May 7, 2012

back to basics: propp's functions, introduction

Next up in the Back to Basics series is Propp’s Fairy Tale Functions, which I discovered upon reading Memo from the Story Dept. by Christopher Vogler and David McKenna. Most of what I have to say on the subject will be story analysis. The actual breakdown of each stage is Vogler and McKenna’s doing. In their book, they compare the functions to the Hero’s Journey, but I’m not going to list that here. In all honesty, you should read the book. I learned a lot from it.

Propp’s Functions result from his observations of about a hundred Russian fairy tales. In those stories, he found repeating patterns, identifying thirty-one in all. These functions are not necessarily a structure, as we would consider The Hero’s Journey or Three Act, but instead, they are pieces that can be mixed and matched, a “compendium of possibilities” as Vogler says.

I’ll do a quick summary today, and then starting Thursday, I’ll cover the first six or so functions more in depth with examples. As I said before, these are Vogler’s words, not mine. I haven’t studied Propp’s functions as extensively as I’ve studied the Hero’s Journey, and so honestly, I don’t feel qualified to expound with my own opinions and theories about them. However, I do plan to attempt writing a story based on these functions, so perhaps in the future, I’ll be better equipped to analyze the functions more deeply.

For another, simpler summary, check out the Wikipedia page on Vladimir Propp.

Propp’s Functions

The Initial Situation: There’s a family or a hero living somewhere.
1.      Absentation: A member of the family is dead, kidnapped or lost. Something’s missing from the hero’s life.
2.      Interdiction: Someone tells the hero “Whatever you do, don’t…” (open the door, go into the woods, etc.)
3.      Violation of Interdiction: The hero does exactly what has been forbidden, or fails to do something he’s been told to do.
4.      Reconnaissance: The villain, perhaps tipped off by Function III, seeks information about the hero. (Or the hero may seek information about the villain.)
5.      Delivery: The villain gets information about the hero. Or the hero gets information about the villain, perhaps brought by an informant.
6.      Trickery: The villain uses information to deceive or trap the hero, or to steal something.
7.      Complicity: The hero is tricked, or unwittingly helps the enemy.
8.      Villainy or Lack: The villain does harm to the hero or someone close to him or her; or something vital to the hero and hero’s world is missing.
9.      Mediation, the Connective Incident: A dispatcher makes misfortune or lack known to the hero; the hero is approached with a request for help, sent on a mission by the dispatcher, or released from captivity.
10.  Beginning Counter-Action: Usually a verbal declaration of the hero’s intent.
11.  Departure: The hero leaves home to undertake the adventure.
12.  First function of the Donor: The hero meets a “donor” who first tests or questions him, perhaps even attacks him.
13.  Hero’s Reaction: The hero passes the test, or else fails temporarily. It might take three tries, but he or she passes the test eventually.
14.  Receipt of a Magical Agent: The hero receives weapons, equipment, magical powers, or transportation from the Donor, or wins the support of an ally or helper.
15.  Guidance: The hero is transported or guided to a new land where lies the object of his search.
16.  Struggle: The hero and villain do battle, match wits, play cards, etc. or the hero struggles to replace what is lacking.
17.  Branding: The hero is visibly wounded in the battle, or is branded or marked somehow after the battle, or receives a token like a ring or scarf, which will later prove his victory.
18.  Victory: The villain is defeated.
19.  Liquidation: The harm done by the villain is healed or whatever was lacking is restored.
20.  Return: The hero heads for home, or for the court of a king.
21.  Pursuit: The hero is pursued by the villains relative or associate.
22.  Rescue: The hero is rescued or rescues someone.
23.  Unrecognized Arrival: The hero is not recognized on arrival at the destination.
24.  Unfounded Claims: A new villain claims credit for defeating the first villain or claims the right to marry the princess/inherit the kingdom.
25.  Difficult Task: The princess (or her father) sets a difficult task for the hero, or the hero must compete with the false claimant to do the task. A series of three tasks is not uncommon.
26.  Solution: The hero manages to perform the difficult task(s), often with the aid of a magical helper or agent.
27.  Recognition: The hero is recognized because he or she was able to perform the task(s) or because someone sees the brand or token proving that he or she defeated the villain.
28.  Exposure: The villain fails to perform the task or otherwise is revealed to be an imposter.
29.  Transfiguration: The hero acquires a new appearance. He or she is magically transformed or receives new garments symbolizing a new status.
30.  Punishment: The (second) villain is punished by the princess or her father.
31.  Wedding: The hero marries the princess or takes possession of all or half of the kingdom.


  1. I noticed that up to step 11, in particular, it seemed like a breakdown of the various pre-call to action things so that by step 11, it's off the hero goes.

    I'm sooo bookmarking this for a special project I'm slowing working on. Thanks!!!

    1. No problem, Angela! I'm looking forward to using it myself :)

    2. By the way, I meant to tell you I like the new banner for your blog.