As part of a school assignment (GMU EDIT 572 Digital Audio/Video Design), I was to Explore the Shape of Stories by applying Kurt Vonnegut’s structure of stories to a story, poem, song, etc., familiar to me. Reflexively, my mind went immediately to, yes, The Princess Bride. It’s not as timeless as Cinderella, but it has all the elements, a bit remixed for 21st century consumption, but all there nonetheless – beautiful princess (check), handsome “farmhand-turned pirate-turned hero” (check), the Giant (RIP Andre and the days of real-fake professional wrestling), six-fingered villain (check), among other notable characters. Parallel to the story of these characters is another one of the grandfather who is reading the story of The Princess Bride to his sick, bed-ridden grandson (whatever happened to Fred Savage?). So, how do these two stories map on Vonnegut’s graph? Using my mobile phone’s high-tech memo app, I have provided this mapping. The blue line represents the ill-grandson’s initial very low interest in 1) the story and 2) his grandfather and then his upward progression as his interest and love for the story and his grandfather grows with the climax of the story. The pink line represents the princess and hero’s story beginning positively as they fall in love and then experience the doom of separation and perceived death. Following this turn in the story, the hero with his motley crew slowly, but surely achieve individual and collective success to ultimately save the princess and restore true love.
Unfortunately, in real life, unlike Vonnegut’s example ending in an infinity symbol in the positive quadrant, the story continues oscillating up and down, and up and down, and plateaus at times, but inevitably up and down again. To be continued…
…as I continued to dissect this story and the art of storytelling, I enjoyed thinking through Pixar’s 22 rules of appealing stories and honed in on….
Rule #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
It’s so disappointing when watching or reading a story and the character is saved by a “coincidental” appearance of the police or a favorable placement of a key, gun, car, etc. In The Princess Bride there are coincidences, but it only adds to sarcastic humor that carries the story line like when the hero, Wesley, and his motley crew are devising the rescue plan to save the princess, but they are without any viable resources. Wesley says “What I wouldn’t give for a Holocaust cloak.”, and shazam the Giant pulls one out of nowhere. In 99% of cases, I agree with Rule #19, but in this case it works!
The story spine is another tool for great storytelling/writing. After reading it, it seemed so straightforward, simple and just obvious, but I never approached writing a story – whether it was for a proposal, presentation or white paper – in this manner. As Kenn Adams, the creator of the story spine highlights, the “spine” is not the story. It’s the structure upon which you must build your story. Here is The Princess Bride stripped down to the bare-boned spine:
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful farm girl, Buttercup, and handsome farmhand, Wesley.
Every day, she bossed him around to fetch the water and other chores around the farm and each time he replied “As you wish”. Until one day, she realized that he meant “I love you” and they fell in love.
But one day, Wesley leaves the farm to seek his fortune so that he can marry Buttercup one day.
Because of that, the selfish Prince Humperdink hears of Buttercup’s beauty and calls for her hand in marriage. But, he as an ulterior motive to use her as a pawn in invoking a war.
Because of that, Buttercup becomes depressed, but vows to continue to love her Wesley despite the Prince’s demands for marriage.
Because of that, the Prince becomes jealous and angry and when he finds Wesley he tries to kill him, but does so unsuccessfully.
Because of that, Wesley seeks revenge
Until finally, on the day of the Prince and Buttercup’s wedding, Wesley and his motley crew sabotage the wedding and save the princess.
And ever since then, Buttercup and Wesley have lived happily ever after.