Having butchered the ideas or purpose (theme) and perspective, I feel it is only fair to dissect the idea of story itself. I am not talking about writing. There are plenty of great books on that already: The Elements of Style, On Writing Well, King’s On Writing…well, you make your own list. I would not dream of touching style, voice, tone, mood, and certainly not grammar. Others are far more qualified than I. Instead, I hope to talk about CONTENT, and to that end, I see three elements that are vital parts of any story: Setting, Character and Plot.
Now, having stated my intentions, let me tell you what I don’t intend: I don’t intend to start an argument with all of the teachers of creative writing out there in academia land, but I do want to take a couple of common analogies and turn them in a new direction. I do so, because I suspect at least some of you have been subjected to these ideas:
The body: This is a common analogy with regards to stories, and generally it speaks of plot (specifically) as the skeleton that holds the story up and holds it all together…WRONG!
Setting is the skeleton that keeps it all together, character is the person, themselves, but plot is like the blood: it seeps into every cell bringing the vital nutrients and oxygen without which the body dies.
The house: In this scheme, plot is often said to be the frame…FAIL!
Setting is the frame, the house itself and everything in it. Characters are the people (and sometimes animals) within the house that move around and interact. Plot is the air. It fills the house in “every nook and cranny” and it is the medium through which all action occurs. Without air, all die.
Air also has two more virtues First, it makes dialogue possible (there is no sound in the vacuum of space) so everything the characters say must pass through the air of the plot to be heard. Second, like the air, the plot should be invisible.
If you don’t understand the importance of setting, character and plot (and three is the charm), you will be missing out on story potential; and I don’t specifically mean just your particular story. I am speaking of stories in general and the best use of all three elements to full advantage.
On the other hand, if you do understand the importance of setting, how to build real characters, and above all, what plot is and how it works, I believe you may never suffer from writer’s block again. A promise? No, but near enough. If, however, you don’t know how to get there from here, read on…
I Pulling the Trigger
No story begins until something happens. I call this the story trigger. Others use other names, but all will agree that until the trigger is pulled, the story cannot begin. In a way, that may be like saying water is powerfully wet stuff, but plenty of would-be storytellers/writers (and some professionals who should know better) don’t seem to get it.
Beware the buildup: Some writers want to write a prologue and give oodles of background before getting to the trigger. In a real sense, they see the story trigger as a kind of mini-climax rather than a beginning point. Not a good idea. 20 pages of murderer motivation before the murder or 20 pages of victim life before getting killed is nonsense. Either the information is that fascinating so that it should be the story, and the murder is in fact the story climax, OR it has no business getting in the way. There is a reason why a murder mystery begins something like this:
“Mrs. Harwich followed the trail of blood across the rug to where she found the body of Mister Harwich crumpled behind the desk, dead eyes staring up at her, and she screamed.”
The same idea holds true for any story, whatever genre, literary or otherwise. Start with the trigger.
I call it a trigger because it is not necessarily a conflict as it is often called, for example:
“Jim Doonun sat in the outhouse scratching his nose, not thinking anything in particular which was typical for the man, when he had an idea. The thought just occurred to him out of nowhere. He turned it over and under and inside-out, and then he smiled. In that moment, Jim Doonun knew the meaning of life, the reason for life, the universe and everything, and he couldn’t wait to tell somebody.”
Remember: The primary purpose in telling a story is to get the audience to pay attention (the reader to keep reading) right to the very end.
A story trigger is often the revelation of conflict, but it can also simply raise questions in a reader’s mind, or even, and perhaps better, elicit sympathy for the main character.
Cinderella begins (after “Once upon a time” which is more background than needed) there was a good little girl whose mother died. BINGO: “good girl,” “mother died.” Immediate sympathy.
A few years later, her father remarried and thought it a good arrangement because the woman had two daughters about the same age as his own. Then he died. Double BINGO. What is going to happen next? In three short sentences we have everything needed, empathy for the main character, events that lead to a questionable situation and the curiosity to see how it is all going to work out.
The point: Every story needs a trigger and should begin with the trigger: Something has to happen, some event, some sudden conflict, something unexpected, a situation revealed, something that shakes the character and takes them out of their comfort zone. The story is about how people deal with it. That is what story, any story is all about: people dealing with it until they find a new comfort zone or until they die (or until they finish the first leg of a journey if you are aiming at sequels).
II: Intent/objective, obstacles and resolution
The story begins when the trigger is pulled. I am not going to repeat my last post, but I want to underline this because this is the opening part of any story which might best be called part 1. Part 2 is the meat of the story, and that begins when the main character (s) intentions/objectives are clarified, something that should be done ASAP.
Think of a good meal at an expensive restaurant. Part 1, the trigger is the appetizer. It gets the juices flowing in anticipation of what is to come. Part 2, the meat, is like the main course and it may be gourmet sparse or American obese, but it should taste good to the end,
Once Again: The primary purpose in telling a story is to get the audience to pay attention (the reader to keep reading) right to the very end.
With that in mind, it is important to point out a couple of things.
First, with the conflict/dilemma/situation established in the trigger, now the main character must do something. They may have to decide something, want or desire something, or they may be forced or feel forced into something or have to make a choice. All potentially true descriptions of the options, but at some point, the main character has to do something—they have to act on their intention in order to achieve their objective
Second, every action, event and situation in the story after the trigger must relate to the main character (s) intention/objective (goal), either to help or hinder. Anything extraneous must go.
Consider Cinderella: Once her father dies and she finds herself in servitude, all she can do is dream of a chance to be free—to be happy. The situation is unfair. She wants a better life than the one fate has dealt her (as maybe we all do—another way of drawing a person into empathy with a story). So she waits, looking for her chance, and it comes in the form of an open invitation to the ball.
All through the meat of the story, everything Cinderella does relates to her escaping her situation, even if only for a little while as she supposes the ball to be. Everything that everyone else does either helps her or hinders her—either moves her closer to her goal or stands as a obstacle that somehow must be overcome. Her mother’s old dress is shredded in some versions. Her workload is tripled in others. Everything appears impossible short of divine intervention; and that is what she gets in the form of a fairy godmother.
Note: Cinderella’s divine intervention consists of giving her a chance, nothing more. It solves no problems. It is still up to Cinderella to go to the ball and do well or poorly on her own. Some stories that allow for this kind of divine intervention go too far…but that may be another post.
Part 2, the meat of the story is where all of the action takes place. And it ends, as I see it, with the climax: success or failure. Just when everything once again looks impossible, Cinderella has the other shoe.
Part 3, then, is coffee and dessert. The evil stepmother is defeated, the wicked stepsisters are left in their jealousy and rage. Cinderella will marry the Prince and effectively leap-frog over their heads. She will one day be their Queen.
These three parts are essential to any story. 1. There must be a trigger. 2. The main character (s) must act and overcome obstacles to attain their goal. 3. In the end, they must succeed or fail. Three parts, and in my next post I want to talk a bit about the magic of three…
III: The magic of 3: Obstacles
“Three strikes you’re out” is a well known American expression; but there is also “third time’s the charm” and “good things come in threes.” In storytelling, three is a good thing, a bit of a magic number as we first touched on in the last post.
Two posts ago, I suggested that there were three vital parts to any and every story: setting, character and plot. Last time I suggested that a story is best told in three movements which I called, the trigger (appetizer), the meat (main course) and the end (coffee and dessert). These are not technical literary terms, to be sure, but I hope they may be easy to remember.
The trigger is the set-up/motive that at least suggests what the main character wants/needs/intends. The meat of the story shows what obstacles stand in the way and what the main character does about them in order to obtain their intention/objective. It is where all the action takes place, whether that is external action or internal action in the mind or heart. The end comes at the climax, success or failure, and again it at least suggests some consequences. The end shows the results.
Now, there are two other ways in which three (3) parts in a story is generally a good idea.
First, there are the obstacles themselves. Aristotle, and most academics since his day call them reversals. As the character strives for their intended objective, something invariably gets in the way and causes a “set-back”.
In every story, something must stand between the character and the achievement of their intent or objective. Why? Because that is the way life works, and also, for the story to work, it is best that the objective not be achieved too easily. Only one obstacle overcome may make a point, but it will leave us inevitably dissatisfied, and in fact make the story into a parable.
If Cinderella starts with once upon a time…her mother died. The first reversal comes when her father dies and she finds herself in an untenable position. The Stepmother controls the house. The money and servants are all gone and Cinderella finds herself as the servant in the house. If we consider her objective to be “happiness” or something like that, her position makes that most difficult. To her credit, she does not let that get her down. She refuses to give into despair, and if the story ends here, as a parable, we might say it is telling us to find happiness inside regardless of the outward circumstances in which we find ourselves. All fine and well, but to make the parable a story, Cinderella refuses to give up.
A second reversal is required to make a story…so there is an open invitation to a royal ball, and Cinderella jumps at the chance for even that brief moment of happiness. What does she do? She rummages through her mother’s old clothes (the mother who died and started it all) and fixes a dress; but then the obstacle steps in. The Stepmother shreds the dress, and Cinderella’s hope is suddenly all gone.
This second reversal makes a parable into a story, but it is no place to end the story. (The second reversal never is). Somehow, we already side with the girl and feel that Cinderella should get to the ball. This is the tension, and it is building and it needs to be resolved.
So, in comes the fairy godmother, Cinderella goes to the ball only to run at the stroke of twelve. She returns home to her servitude, and might we end the story there? Yes, but would it satisfy? No. With a taste of her objective still in her mouth, we are thoroughly on her side. Now we want to see her out of her terrible situation. We want justice. We want her to succeed.
There needs to be a third reversal. Why? Because now we are rooting for her and a reversal at this point will build the tension in a way that will make the resolution most satisfying (something the second reversal cannot do). If the second reversal makes a parable into a story, the third builds the tension to make the climax/resolution of the story worthwhile.
The Prince comes with the glass slipper, and if the story is told right, we think, great! Now Cinderella will get her wish and the Stepmother will get her deserved come-uppance. So what happens? First, Cinderella is locked into her room, and when she escapes, the stepmother breaks the glass slipper in a kind of double whammy. (Boo! Hiss!) How impossible for poor Cinderella…but slippers run in pairs.
Ta Da!!!!! The Prince has no reason to doubt that this is the one he has been seeking. No dubious slipper try-on scene.
There can, of course, be more than three reversals, but for a real story, it is hard to imagine less. Third time is the charm. With four reversals, the story might drag. With five, it might start to get boring. With six, a listener or reader might get frustrated. Seven? I think it is a sign of mental illness to try the same thing over and over and expect a different result.
There is another way in which good things come in threes. That has to do with character formation and the relationships between characters that drive stories…but that will have to wait until the next post.
III (continued): The magic of 3: Characters
So far, I have tried to show how a story should contain three parts: the trigger, the meat of the story, and the climax/resolution. I have also tried to show that during the meat of a story there should be three obstacles: the parable, the story and the tension builder that leads directly to the climax and resolution.
There is another way in which three is an important consideration for any story. That has to do with characters, and specifically with primary characters. One may be the main character, but most often (though not always) there will be three primary characters of which the main character will be one.
To begin, let me say that it is very difficult to write a one primary character story, even in first person. It has been done, but it is very difficult to maintain interest for a long piece. Why? No relationships.
Remember: The primary purpose in telling a story is to get the audience to pay attention (the reader to keep reading) right to the very end.
Two is better because then you can at least have a protagonist and an antagonist. True, the relationship will be singular and strictly defined and as such it might work best in a short story; but at least with two primary characters there is some room to play off the relationship between the two. Even here, though, for a longer piece there are strict limits on what is possible.
Thus authors have often given their main character a third person to be, at the very least, a foil for their main character. Sherlock Holmes had his Doc. Watson as well as his antagonist, Doctor Moriarity. Tom Sawyer had his Huck Finn as well as his antagonist Injun Joe. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, and his Dulcinea. He did not really have an antagonist outside of his own mind. That being the case, a love interest is a really good choice.
Three is the optimal number. Consider Luke and Leah (Star Wars) fighting the rebellion without Han Solo to save them. Or for that matter, consider the young Jedi Luke going up against the Evil Emperor without Darth Vader to get in the way. Consider Frodo and Sam (Lord of the Rings) struggling to get to Mordor without the added dimension of Gollum. Or Harry and Ron (Harry Potter) without the added dimension of Hermione. Try and picture any of these stories without that third wheel. Could the story have worked? Probably, but it would not have been nearly as good.
It is inevitably the third wheel that multiplies the relationships and gives depth to a whole work. This is true even if the third primary character is little more than a device or plot catalyst such as in the case of many fairy tales. Without Repunzel, though, why should the Prince and the Witch come to blows? Without the Prince, why should Cinderella hope and her Stepmother worry? Thus we have the wolf, Red Riding Hood and “Grandma, what big eyes you have.” Three works!
Four or more primary characters is certainly possible if you don’t mind coming off like a Russian novel and if you can keep all of the relationships straight. Now, you might say, “Wait a minute. I can think of plenty of stories of four or more characters.” But how many of those characters are primary and how many are secondary?
Doc Watson and Sancho Panza might both be considered supporting actors, but in some ways they are as integral to their stories as Darth Vader is when he stands between Luke and the Emperor. In that sense, the third wheels may be supporting but cannot be considered “secondary” Let’s face it, antagonists, nearly always primary characters, often have very little to do with the action. Sauron in Lord of the Rings is merely an eye. But as a figure looming in the distance, that eye is a character integral to the story around which so much of the action takes place, and as the primary catalyst of the whole story, one can only consider Sauron as a primary character. The others? The Hobbit and the King…
Then there were 4 as in Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in C. S. Lewis’ classic tale of Narnia. Yet, I would argue that in a very real sense, though one betrays them, the children act almost as a character unto themselves. In other words, I feel Lewis might just as well have named the book “The Lion, the Witch and the Children.”
Of course, a story can be written with any number of primary characters, but three works great. It allows for a variety of relationships and sufficient complexity to carry a story a long way. Four or more, on the other hand, starts to get too complex, not only for the author, but also for a reader. It is something to consider.