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Cambridge University Press 2002

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Types and genres

The concept of the masterplot is closely bound up with the concept of the type. A type is a recurring kind of character. Cinderella is both a type (embodied in the character of Cinderella) and a masterplot (her story). The battered wife is a type, and her story, with its repeated beatings, the alternating rages and repentances of her often alcoholic husband/lover (another type), is the masterplot. For a conclusion, this latter story has two current variants: her death at his hands and his death at hers. A masterplot comes equipped with types. When a type does not come to life in a narrative and we see the character only as a formula for a character, we call it a stereotype. The term is a good one. It comes from the history of newsprint and refers literally to a cast metal plate in which the print is fixed. When we see a stereotype in a narrative, we see something so fixed and predictable that it seems prefabricated. Masterplots can be rendered stereotypically as well. In such cases, all we see is the masterplot. The particular narrative in which it is conveyed brings little of interest to the story. But again we should note that we all differ in our responses to narrative. We all know intelligent people (including perhaps ourselves) who have been moved to tears by a narrative that for many other intelligent people is laughably stereotypical from beginning to end. This apparent failure of taste, or lack of sophistication, has a lot to do with masterplots and our personal vulnerability to some of them.

Another term closely related to masterplot is genre. A genre is a recurrent literary form. Epic and tragedy, for example, are narrative genres. There are many non-narrative genres as well (the sonnet, the expository essay). Genre, which comes from the French word for "kind," is a loose concept. It can apply to large categories like the novel (a very broad and inclusive narrative genre) and it can apply to subsets of these large categories, like the picaresque novel (the episodic adventures of a rascal, told in the first person) and the epistolary novel (narrated in letters). Moreover, a text can combine two or more genres. Thus a novel, for example, can be both picaresque and epistolary. Sometimes, but not always, genres are closely bound up with certain masterplots. Perhaps the oldest and commonest example of this is the quest. It is a literary genre, but it is also a particular kind of masterplot. The genre of the novel, in contrast, carries with it no assumption that it will conform to any particular masterplot whatsoever.


Narrative rhetoric at work

I described the O. J. Simpson trial as a contest of narratives in which the con­testants draw on masterplots (among an arsenal of other rhetorical tools) to achieve the effect of normalization. This is invariably the Narrative rhetoric at work case in legal trials, though courts of justice are not the only place that contests of narratives can be found. One finds them everywhere, from politics to family arguments. This is a subject I go into at length in Chapter Eleven. But sometimes one finds a contest of narratives carried on within a containing narrative. This can be a very effective tool in narrative's rhetorical repertoire, since in such cases the contest is often "no contest." After all, there is only one author running the show. This kind of managed contest is worth pausing to look at. Can you see the contest of narratives in the following news report? Who wins?


Khadafy Calls Confrontation with U.S. a Libyan Triumph

New York Times News Service

TRIPOLI, Libya - Col. Moammar Khadafy claimed victory Friday night in his confrontation with the United States over the Gulf of Sidra.

In a rambling speech to a crowd of more than 1000 soldiers, sailors, Boy Scouts and party faithful bused in for the occasion, the Libyan leader repeatedly described the out­come of his showdown with the Sixth Fleet as “a triumph”...

In his speech, Khadafy insisted that Libya had shot down three American fighter planes and that the Americans had sunk only a fish­ing boat. The United States has asserted that no planes were lost and

that two Libyan naval patrol boats were sunk.

"The Americans are lying," he said. "They can't believe a small country could shoot down three planes. We shot down three planes, and the six fliers are being eaten by the fish in the Gulf of Sidra.

"America has gone mad in the past few days. They shot a fishing boat and claimed it was a warship."

A few minutes later, Khadafy as­serted that an American helicopter had been allowed to cross the "line of death" to pick up a wounded flier and a body.

The colonel said that two Amer­ican rockets had been fired at the Libyan missile site at Sidra but that

one had failed to explode. He said it was being given to the Russians, "so they can learn its secrets." ...

The crowd Friday night, like oth­ers seen at rallies here in the last few days, was small and seemingly lack­ing in enthusiasm.

All those in the crowd appeared to be members of organized groups,

like the soldiers and sailors, who could be rounded up and brought in.

Some people managed to slip away before the speech was finished, and on the edges of the crowd many smoked and chatted, paying little attention to the fiery oratory.8

Something happened in the Gulf of Sidra on 26 March 1986. There is a story here somewhere, though very few, if any, of us will ever have a narrative rendering of this story that can be fully confirmed. What we do have in this article is three narratives. There is the "official" US narrative account of the incident, which we glimpse only in one sentence of the third paragraph. There is Colonel Khadafy s narrative of the incident, rendered in "direct discourse" (in the words of the character Khadafy, who acts as a narrator within the piece). And there is the journalist's narrative, which both includes and exceeds the other two narratives. Let's look at the second and third of these.

Narrative Two. Before all else, we must acknowledge that this narrative is told not by the real, living Colonel Khadafy, but by a character, "Colonel Khadafy," within the article's larger narrative. Saying this is not to impugn the integrity of the Times reporter who filed the account but to acknowledge our first principle: that, insofar as it is narrated, any story is an act of mediation and construction, and this includes its characters. That said, we can see clearly here that the character/narrator "Khadafy" is working with the masterplot of David and Goliath: a small, struggling nation has taken on the most powerful nation on earth and with careful aim knocked three of its vaunted fighters out of the sky. Directly reinforcing the masterplot are two supplemental details: the Americans claimed to sink a warship but only sank a fishing boat, and the six fliers of the three downed planes are "being eaten by the fish in the Gulf of Sidra." Both incidents are unnecessary for the story (they are not constituent events), but "Khadafy" is moved to include them because they reinforce the David and Goliath reversal. Both attach an idea of smallness to the most powerful nation on earth, especially the image of mighty US pilots being eaten by little fish. Two other supplementary events provide indirect rhetorical support. Risking apparent contradiction, 'Khadafy" states that an American helicopter had been allowed to "cross the 'line of death' to pick up a wounded flier and a body" and that an unexploded rocket had been forwarded to the Russians "so they can learn its secrets." However true or untrue these supplemental events may be, they do their rhetorical work. The first expresses the compassion (moral largeness) of a small nation, and the second indicates that the small nation has large friends.

Narrative Three. The journalist's narrative works to undermine the or­ator's masterplot and to replace it with the ranting of a type: the tin-pot dictator. As with "Khadafy's" narrative, here too the reigning motif is diminishment, though now working on "Khadafy" and effected largely through setting. In the last three paragraphs, the journalist sets in contrast to "Khadafy's" oratory the indifference of a small bused-in crowd, "lacking in enthusiasm." Notice how the setting is in part made up of tiny supplemental narrative events: "Some people managed to slip away before the speech was finished, and on the edges of the crowd many smoked and chatted, paying little attention to the fiery oratory." In this way, the journalist's narrative shrinks "the Colonel" even as "the Colonel" seeks in his own narrative to shrink his enemy.

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