Element Eleven: Stylistics and Story

Element Eleven: Stylistics and Story

Just like every night, the servant’s bell rang exactly at 7 o’clock. It was time. The Master wanted his wine. The servant prepared it and carried it to his Master. He set the glass and bottle of red wine on a small table, next to where the Master was sitting. The Master said nothing. The servant turned and left the room. A few minutes passed. The Master opened the bottle. He poured the red wine into the glass. He held the glass to his lips, and he drank. But in the next instant, the Master dropped the glass. It broke on the floor, shattering the silence in the room. And then, without even saying one word, the Master fell over dead. 

MasterWine400x290In the above lines, we read the beginning of a story. But what exactly is a story? Academic writers tend not to tell stories. Rather they write discourse that (a) describes the way things are or that (b) explains ideas and facts, or that (c) argues a claim, using logic and reasoning. In Element Ten, previously we looked at how poets use language artistically to create images and emotions with rhymes and rhythms. For stories, we may use these forms of discourse, but storytellers mainly use a form of discourse called narration. We have seen how stylistics is a linguistic analysis of literary texts. Now in what follows, we will look at a linguistic analysis of story, which we can call story grammar.

Event Structure and Discourse Structure

Brewer and Lichtenstein (1980) discuss how authors structure events to create surprise, suspense, or curiosity. In the above story, the writer structured the events to create surprise. Here are the basic events. (1) An event happened that we do not see. (2) A servant gave wine to his Master. (3) The Master drank the wine. (4) The Master fell over dead. We are surprised because the story gave us no reason to think the Master would die. To create suspense, we can structure the discourse like this. (1) The servant put poison in the wine. (2) The servant gave wine to his Master. (3) The Master drank the wine. (4)  An event happened that we do not see. Here we have suspense because we do not know event (4). We don’t know what is going to happen next. There was poison, but will the Master die or not?!

Of course, now we can see all four events. (1) The servant put poison in the wine. (2) A servant gave wine to his Master. (3) The Master drank the wine. (4) The Master fell over dead. These four events still create suspense because we may want to know what happens next. But when the writer doesn’t tell us event (4), we don’t know if the Master dies or not, so this creates more suspense. Lastly, Brewer and Lichtenstein (1980) say that we can also structure these events to create curiosity. We simply just start the story with event (4): The Master fell over dead. “Why?!” we think. “Please tell us why!”

Basic Story Grammar

With the above simple analysis, we can see how writers structure discourse in stories to create surprise, suspense, and curiosity. But there is a much more basic and elemental aspect of story grammar that we need to understand in order to enjoy and create stories. Gottschall  (2012, page 52) calls this “story’s master formula.” It is very simple: “Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication.” That is, in story, we usually see a main character or characters, and these main characters want something. For example, Romeo and Juliet want to be together. They want each other.

After Characters, the next basic element of story is Predicament. Predicament is simply Trouble and Conflict. If our characters don’t face Conflict, if they don’t find themselves in a Predicament, then we do not care about them. Look at the story of Romeo and Juliet. They are in a terrible Predicament. Romeo’s family hates Juliet’s family. And Juliet’s family hates Romeo’s family. The families are in Conflict. But Romeo and Juliet love each other. That’s a Predicament! In order to be together, they must face many terrible troubles. Also, in the simple story above with the servant, the Master, the wine, and the death, we see the beginnings of trouble and conflict.

This leads to our third basic element of story grammar: Attempted Extrication. The word “extrication” comes from the verb “extricate,” which means to get yourself out of a hard situation or a bad place. Thus, with the third element of story grammar, we try to solve the conflict. We try to end the trouble. We work for a solution or happy ending. Notice that it says, “attempted” because not all stories have happy endings. But basically, in stories we see characters who face conflict and who try to extricate themselves from trouble and conflict.

Other authors suggest that there are more elements of story grammar. However, if we don’t see these three basic elements in a book, drama, or film, then we are not reading, listening to, or watching a story. And if a story doesn’t have these three elements, then we can say that it probably won’t be a good story. That is, good stories always have characters who face conflicts and who try to extricate themselves from that trouble. It’s that simple. But by knowing this simple fact, we begin to understand why we enjoy some stories more than others, and we can also learn how to be better storytellers as well.

Brewer, W., & Lichtenstein, Edward. (1980). Event schemas, story schemas, and story grammars. Center for the Study of Reading, Technical Report #197, 1–48.

Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: how stories make us human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.