Propp’s Formula: the Scientific Functions of Folklore

Russian folktales: where even the lanterns are bad-ass

Russian folktales: where even the lanterns are bad-ass

There’s no end of formulas proposed for writing. From Joseph Campbell to Lester Dent, scholars have suggested step-by-step instructions for how to unfold a narrative. But Vladimir Propp, a Soviet folklorist living in the early 20th Century, went one step further. He didn’t just propose a formula for folktales – he assigned scientific symbols for each step and turned his plot into an equation. Who says writing can’t be a science?! What’s interesting is how similar Propp’s formula is to the American approaches, despite the significant differences between American and Russian storytelling. Propp goes into more granular detail and adds in a few more reversals, but the basic heroic journey is the same. After the initial situation is depicted, the tale takes the following sequence of 31 functions:

  1. ABSENTATION (ß): A member of a family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero or some other member of the family that the hero will later need to rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. The hero may also be introduced here, often being shown as an ordinary person.
  2. INTERDICTION (ɣ): The hero is warned against some action (given an ‘interdiction’).
  3. VIOLATION (δ): The interdiction is violated. This generally proves to be a bad move and the villain enters the story, although not necessarily confronting the hero.
  4. RECONNAISSANCE (ɛ): The villain (often in disguise) makes an active attempt at seeking information, for example searching for something valuable or trying to actively capture someone. They may speak with a member of the family who innocently divulges information. They may also seek to meet the hero, perhaps knowing already the hero is special in some way.
  5. DELIVERY (ζ): The villain gains information about the victim. Other information can also be gained, for example about a map or treasure location.
  6. TRICKERY (Ƞ): The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim).
  7. COMPLICITY (ϑ): Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy.
  8. VILLAINY / LACK (A): There are two options for this function, either or both of which may appear in the story. In the first option, the villain causes some kind of harm, for example carrying away a victim or the desired magical object (which must be then be retrieved). In the second option, something is identified as lost or something becomes desirable for some reason in the hero’s family or within a community.
  9. MEDIATION (B): The hero now discovers the act of villainy or lack, perhaps finding their family or community devastated or caught up in a state of anguish and woe.
  10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION (C): The hero decides to act in a way that will resolve the lack, for example finding a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise defeating the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero as this is the decision that sets the course of future actions and by which a previously ordinary person takes on the mantle of heroism.
  11. DEPARTURE (↑): Hero leaves home.
  12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR (D): Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc., preparing the way for his/her receiving of a magical agent or donor.
  13. HERO’S REACTION (E): Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against him).
  14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT (F): Hero acquires use of a magical agent.
  15. GUIDANCE (G): Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search.
  16. STRUGGLE (H): Hero and villain join in direct combat.
  17. BRANDING (J): Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf).
  18. VICTORY (I): Villain is defeated.
  19. LIQUIDATION (K): Initial misfortune or lack is resolved.
  20. RETURN (↓): Hero returns.
  21. PURSUIT (Pr): Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
  22. RESCUE (Rs): Hero is rescued from pursuit.
  23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL (O): Hero arrives home or in another country, unrecognized.
  24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS (L): False hero presents unfounded claims.
  25. DIFFICULT TASK (M): Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks).
  26. SOLUTION (N): Task is resolved.
  27. RECOGNITION (Q): Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her).
  28. EXPOSURE (Ex): False hero or villain is exposed.
  29. TRANSFIGURATION (T): Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc.).
  30. PUNISHMENT (U): Villain is punished.
  31. WEDDING (W ): Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).

The point of all these formulas, of course, is to provide some easily understood building blocks that allow writers to build their towering creations on solid foundations. This sort of ties back to the stuff I was talking about in Japanese traditional art – structuralism allows us to understand the unique aspects of individual stories within a larger overarching creation. It gives us a reference point with which to better appreciate the variety of detail.

So, out of interest, using Propp’s symbols, what does the equation for your story look like?

Bonus material - Kurt Vonnegut on the pattern of stories:

Bonus material – Kurt Vonnegut on the pattern of stories:


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