in that schema, only no change, no reversal and persistent ignorance is excluded as a possible plot.

More modern writers, following the formalist approach of structural linguistics, have analysed the plots of myth in various cultures. Vladimir Propp, in Morphology of the Folk Tale, identified seven 'spheres of action' and 31 'functions'. The former, which could (very loosely) be considered as seven basic plots, may be identified with primary characters such as a villain, helper, sought-for-person, donor, etc. From the point of view of the structuralist, it makes no difference whether the 'villain' is a wicked witch, a dragon, or a bowl of porridge. The essential action in the story is contained in the 31 functions, such as 'villain harms hero- figure' (witch casts spell on Sleeping Beauty, or Dragon singes Sir Lancelot, or porridge burns Goldilocks).

Propp's taxonomy was later developed by Claude Levi-Strauss and reached its simplest (or possibly most complex) formulation in A J Greimas's Semantique Structurale (1966), in which the spheres of action are replaced by three pairs of 'binary oppositions' to account for the basic patterns of narrative: (a) desire or aim (subject/object); (b) communication (sender/receiver); (c) additional support or hindrance (helper/antagonist). Again this could be said to provide seven basic plots, defined by the presence or absence of each of the three oppositions, excluding the case with everything absent. So 'Boy meets girl, boy gets girl' is likely to be a and b, while 'Boy gets girl, boy loses girl' is predominantly a and c. 'The Journey' may be pure a.

For a sub-plot that explores simultaneously both extremes of category c, we need look no further than Humpty-Dumpty, whose ostensibly supportive behaviour turns, with sudden peripeteia, to verbal hindrance, providing no anagnorisis for Alice. Anyone who finds seven plots too restrictive, however, should refer to Souriau's Les 100,000 situations dramatiques (1950) for a wider variety.

For an even simpler classification system, we can recommend Kabuki theatre which, in modern Japanese, is written with three characters: ka, signifying 'song'; bu, 'dance'; and ki, 'skill'. That would give naturally give rise to eight categories, unless we exclude that large body of modern work which appears to have been executed with no discernable song, dance or skill.

Principal sources: Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Encyclopaedia of Linguistics.

When you unroll sticky tape, why does the adhesive only adhere to one side? (Alan Stewart, Lymington, Hampshire)

The simple answer is PVODC. It is a release coating applied to one side of the plastic film to prevent the adhesive bonding to it. Sellotape, incidentally, make all their rolls of sticky stuff initially in rolls 1.5 metres wide, which are then sliced down to the required widths.

Could somebody kindly explain what the saying 'cheap at half the price' means? It seems to me to be a perversely inverted statement of the obvious, but it can't be - can it? (Nigel Dark, Eye, Suffolk)

Yes, it can. It seems to have started as a piece of jokey sales patter in London street markets, as a demonstrable truth that, on close inspection, says exactly the opposite of the meaning likely to be imputed. It was then brought into general misuse, probably by the same people who describe fast gabblers as 'talking ten to the dozen'.

For analogous misleading truths, we can recommend the reviewer's 'This book fills a much-needed gap in the literature', believed to have been coined by the Polish-American mathematician Mark Kac, later embellished with 'I shall lose no time in reading it'; or 'He leaves a gap it will be hard to replace' (heard at a retirement ceremony).

What is the origin of 'by a long chalk', and how to explain its meaning easily, especially to foreigners? (Jean M Gilchrist, Oslo)

Sources differ as to whether the chalk referred to was that used to keep a tally of the number of beers drunk in a public house, or the score at darts, or the tally, marked on the floor, of some other sporting contest. The expression 'by a long chalk' seems a more recent form of the older 'by long chalks'. In any case, the greater one's line of chalk marks, the greater one's score, or final bill. On the whole, we would advise against even trying to explain such things to foreigners.