When preparing for this task, I chose to analyse the narrative of three objects – a book, a music video and a twitter story.
The first one is a book I read last summer – Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The City and the Stars’.
The story is based in the future, when the Earth is covered by deserts and only two towns are still left – Diaspar and Lys. Diaspar is a hi-tech city, run by a central computer where people are created by machines. People live many lives in different bodies, with most of the minds available sleeping in the memory banks and only a fraction of them actually inhabiting bodies and living in the city at any given moment. Diaspar is a closed city, and everyone is scared of the outside, or just don’t care about it – they have everything they need in the city.
The only person that is different is the hero Alvin – he didn’t have any previous lives, and he’s not afraid of the outside – on the contrary: he wants to explore it and tries to find a way. There is a character called Khedron that helps him find a way out through the city’s abandoned transport system – so he goes to Lys.
Lys is a city inhabited by people who live natural lives, close to the trees and animals and not using too much technology; they communicate using telepathy and can read thoughts. So Alvin is fascinated that there is such a city, and stays there for a while. Then he begins a quest with Hilvar from Lys, and they find a spaceship and travel through space. Meanwhile, they have found out why the cities have separated from each other, and try to reunite them.
Of course, this is just the basic plot, the story is far more rich, but I can use this short summary to start my analisys on narrative.
In relation to Todorov’s theory about linear narrative structure, I will try to identify the five stages in this particular text:
This is the beginning of the story – getting to know Diaspar, how life there functions, etc.
This is when Alvin decides he wants to explore the outside world – his guardians and teachers are worried and try to talk him out of it, to tell him there’s nothing to explore.
This is when Khedron is introduced to the story – he also has been interested in the outside world, he knows some secrets about the city and its system, and guides Alvin.
There are at least two attempts in the story – one when Alvin leaves the city, and one when he tries to reunite the two cities.
- enhanced equilibrium
Alvin is in the spaceship with his closest companions, looking at Earth’s beauty, and looking optimistic to what the future might bring, especially now that the two cities are reunited.
In relation to Propp’s theory about character roles, I will try to identify which character in the story has which role:
This is Alvin. We follow his journey from the start to the end of the book.
This is Khedron – he show Alvin the way out.
The villain is a bit unclear; one thing that can be identified as a villain is the event that separated the two cities.
- the false hero
This is probably the creature made by pure intellect that people think might have the answers, but doesn’t.
This is the robot who leads Alvin to the spaceship, thus enabling his journey to the stars.
This is definitely Hilvar – he is Alvin’s companion not only on his journey outside of Lys, but also in open space.
There was a girl somewhere in the story that had a crush on Alvin, but she’s not an award for him – he might be for her though.
In relation to Propp’s theory about narrative units, here’s my attempt to identify them within the book:
Alvar leaves Diaspar.
Guardians, teachers, city leaders and machines are warning Alvar.
- Violation of interdiction
Alvin ignores most warnings and continues his attempts until he finds a way out.
Here, it probably has to do with the guardians and teachers that try to find out why Alvin left and what his intentions are. They are questioning around, conducting investigations etc.
They find the transportation system Alvin has used to leave the city.
This is the moment when Lys’ leaders try to change Alvin’s mind and to influence him using telepathy.
Lys’ leaders control Alvin’s mind for a while
- Villainy or Lack
Diaspar’s leaders find out about Lys and vice versa.
Alvin tries to talk the two cities into reuniting.
- Beginning counter-action
Alvin is joined by some companions.
The first departure is when Alvin leaves Diaspar; the second one is when he starts his journey into deep space.
- First function of the donor
When Alvin tries to look for information about the outside world, the computer denies access. Then Khedron comes to help and shows him how to trick the system.
- Hero’s reaction
Alvin doubts about Khedron’s motives, but still, he decides to follow his lead, because he can show him a way out.
- Receipt of a magical agent
Alvin is introduced to the transportation system; later, he is also introduced to the spaceship
Khedron discloses information about maps and transportation system; A creature helps Alvin find the spaceship.
Alvin is in conflict with leaders of both cities.
Alvin receives a gift from Lys’ people.
The two cities come together to a certain extent.
The once closed transportation system is back on track.
Alvin returns to Diaspar after his journey to Lys and the stars.
City leaders try to chase Alvin.
- Unrecognised arrival
Alvin arrives in Lys, then back to Diaspar.
- Unfounded claims
The claims that the creature made by pure intellect can save the world.
- Difficult task
Having to deal with the pure intellect, and another creature before that.
Alvin finds Lys; then finds there is more; then goes into space; he helps reunite the cities.
Alvin is ‘the one’ – he doesn’t have memories of previous lives, so he is the only one that is different, and his life hasn’t been fully programmed.
It turns out the pure intellect creature is not that powerful.
Alvin becomes captain of the spaceship.
It is unclear what type of punishment there can be.
Alvin becomes captain of the spaceship, and a medium between the two cities.
The second object I chose to analyse is the music video for Eminem’s song ‘Stan’:
The video was made very cinematic, it could live its own life as a short film. Still, it is strictly based on and it enriches the story the song tells.
It is about a guy called Stan who is a very big fan of Eminem, actually, a fanatic. He has his whole house full of pictures, albums, interviews and artefacts that have to do with Eminem, he has the same tattoos and tries to look and act like him in real life. His girlfriend is pregnant and he is hoping he could call the baby like Eminem’s child is called. Stan is trying to write to Eminem after he met him at a gig and the whole song and video are based on these letters. When after 6 months Stan still hasn’t got any answer, he goes mad, ties his girlfriend in the car and jumps off a bridge. The story ends with Eminem writing him back when he realises the news he heard about a car falling from a bridge is actually about Stan.
In relation to Todorov’s theory about linear narrative structure, I think the key moments in the story are:
- first scene – Stan’s girlfriend finds him dying his hair blonde and he tells her to not call her ‘Stanley’ – that’s when we’re introduced to the character and how far he’s gone into being a fan – this is a recognition moment
- scenes with Eminem’s fan mail – we get flashbacks where we see Stan’s letter falls from the pile and never reaches Eminem – another recognition that explains why most of the things are happening.
- scenes with Stan writing a letter – we are introduced to his version of the story – another recognition.
- the flashbacks of Stan being a fan, trying to meet Eminem, thinking how he can relate to Eminem’s story, and trying to connect with him, tell a more relaxed part of the story, which may be identified as the equilibrium.
- the disruption comes after Stan doesn’t hear from Eminem for 6 months – that’s when he turns from a regular fan into a fanatic.
- all occasions that Stan tries to contact Eminem can be identified as attempts. Another way for looking at attempts here is Eminem’s decision to write to Stan and try and reason him.
- in the end, we see that Stan drowns with his pregnant girlfriend. Even though it is a sad story on the surface, it actually acts as the enhanced equilibrium – Stan is no longer alive, so there is no more disruption – the world is back to normal, no more fanatics walking around.
In relation to Propp’s theories, some other points can be made as well:
Here, absentation has to do with Stan not receiving any answer from Eminem. Of course, this can also be described as struggle. In the moments Stan’s girlfriend tries to reason him, we can speak about interdiction or guidance. So when he doesn’t change, this is a violation of interdiction. Reconaissance is the episode when Eminem is thinking about Stan after the news report he saw. Delivery is when Eminem finally receives one of the letters – unfortunately, too late. Still, he tries to write him back and try to reason him – thinking that because he is so influencial on Stan, this might help him go back to normal life. This can be identified as the trickery moment; it can also be seen as mediation and beginning counter-action. Complicity is a big thing in this story – Stan is trying very hard to contact Eminem, but he faces all sorts of complications – mail delivery problems, his girlfriend standing on his way, etc. This can also be identified as pursuit and a difficult task. Departure is when Stan starts his car and drives away from home. If there is a donor in this story, it has to be the media – mail, music, news reports – they help advance and complicate the story as much as the characters themselves. Of course, we have a distinct hero’s reaction – Stan has an emotional response to each turn in the story. The receipt of a magical item is probably all the stuff Stan uses to try and feel closer to Eminem – transfiguration. All Stan’s tattoos, dying his hair and trying to look more like Eminem are the branding part of the narrative. It is a bit hard to imagine there could be a victory or solution here, but I think it’s the moment when we know Stan is dead and there is no more this crazy fan walking around – there has been liquidation; a rescue and in the same time, a punishment. The return is most probably Eminem’s coming back to normal life. The unrecognised arrival is when Stan’s story invades Eminem’s life – when Eminem sees that news report. It can be seen as recognition as well. The unfounded claims are that Stan is just like Eminem – no one can ever be just like someone else. So it can be seen as exposure as well. The wedding must have to do with the world going back to normal again – with no Stan walking around.
I didn’t actually expect to be able to identify so many of Propp’s units in this story – at a first glance, you can’t imagine weddings and magical items would have anything to do with a contemporary story like this, but such a link could be found.
The third object I will try to analyse is a one line story posted on twitter:
This story even has a documentary elements, as was expected from us for this task – because, clocks are really set back one hour at the end of the year.
A Twitter update is usually quite short, but even in 140 characters you can tell a story. In this case, it is a story about a man (or creature) which has the power to control people’s clocks. So he or it is the hero, and the clock is the magical item. This is a story of how the people are the slaves of this powerful hero and they follow his commands.
@VeryShortStory is a Twitter account dedicated to stories you can tell within 140 characters – the limit in Twitter messages. One of the most recent stories featured there was even made into a short film: