June 13th 2013
A story is about progression, usually in the perspective of the main character. How do the events in the story challenge and change the main character? Conversely, how do the character’s actions affect the story? If you have a character who experiences a series of events but there’s no real progression through them, you will quickly find that your story is lacking what’s called “narrative drive,” the propulsion that pushes the reader to want to know what happens next.
Progression comes from having a clear idea of where you want your story to go, which is accomplished by outlining your structure and figuring out your beginning, middle and end. To help illustrate, we’re going to begin with the classic form of storytelling structure.
You may not know what it’s called, but if you watch movies or read at all, you are well-versed in three-act structure. In the simplest terms, it breaks down to: Setup, Confrontation, Resolution. Or “I present a problem, I attempt to tackle the problem, I resolve the problem.” This approach to dramatic storytelling is usually attributed to Aristotle. Since it is still in common use today, it’s fairly obvious he was on to something.
To delve a little deeper into it, here’s an act by act breakdown:
Act One – You establish your character (for grammatical considerations here, a female), her environment, and her situation. Classically, you introduce a character who’s down on her luck or missing something in her life. Things seem pretty bad/ordinary/depressing until …
Inciting Incident – This is the event that activates the story and the character’s journey (aliens invade, terrorists take over the building, Heroine accidentally summons a demon, etc.).
Act Two – This section usually comprises the bulk of the story as she attempts to tackle the problem. She ultimately fails. The end of Act Two is generally the main character’s lowest point (example: the antagonist defeats the Heroine and takes the guy). It’s also important to note that in most cases, by the end of Act Two the main character knows the villain’s plans.
Act Three – The main character attempts to resolve the conflict/defeat the villain and succeeds. Afterwards, she reflects on how she’s changed or grown based on the events in the story; she’s in a better place than when the story started.
Once again, this is a massively broad overview of the classic (optimistic) structure. There’s also a similar name for this style of story called the Hero Cycle, made famous by author Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces.
I would highly recommend looking around online for writings about three-act structure. While it is the simplest form of storytelling, it can be very effective, and a phenomenal format to practice with if you’re just starting out.
This is a very subjective topic, dictated by the format of the story you’re trying to tell (short story vs. novel), your personal voice/style, and the genre of the story itself. In a nutshell, your pacing is the speed at which events unfold in your story. A good author knows when to increase the pace and when to slow things down. That ebb and flow is what creates effective tension and suspense.
In short, you always want your story to be moving forward. If the momentum starts to lag too much or cease altogether, you’ll risk losing your audience. At the same time, if you try to maintain a breakneck action-like speed throughout your whole story, it will be exhausting to read and, more than likely, dramatic moments will be overlooked in the general rush.
Probably the most practical approach to understanding pacing would be to study works of a similar theme or tone and see how they handle the pacing of their narrative (where it works and, more importantly, where it doesn’t).
The character’s motivation should be fairly clear. Usually this is expressed as an active sentence (to get her husband back, to defeat the terrorists, to redeem herself). It generally comes from asking the question What does she want? The answer can be plot-based (to escape the prison) or more of a life-goal (to be the best pilot in the military). But this motivation is what helps dictate her actions and reactions to the story and obstacles she encounters in it.
Ideally, you can tie in the character’s need/motivation/want into the main conflict of the story (e.g., your hero attempts to save a little girl from slavers because she couldn’t protect her little sister/brother when slavers raided their settlement ten years ago).
You’ve probably heard the term ‘character arc’ before. This concept is basically the character’s change over the course of the story, or more specifically, your character’s change because of the story. A simple contemporary example can be found in District 9, in which the main character Wikus starts the movie hating the aliens (look at how he giggles when setting the alien eggs on fire). Over the events of the movie, he comes to understand and even help them. The larger the distance between the starting and ending point of this arc, the more dramatic the change.
3rd Person = There is an unseen narrator that can shift perspective (follows different characters in different sections). This is the most common perspective as it allows you to write out the thoughts of your characters and cross-cut between locations and situations.
2nd Person = There is a narrator, perhaps even the main character, who addresses the reader directly. Not as common, but (for example) the show Burn Notice uses this in its voice-over.
1st Person = Written from the perspective of a single person (your main character). Allows you to write her thought processes and in her vernacular (speaking style), but you can’t break from it. You can’t switch easily out of first-person perspective, so you’re pretty much locked into your main character’s head, which can be limiting to your narrative.
Be clear. Clarity in your writing is a constant battle for everyone (myself especially). You have a story and characters in your head that you’re attempting to translate onto paper (or screen) in the hopes of recreating that experience in another person’s imagination. As you become more proficient, you will figure out ways to handle this more elegantly, but you can never go wrong with keeping your story and motivations simple and clear. Clarity becomes even more difficult when you’re dealing with sci-fi. The nature of fantastical locations, technology or worlds require additional explanation, so keep your descriptions simple and to the point.
Find your own voice. Writing and storytelling are fluids concepts, changing and adapting with the tastes of the era, so nothing is set in stone when it comes to telling your story. Everything I’ve said about character arcs and narrative structure can be subverted or ignored completely and there are plenty of examples of how to successfully do it. But, until you find confidence in your skills and your voice, it doesn’t hurt to lean heavily on the classic styles to get your footing. It’s very easy to disregard storytelling structures that seem stale to you, but try adhering to them as you start to practice.
Look at books, movies and comics that you love and think about them critically. Ask yourself how they reveal the story and character development. Where are the major turning points?
Rewrite. Get used to it. Don’t expect everything to be gold. Try and fail. It’s okay. If you love the process, just learn from it and keep going. Secondly, if you write something and give it to people, challenge them to give you honest feedback. Don’t get angry if someone doesn’t like it; try to discern what his issue was and if it’s a stylistic preference on his part or lack of clarity on yours.
Most of all …
Practice. Can’t say it enough. Practice, practice, practice, practice …