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The Shape of a Story, and Why We Tell/Read Stories

The keynote speaker at the Write on the Sound Writers Conference [1] at which I did my workshop was a film writer named Brian McDonald [2]. He had an interesting take on the shape (structure) of a story. Since storytelling in a novel and on the screen is fundamentally pretty much the same, I thought I’d share what he had to say about that, and about storytelling in general.

Here are the elements of a story. They are simple, yet I think this works. To tell your story, you simply (yeah, right) complete the sentences.

1. Once upon a time . . . The beginning, the setting of the scene, the introduction of a character

2. Every day . . . The life of the character as it is, and is about to be disrupted

3. Until this . . . Something happens, the inciting incident, that throws a character’s life out of whack

4. Because of this . . . The character reacts with an attempt to put her life back on track, but there are complications.

5. Because of this . . . The effort fails, and then the character tries again (there can be a series of these), and there are complications.

6. Until finally . . . The climax, the point in the story that the character achieves her goal

7. For every day . . . The resolution, the tying of things together (or not, if you have an ironic ending) that completes the story experience

Mr. McDonald then had the audience fill in the blanks. I don’t write fast enough to get all of the ideas that were tossed out, but here’s an approximation.

1. Once upon a time, Mary was a traffic cop in Boston at the intersection of Fourth and Fifth.

2. Every day she would direct traffic, rain or snow or heat wave, and dream of doing “real” police work.

3. Until a driver stopped his car in the middle of the intersection, walked to the car behind him, shot the driver, and then ran off. Mary stood frozen.

4. Because of this, Mary felt terribly guilty that she had done nothing. More than that, because she did nothing, there are those in the press who accuse her of being a part of the murder.

5. Because of this, Mary spends her nights tracking down the killer . . . and then the killer does it again, right at her intersection. Accusations reach a peak, and she is suspended from the force.

6. Until finally she locates the killer and follows him in her car to her old intersection. When he jumps out, gun in hand, and approaches another car, she runs him over and saves the day

7. She is awarded a medal and made a detective, and every day she lives her dream of being a real cop.

It might be fun to see if you story has these elements. In terms of screenwriting, McDonald breaks these parts down this way:

Once upon a time. . .
Every day . . .
Until this. . . (the turning point)
Because of this (the middle)
Because of this (the middle)
Until finally (climax)
For every day … (resolution)

So why are there stories, anyway?

McDonald said that there has never been a culture that had no storytelling. So why are stories—and we storytellers—so ubiquitous? Why do cultures seem to NEED stories?

I’ve said now and then that stories help us understand how to be human beings, and that notion is in agreement with McDonald’s theory, but he puts a finer, sharper point on it.

It’s because, McDonald says, they have survival information. Even fairy tales deliver that—Hansel and Gretel is a story about the danger of strangers. Children who get that lesson are less likely to succumb to the temptations of a villain.

Stories, he said, are a way of getting the benefit of someone else’s experience without having to go through it. This holds true even if the experiences you share are in actuality imagined ones created by an author. They’re still a fresh look at life.

Romances portray experiences that have to do with relationships, as do literary novels. Thrillers deal with surviving extreme circumstances—the followers of the MacGyver series even learned tricks they could use.

McDonald said to think of it this way: conflict in a story is about surviving. If, in a scene, the conflict you introduce doesn’t impact the survival of the character, even in a minor way, then maybe it doesn’t have the stakes that make it a meaningful conflict in terms of the story.

For what it’s worth

Image by ftongl [3].

About Ray Rhamey [4]

Ray Rhamey [5] is the author of four novels and one writing craft book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. He's also an editor of book-length fiction and designs book covers and interiors for Indie authors and small presses. His website, crrreative.com [5], offers an a la carte menu of creative services for writers and publishers. Learn more about Ray's books at rayrhamey.com [6].