Red Riding Hood walking through the woods

Narrative Functions

Introduction

We often think about the classification of stories in terms of genre. For example, folk tales can be divided into different styles, such fantastical content, stories about everyday life, and fables. Many tales will contain a combination of these styles.

Vladimir Propp was more interested in uncovering the essential structure of narratives, so he analysed traditional Russian fairytales with the same “well-ordered classification” taken by the “physical and mathematical sciences”. Using what is now considered a structuralist approach, Propp mapped out the “constant elements” of 100 narratives according to the actions of the characters and their significance to the plot.

In our guide to Propp’s character types, we looked at how characters are defined by their spheres of action. This guide will focus on the plot functions.

Morphology of the Folk Tale

In Morphology of the Folk Tale, first published in Russian in 1928 and then translated into English in 1958, Propp delivered his incredibly detailed analysis of these “wonder” stories, identifying seven stock character types and the roles they played in the thirty-one plot functions.

Propp believed folk tales were driven by the decisions and actions of the various characters, so each beat of the story could be defined by what they say or do. He then argued these “constants and variables” made it possible to study the stories in terms of the “functions” of its dramatis personae.

To explain his innovative approach, Propp offered an example from two different tales:

  • a tsar gives an eagle to a hero and the eagle carries the hero away to another kingdom;
  • a sorcerer gives the hero a little boat and the boat takes him to another kingdom.

Although the identity and status of the characters changed, the action and consequence remained the same in each story – the dispatcher sends the hero on a quest.

Gale and Sylen function as dispatcher
Contemporary Examples of Dispatchers

Consider the function of Gale in Elemental (2023). She sends Ember and Wade on a quest to discover the source of the leak that is threatening to flood Firetown. She is the dispatcher. Another example would be Sylens dispatching Aloy into the Forbidden West to uncover the origins of the blight in the Horizon franchise. These media texts are contemporary and on very different platforms from the old Russian folk tales, but they include the same “constant elements” – pun intended.

Narrative Structure

Based on his sample of 100 Russian folk stories, Propp believed the narratives all shared 31 distinct functions. He also argued the “functions must be defined independently of the characters who are supposed to fulfil them” and these plot points usually occurred in the same order in the story.

Invariably, the tales began with an initial situation which offered some details and description of the characters, even if it was simply a reference to a name or status. Of course, this concept is similar to Tzvetan Todorov’s equilibrium or Ronald Tobias’s suggestion that the opening of the story should establish the origination of the hero.

This initial situation was then followed by a progression of functions.

Functions 1 – 7

Propp suggested the first seven functions could be considered to be the preparatory part of the narrative:

  1. One of the members of a family absents himself from home.
  2. Something is forbidden.
  3. That interdiction is violated.
  4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance. (The villain sometimes uses a disguise)
  5. The villain receives information about his victim.
  6. The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him or his belongings. (Trickery)
  7. The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his enemy.

Function 8

This is the complication: THE VILLAIN CAUSES HARM OR INJURY TO A MEMBER OF A FAMILY.

The act of villainy takes many different forms. For example, a dragon kidnaps the tsar’s daughter or the villain steals the magical agent. Perhaps the servant girl cuts out the eyes of her mistress or a stepmother drives her stepdaughter away from home. Put simply, there has to be some affliction or misfortune which produces an insufficiency or lack to be solved by hero.

Propp believed this function was “exceptionally important” because the “actual movement” of the narrative is “created” at this point.

This is the concept of disruption in Todorov’s approach to the fundamental components of narrative.

Function 9

Propp called this function the connective incident. The misfortune or lack is made known and the hero is approached with a request or command to help overcome the evil.

Depending on the situation, the hero will either be a seeker or victim. For example, if the previous functions followed the abduction of a daughter from her father, then the hero will go in search of the girl to bring her back home. There is usually the promise of marriage in this sort of narrative.

A good example of the victim hero is the girl who is banished into the forest by her stepmother. Her quest is to find a new life for herself in the wilderness.

Functions 10 – 18

  1. The seeker agrees to or decides upon counteraction.
  2. The Hero leaves home. The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or helper.
  3. The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
  4. The hero acquires the use of a magical agent.
  5. The hero is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of search.
  6. The hero and the villain join in direct combat.
  7. The hero is branded.
  8. The villain is defeated.

Function 19

Once the villain is defeated, the hero obtains the magical agent need to liquidate the lack. Propp suggested this is when the narrative reached its peak.

Perhaps the hero has captured the magic duck that lays golden eggs or a wicked spell has been broken. The hero could even be revived by life-giving waters.

Functions 20 and 21

The hero returns home

However, sometimes the hero is pursued by a dragon, a witch or an attractive maiden who tries to seduce the protagonist.

Function 22

The hero is rescued from the pursuit, managing to escape on horseback or hiding in side an apple tree until the danger has passed.

Propp acknowledged that many of the tales ended at this point. Perhaps the hero marries a girl and they live happily ever after. However, some of the tales had “another misfortune in store for the hero”. He suggested this second villainous act creates a new “move”.

Functions 23 – 31

The second movement:

  1. The hero, unrecognised, arrives home or in another country.
  2. A false hero presents unfounded claims.
  3. A difficult task is proposed to the hero.
  4. The task is resolved.
  5. The hero is recognised.
  6. The false hero or villain is exposed.
  7. The hero is given a new appearance.
  8. The villain is punished.
  9. The hero is married and ascends the throne.

It is worth noting that Propp defined function 29 as transfiguration. The hero is given new clothes or he builds a marvellous palace. This might be a useful plot point to explain narratives found in advertising.

Conclusion

Propp’s division of the folk tales into 7 spheres of action and 31 narrative functions was an impressive attempt to discover the fundamental elements of storytelling. It revealed the importance of causality to the success of the narratives because one plot point always seemed to lead to the next with a clear sense of progression. In fact, his research continues to influence contemporary writers so you should look out for his character types and narrative functions in the next book you read, film you watch, or game you play.

Propp, Vladimir (1968) “Morphology of the Folk Tale”. trans. Laurence Scott.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!