Monday, May 20, 2013

Let's Tell a Story

5 Essential Parts
A while back, I wrote a piece about how to plot your novel. Well, today, we're going to break that down
even further into its basic elements. How do you go about the “simple” process of telling a story. I've read and seen a lot of answers to this question, but we're going to keep it as simple as possible.
At its base level, there are 5 parts to a good story; foundation, change, significance, culmination, and purpose. That’s not to say that these are the only parts or the order in which they must appear. However, take any one of these away and you might be left with a story that doesn't feel whole. And starting to write before fully understanding what makes your story complete can make the experience harrowing. Writing can be challenging as it is. Let’s go through the parts and see what we have.

1.       Foundation – This is the “Once upon a time…” or “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…” aspect of the story. What’s the norm? What’s the average day-to-day like in your story? Even if it’s just a glimpse, providing this information gives your story a platform on which to build. We don’t always need to put this up front, but we need to know it’s there. No character should live in a bubble… unless your story is about a character in a bubble… so, show the life that goes on around him/her/it. Bob was a hard-working man who loved life and his family.

2.       Change – Something needs to change the status quo. You’ve established the norm, so now you need to introduce the catalyst that induces a change to which your main character(s) needs to react. The extent of the change need only be relative to the main character’s need to be affected. Folks have a tendency to assume that big things need to happen in order to invoke change in a story (eg, death, cataclysm, zombies). However, sometimes the smallest stones make the largest ripples. Bob loses his well-paying job.

3.       Significance – The change has occurred. What does this lead to? How is your main character’s daily life affected? In life, as in the stories we tell about it, events aren’t usually cut and dry; Bob can’t afford food anymore and is forced to kill his neighbor. Hmmm…seems like we might be missing something. Like maybe some details? Bob can’t afford food anymore; Bob’s neighbor offers to give Bob help, but he wants something in return (a night with Bob’s wife); Bob’s got nowhere to turn and is running out of options; Bob’s sadistic neighbor taunts Bob and threatens to… and we could go one, but you get the point. A series of events then leads us to the…

4.       Culmination – …and in the end, Bob and said neighbor struggle in a fight to the death before Bob comes out on top. Extreme? Yes. Overly simplified? Indeed. But, you get the picture. You’re significant events must lead to a focal point, or climax. This is where everything comes together and the conflict that has propelled the story to this point is resolved, one way or the other.

5.       Purpose – Why did the character just go through all of that? What’s the resolution, or the new norm? Essentially, what’s the moral of your story? I would argue that this is the most important part of your story. What is it that you’re trying to tell the reader? When Bob is arrested, the police discover that his neighbor is a wanted serial killer and Bob is exonerated and they all live happily ever after (except for the neighbor, obviously). The moral? Don’t mess with Bob.

These 5 points create the thread of your story. While the order of the story thread can vary, it’s rare to find a good story that doesn’t incorporate each one of these. If you have an idea for a story, determine which of these parts you know and which you don’t. I often have 1, 2, and 4 in mind before I ever start writing, but 3 and 5 can often be the most difficult to put together on the fly. Starting your next project with all of these pieces in place can make the story-writing experience that much more enjoyable.