A writer is god of his or her created universe, shaping events at will. Such a heady feeling! But all choices are not equal when it comes to plotting. There are consequences to our choices, and some of these are passed on to our readers.
In his book The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur W. Frank outlines the sorts of plots common to personal stories about illness and injury. As we know, stories are built around problems, crises of innumerable types, and problems leave their mark, if not in scars and handicaps, at least in psychic wounds. Thus most stories are, in a sense, stories of a wounded protagonist. How can we best portray their stories, and what impact will such plots have on readers?
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The story we all hope to live when struck with illness, injury, or another sort of problem is what Frank calls a “restitution narrative.” In an illness restitution narrative, normal life is interrupted and threatened by disease or injury, but there are remedies and doctors to help. If the patient follows instructions faithfully, things will “get back to normal” soon – what an appealing idea! There will be trials to endure, but the doctor has the remedy and the interruption will eventually be over and done with. If the story revolves around the protagonist’s house burning down, there will be inconveniences, but the insurance check will arrive and he will be comfortably ensconced in a new, equally comfortable house by the story’s end. The protagonist discovers a cheating spouse? No matter. A divorce and on to a wonderful new relationship: Life is good again. It is the adult version of the young child’s feeling that whatever may happen, Mom or Dad will be able to set it right. Everything is fixable. A common thread in these stories is that remedy comes from other sources – a doctor gives the medicine or performs the surgery, the insurance company replaces the house, the law allows the divorce, and a new romance promises a future with love and companionship. Such stories are as old as Job, Frank points out. Beset with trial upon trial, Job’s job was to keep his faith and be patient; in time, all his losses were reversed. So it is with protagonists of restitution stories: They must believe – and go along for the ride.
Gratifying as a return to normalcy might seem, the narrative problems are clear. Generally, a passive protagonist who needs only to follow directions and bide time until rescue generally fails to capture much admiration or interest. Nor does such a protagonist encourage readers to take the reins of their own lives. Every problem is not fixable. How do we tell the stories of the times when the doctors cannot outsmart death? What happens when we can’t offer restitution?
One answer is the chaos narrative, so far at the other end of the narrative spectrum that Frank calls it an “anti-narrative,” explaining that it is not a “sequence of events connected to each other through time.” Instead, it is a torrent of seemingly random, devastating experiences with neither cause nor purpose, told without benefit of reflection or sense of control. They are stories of terminal illness exacerbated by pointless and painful tests, of people whose houses not only burn and spouses cheat, but whose children are overcome by rare ailments, whose dogs die, whose jobs are lost , and who are struck by lightning. With no end in sight, no order or rationale, such stories are tough to read and to listen to. Listeners are tempted to nudge speakers toward reshaping their experiences into restitution stories; chaos narratives make us anxious. Without relief, such stories, real or imagined, can feel soul-crushing. When they are true stories, as in the case of Holocaust survivors, they must be heard; only then can the tellers begin to fashion lives that make sense.
True, sometimes life does bring restitution. And at other times, life is a frightful descent into chaos. Such possibilities have their place in literature. But often, the whole story incorporates elements of each while ultimately being a narrative of the third type: the quest. Few people emerge from an ordeal unchanged. The quest narrative acknowledges that change; the story becomes a narrative of learning, of growth. In a quest story, the protagonist emerges from illness scarred or perhaps with new limitations. The protagonist whose house went up in flames doesn’t receive enough insurance money to build a comparable house; irreplaceable items were lost. The protagonist with the cheating spouse is hesitant to start a new relationship and is wary of promises. But growth, new understanding, is the recompense. The patient discovers inner strength, perhaps a new, more meaningful vocation; the one who lost a house has gained detachment and appreciation for family; the divorced protagonist learns to trust intuition.
In short, the quest narrative acknowledges life, with all its tests and trials, as a journey, the ultimate purpose of which is growth, learning, and/or progress. Joseph Campbell outlines the phases of such a journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, explaining that this is an archetypical journey that shows up in fairy tales, myths, and religious lore throughout the ages and in myriad cultures. “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite,” Campbell notes, “to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” The protagonist in a quest story is such a symbol, imparting courage and meaning to readers.
Campbell encapsulates the hero’s journey this way: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power of to bestow boons on his fellow man.” If this sounds distant from modern life, consider that the “region of supernatural wonder” might mean the hero presents himself to the medical establishment with their “fabulous forces.” It might also mean entering the chaos of life without a home of one’s own or a faithful spouse. Trials will be encountered, but there will be helpers along the way. In the end, as mentioned above, the hero is changed and returns the “Master of Two Worlds,” the ordinary world he departed from and the world of trial he faced. The change, or “boon,” may represent learning, growth, or a story of triumph that can inform or inspire others.
The persistence of this form of story over time and place testifies to its power and meaningfulness. The hero’s journey, or quest narrative, has been widely acknowledged as the underpinning of numerous modern stories in print and on screen. More realistic than the restitution narrative, easier to bear and more satisfying than purely chaotic narrative, the quest narrative assures readers that they can cope with a radically changing world and even survive times of chaos, and emerge the better for it. For writers, it offers a trustworthy blueprint to flesh out in their own unique ways.
Gail Radley is the author of 24 books for young people and numerous articles for adults. Recently, she stepped away from teaching English full-time at Stetson University in order to devote more time to freelance writing and editing. She lives in DeLand, Florida.