Editor Roundtable: Like Water for Chocolate

 

This week, Anne pitched Like Water For Chocolate as the third title in her Season Five study of films adapted from novels. This 1992 Mexican film was directed by Alfonso Arau and based on the 1989 novel of the same name by Laura Esquivel, who also wrote the screenplay.

 

The Story

Genre: Love-Courtship (Forbidden Type)

This story has a clear four-act structure, with two separate crises in the middle build. The beginning hook and ending payoff are relatively short, for a story math that goes something like 20% beginning hook, 65% middle build, and 15% ending payoff.

  • Beginning Hook – When family tradition prohibits Tita and Pedro from marrying, and Pedro agrees to marry older sister Rosaura so he can be near Tita, Tita is punished for her inappropriate love by being forced to prepare the wedding feast. But when Tita’s cooking mentor Nacha dies on the wedding day, Tita must decide whether to live on as her cruel mother’s handmaiden, or exercise her new magical power in food preparation as the ranch’s cook. She accepts the position, and her cooking magic frees middle sister Gertrudis, who escapes the family.
  • Act 2:  When Tita takes over the care and feeding of Pedro and Rosaura’s first child, causing Pedro to fall even more deeply in love with her, Mama Elena sends Pedro and his family away, depriving Tita of her one joy in life. When news comes that the baby has died, Tita goes mad with grief, and the doctor, John Brown, takes her to his home to help her recover. There Tita must decide whether to accept his growing love for her or cling to a hopeless love for Pedro. She accepts John’s love, recovers, and goes home to await her wedding.
  • Act 3: When Mama Elena’s death brings Pedro and Rosaura home, Tita’s cooking magically exacerbates Rosaura’s health problems, and her second child is born prematurely. Pedro and Tita finally consummate their love and Tita becomes pregnant, but when the pregnancy ends in miscarriage, she must still decide whether to confess to John or marry him with such a secret between them. She confesses, and though he wants to marry her anyway, he releases her.
  • Ending Payoff – Eighteen years later when Rosaura dies, Tita and Pedro are finally free to marry. They retire together to their own intimate private consummation, but when in the throes of passion Pedro dies of a heart attack, Tita must decide whether to live on or join him in death. She burns up her own life, and with it the whole ranch, leaving only her cookbook, which her grand-niece recovers, though she can never replicate the magic of great aunt Tita’s cooking.

The Principle – Anne – Screen Adapations

A novel with bad-movie qualities can still be a pretty good film, but the novel, as usual, is better.

First of all, it will surprise no one to learn that I think the novel is considerably better than the movie, and of course I’m going talk about why that is. But there’s an important caveat: the movie as originally released in Latin America ran 123 minutes, while the version we had available to watch was cut to 102. Many user reviews on Amazon comment that key scenes they remember from the original are missing.

Still, that shortened version is what we all had to work with, and it’s all the more reason to go read the book, which is much funnier, much more beautiful, and much clearer.

Just to get it out of the way, the movie never explains its own title–probably because it’s a common expression in Spanish–but it’s clear enough in the novel. The best explanation I found was this one from Sparknotes: 

In the science of cooking, heat is a force to be used precisely; the novel’s title phrase “like water for chocolate” refers to the fact that water must be brought to the brink of boiling several times before it is ready to be used in the making of hot chocolate. However, the heat of emotions cannot be so controlled. Heat is a symbol for desire and physical love throughout the text.

We can’t approach this story–film or novel–without understanding that we’re in magical realism territory. Magical realism differs from other types of fantasy in being set in an ordinary world, where magical elements are layered in without explanation. It often asks the reader to let go of conventional exposition, expected plot structure, linear time, and reason, in order to enter into a state of heightened awareness of life’s mysteries.

Magical realism almost always has a political element, too. The style arose in politically and economically marginalized Latin American countries, and Salman Rushdie characterized it as expressing “a genuinely third-world consciousness.” In the case of Like Water for Chocolate, the political element is domestic: the power of social conventions and expectations for women versus women’s passion and sensuality.

In our episode on If Beale Street Could Talk I introduced the seven qualities your novel should NOT have if you want it to read like a smooth, easy Hollywood movie. 

Here they are again, in the form of what I’ll call The Hollywood Don’ts.

  • Don’t write more than 300 pages or 80,000 words, but don’t go under 15,000 words. 
    • Like Water for Chocolate comes in at a tidy 246 pages, and around 75,000 words, so Laura Esquivel, the author who began as a screenwriter, gets a checkmark here.
  • Don’t mess with the three-act structure of a beginning, a middle and an end, because that’s how movies are built, and that’s what readers of popular movie-like novels expect.
    • Like Water for Chocolate has a four-act structure and is a bit lopsided as to the story math. It’s divided into twelve chapters, from January through December, each headed with a recipe. I’d give it half a checkmark for the four-act structure.
  • Don’t rely on your unique authorial voice or style to deliver your message, and don’t depend on tone, such as sarcasm or irony. That kind of strictly literary, textual stuff doesn’t translate to the screen. 
    • Esquivel’s novel, with its recipes and its narrative discussions of food, is entirely idiosyncratic, and completely fails this test.
  • Don’t lean heavily on literary allusions, philosophical ideas, or abstract meditations. None of that is story per se, and it’s unfilmable.
    • Like Water for Chocolate is filled with little philosophical musings in the narrative, so it hugely fails this criterion. Here’s an example, from the end of the March chapter:

Those huge stars have lasted for millions of years by taking care never to absorb any of the fiery rays lovers all over the world send up at them night after night. To avoid that, the star generates so much heat inside itself that it shatters the rays into a thousand pieces. Any look it receives is immediately repulsed, reflected back onto the earth, like a trick done with mirrors. That is the reason the stars shine so brightly at night. 

This may not be formal philosophy–this and many passages like it in the text are more like mythology, building up the magical realism. They give the novel much of its charm, and simply don’t cross to the screen. (I’m also saddened to report that this is the kind of thing that gets cut in abridged audiobooks, which I accidentally bought in this case.)

  • Don’t make symbolism the heart of your story. If stripping symbols out would break your story, you’re not writing cinematically. 
    • Like Water for Chocolate is almost all symbolism. The recipes are symbolic, the food made from them is symbolic, the links between food, love, and life go several layers deep. The novel fails this test.
  • Don’t use a first person narrator or a complex combination of points of view. The only way to work with that in film is the dreaded voiceover.
    • Like Water for Chocolate uses a framing narrative told by a descendant of the protagonist, Tita. Within that first-person frame, the point of view isn’t simple. It’s omniscient, and often speaks directly to the reader in almost a second-person, instructive voice, like a cookbook. The film, accordingly, depends heavily on voiceover, and still has to leave out most of the cooking.
  • Don’t rely on detailed historical information to make your story work. Movies that layer on too much historical realism tend to lose sight of the story. 
    • Like Water for Chocolate is set on the Mexico-Texas border during the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1917. The historical realism here lies primarily in the way of life on the ranch, and in the elaborate recipes. The revolutionary forces do play an important role in the story, and they take a little bit of explaining, which the film doesn’t have time to do. I give the novel a pass on this one.

I hope it’s clear that I am not advising novelists to follow these rules. 

As I said in our Beale Street episode, do follow them if your whole goal in writing is to create a smooth, easy-to-swallow, undemanding story for the broadest possible target readership. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that as a writing goal, and absolutely nothing wrong with a novel that accomplishes it.

But breaking these rules is exactly what makes the original version of Like Water For Chocolate so good, and so truly, madly, deeply a novel.

The film does its best to hint at most everything important in the book. It was, after all, written by the novelist herself. She keeps whole sections of dialogue, and hits all the main plot points. There’s no doubt that the visuals of the film–the ranch, the landscape, the costumes–add detail that she chose not to spend time on in the novel. 

For example, it was interesting to see what a dovecote looks like, because I’ve never been in one. But in the novel, we do get the detail that it’s reached by a 20 foot ladder and a tiny door, and when John finds Tita there, she’s covered in pigeon droppings and feathers. I had no trouble picturing it. 

The novelist Esquivel gave and withheld details with great deliberation, while the screenwriter Esquivel had to eliminate much of what gave the story its charm, in order to do what a screenplay has to do, which, as Robert McKee says, is “to make the mental physical.”

The screenplay tries to preserve the humor, but, I’m sorry, there’s just no cinematic way to replicate the horrible hilarity of Rosaura’s death by flatulence. While reading the novel, I, at least, laughed out loud:

At first Pedro didn’t find it odd that he could hear Rosaura breaking wind even with the door closed. He began to notice the unpleasant noises when one lasted so long it seemed it would never end. Pedro tried to concentrate on the book he was holding, thinking that drawn out sound could not possibly be the product of his wife’s digestive problem. The floor was shaking, the light blinked off and on, and he thought for a moment it was the rumble of cannons signaling that the revolution had started up again, but he discarded the thought; it had been too calm in the country lately. Maybe it was the engine of one of the neighbor’s motorcars, but motorcars didn’t produce such a nauseating smell.

The beat continues for another page, giving a family recipe for abating bad smells, and a description of poor Rosaura’s funeral. 

In the film, this is compressed to a slightly embarrassing fart, and Pedro waving incense around the room. It just doesn’t convey the combination of humor, fantasy, love and food and death that the novel is built on.

In the film, this and so many other scenes were reminders of the novel, kind of like the Cliff Notes version of the book, but while watching it I was constantly aware that someone who hasn’t read the novel would feel lost.

As just one example, the film doesn’t give us enough time with Nacha, the grandmotherly cook who plays such a large role in Tita’s life and dies at the first act break. In the book, we have time to get to know her both through her words and actions, and through narrative exposition, so that we feel her death rather than just witnessing it, we feel Tita’s loss and fully understand her decision to become the ranch’s cook when marriage to Pedro is denied her.

This happens over and over in the film, and is certainly responsible for people’s sense that it’s a bit confusing or unsatisfying. You’d have to watch it several times to pick up all the tiny hints that are more fleshed out, clear, and accessible in the book. 

So the takeaway for novelists? 

READ MORE BOOKS. 

You can’t depend on films alone to provide your framework. Films are–and we’re gonna keep saying this–a perfectly good shorthand way to study global story structure and hone your analytical skills. If you can watch a dozen films and generate three statements that cover the whole story spine of each of them, as we always try to do here on the Roundtable, you’ll be building a powerful skill that will serve you well in your writing.

But we really can’t learn to write better novels just on the basis of a good story spine. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. To become good writers, we need to read. We need to read great books, hard books, interesting books, favorite books, books we aren’t necessarily attracted to, books that are outside our comfort zone. We need to invest in reading–sometimes money, but mostly time, energy, and curiosity. 

Like Water For Chocolate is a great masterwork novel to study if:

  • You’re interested in how to convey highly specific cultural details in your story
  • You’d like to understand magical realism
  • You have a story to tell in the Society/Domestic genre
  • Your story involves the liberation of women’s spirit and sexuality
  • You love food-centered stories
  • You want to study best uses of symbolism
  • You write historical fiction

and of course

  • If you’re writing a forbidden love story

Go ahead and watch the movie. As I say, it’s the Cliff Notes version, and it’s beautiful to look at. But then go read the novel. It’s a joy.

Kim– Genres at Play

Like a rich and complex recipe, LWFC has multiple genres combining to make a rich and complex story. It’s not a mashup, it’s a layer cake.

External Genre

Externally, we have Love-Courtship and Society-Domestic

  • Love-Courtship between Tita and Pedro
  • Society-Domestic between Tita and her mother, and the tradition of the youngest daughter not being allowed to marry. 

But Love is the global story. How do we know? We look at the Core Event, Life Values at stake (15 core scenes), and the Core Emotion the audience experiences.

The Core event for a Society story is the revolution, when power changes hands. This moment for Tita and her mother comes when Tita banishes her mother’s ghost. This happens at the end of the MB, with 25 minutes left to go. 

The Core event for Love story is the proof of love, which I’m going to call the final scene of the film, where Pedro dies during lovemaking after proclaiming his love for Tita loud and clear, and Tita consumes the matches to join him.

LV across the spine BH /MB/EP

Core Emotion for Society = Empowerment / Revolution

Core Emotion for Love = Romance

We can certainly see aspects of both genres, but ultimately if we ask ourselves what the story is about … it’s about Love. The meta meaning here seems to be Love triumphs when the lovers endure and despite all that divides them. In this case family, tradition, other marriages, time, forces beyond this world. 

Internal Genre 

Another intriguing aspect of LWFC is the internal genre … what exactly is it?

Friedman’s Framework for Tita

Beginning

  • Character – loyal, strong will but submits to her mother
  • Thought – naive but growing in sophistication
  • Fortune – faces misfortune at being the youngest daughter and blocked from marriage by her mother 

End

  • Character – strong will, has endured and overcome her mother, stayed true to her heart
  • Thought – sophisticated, understands the magic of the kitchen and love
  • Fortune – gains freedom to be with Pedro, only for it to be short-lived

From the outset I was tracking a Status story for Tita, signaled by the misfortune she faces from her mother that only increases over the course of the story. And my natural optimism had me convinced it would be Status-Sentimental, like a Cinderella story, where a protagonist of low-standing and misfortune rises to good fortune and success (achieves her goal) with the help from a mentor/others. The mentors stood out as well, that essential ingredient to a positive Status story and Happily ever after.

But that’s not what happened. Not exactly. 

Conventions

  • Strong Mentor Figure (e.g., Fagan, Daddy Warbucks).
    • Nacha – a strong mentor who passes on the kitchen magic and continues to exist beyond the grave
    • Gertrudis – her sister that is an ally / helper for her love story
    • John – helps her recover from heartbreak of losing baby Roberto
    • Without these people, Tita would not of survived, not really
  • Big Social Problem as subtext (Racism, Misogyny, Class)
    • Oppressive tradition, gender roles, war/revolution
  • Shapeshifters as Hypocrites (secondary characters say one thing and do another).
    • Pedro – marries Rosaura but loves Tita
  • The Herald or Threshold Guardian is a fellow striver who sold out.
    • Mama Elena? Her anger and aggression comes from her own oppression.
    • Rosaura? Marries a man she knows loves ber sister.
  • A clear Point of No Return/Truth Will Out moment, when Protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be.
    • She sleeps with Pedro
    • She rejects John’s proposal
  • Win-But-Lose or Lose-But-Win bittersweet ending.
    • Tita and Pedro are finally free to be together only to die in the passion. 

Obligatory Scenes

  • An Inciting opportunity or challenge.
    • Born as youngest daughter forced to care for her mother until she dies and never marry, but then meets Pedro and falls for him right away.
  • Protagonist leaves home to seek fortune.
    • Not allowed to marry, so instead she becomes the ranch cook after Nacha dies
  • Forced to adapt to a new environment, Protagonist relies on old habits and humiliates himself or herself.
    • Doesn’t conceal her love for Pedro
    • Cooks her emotions into food
  • The Protagonist learns what the Antagonist’s Object of Desire is and sets out to achieve it for him- or herself.
    • Tita knows Mama wants her to stay away from Pedro, but instead Tita nurses the baby.
  • Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails.
    • Mama sends Pedro and Rosaura to Texas
    • Baby Roberto dies
  • During an All Is Lost Moment, Protagonist realizes they must change their definition of success or risk betraying their morality.
    • Mother’s ghost is tormenting her for sleeping with Pedro, and while engaged to John.
  • The Core Event: Protagonist chooses to do what’s necessary to attain status or reject the world that they strived to join.
    • Banishes her mother’s ghost
    • Tells John the truth
    • Refuses John’s proposal
    • Waits for the time in the future when she can freely be with Pedro, after Rosaura’s death and Esperanza’s marriage.
  • Protagonist saves or loses him/herself based on their action in the Core Event.
    • In terms of life values, it’s the opposite of selling out, she commits to Love for life (and death)

Looks closer to Status-Tragic. Ending life value is death which feels tragic.  

The Audience experience — how do we feel? — is something Norman Friedman geniusly included in his appraisal of internal genre. Because Story never exists in a vacuum, it is designed for communication. 

So how do we feel at the end of the story?

Tragic experience vs sentimental experience 

Internal Elements spreadsheet that Leslie and I included in Internal Genres Part 1

Is this story cautionary or prescriptive? It’s a wonderfully strange mix. It feels cautionary for forces and societies that create and maintain obstacles that would keep lovers apart, and it feels prescriptive for lovers who would endure despite all circumstances, even death. 

Take Away Thoughts

Anne mentioned the interplay of social conventions and expectations for women versus women’s sensuality and desire. This is what the Virgin’s Promise archetypal framework is based on. 

The Virgin’s Promise has a baked-in Society story, because it is a revolution at home. But that doesn’t mean it’s the global, VP stories aren’t automatically global Society stories, but Society is often a backdrop.

Something I’ve noticed in the several months while working with clients is that there are almost always multiple genres in play in a story. They may be global external + companion internal (and vice versa), multiple subplots, arcs for supporting characters, and something I’ve been starting to think of as “setting” genre. It’s less overt, more underlying, and so interwoven it’s difficult to extract it from the rest of the story. It colors, ahem flavors, everything. 

It’s as if this interwoven genre acts as a convention, a setting and a means of turning the plot. Basically, the specific setting and circumstances that allow the global story to occur. This setting genre is not the global story, but the global story couldn’t take place without it, at least not in the same way, not in a way that it would be recognizable as the same story.

For example, in LWFC, without the Society-Domestic genre at play, that is the mother’s oppressive reign over Tita, her love and marriage to Pedro would never be forbidden. And the story would have ended in Act 1. In this case, the Society genre is a harmer, which we can see is a standard convention of Forbidden Love stories, like Romeo & Juliet and Brokeback Mountain.

Shawn has often said that genre is in the eye of the beholder.  One person’s Crime story is another person’s Society story (Thelma and Louise). Largely what we bring to the story, the lens we use to experience, it shades our interpretation. Many lenses are subconscious.

This is precisely the reason we must choose a global genre: it is the act of choosing, and in turn executing with intention, that makes it a Story.

There is no wrong answer, unless you don’t make an active choice and stuck to it. But the choices do produce different results, so it’s imperative to Know Thyself and the essence of what matters most to you about your story/premise/idea. Then you can make choices that preserve, support, and strengthen that intent. Your global genre choice will shine a light and magnify your big meta why. And LWFC is a great example of this .

Anne – I was feeling status, too! I’m glad you did the deep dive into it. We’re so used to the Love story that rests on the internal worldview arc of the lovers: could it be that the Status internal genre sits uneasily with a story of true love–and that’s what makes this Love story feel so unusual? 

There are societies and time periods where marriage is more bound to status than to love–where marriages are arranged for the good of the community rather than for the romantic gratification of the couple–and in those times and places, the Romantic ideal is in conflict with social norms. Clearly here in LWFC, the Romantic ideal is hard at work, but the fact is, it’s external circumstances, not internal views, that needed to change in order for Tita and Pedro to be together.

Kim – That’s interesting. I’ve noticed that the internal genres for the lovers in Courtship stories are often a combo of experiences Worldview-Maturation and the other experiences something else, often. And I think depending on whether the Love story ends positively or negatively will often dictate what that secondary genre. So I think what is especially interesting about LWFC is that both lovers seem to face a Status arc. And again, I’m having a tricky time telling if it’s positive or negative.

Jarie – Opposing Forces Mixed with Moral Weight

For Like Water for Chocolate, I’m going to look at the Love Story conventions of Opposing Forces and Moral Weight because those seem to be the strongest of the conventions at play — at least for Tita and Pedro, the main love story.

Right from the start, we get the declaration that Tita, the youngest daughter of widower Mama Elena, will never marry because as the youngest girl, she must take care of her mother until her mother dies. This is repeated twice within the first 10 minutes of the movie.

This sets up the main opposing force for Tita and Pedro who both have confessed their love for each other. Now you may wonder why I don’t consider Mama Elena a harmer.  While she clearly is harming Tita’s chances to be with Pedro, she embodies the main opposing force of “not for generations has anyone in this family questioned the traditions and my daughter won’t be the first.” A pretty powerful opposing force with some moral weight mixed in to make you feel the crushing lack of hope for Tita and Pedro.

Then, that crushing lack of hope becomes final when Pedro agrees to marry Tita’s older sister Rosaura. As Pedro and his father walk away, Pedro reveals that the only way to be close to his true love Tita is to marry Rosaura. Now the fun begins, or rather the strange twists and turns that this love story will take us on.

Tita’s fight against the opposing forces that keep her away from Pedro is through her cooking, which consumes those that eat it with the visceral feelings she has. I guess it should come as no surprise that when her nephew is taken from her, he dies and the grief over his death sends Tita into a deep despair that leaves her mute and in the care of Dr. Brown, which seems to indicate that even Tita is not immune from her powers.

The battle between tradition and the heart is the central theme of the movie told in the style of magical realism that some critics have put in the category of magical feminism.

Magical Feminism was coined by Patricia Hart in 1987 when she described The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. From Wikipedia:

The term magical feminism refers to magical realism in a feminist discourse. Magical realism’s basic assumption is the coexistence and effective merging of contradictory worldviews, the scientific and rational with the spiritual and magical.

Kimberley Ann Wells claims that the most important feature of this genre is the presence of a female magic user, most commonly a witch or a shamaness, metaphorically representing the female protest against the male-dominated world order and an act of independence

Anne, I know you mentioned something about this above. The reason I ask is that I’m trying to sort out this Opposing Forces/Moral Weight of Mama Elena, who seems to be the manifestation of the “male-dominated world order.” What do you think about Like Water for Chocolate being of the magical feminism style?

Anne – It’s barely there in the movie, but two days after Tita’s birth, her father dies of a heart attack from finding out that he wasn’t the father of the middle daughter, Gertrudis. Mama Elena goes into shock at his sudden death, and is unable to feed her newborn, so it falls to Nacha, who is the real witch or magical figure, to find ways of feeding the infant using magical knowledge.

Tita is literally suckled and weaned on kitchen magic, and embodies it herself, in a direct transmission from female practitioner to female pupil.

As to female protest against the male-dominated world order, it’s quite a bit clearer in the book that Mama Elena faces down and earns the respect of a band of revolutionaries who come to raid, rape, and pillage, but who leave peacefully after she deals with them. She is no pushover for men. She may have become a fairly horrible human being because of the cost of her own marital indiscretions, but she’s not weak and she’s not male-directed. Even Tita eventually forgives her a little in the end. So there’s plenty of women’s magic and women’s power in the story.

Jarie – Got it. So then Nacha passes down the power to Tita. This power, revealed through her cooking, is the manifestation of the rebellion against the opposing forces that are keeping her and Pedro apart. Tita is almost noble in the fight except that she does punish her rival (Rosaura) to drive Pedro to her. It’s an interesting way to show that Tita will comply in certain ways but not in others or rather it’s hard for her to follow the rules that were laid down by her mother and society.

I’m not exactly sure what lessons to take from Like Water for Chocolate in terms of writing a better love story. It has all the elements that a love story needs but I found the magical realism distracting from the love story and the main message. The setups and payoffs felt abrupt, too quick, and the matchmaking scene too on the nose. I do like the meal scenes since it shows the love and longing that Tita has for Pedro. That’s innovative and something to consider when writing how the opposing forces make the lovers feel.

Leslie – Reality Genre and Magical Realism

If you wandered into Like Water for Chocolate not knowing what to expect, you probably felt surprised when Tita’s tears in the wedding cake made the guests cry and throw up. This clue and others told me I was in the realm of Magical Realism. So it’s a great opportunity to talk a little about stories like this. 

Now, let me say upfront, I’ve read several Magical Realism novels and short stories (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie), but I’m not an expert, and this is not in any way a comprehensive treatment of Magical Realism. This is just a taste, along with a couple of observations.  

Magical Realism is different from fantasy in a lot of ways, some of which Anne mentioned earlier. How do we account for this in the SG tools? We look at the Reality Genre Leaf of the Five Leaf Clover. We usually focus on the content genres, but that is only one of five types of genres. Here’s a quick review: 

A Genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres simply manage audience expectations. 

Shawn goes on to say,

We all know what to expect from a mystery novel, a love Story, or an action movie. These categories tell us what we’re in for when we pick up a book or go to the movies or the theater. But what are those buried specific expectations that must be satisfied before a Story lands with us? What do we expect to know about a Story before we’ll even consider listening or reading or watching it?

Again, we talk a lot about the Content Genres, which give us the general content of the Story. But another important type of genre is how far we have to suspend disbelief. That is the subject of what Shawn calls the Reality Genres. The broad categories include the following: 

  • Factualism – stories that refer to facts of history or biography; it’s fiction, but it suggests, this story did happen; Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a great example.  
  • Realism – stories that could have happened but are imagined; contemporary, realistic stories like those written by writers like Ian Rankin or Jane Austen.
  • Absurdism – stories that are not remotely real; Shawn gives the example of Looney Tunes cartoons
  • Fantasy – stories of wonder and imagination that require comprehensive suspension of disbelief; there are multiple subgenres and sub-subgenres, including magical stories and science fiction. Think Lord of the Rings or Star Wars

What we think of as Magical Realism seems to be a combination of hyper realism, including the details of mundane existence, with elements of the absurd, rather than residing within a subgenre of Fantasy. We see Magical Realism in stories like “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. 

Novelist Jon Evans explains in a post on Tor.com the basic differences, and this is a great place to start.

Fantasy magic is systematic: there are rules, if implicit, dictating who can perform it, and what it can do, and how. … Magic is extraordinary, supernatural, paranormal—anything but quotidian—and the staggering implications of its existence are explored and illustrated.

Evans goes on to say,

[The] magic [in Magical Realism] is random, chaotic, surreal, of no lasting consequence to any but those who experience it; and all these supernatural events are told in the same casual, matter-of-fact tone used to describe lunches and money problems. 

What accounts for the difference? According to Evans, it is the time and place when it arises, as well as the function it serves.

Surreal fantasy is more celebrated partly because by its nature it tends to use magic mostly to illuminate and explore its characters. But more importantly, surreal fantasy, far more than systematic, is about the real struggles of our real world.

If you think about it, Absurdism comes from the conflict between our attempt to make sense of the world and the reality that sometimes chaos reigns and life doesn’t make sense. We see Magical Realism arise particularly in places where so much of life doesn’t make sense, especially in post-colonial nations, like Nigeria, Columbia, and Argentina. Similar to stories that break linear structure, they have a point beyond the narrative dream.

So what’s the practical takeaway for writers here? 

Story elements come from somewhere, they aren’t usually random. So, if you’re considering a magical realism story, do so with an understanding of where these stories come from and what they do. 

If you’ve never considered writing a fantasy or magical realism story, why might you want to read Like Water for Chocolate, or a similar story? To make a more conscious decision about your reality genre. The choices we make about here are important, and they can support or undermine your story and the message we want to send. Stories that are way outside our experience and the typical genres in which we read help us identify elements we might miss and help us innovate. For example, the French classes I took in high school did as much or more for my understanding of English than the English classes I took. 

So we need to read widely, try stories we wouldn’t normally read, look at the decisions the writer has made. Ask ourselves what effect do these decisions have on the story and me as a reader? Ask ourselves why the writer made these decisions? Now we may not find something we can apply right away, but we’ll deepen our knowledge and experience of story, and as storytellers, that is vital.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us through Twitter from Scott Lyman. He writes,

I would love to hear a podcast devoted to the plays of Chekhov, in particular “The Cherry Orchard” (There are several decent film adaptations, the best of which I think is the 1999 version starring Charlotte Rampling). The Cherry Orchard is where Chekov’s unique mixture of social satire and tragedy is most complex and most complete. 

It would be particularly interesting to hear how you might analyze a multi-protagonist narrative. 

Leslie: Thanks for your suggestion, Scott! 

Because Chekhov’s plays speak to you, I wholeheartedly encourage you to analyze your favorite ones. This is not to dodge the work. If you’ve been listening for any length of time, you know we’re not afraid of mental elbow grease. The main reason is that you won’t gain the same understanding unless you get in there and wrestle with the material yourself.

We analyze stories on the podcast that are useful to our work as writers and editors. So we choose stories that others might not and it might take us a long time to get to the ones you’re most interested in. The value for listeners of the Roundtable isn’t that we provide the answer key to the Story Grid “test” (there is no test). What we offer is to show you how writers and editors like us analyze stories. It’s important because, as you may have noticed, we don’t all see a particular story the same way. The Story Grid method includes tools that are objective in nature, but your subjective point of view is vital. The stories that speak to us do so for a certain reason, and to understand it, we each need to find that for ourselves–what are the objective elements that when combined with our subjective experience expresses the story we want to share? 

Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong. Sometimes you will. The process is the point, and the results will take care of themselves if we embrace the work.

Now, in terms of how to analyze a multi-protagonist narrative, for the big picture, I suggest breaking down the fifteen key scenes for each protagonist. That alone will give you lots of insight about how the actions of the characters contribute to the story and express different aspects of the controlling idea. If you want to go deeper, track the movement of each character on the scene level. You can add columns to the spreadsheet to track the life value shift and polarity shift for each protagonist in each scene. You might find some other element to track that’s particularly relevant to your story, and that’s fantastic. Think of the Story Grid Spreadsheet as your utility belt and add the tools you need to analyze your masterwork or your own story.

 If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

Join us next time as Leslie  continues her epic look at epic-scale action stories with the epic-est epic of them all, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us? 

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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