Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Thoughts on the female story cycle

So, I have this activity that I do in my writing classes. First, I read a shockingly unknown yet profound piece of literature, created by me: age 7. It goes like this: "Onec upun a time ther lived a duck who did not quach she meoued. She never ever quached never. Just just meoued. She wood alwese be chast by dogs. One day, a dog got her and she was never seen agen. The end."

Gotta love it, eh?

Well, then I pass out second grade paper and I make my class write me a story with their non-dominant hand. (With pictures.) Then we read the stories.

The point I try to make with this exercise is that we all have an intuitive sense of story structure. I mean, look at that masterpiece of mine (Spelling corrected this time!). 1) Situation in place and/or time: "Once upon a time" 2) Introduction of protagonist: "There lived a duck" 3) Conflict: "Who did not quack, she meowed." 4) Escalation of conflict: "She would always be chased by dogs." 5) Resolution of conflict: "One day, a dog got her and she was never seen again." It's about the shortest possible story that includes all of the basic elements of the classic story cycle.

But lately, I've been discussing with some friends the fact that there is something about the "traditional" story structure that is so *male.* And I've been starting to suspect that the archetypal female story looks a whole lot different than: conflict, escalation, resolution.

Well, today I did the exercise in class again. And I noticed something that I might have missed before. The men all wrote brilliant pieces that completely typified the traditional cycle. For example, "Once upon a time in the jungle there lived a lion. He had to stay in the treetops because the monkeys were always harassing him. One day, the monkeys started screeching so loud and harassing him so much that he decided to jump out of the tree and kill them all. No monkeys survived. The End."

But this exercise--designed to pull out the most *instinctual* sense of story from people (cause I just handed them the paper; I didn't say anything about story cycle), brought out something different in the girls. Half of the girls didn't follow the "traditional" structure at all: they wrote the stories of relationships. Like, "Yesterday I went to the pet store and bought a fish and named him Betty. He and I became wonderful friends and we talked and talked about everything. The worst day of his life was when I cleaned out the fish tank. The End."

The other half of the girls *did* follow the traditional story cycle, but their plot resolutions *always* ended with relationships. For example, "There was a sparkly unicorn who lived in a barn. All of the other unicorns made fun of her because she was so sparkly. One day they made fun of her so much that she ran away. But when she ran away, she met a girl named Cindy and now they are best friends!"

So, what do you guys think? Do girls have a different instinctual, archetypal sense of story structure than boys do? And if they do, WTH does it look like?

(I figure that if we can all figure this out, I can write the quintessential "girl" book and make millions! MWHAHAHAHA!!)


Karie said...

I would argue that the structure isn't different, just the textual emphasis. For boys, it's about action and solving problems. For girls, it's about relationships that may or may not solve problems. There's still conflict--the sparkly unicorn got made fun of, so she ran away and made a best friend (conflict, escalation, resolution). The approach is different, but the structure is the same.

In the fish story, the elements are between the lines. The writer was lonely, so she bought a fish (conflict). The writer then talked to the fish exclusively (escalation of conflict). Then the fish died, forcing the writer to make a choice between loneliness or replacing the fish (resolution).

That's my thought, anyway.

k said...

So, I was waiting to respond to your comment because I thought more people would have something to say. But they don't, apparently. (Even you, Zina! And I know you read this blog even though you NEVER EVER comment!)

I actually took your idea about "implied" structure back to the author of that "betty the fish" story. First, she corrected my re-telling of the story cause I had remembered it wrong. (the new, updated, version is posted now.) The thing is, her new ending had even LESS resolution than the old story. Which made me think about the fact that *my* instincts were pushing me to *resolve* the story (since I was the one who re-told it wrong.)

And, yeah, 50% of the girls in my class told stories *in* the classic story cycle format. BUT *every single one* of their stories resolved itself by forming or breaking a relationship.

The 50% of the girls who didn't follow the format ALL told the story of a relationship and NONE of the stories really "resolved."

So, even though I thought at first you might be onto something with the "implied" idea . . . I dunno anymore.

I think that there are a lot of similarites between the male and female story cycles.

The question is resonance.

Would classic story cycle stories about relationships resonate with the girls who had no "intuitive" sense of story cycle? Would they have to have a relationship to resonate?

And I dunno.

I think the only way to really tell is to have some sort of large-scale compilation of books that really, really resonated with girls. Maybe we could be on the lookout for that on the book site? Find all the books that girls rate with five stars and try to figure out the commonality?

Karie said...

"Maybe we could be on the lookout for that on the book site? Find all the books that girls rate with five stars and try to figure out the commonality?"

The very thought of this makes me tired. :D I'm all for anecdotal evidence. I think twelve books would be a good sample size--five stand alone, five series.

For the series, I propose:
Harry Potter
Princess Diaries
Anne of Green Gables
(you pick three)

For the stand-alones I propose:
Goose Girl
Pride and Prejudice
Rose Daughter (Robin McKinley)
(you pick three)

And then we can parse the plots in the next go-round.

k said...

So, the creepy this is, I *knew* you were on right now cause sitemeter said that someone in AZ was reading the "story cycle" comment. cyber-stalker! ME!

Karie said...

Also, as you point out so well in GHS, women are about relationships while men are about right and wrong.

Eve ate the fruit because she was concerned about her future children. Adam didn't eat it, initially, because it was wrong. The end.

So it makes sense that girls' favorite stories are all about relationships. Genetically, biologically, that's what we're programmed to worry about. That's why we're the nurturers and the child-rearers and dads are the disciplinarians.

I would say, though I'm still interested in pursuing our research, that it's the perspective of the story, like you said, and not the elements of the story itself.

As for fish girl, that was just a slice of her story. It doesn't really have an ending. She's just more comfortable with ambiguity than I am, because she stopped the story before it ended. I think that stories that don't seem to follow the normal story cycle follow a portion of it. If the arc was continued, I think they would follow the entire cycle in the manner we expect.

Zina, I would also love to hear what you think.

k said...

Yeah, Zina! Tell us already!

or, just, yanno, respond to the seventeen emails I sent you about it!


k said...

so, I used to think that I was biologically programmed to be the nurturer. then i had kids and it turned out that was a LIE!!!!!

but, um, yeah. still think there's a female story cycle. and, even though I really don't want to admit it, it has something to do with relationships.

k said...

I read goose girl and liked it, but I wouldn't say it really, really resonated with the deepest part of myself.

pride and prejudice did.
a wrinkle in time did.
the giver did.
abraham lincoln the photobiography did. (seriously! I bawled the whole way through!)
the blue castle did. (by LM Montomery who wrote the Ann books. blue castle was my absolute favorite book of all time for a few years.)

I haven't read Twighlight cause I just can't make myself, but I suspect it does the resonating thing, too, because my sister won't stop talking about it and neither will my mom and every other girl I know who's read it.

what about bestselling stuff? I know we don't like to read it (or admit that we read it) cause we want everyone to think that we're all educated and stuff, but you can't really argue that something that sells a gazillion copies really resonates with its audience.

tho, harry potter actually didn't thrill me that much. but anyway, it follows the male story cycle and isn't really intended for girls, so i dunno.

k said...

oh, and I'm the discipline person. steve is s softie.

Karie said...

This is hard to carry out over the comments. But I don't know any better place to do it.

You're right about best-sellers having resonance, even though some of us won't admit to reading them. But WHY do they have resonance? Because they follow the cycle, no matter how much they may contort it to be fresh and original.

It just dawned on me what the archetypal female story is. And you've already written it. The relationship IS the conflict.

Conflict: I like boy. He doesn't notice me/doesn't like me/is too good for me.

Escalation: Maybe he does like me/We're together/We break up.

Resolution: We get together/ (again)/I realize he's not right for me/I realize WHY he's right for me/Girl power!

There will always be exceptions to the rule (your take on your parenting role, for instance), and different things will resonate with different people (I LOVELOVELOVE Harry Potter, and I think the female story archetype is fulfilled remotely by Harry's relationship with Ginny).

That's the fun thing about archetypes, though--it means different things to different people. The variety in the detail of the stories makes the stories themselves appeal to a broad spectrum, but the general flow of the stories, the cycle, is what ties them all together.

I think, perhaps, that the male and female story archetypes are hopelessly intertwined, just as are the destinies and the roles and the affections of the genders. The best stories will include both types, just like our bodies contain a little of both estrogen and testosterone. In the archetype I outlined above, the relationship-oriented story still becomes about solving a problem. But the problem is internal, either to the girl or to the relationship, instead of external. Read into that what you will. ;)

k said...

speaking of things that we don't want to admit that we loved passionately . . .

I *totally* loved Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

And (OMG this is embarassing) Titanic.


zina said...

Woa. I'm being spoken to without knowing it! I read this but just to stalk you--and now you're outing me! ack. Spoken to, spoken of, geeze louise.

Ok, ok, already. Katharine Rabuzzi, "MotherSelf" is ssssssort of an attempt to put it into a "cycle." I find myself agreeing with both Karie and Kerry, because it's not obligatory to lose the "male" story structure for the incident(s) in a "girl" story to be about relationship.

I think it is fascinating mostly because the male stuff is about choosing among variables,and the female stuff is just about choice. Any choice; decisions and their consequences.

Gotta run, more later.

Karie said...

I have got to reread Motherself. I've been meaning to for a few years.... I'm glad you've joined in, Zina!

k said: "speaking of things that we don't want to admit that we loved passionately . . . "

I am not ashamed of my Harry Potter love. That is all.

k said...

Hi Karie! I know you've been reading my blog within the last hour because sitemeter means I get to totally stalk out everyone who is stalking out me. So cool!

So, um. I don't know if I have that much more to say. I think we both need to read that Motherself book and then revisit the topic.

Speaking of Zina, she's in ENGLAND right now. Actually, technically, she's either in the airport or on the plane. Lucky chick.

Karie said...

Deal. Let's read Rabuzzi and discuss. Whee!

k said...

I miss being in grad school with you, Karie!

(note that I didn't say that I missed grad school itself . . .)