Today’s blog is about the very basics of storytelling and what to do the if you think it’s not working. I’m not going to give a detailed argument about story structure because that’s not my point here, but I will give you my rudimentary understanding of the basics so that I can explain my little test.
Dramatica is an interesting theory on story structure that is worth investigating. According to Dramatica, there are four signposts to any story.
- Signpost #1: the inciting incident
- Signpost #2: the complication
- Signpost #3: the climax
- Signpost #4: the resolution
This theory, of course, derives from Aristotle’s basic theory of drama which says that every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; the events of the novel are linked by cause and effect; the story must be about a “change of fortune” for the protagonist.
The Inciting Incident
Every story has to have a strong inciting incident, it’s what draws the reader in and sets the stakes. I’m a firm believer in giving your reader the whole story in the first chapter. By the end of the first chapter, they should know where the story is going and who the MC is. You don’t need to give everything, obviously, but a good story should have the reader wanting to know what’s going to happen next and why they care about the MC.
How much should you give away? That’s entirely up to you. But so many stories waste so much time with backstory before getting to what the story is about. Superhero movies are very popular right now and they’re the worst culprits of it. How many times do we need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents killed? How many times do we need to see Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider? Or Superman’s home planet of Kal-El destroyed? One good example of dog by this well is Iron Man, where essentially the whole story is the origin story, often told in flashbacks. The Harry Potter series (the books) does a good job of this, as well. Rowling realizes that these are children’s books and the reader may pick up the third book in the series at the school library so she makes sure to include just enough backstory in the first chapter to introduce Harry and set the stage.
The inciting incident can be caused by an outside event, like an asteroid destroying the Earth or something like that, but it’s important that the characters’ actions and decisions throughout the story are what drive the rest of the plot. Otherwise you have a bunch of events that keep happening to people that they have no control over, and it seems contrived. If it feels like no matter what the character did or didn’t do, the same result would happen, why would we care about your MC? Plus, the MC has to have options. In Sons of Anarchy, the story is about Jax turning into a murderer as he attempts to avenge the murder of his father. The inciting incident pushes Jax down the oath, but he chooses to kill people and become just like his mother instead of his father.
The complication (or rising action) may be most misunderstood aspect of the story. In a good story, there should be a point in the first part of the middle where it seems the MC has got the problem solved, only to find out that he was looking in the wrong direction or inadvertently made things worse. This is the complication stage of the story. To me, it’s important that in this area, the story is heading in the opposite direction as it will end. For instance, if you’re going to have a happy ending, this is where your MC makes a decision that ends disastrously. If it’s to be a tragic ending, then your hero has a great victory here. In the end of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, Walt succeeds in killing Gus and it seems that everything is going to be okay. But then the final season is a complete downturn. In The Godfather, Sollozzo almost kills Vito, and has the Corleone family on the run. But, in the ends, Michael kills the head of the other families and consolidated power for himself.
I can’t emphasize how important it is that the characters are involved in driving the plot of the story. Through their actions or inactions, through their decisions or indecisions, the story moves forward.
The climax is the point where the MC finally makes the decision that will lead to the resolution. Again, there’s some confusion here about what the climax is. It is not the high point in the story where we figure everything out. That’s the resolution. The climax is where your hero, either through choice or action, pushes the story into its final direction. In Sons of Anarchy, it would be the moment Jax kills his mother. In Breaking Bad, it’s where Walter decides to go back to New Mexico from New Hampshire (this is the first time I realized both states in that show start with “New”). In The Godfather, it’s where Michael puts his plan to kill the other bosses into motion.
This is the point where the story will start to become a tragedy or a comedy, in the classic sense. If it’s a tragedy, the hero is going to fail, if it’s a comedy, he’s going to succeed. This decision doesn’t make it one of these things, it points the reader into the direction. What you want is for the reader to know at this point what failure and success actually is. What you really want is for the reader not to know what’s going to happen and be actively rooting for the MC to succeed or fail. Doesn’t matter if they get it right or wrong, but they better be invested at this point.
Things can get real tricky when discussing resolutions. The climax sets the resolution in motion, it doesn’t decide it. The resolution is where the story ultimately becomes one of the 4 types of stories. This is not the dénouement, but it leads to it.
As I’ve said before, a tragedy is where the hero fails, a comedy is where he succeeds. There are also variations, a tragicomedy, where the hero fails but it’s a good thing, and a comitragedy, where the hero succeeds, but it’s a bad thing. The Godfather is a comitragedy, Michael succeeds in settling the squabbles but only by becoming the one thing he swore he’d never be. Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad are both tragicomedies, the MCs both fail to accomplish their goals, but in the end, they do the right thing by their families. Star Wars is a comedy, Luke Skywalker saves the day and is a hero in the galaxy. American Beauty is a classic tragedy, when Lester Burnham is unable to overcome his suburban ennui/midlife crisis and is murdered (I’m sure a lot of people will disagree that Lester ultimately found peace at the end, but I disagree). Believe it or not, when you’re breaking a story, and plotting it out, you’ll find yourself bouncing between all four of these before ultimately landing in the one that feels right for your story and the MC.
All good stories follow this very basic plot structure, which is simple to follow because even if you add ups and downs all you’re really doing is adding more complications. I got this synopsis from an amazing website which you must check out.
As I said, that’s the basics. I will in the future, go into much greater detail, but the purpose of this blog is to talk about a little method I going to find out if a plot is too convoluted or doesn’t make any sense. It’s the Roarke method.
The Roarke Method
This method is named after my son, Roarke. The picture above is from his How I Met Your Mother phase when he thought Barney Stinson was a god and constantly “suited up.” It was, as you imagine, legen… (that’s a real tie he’s wearing, that he tied himself) dary!
So I came up with an idea for a story about an old woman who gets conned but her horrible granddaughter and a shyster lawyer. In the end, the lawyer is actually helping her. I had the beginning, middle, and end all figured out, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there. Because it was a pretty complicated scenario, I came up with several different outlines as I was trying to break the story. In the end, I came up with one “throughline” that had aspects of different outlines. But I still wasn’t sure if it worked.
So, before I started writing the story, I told my ten-year-old son about it while we played Call of Duty online (don’t tell my wife, she doesn’t approve). When I got to the end, he burst out laughing and said: “That’s awesome!” I knew I had a solid story at that point.
Now I know what you’re thinking: why would anyone feel it necessary to dumb down all their ideas to the level of a child. That’s not what I’m saying. I finished that story several weeks ago and I k ow he wouldn’t enjoy it. But there’s something to the idea that you should be able to explain your story in a simple way that even a child can understand. Think about it. Certainly, you should be able to take a simple story and turn into something that an adult would enjoy by subject matter and word choice. But if a story is too complicated it’s too complicated and it needs help.
Also, it isn’t necessary to do this with all your ideas, just the ones you think may be too complicated. Give it a shot. If you don’t have a ten-year-old, just use whatever you have lying around the house.