Writing Masterclass

Writing Masterclass: Todorov’s Narrative Theory

Last week we looked at plotting our novel and I mentioned Todorov's narrative theory. This week I would like to explore that a little further and hopefully help to develop your story.

Last week we looked at plotting our novel and I mentioned Todorov’s narrative theory. This week I would like to explore that a little further and hopefully help to develop your story.

Tzvetan Todorov was a Bulgarian- French literary theorist who suggested that stories, at their heart, followed the same narrative structure. The three stages of this structure being: the equilibrium, disequilibrium, and the new equilibrium.

He further broke these categories down:

1. A state of equilibrium: where the story is plodding along and everything is well.
2. A disruption: the equilibrium has been disrupted by an event which turns the protagonist’s world upside down.
3. Damage assessment & repair: the protagonist will recognize the disorder has occurred and will try to repair the damage or disorder.
4. The new equilibrium: the narrative is returned to a state of balance.

An example of this narrative structure in action can be found below.

Danielle is a college student who is about to embark on her new adventure, going to university.

On her first day, she meets Kieran who attacks her.

Fighting back she accidentally kills her kidnapper and escapes.

She is no longer in danger but she now has this terrible secret hanging over her.

Hopefully, you can see that by knowing the basics we can build our story around this, further developing our narrative to become something much more complex but having a solid foundation to work up from. Let’s start with the simple idea above and develop it further.

Danielle, an eighteen-year-old sheltered country girl, is about to embark on a new coming of age adventure as she is about to attend university.

Her first day, scared and alone, she meets overly friendly, older student Kieran who helps her to find her classes.

Innocent and naive, Danielle lets Kieran lead her away from the main campus and to a secluded area where he tries to have his way with her. Not wanting this on her first day, Danielle lashes out pushing him away, causing him to only attack her further, consumed by lust. Finally, Danielle manages to push him away harder this time, causing him to topple over and crack his head on a rock, knocking him unconscious. 

Thinking that she has killed him she runs away, torn between finding help and hiding it from everyone. She doesn’t want a black mark against her name on the first day of term.

In this example, I have attempted to not only develop my story into something with a little more substance but have also offered an additional insight into Danielle’s character. From this my grey matter is whirring: will Kieran really be dead? What will this mean for Danielle’s character? It’s this exercise that helps to get my brain working, thinking about all the possibilities and enticing my creativity.

As an exercise, I would like you to pick your favourite story and pick it apart. At its core summarize the equilibrium, disequilibrium, and new equilibrium and let me know in the comments below. Bonus points if, in your chosen story, you can determine the 4 key plot points above!

Next week we will look at character development and how we can create interesting protagonists.


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