We all know Jane Austen’s books have endured in a way that is utterly fascinating and almost beyond belief. How does a young, unmarried person of limited world experience manage to write novels that find fanatics hundreds of years later? The story.
The art of storytelling is a delightful subject of study because as you consider the theories and accepted practices of what makes a “good story,” you go “AHA!” a great deal. I am currently taking a free class called Storytelling in Advertising with Futurelearn. (In 17 days, I am participating in another free course called Literature of the English Country House run by the University of Sheffield if anyone wants to join, there a ton of highly interesting courses for free at FutureLearn, I strongly encourage everyone to check them out!)
But back to storytelling. Did you know story is the most powerful form of communication? In numerous studies, participants remembered information up to 27% more when it was presented in a story than any other format. Our brains are hardwired from the very beginning of our evolutionary tracks to decode and decipher a story.
So what makes Jane Austen’s stories so much more powerful than other writers of her time? Well, one story master I ascribe to is James Scott Bell’s Super Structure. He breaks down story into 14 specific steps for a 3 Act story. Conveniently, Pride and Prejudice is 3 volumes. Hmmm. 🙂
Bell’s thesis is:
Disturbance : We have London gentlemen coming to the area.
Care Package : This is something that makes your Lead likable, I submit that’s Lizzy’s intelligence/her getting insulted. We are immediately on HER side. Also, she takes care of her sister. Basically, we all think Elizabeth Bennet is the bees knees.
Argument Against Transformation: Charlotte giving advice to Elizabeth. We also know Elizabeth is not inclined to chase a husband. (this is technically woven into that big care package section but that’s okay)
Trouble Brewing: Here comes Mr. Collins AND Mr. Wickham. Sheesh.
Doorway of No Return #1: Elizabeth turns down Mr. Collins’ proposal.
Kick in the Shins : The London party leave. Dangit!
Mirror Moment: The Visit in Kent where Elizabeth sees her convictions do have a cost (Charlotte is happy), and in casual conversation, yes, her family DOES sound ridiculous.
Pet the Dog: (this is a moment where the action seems to be going one way and there’s a momentary thing to remind us, we still love the Lead) I submit this is Colonel Fitzwilliam boasting of Darcy’s loyalty to a friend to stop a disastrous attachment, not knowing said attachment is Elizabeth’s sister, Jane.
Doorway of No Return #2: “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
Mounting Forces: Here’s where P&P gets a little interesting, because my supposition is framing the story as a battle or struggle, it is Elizabeth Bennet’s struggle against her Fate to marry and she’s going to lose, which you can do to your Lead, you can make them lose in the end, it’s usually a tragedy, but in a romantic story, it can be a happy ending. 🙂 So here is where she gets the letter, she makes plans to travel with her relatives, it’s FATE who is gathering forces against Lizzy, and she is oblivious to it. Because as this section goes, she thinks Darcy is a changed man, when really, he is the same man he was at the beginning, just prone to make errors like the rest of us.
Lights Out: Lydia elopes. That’s it, we think there cannot possibly be a happy ending for anyone.
Q Factor: Something planted earlier in the story that seems to make no sense to just be dropped in suddenly matters, . . . Mr. Darcy can work upon Wickham! That’s why out of nowhere we learn that Georgiana had a secret near elopement with the cad!
Final Battle: Lady Catherine comes to call, Elizabeth has to stand up and speak for herself and her changed self. She no longer doesn’t want to marry Mr. Darcy, she wants to marry him very, very much!
Transformation: Darcy comes back (because Elizabeth stood her ground in the final battle), and they become engaged.
Of course, this is a great deal MORE to Pride & Prejudice than just that storyline. In fact, a well-written novel will have secondary and tertiary storylines that weave in and out (I woudl submit Jane’s and Lydia’s), and what’s interesting there is that if one wanted to, we know Jane and Lydia had their own moments going through all of those steps, but we only saw the highlights (or lowlights in Lydia’s case). For example, we know Lydia had her Doorways of No Return, probably starting with her first flirtation with Wickham. And at least in Lydia’s perspective, she would be the Lead in her own story and very likable, even if we find her to be a spoiled brat. But in her story, she would likely see herself as being bold and smart, trying to secure her family’s future as all she see is her two oldest sisters mess it up and Mary and Kitty have no suitors. So it is up to her misguided ways! LOL
Bell’s Super Structure can be applied to many novels and stories. There are some modifications if you decide it’s a 5-Act hero’s journey, or a 4-Act. But he contends that these moments have to be hit for a reader to naturally feel like the story resonated.
When I write my stories, I am a plotter. And you can play along next time to James Scott Bell’s Superstructure and see if I measured up. What that means is that I don’t finish a book unless I know the broad strokes like those 14 points above. With my novellas, the first 5 points are usually in the first 1-2 chapters. For my novels, which are 30-50 chapters long, I have time to space it out. As for my class in Storytelling in Advertising, I am learning how to tell a story in less than 30 seconds. I KNOW! Here are two of the videos I have made thus far, the story I’m trying to tell is “You’re busy, have some time with Mr. Darcy because you deserve it, try mine.” 🙂
Funny Mommy Moments
As to whether or not the ads work, we’ll see. Both are running on Facebook right now. But I am learning a ton in my class and I think both of those videos are one step above what I was doing before which was just doing a one line synopsis or two of the book. 🙂
Storytelling is powerful. Learning the elements of story is an academic pursuit anyone can chase down and master. But fair warning: once you start taking apart stories to their basic building blocks of Kicks in the Shins or Doorways of No Return, you WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO JUST WATCH OR ENJOY A TV SHOW, MOVIE, BOOK again. Nope. Once you learn the the moments where authors and writers and creators tug on your heart strings, raise your pulse, or make you cry, you’ll still FEEL those things, but you’ll be sitting there going “I see what you did there, well played Madame, well played indeed.” 🙂 🙂
Elizabeth Ann West
P.S. This month look for A January for Jane coming out around June 23, and A Spring Society Book 6 of Seasons June 28. 🙂