Every writer should know about Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (and if you don’t, a good book for you to read is his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces). It’s very helpful if you find your story lacking something or if you need a basic outline to start your story with.
However, an equally helpful resource for adding interesting plot points or just creating a good structure to start with is Proppian Analysis. Created by Vladimir Propp, it originally was a theory of analysis for folktales. Every story has the essence of a folktale, that’s what makes it a story, so I find the theory not only applicable but incredibly helpful.
The analysis I use is the basic structure, not the detailed mapping Propp explains in his book, The Morphology of Myth. If you want a more in-depth analysis, the book is a great place to start. Besides the separation of the Preparation and then the Main Story Line, the order of events is entirely up to you. I recommend you read through it once before you decide how you want to manipulate this structure to help your story.
Not all stories have a preparation sequence, nor do they need it, but since it is common enough and may be helpful, it’s included. This is all the action and exposition that happens before the main plot begins. These steps are represented by Greek letters.
- Initial situation (ɑ): How the story begins, either with an introduction of a character or some sort of starting description.
- Abstention (β): A member from a group (either a family or familiar enough to have an emotional connection), leaves ‘home’. They aren’t leaving on an adventure, just perhaps going to work or to shop or to fish. Sometimes this is represented as the death of parents (thereby ‘leaving home’ as the characters know it). Think Disney’s Frozen and how the household changes when the parents leave and don’t return.
- Interdiction (ɣ): A character (usually the main character) is told not to do something or given a strict command. For example: “Don’t train to be a warrior” in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.
- Violation (δ): The same character does what they were told not to or does not follow the command given. At this point, a villain enters the mix.
- Reconnaissance (ε): The villain tries to gain information on the main character. This one is not as popular in film since the villain isn’t usually involved with the protagonist until the end of the first act, at the earliest.
- Delivery (ζ): The villain’s reconnaissance is rewarded and they are given information on their victim. This can be seen in The Wizard of Oz when Miss Gulch reveals an order to take Toto away.
- Trickery (η): The villain tries to deceive their victim to take something, usually in disguise. This could be seen in the beginning when the villain appears to be a good person to the character.
- Complicity (θ): The victim submits to deception and unwittingly helps the villain.
This is where the plot begins. It can be the absolute beginning of your story, skipping all or most of the Preparation.
- Villany (A) or Lack (a): You can have one or both, but you need one of these to set your protagonist on their path. In Kubo and the Two Strings, Kubo lacks the armor he needs to defeat his grandfather. In Doctor Strange, Dr. Strange is harmed, his hands being broken irreparably, and lacks the ability to fix them.
- Mediation (B): The protagonist realizes the harm or lack, the harm or lack does not have to happen to the protagonist, but they can ‘adopt’ it if someone brings it to them as a contract. In Ant-Man, Scott Lang is not the one who lacks the Yellowjacket, but Hank Pym does. However, Pym semi-extorts Lang into stealing it for him. Thus, our protagonist is Lang, even though the lack was not done to him.
- Beginning Counteraction (C): The protagonist decides to agree upon counteraction for the harm or lack. This is when they begin to make a plan.
- Departure (↑): The hero leaves home for the adventure. Unlike the previous ‘abstention’, this is with the knowledge they may not be back. For monomyth fans, this is Crossing the First Threshold.
This cycle can happen as many times as you want throughout your story. It is very uncommon to be used out of this order, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be done.
- Donor (D): The donor, someone who has an item or way to help the protagonist, tests the hero in some fashion in order for them to receive a gift. This doesn’t have to be a Road of Trials, it could be a simple interrogation.
- Reaction (E): The hero’s reaction can either allow the donor to relinquish the item or ability to help them or refuse it. The Donor Cycle can end here.
- Magical Agent (F): Anything that can help the protagonist achieve their goal of avenging their harm or filling their lack, is a magical agent whether it’s magic or not. A weapon, a companion, advice, etc.
- Spatial Transference (G): The protagonist is directed to an object that can help them achieve their goal (think Kubo and the next piece of armor) or continues on the path to their main goal.
- Struggle (H): The protagonist and the villain meet in a direct confrontation. This doesn’t have to be a full-blown fight, but the hero and the antagonist meet and there is a struggle, no matter how slight.
- Branding (J): As a result of the struggle, the protagonist receives an injury or marking on them that can be physical or not, from the villain that brands them. This may be used for identification later. It does not have to result from this fight, either. Branding could happen from setting out on the adventure or during the Donor Cycle.
- Victory (I): Villain is defeated either killed, defeated, or banished. You’ll notice that “I” does not follow “H”, it is simply to show that the branding can happen during the struggle or afterward. Despite the alphabetic structure, none of these have to be in order.
- Liquidation of Harm or Lack (K): The initial harm or lack does not necessarily carry the character to the end. Sometimes a new problem arises with new antagonists. Or a problem at the beginning that was not the harm or lack, has become a new harm or lack.
At this point, if the Liquidation of Harm or Lack ends your plot, you’re done. There are still more points. Usually, a new Harm (A) or Lack (a) is introduced here and you can go back to the top and add another Donor Cycle or whatever is necessary before continuing the end.
- Return (↓): After the first Harm or Lack is satisfied, the hero can return home or at least to a calm state of mind.
- Pursuit (Pr): The protagonist is pursued either by the same villain (returning from banishment or replenished strength) or a new villain.
- Rescue (Rs): The hero is rescued from the villain’s pursuit. This could be seen as Campbell’s Rescue from Without.
- Unrecognized (o): the protagonist returns home unrecognized either through personal change, or deception. For example in Deadpool, when Wade Wilson, as Deadpool, is unrecognizable to Vanessa.
- Unfounded Claims (L): Claims are made against the protagonist, shaping them in the light of a criminal or lesser than the character they are. This could be reminiscent of a false hero, someone else who takes credit for the protagonist’s acts and therefore strips the hero of their status and reward.
- Difficult Task (M): The protagonist is given, usually, an impossible task to complete. While more common in fairy tales, this could be seen as an opportunity to put more pressure on your character to develop character and strength under fire.
- Solution (N): The task is resolved. This cycle (MN) could be placed anywhere. While it’s not a good match to nest it in the Donor Cycle, rules were made to be broken.
- Recognition (Q): Either through the completion of the task or other means, the protagonist is revealed as their true self and is welcomed back. They can be recognized by a mark or brand.
- Exposure (Ex): The lies are revealed and perpetrators are dealt with, whether it be a jealous companion, an ally of a vanquished or surviving villain, or a false hero.
- Transfiguration (T): The protagonist finally represents the change they went through, either by improving their home, character or moral values.
- Punishment (U): Villain or false hero or both are punished.
- Wedding (W): Wedding represents a union. A family getting back together or two people finally putting aside differences. It could also be a literal wedding, but this is merely symbolic. It also can solve a lack, if it was of a certain item, now reunited with the protagonist.
My favorite part of Proppian Analysis is the result. In the end, you have something that looks like this (to use the structure of my current project):
ɣδɑβεζ aBC↑ DEF G HI MToNQ PrRs UW
As you can see, it follows a basic structure, but I also move some of it around. Here’s an example from The Wizard of Oz:
ɑβεζηθɣδ aBC↑ DEF G HIJ K – aBC↑ DEF DEF PrRs DEF PrRs oQ L MN Ex U W ↓ K
The Kansas beginning structure has its own plot that is solved upon entrance into Oz, where a whole new plot begins. Each Donor Cycle is Dorothy receiving a new companion. The Wedding at the end is the ceremony where everyone is given an item that “completes” them.
There is no wrong way to do this unless your character doesn’t have a harm or lack, because that would remove any sort of conflict that would lead to the next steps. While it’s a great tool, it’s not perfect for everyone. One of my favorite things to do with it is take the representing alphabetic labels and shuffle them to see the story in a new perspective. It gives my story structure the ability to move around and be flexible.
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.