Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne
Below is the first part of the fables chapter from my book How to Develop (Imaginative, Insightful & Credible) Short Story Ideas
Here we appraise the fable as a means of both an inspiration and a blueprint for developing short story ideas. We will analyse a fable, work an idea inspired and guided by the analysis into a story plan and then write the story of 1,000 words. We will also consider a second idea encouraged by the fable.
In order to make sure we have a firm grasp of working with the fable, we will examine two other examples, but without going so far as writing up two more stories. We will turn the last fable into a modern style fable and see whether this technique is successful in helping create a fresh story idea.
We are also going to turn the theme or message of all three fables into sayings. As we discovered in the sayings chapter, wordplay can work as a powerful incentive in helping create ideas, as well as help conceptualise, control and sharpen our story’s structure and theme. Here, we are not just word playing but moving the theme from one literary medium into another.
The type of fable used here is the Aesopic fable, the fables of Aesop, an Ancient Greek storyteller believed to be the originator of a collection of fables known as Aesop’s Fables, and which has survived in popularity down to the present age.
Aesop’s fables are short pithy tales consisting of characters that are usually animals, though plants, humans, inanimate objects or natural forces are also used. The characters are anthropomorphized (given human characteristics) and act as props for human character traits and expression. In the fable, each character fulfils a very narrow set of consistent characteristics. For example, the wolf is always a clearly defined predator with the nature to go with it; the fox is cunning, tricky, not to be trusted. Character is kept within simple boundaries so as not to interfere with the clear purpose or moral of the fable: to reveal a single aspect of the universal weakness of human nature.
ANALYSING THE FIRST FABLE
The Fox and the Grapes
A hungry fox saw some fine bunches of grapes hanging from a vine that was trained along a high trellis, and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air. But it was all in vain, for they were just out of reach: so he gave up trying, and walked away with an air of dignity and unconcern, remarking, “I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour.”
Not surprisingly, this fable has many of our storytelling elements: character, plot, theme, conflict, setting, and even irony, a twist and humour.
First let’s examine the fable’s message.
When we can’t have what we want because we fall short of the capability of gaining it, we must compensate our pride by belittling it and pretending to ourselves it was never worth the trouble to begin with.
Let’s play around with the message a little to make it pithier.
Pride compensates for failure with contempt aimed at the object that reflects that failure.
This message or moral of the fable is also its specific theme. Pride is too vague a theme for our needs. Our specific theme is clear and simple and offers a powerful insight into a single and universal aspect of the human condition. Because the theme comes across clearly in such a short tale, which is actually the whole point of the fable, we know that this type of theme can fit easily into the parameters of a short story. With consideration to the fact that characterization is only a stereotype in the fable, we can say that the theme is also the most important part of the fable for our purposes, though we must be careful not to neglect other important aspects of the fable.
Usually, a lack of character nuance in a story is a sign of weakness, but in the fable it is its strength. To deliver the simple message about human nature clearly, the fable must not develop individual character, but use simple props to carry out straightforward tasks. With the message, the fable is powerful. Without the message, the fable is worthless. The fox’s character must remain a simple stereotype.
But we are not writing a fable yet; we are using it as inspiration and guide for a story plan. We must produce individual and nuanced character. The most important thing we can take from the fox’s character is his attitude to his set of circumstances which is tightly bound up with the theme. Our characters will be tightly bound up with our theme, too, but the trick we must perform is to make this universal expression of human nature originate from individual and recognizable personalities. As our characters will be human, this should automatically happen. But we need to be aware of the significant difference in character development between the fable and the short story.
The fox’s physical struggle to reach the fruit involves some conflict. But it is in his internal struggle that real conflict occurs, where only with the palliatives of bitterness and lack of self-awareness is he able to accept failure. The fable cannot explore this internal struggle, but we can do so in the story.
As for plot, the fable’s distinct advantage over the saying is that a plot actually exists here. An examination of the plot in the abstract will allow us to spot other potential ideas more easily, as well as manipulate the plot more easily. The abstract plot has a physical as well as an emotional side.
Here is the abstract physical plot: A struggles to possess B. After several failed attempts, A gives up. This is the abstract psychological or emotional plot: A desires B; B holds back from A’s persistent advances. So A goes off in a huff, accusing B of being worthless to cover for his own sense of inadequacy.
We won’t be using the fable’s setting. Our setting will depend on storyline.
The fable’s wit mocks the fox.
The human condition is full of irony because it is full of contradictions. It is ironic that having failed desperately to possess the grapes, the fox suddenly turns up his nose at them. Of course, this is down to his lack of emotional self-awareness and is the fable’s twist. Once again, irony paves the way for the twist.
Drama is lacking here because of the fox’s simple character. As we know, drama is conflict fuelled by the addition of moral choices (not to be confused with the moral or message of a fable). If the fox had character depth, having failed to snatch the grapes, he might fight internally against the decision to diminish them, and instead, he might walk away with a philosophical approach to his failure. With character depth, the potential for drama is strong.
We have played around with the message a little to make it pithier.
Pride compensates for failure with contempt aimed at the object that reflects that failure.
As a saying, it must sound more dynamic and ironic.
The following is much better:
The more successfully a man ridicules what he craves but cannot have, the less successfully he voices his self-awareness.
The saying has thrown a different light onto the theme, and added wit and deep irony to it. This new approach may in itself prompt our inspiration to dream up new ideas around the theme. It is certainly a good exercise in keeping focused on the theme.
Don’t sweat blood over writing these sayings! They are supposed to be an aid not a hindrance, and are just one more tool at our disposal for helping us develop our work.
A SHORT STORY IDEA
With our workable theme, we can now start thinking of character and storyline.
The theme is so universal that it should conjure up dozens of real-life situations (character and setting) where we have seen it at play. For example, the reaction to unrequited love, lust, passion or friendship; the reaction to not getting that job or being fired from one; and the reaction to being turned away from that club you wanted to join.
Let’s work with one of these examples.
This will be in third person limited POV for a man.
A man’s attempt to chat up a woman is turned down. Here is the fox trying for the grapes. Like the fox, the man’s skills are ineffective in this particular context. At first, the fox believes the grapes are his for the taking. We can assume so because of his verbal assault on them after he fails to grab them. This makes us laugh at the fox’s cocksure character twice over. He has misjudged his own ability and also shown himself to be a fool in the way he deals with failure. Our character will respond in the same way to his failed attempt. Of course, we must deepen his character and the woman’s also, as she must become more than a simple bunch of grapes.
We’ll make him a little self-aware, so when she thwarts him, he knows he mustn’t knock her physically as it’s hardly a nice thing to do. The point isn’t that he wants to continue thinking well of her, but to continue thinking well of himself. He knows that by knocking her he lacks self-awareness. But his self-awareness is limited. He must knock her in some way for his own pride to stand tall. His little bit of self-awareness forces him to look elsewhere for a reason to bring her to heel. Fortunately, he finds two. This gives him deeper character, creates a better twist, adds to the humour and doesn’t distort the theme in any way.
The inciting incident is when the fox makes the first grab for the grapes and fails to win them. In our story, it will be when the man makes the first attempt to grab the woman’s attention but fails to impress her. Here …and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air. But it was all in vain, for they were just out of his reach… is the middle part of the fable. In our story, we could possibly have up to three little events (attempts to attain the goal) in the middle section (also depending on story length) where our character (like the fox) is struggling to gain the woman’s interest (the grapes for the fox). Each failed attempt will embarrass him that little bit more and so make him more determined to achieve his goal on the next attempt. This will ratchet up the tension. After he has completely failed to win her over, we get irony and the twist where, ultimately, he succeeds in demonstrating his lack of self-awareness.
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