The Virtues of a Functional Story11 Sep 2020
The reason a lot of beginning writers start learning how to write creatively is they have one amazing idea for a story. They imagine the twists and turns the plot will take the reader down, the surprise ending they never saw coming, with totally unique characters and setting. They’re sure that it’ll be the next bestseller.
If you fit that description, then let me clarify one thing. I don’t mean to crush your ambition or desire to innovate with this post. However, in the 20 years I’ve been writing, I’ve learned that crafting a story is a complex balancing act. I talk about balance in terms of darkness and light in the third part of my “Can Dark Stories Be Uplifting?” series, and I touch on it in “The Problem with Inner Problems” in that an overzealous approach can be just as bad as laziness.
Another set of aspects that writers should balance is ambition and familiarity. A story that, on the whole, leans toward the familiar is what I call a functional story. People are quick to dismiss the familiar as bad or inferior when that’s not always the case. Functional stories and familiar elements can be entertaining and interesting in their own ways.
A Functional Story Told Well
A Let’s Play series of the 2011 adventure game Gemini Rue introduced me to the concept of functional stories. A couple of episodes before the finale, the three hosts begin speculating about the game’s ending. All of them sensed that a big plot twist was coming.
However, Sean (better known on the internet as Day9) made an interesting comment. He said he’d be content if the story ended in an expected manner – that the prisoner called Delta-Six is Azriel’s long-lost brother, and Azriel rescues him. Maybe Delta-Six gets his memories back and reforges his brotherly bond with Azriel. Or maybe those memories are gone forever, and the two men learn how to be friends instead. The reason Sean gave for why he felt this way was that the storytelling had been so solid up to that point that a non-twist ending wouldn’t ruin his enjoyment of the game.
This led into a discussion about creative ambition and what a story actually needs to be enjoyable. Sean’s point (and the thesis of this point) is that a story doesn’t have to do something crazy and surprising to be enjoyable. A functional story told well can be just as interesting.
Danny Phantom – An Exceptional Functional Story
A recent video essay on the YouTube channel Nerdstalgic argues that the animated TV series Danny Phantom is a brilliantly functional narrative because it was designed to not be wholly original. (I had planned to be academically responsible and link to this video essay, but YouTube took it down again. My only guess is because of copyright claims on clips from the show used as background imagery and as examples supporting the author’s argument.) In the author’s words…
“Danny Phantom knew how to be the best version of things we’ve seen before, and it was awesome.”
The video goes on to identify a number of tropes that the series employed and demonstrates how they aren’t present just to give the audience what they’re expecting from a comedic superhero cartoon. Danny Phantom isn’t cliché for cliché’s sake.
“By identifying how the show’s tropes normally play out within the context of the writing process, the writers are able to find ways to play with them instead of just re-presenting them or re-creating them.” – Nerdstalgic
One method that the writing team repeatedly used to achieve this was to build the plot around the show’s tropes, integrating them into its core story structure.
Superheroes always encounter a new villain every week, right? But in Danny’s case, the ghosts of the week aren’t thrown at him randomly. The villain and Danny’s battle against them mirror whatever teenage issue he’s struggling with in his mundane life. Cross-pollinating between both sides of our protagonist and his double life enables him to grow simultaneously as a half-ghost superhero and as a person.
In stories with teenage protagonists, their parents are often portrayed as adversaries. Danny Phantom’s contemporaries made parental figures living obstacles who either get in the protagonist’s way or instigate the episode’s problems and shenanigans. Danny’s parents, however, are one of the show’s recurring antagonists and are just as threatening as any ghost Danny faces. His parents’ obsessive ghostbusting often put them in direct conflict with Danny’s heroic pursuits. They are the reason Danny must hide his superhero identity – not out of fear of punishment but because of the very real danger they might erase him from existence like any other ghost. Several episodes show Mr. and Mrs. Fenton hunting Danny, completely unaware that their prey is in fact their son.
Integrating tropes like this helps elevate this TV show from a mediocre kids’ cartoon to a series that’s still loved today. By building upon and around its tropes, the show’s writers give its audience high stakes conflict, justifiable character motivations, and character development that’s earned and goes beyond the surface level.
Closing Advice For Beginning Writers
Nerdstalgic’s video essay ends on this thought:
“Sometimes being original doesn’t mean getting there first. It means doing things differently, doing things better.”
This is why I think that functional stories are better showcases of a writer’s skill and craft than stories that lean more toward the ambition side of the scale. Because these elements are familiar, it’s on the writer to use them in a way that serves the story and outshine the previous examples readers have in their heads.
As new, original, innovative and surprising as you hope your magnum opus will be, I encourage you not to focus on that if you’re a beginner. Instead, tell a smaller functional story first – one that hits all the right beats at the right pace and plays genre tropes straight or slightly tweaked. Keeping so much familiar forces you to polish the surface level features of your story – setting, dialogue, characters, action sequences, etc. Once you’ve proven to readers that you can handle expected elements in established patterns without ruining their enjoyment, then they will eagerly follow you as you make riskier choices in your next story.
What do you think? Have you heard of functional stories before? Do you know other examples? What are some of your favorite instances of a story playing a trope straight and being awesome because of it? Leave your answers in the comments below.