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September 01, 2018

Story

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

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What is a Story?

What differentiates a story from a scene or a sketch or an excerpt; what makes a story a complete story:

Passage = movement from one stable set of circumstances to another; the experience of passage differentiates a western story from different kinds of narratives. In the course of the action, the protagonist experiences a change. This change is caused by the protagonist’s action to remove or circumvent the obstacle. The change may be described as either the protagonist succeeding at acquiring his/her desire or the protagonist failing to acquire his/her desire and giving up. The change may also be known as a Passage, a movement from one place to another. Passage usually involves implied or explicit personal transformation.

Neo discovers he is, and then becomes The One; Frodo overcomes great difficulties, is personally transformed, and succeeds in destroying the Ring

Story Arc

The “story arc” or overall structure of the story has also been known as “plot”. The traditional story arc is depicted below. Master it. Once you have done so, you can break these rules as often and in as many ways as you like. (Examples from Lord of the Rings and The Matrix films.)

Story Arc Graphic

Balance = a stable, unchanging set of circumstances

The protagonist begins the story in a state of equilibrium or balance. Things are stable, the protagonist is in stasis, i.e., not in motion or in action. Action in this case, is not the things that the protagonist does every day, without changing (go to work, brush teeth, go on date with boyfriend, etc.) The actions the protagonist takes to maintain his/her life as it is are not “action”.

Frodo living in the Shire; Neo searching for clues about the Matrix and not finding them.

Conflict = desire + obstacle

Conflict drives the story. Conflict is the desire of the protagonist blocked. The blocking of a strong desire causes the protagonist to act to remove or circumvent the obstacle. This action is the action of the story.

Frodo wants to remain in peace in the Shire but the black riders have invaded; Neo wants to find the nature of reality but he’s been searching for years and can’t find anything.

Incentive Moment = event that upsets balance, causing conflict and requiring action

The conflict may already exist in the situation but simply be in stasis like the rest of the circumstances (the Matrix exists, Neo is looking for it, Morpheus is looking for Neo), or the conflict may be introduced into the circumstances (the One Ring is found) In any case, something happens that upsets the balance, creates or increases conflict and sends the tension shooting up. This is called the Incentive Moment.

Morpheus contacts Neo; Gandalf tells Frodo about the Ring.

Action = action protagonist takes to restore balance or achieve desire

As a result of the balance being upset, conflict is created or increased to the point that the protagonist is moved, or moves him/herself, out of stasis into action. The action is what the protagonist does to restore balance or to achieve his/her desire.

Neo takes the blue pill/chooses to see the Matrix; Frodo decides to leave the Shire and take the Ring to safety.

Rising Action = series of events that increase tension and move protagonist through Passage

The Passage is expressed as a series of actions or attempts to achieve the desired goal. Each action results in an incident or event. Each action either succeeds or fails, but falls short of the ultimate goal. Each action raises the tension (feeling of conflict), the conflict, and the stakes a little more.

Neo learns kung fu and fights Morpheus, goes to see the Oracle, rescues Morpheus from the agents; Frodo goes to Rivendell and collects the Fellowship, goes through the mines of Moria, encounters Galadriel, escapes from Boromir, goes into Mordor, etc.

Climax = Breaking point of tension; moment of transformation

With the rising action, tension has been ratcheted up and up and up. At some point, it can’t go any higher and something has to break. The final incident or event that breaks the tension and forces a resolution to the conflict—for better or for worse—is the Climax. This is the moment of highest tension, conflict, action, movement. This moment is both inevitable, and surprising.

Neo becomes immune to bullets and dives into Agent Smith, destroying him; Frodo makes it to Mt. Doom, finds he can’t get rid of the Ring, and fights Gollum, hurling him, with the Ring, into the lava lake.

Falling Action = action that brings tension back down to a new state of balance

The resolution to the conflict will now create a new balance—things can never return to the way they were, but a new balance or stability will be in place. However, after getting everybody’s panties in a bunch at the Climax, you can’t just drop back into stasis. You have to bring people down slowly and connect the transformation that happens with the new balance. This is the Falling Action, which is, of course, much shorter than the Rising Action.

Neo goes back into the Matrix and does a voice over, setting us up for a sequel; Frodo goes to Rivendell to recover, then returns to the Shire but can’t settle in so he goes off to Elfland with the elves.

New Balance = not the shoes, the new stable set of circumstances after the Passage

You know the story is over when the tension is gone, the conflict is resolved. This results in a New Balance, or new set of stable circumstances, a new stasis for the xtrs. This can be hinted at, or shown.

Neo is now the leader of the resistance (hinted at); Sam is the inheritor of the peace of the Shire (shown in his returning to his family.) 

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