The three act structure.
The hero’s journey.
Ah, fine, whatever. Study them as part of your love of story craft because you love it.
Not because they offer the right way to tell a tale.
To write a correct story is to write a dull and lifeless story.
Correct stories are too safe.
For me, what moves and inspires me far more than a conventionally-structured hero’s journey is a good folk tale.
There’s the feeling of real life in folk stories. They can be rough and weird. They draw me in. Maybe things will turn out well and maybe all of a sudden something hilarious or catastrophic will change the story entirely.
When daytime nears dreamtime, folktales beckon.
The spontaneity, the wild turns, the peculiar.
They are stories mean to be shared out loud, stories meant to convey the speaker’s presence. Gifting the listener the many nuances of the time of telling.
They are masterful not because they are polished or correct or balanced or well-timed.
They fall into patterns, and there are rhythms and familiar tropes. But they share a spacious kind of storytelling that invites the writer to be themselves rather than to assimilate their creative impulse into a tried-and-true format.
Here is a story I read today from Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales.
The Two Hunchbacks
There were two hunchbacks who were brothers. The younger hunchback said, “I’m going out and make a fortune.” He set out on foot. After walking for miles and miles he lost his way in the woods.
“What will I do now?” What if assassins appeared . . . I’d better climb this tree.” Once he was up the tree he heard a noise. “There they are, help!”
Instead of assassins, out of a hole in the ground climbed a little old woman, then another and another, followed by a whole line of little old women, one right behind the other, who all danced around the tree singing:
“Saturday and Sunday!
Saturday and Sunday!”
Round and round they went, singing over and over:
“Saturday and Sunday!”
From his perch in the treetop, the hunchback sang:
The little old women became dead silent, looked up, and one of them said, “Oh, the good soul that has given us that lovely line! We never would have thought of it by ourselves!”
Overjoyed, they resumed their dance around the tree, singing all the while:
After a few rounds they spied the hunchback up in the tree. He trembled for his life. “For goodness’ sakes, little old souls, don’t kill me. That line just slipped out. I meant no harm, I swear.”
“Well come down and let us reward you. Ask any favor at all, and we will grant it.”
The hunchback came down the tree.
“Go on, ask!”
“I’m a poor man. What do you expect me to ask? What I’d really like would be for this hump to come off my back, since the boys all tease me about it.”
“All right, the hump will be removed.”
The old women took a butter saw, sawed off the hump, and rubbed his back with salve, so that it was now sound and scarless. The hump they hung on the tree.
The hunchback who was no longer a hunchback went home, and nobody recognized him. “It can’t be you!” said his brother.
“It most certainly is me. See how handsome I’ve become?”
“How did you do it?”
“Just listen.” He told him about the tree, the little old women, and their song.
“I’m going to them, too,” announced the brother.
So he set out, entered the same woods, and climbed the same tree. At the same time as last, here came the little old women out of their hole singing:
From the tree the hunchback sang:
The old women began singing:
But the song no longer suited them, its rhythm had been marred.
They looked up, furious. “Who is this criminal, this assassin? We were singing so well and he had to come along and ruin everything! Now we’ve lost our song!” They finally saw him up in the tree. “Come down, come down!”
“I will not!” said the hunchback, scared to death. “You will kill me!”
“No, we won’t. Come on down!”
The hunchback came down, and the little old women grabbed his brother’s hump hanging on a tree limb and stuck it on his chest. “That’s the punishment you deserve!”
So the poor hunchback went home with two humps instead of one.
OK, here’s a second folktale from the same volume. This one also features a hunchback.
Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler
A king was out strolling. He looked at the people, the swallows, the houses, and was content. A little old woman passed, minding her own business. She was a very well bred old soul, but she limped a little, and was also a trifle hunchbacked and, in addition, had a wryneck. The king stared at her and said, “Hunchback wryneck hobbler! Ha, ha, ha!” And he laughed heartily in her face.
Now this old woman was a fairy. She looked the king in the eye and said, “Go on, laugh your fill.” We’ll just see who’s laughing tomorrow.”
At that, the king went into another peal of laughter. “Ha, ha, ha!”
This king had three daughters who were beautiful girls indeed. The next day he called them to go out walking with him. The oldest girl showed up with a hump on her back. “A hump?” asked the king. “How on earth did you get that?”
“Well,” explained the daughter,” the maid made up my bed so badly that I got a big hump last night.”
The king began pacing the floor; he felt uneasy.
He sent for his second daughter, who showed up with a wryneck. “What’s the meaning of coming in now with a wryneck?” asked the king.
“Here’s what happened,” replied the second daughter. “While the maid was combing my hair, she pulled out a hair. . . and here I am now with a wryneck.”
“And this girl?” said the king, noticing his youngest daughter limp into the room. “Just why is she limping now?”
“I went out into the garden,” explained the third daughter, “and the maid picked a jasmine blossom and flung it at me. It fell on my foot and lamed me.”
“But who is this maid?” screamed the king. “Have her come before me at once!”
The maid was called and had to be dragged before the king by the guards because, in her words, she was ashamed to be seen: she was hunchbacked, wrynecked, and hobbling—the very same old woman as the day before! The king recognized her instantly and yelled, “Coat her with pitch and burn her to death!”
The old woman shrank and shrank until her head was the size of a nail and just as pointed. There was a tiny hole in the wall, and she squeezed through it and disappeared from sight, leaving behind only her hump, wryneck, and lame foot.
The story ends there.
I find it so relieving to end like that.
Would you say that there is justice in that story?
Ah, folktales with their magic and spontaneity.
The story doesn’t need to hold up to our need for realism. It just needs to create a space for us and be something we can be reminded by. Maybe something reminds us of one of the elements in a story and we feel compelled to turn the story over in our minds, ruminating over the unreality of things.