In my quest for creativity I studied story structure from a broad base of teachers: Aristotle, Homer, Lajos Egri, Lew Hunter, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Ira Glass, and the Three Stooges. My favorite storyteller was the whimsical bard Joseph Campbell who used the entire mythological library to weave webs in my mind that spanned time and culture.
In developing children’s programs for Wonderland Playhouse I began with structure. My three-act structure map was adapted from Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The map outlined plot elements along the timeline of a hero’s journey and we used it to analyze stories like Finding Nemo and The Wizard of Oz. Once players understood it, they collaborated to write their own improv stories. I prompted for the elements: Who is our hero. What’s his problem? Where is he going? That’s when things got exciting. Have you ever seen a kid shoot his hand up to answer a question and fly off his seat? Enthusiastic players exploded, their raised hands blasting them off the floor, ideas blurting out of them like exhaust from spinning rockets.
Story Structure: What are the rules?
From Beowulf to Hollywood, we find villains and violence in adventure stories. A villain drives the hero forward while violence excites. I knew this because I learned it, but the truth is I have never been fond of violence. Two things that make me feel bad when I want to feel good: war and menace. The list of award-winning movies I have walked out of is memorable: The Omen, Apocalypse Now, The Silence of the Lambs, and Lord of the Rings. Now I choose movies wisely and I sometimes wait in the lobby of the theater during trailers because they are often bathed in blood. Yuck! I’m just not wired for it. Still, I included the villain in the structure map because of my training.
With one exception (that I’m saving for the next blog post), when I prompted for a villain, eager players lost altitude and regarded me as though I spoke Arcturian with a lisp. In the rare case they offered a villain it was really a friend in disguise, a challenging friend perhaps, but not a true villain. I was uncertain what to do: ask again? coach the elements more? Their stories worked; I was the one stuck behind the rules. Ultimately improv settled it. Yes! And. . .. No villain? Okay. Moving on.
Wonderland Playhouse stories revealed no war, no villains, and no violence. The players were a lot like me. I once showed them Brad Bird’s animated film The Iron Giant. When several of them walked out during scenes of military domination and violence we all ended up in the kitchen snacking. They weren’t wired for it either and they didn’t come to the Playhouse to feel bad. We may have been the only folks in the world who felt that way, but we had found each other.
Violence is Irrelevant
Once familiar with the map I stopped coaching altogether and would simply prompt – Once there was a . . ..
Then, I stood back and watched as players fired and blasted all over the room. My job was keeping up with them. Brilliant young storytellers created lovably flawed heroes with uniquely goofy sidekicks on countless magical adventures.
Over and over they told me: