Story Skeleton—Cloud Cuckoo Land
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.
By David Griffin Brown
There's a certain allure to a novel that intertwines disparate storylines, tying together seemingly unrelated narratives to form a compelling whole. Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land presents us with this fascinating structure—co-protagonists who each follow their independent arcs, bound together by the threads of a mythical ancient codex. This shared reference tells the story of a humble shepherd yearning for a utopian realm beyond his reach. After trials and tribulations, he ultimately learns the importance of embracing the beauty and hardship inherent in his ordinary life, electing to return home.
Doerr adheres to the essentials of narrative structure for each co-protagonist, yet the intricacy of their interconnectedness lends this novel its unique allure. To truly understand this, we need to unpack the narrative structure for each protagonist.
Anna: The Seamstress’s Secret Skill
Anna is a young seamstress working with her sister at a convent in Constantinople in the 1400s. She dreams of literacy in a society that undervalues her potential.
Anna’s opening motivation is to learn to read, and she has a mini-inciting incident when she persuades a dying scholar, Licinius, to teach her. She so impresses her tutor with her aptitude that he teaches her in earnest. This small arc closes quickly. By the time her true inciting incident arrives, Anna has a basic grasp of reading. Just before Licinius dies, he gifts her a few pages from Homer’s Odyssey.
When Anna’s boss, Master Kalaphates, finds her few pages of the Odyssey, he goes berserk. Girls are not meant to read. He assumes that Anna’s sister Maria is the culprit and beats her for it. Anna watches in horror, too paralyzed to intervene. Thus arises her narrative goal: from this point onward, Anna must use her skills at reading to find and sell old books and thereby pay for her sister’s medical treatments (which in actual fact are quicksilver and water).
Anna climbs into and searches an abandoned priory to recover ancient moulding manuscripts, which she sells to foreign merchants. At first, she does this with great trepidation, but when the merchants realize she can read and that she has access to interesting (if rotting) books, Anna establishes a decent little side hustle. She’s able to afford more “holy water” for Maria, though the treatments only give her sister temporary relief.
Her sister Maria dies during the siege of Constantinople. The entire city is in chaos. Anna’s only remaining option is to escape in a rowboat before the city falls.
As she makes her way overland, she is drawn by a fire and the smell of roasting meat. This is co-protagonist Omeir’s camp. He hastily knocks her out and takes her prisoner, but then they start working together, and eventually their collaboration blossoms into a lifelong partnership.
Omeir: A Longing for Home
Omeir is a young farmer who has a way with animals. His cleft palate invites ignorance and fear from strangers where he lives in the countryside near Constantinople, also in the 1400s.
Despite the scorn he receives because of his split lip, Omeir grows up loved and healthy on his family farm. He has a deep connection with his oxen team, Tree and Moonlight.
A royal emissary arrives at Omeir’s family farm. They need young men and farm animals for the war, which amounts to a divine decree that cannot be refused. He is drafted into the Saracen army along with his bulls. His narrative goal arises in response: Omeir wants to return home safely with his bulls.
Given Omeir’s appearance and the ignorance of strangers, he must keep his head down and do a good job so that he and his animals will be left alone. This means he’s a somewhat passive protagonist since his plot action involves flying under the radar. In most narratives, a passive protagonist is a problem since they tend to reduce tension and, by extension, stifle a reader’s emotional draw. However, Omeir is always in danger—from the war around him, the difficult terrain, the threats to his bulls’ welfare, and threats from unkind strangers.
When Omeir’s bulls die from exhaustion, he is reassigned to latrine duty. Worse, he learns that he will be sent in as fodder in the final assault on the city—a battle in which he expects to die. When Omeir reflects on his mother imploring him to return home, he decides to defect.
He runs into Anna on the way home, and although they get off to a bad start, they find their happily ever after back at his family farm.
Zeno: Classics, Conflict, and Closure
Zeno is a closeted gay man and Korean War veteran in love with the Greek classics. Unlike the other protagonists, he has two complete arcs: one involves his disappointing romance with Rex, another veteran; the other involves a hostage situation at the local library in Lakeport, Idaho circa 2020.
Inciting incident #1
During the Korean War, Zeno is taken hostage and sent to a POW camp where he meets Rex, a British prisoner. It turns out they share a passion for Ancient Greece.
Rising Action #1
Rex plans a daring escape from the prison camp, but when the time comes, Zeno chickens out and stays behind. From that point, he can only wonder if his would-be lover was successful or if he was caught and killed. After Zeno is rescued and returned home, he tries again and again to find out what happened to Rex and whether he is still alive.
Tragic climax #1
Zeno finally locates Rex, who invites him to London for a visit. However, Rex is married, so although Zeno is happy to find his long-lost love, the romance must remain unrequited. But Zeno and Rex still have a strong connection when it comes to Ancient Greek literature and language. Rex gives Zeno a recently discovered manuscript to translate. The codex is badly damaged, so Zeno must piece the story together from the fragments.
Zeno returns home, and sometime later he receives news that Rex has died. However, he doggedly works on the translation in Rex’s honour. This forms a new stasis that leads into the next arc: a librarian introduces Zeno to some local kids who end up working with him on adapting the codex into a play.
Inciting incident #2
When Zeno and his young drama enthusiasts are rehearsing their play on the second floor of the library, they hear a loud bang from downstairs. Zeno brushes it off, but he’s convinced it was a gunshot.
Rising action #2
Zeno is paralyzed with fear, just as he was in the prison camp prior to his escape attempt with Rex. He knows there is a gunman downstairs, but he encourages the kids to continue rehearsing the play. Zeno tries to ascertain what is going on without letting the kids know anything is wrong. Later on, he tries to keep them quiet so that the gunman doesn’t know they’re there.
Finally, Zeno knows he must act, so he goes downstairs and confronts the gunman, who is co-protagonist Seymour. Zeno saves the children, the library, and even Seymour. He runs outside with the bomb, away from the library and toward the lake, just as it detonates.
Seymour: From Revolution to Redemption
Seymour’s narrative starts when he’s a boy and concludes many years later. Initially, he is a sensitive boy who suffers from episodes of sensory overload.
Seymour’s narrative begins slowly, with a coming-of-age trajectory. He is autistic, and the world is overwhelming. He tries his best to fit in, but overstimulation sends him into meltdowns that get him into trouble at school and cause his single mother to miss work. Things start to get better for him when he imaginatively befriends an owl, Trustyfriend, in the undeveloped lot behind their house. This leads him to discover old military supplies in what was once his grandfather’s shed, including a pair of ear protectors which help him shut out the noisy world.
A development company buys the old lot behind their house, cuts down the trees, and chases away Trustyfriend. Later, when Seymour finds the corpse of an owl who he assumes is Trustyfriend, he develops a hatred of development and environmental destruction. This establishes his narrative goal of lashing out at a society that misunderstands him and abuses the natural world.
As he gets older, Seymour joins a dark-web eco-terrorist group that encourages him to take violent action against those who do nothing to stop the destruction of the planet. His plan is to bomb the real estate office responsible for the death of Trustyfriend, but he will place the bomb in the back shelves of the library next door. However, the library isn’t empty as he planned. He shoots a library worker (Sharif) and then tries to call the eco-terrorism people from the dark web for assistance, but they have seemingly abandoned him.
Seymour waits around, frozen by fear. Police eventually blockade the library. He is trapped and has no real options. Eventually Zeno comes downstairs and convinces him to give himself up.
Seymour ends up in prison where he studies to become a computer programmer. He is eventually hired by Ilium Corporation to help them review and code “objectionable” content as part of their production of a vast virtual reality library. He gets in touch with the librarian, Marian, to find out more about Zeno and his translation project. Zeno has since passed away, so Marian sends Seymour his materials on the codex translation so Seymour can study his work.
Konstance: Exploring Echoes of the Past
Konstance is a young girl on the Argos, an interplanetary ship that will take generations to reach its destination. She loves working with her father in the Farm 4 agricultural section of the ship.
Like Seymour, Konstance starts out in an extended coming-of-age stasis. When she’s old enough, she is introduced to the virtual reality capabilities of the ship and its creepy overlord AI named Sybil. Konstance is particularly entranced by an “old” VR library that documents much of the planet Earth they left behind.
Konstance’s inciting incident comes after a mysterious illness sweeps through the ship. When her father realizes how bad it is, he seals his daughter inside Vault One with enough food and supplies to keep her alive for several years. Her narrative goal, then, is to delve into the VR library to find out what has happened to her parents and the rest of the crew, and how the plague could have started in the first place. In other words, her early coming-of-age trajectory morphs into a mystery to be solved.
Konstance must pursue her investigation without letting the overbearing AI figure out what she’s up to. She is driven to discover the truth behind the predicament on the Argos and what really happened back on Earth. In these deep dives into the VR library, she discovers discrepancies that hint at a sterilized history, and which led to her father signing up for the Argos mission.
The twist comes when she discovers that the Argos never went into space. The travelers were all part of an experiment gone wrong that was intended to help humanity survive environmental collapse. She breaks out of the Argos and finds freedom on a post-apocalyptic Earth.
The Structural Glue: Cloud Cuckoo Land
Cloud Cuckoo Land, the fictional lost-and-then-found manuscript written by the not-fictional Greek playwright Antonius Diogenes is the strange glue that binds all these storylines together.
For Anna, it’s the last manuscript she finds; she leaves Constantinople with Cloud Cuckoo Land and has it with her when she meets Omeir.
Omeir believes the manuscript has magical power; he reveres it as he comes to revere Anna. When their child falls ill, he asks her to read it, and when their child recovers, he is again convinced of the manuscript’s power. After Anna dies, he takes Cloud Cuckoo Land to Urbino, Italy to get it into the hands of scholars who can actually read it. The manuscript is subsequently lost for centuries until it is found by Rex, who gives it to Zeno.
For Zeno, the lost manuscript represents his final connection to Rex and what they shared in the war camp. It’s also how he ends up in the predicament he finds himself in with the library kids and Seymour.
Seymour, years later in prison, still feels bad about what happened at the library that fateful day. He gets in touch with Marian, the librarian, and she sends him Zeno’s files. Seymour studies the old manuscript and ends up incorporating elements of it into the code of the VR Atlas in his effort to leave a breadcrumb trail of the truths underlying the library’s sterilized version of Earth and humanity.
Konstance’s paternal grandmother, it turns out, was one of the children collaborating with Zeno on the play based on Cloud Cuckoo Land. Konstance’s father had a copy of Zeno’s translation, and it is this clue which leads Konstance to find the hidden content in the VR library—content hidden by Seymour—and thereby discover the truth about her imprisonment aboard a fake interplanetary ship that never actually left Earth.
Through these interweaving narratives, five protagonists grapple with the tension between escapism and acceptance, their lives echoing the shepherd's tale from Cloud Cuckoo Land. Doerr subtly threads each story with elements of the ancient tale, creating a dazzling mosaic of humanity across time and space.
The denouement sees each character rejecting their own version of Cloud Cuckoo Land in favour of acceptance and contentment in their realities. As with the shepherd in the ancient manuscript, they too learn to appreciate the beauty in their ordinary lives.
Cloud Cuckoo Land provides a remarkable study in narrative structure. In the end, the transcendent resonance of this novel invites us to ponder the power of shared narratives—the ties that bind us across chasms of time, culture, and individual circumstance.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.