Once upon a time there was a website that randomly generated fairy tales. It was called the Proppian Fairy Tale Generator, and it was based on the theories of Russian structuralist Vladimir Propp, a literary thinker who believed that the narrative structure of every fairy tale on earth could be broken down into basic elements arranged in uniform sequence. Website users select fairy-tale elements off a predetermined list and the website, created by students at Brown University, spits out weird, post-modern yarns that boggle the mind and amuse the imagination.
Reading the stories is disconcerting. Since they’re arranged by computer, the narratives don’t make much sense: Characters appear and disappear without reason, and the plot is often impossible to follow. One moment the protagonist is standing over his father’s corpse in the woods, the next moment he is speaking with his mother, and four paragraphs later, the father returns, amazingly. But despite their insensibility, the stories are mystifyingly compelling.
That’s the secret: The fairy tales only have form and no content, but they’re still engaging, suggesting just how important structure is to good storytelling. When you watch an action movie—a tight narrative form ornamented with explosions and violence—the familiar pattern is satisfying. These stories show that form can be captivating, even if the story itself doesn’t make sense. Which is the entire premise behind the Mission Impossible series, I think.