Story Structure

Some Beginning Terms:

Protagonist: The main character (or characters) of a story. The protagonist is usually a round character, complex and capable of change.

Antagonistic Forces: This is the force or forces with which the protagonist struggles. Sometimes the antagonist is simple, a villain. Other times, the antagonistic forces are more complex: varied characters, events, and actions. The antagonistic forces can even be within the protagonist as conflicting desires toward behavior or decisions.

Emotional Level = Suspense: Imagine your life having emotional high and low points. This is not hard to do, as we all have good days and bad days. A story is the graphing of a character's emotional experience from the moment it begins to its logical conclusion. Of course, in real life, experiences often do not have well-defined beginnings and endings, but that is one of the entertaining features of stories: Life would be much easier to deal with if things were clear and distinct. The fact that stories show a rather simple, straightforward view of the true chaos of the universe is a feature that makes them enjoyable.

Time: Time in stories can gain importance in proportion to the attention given to it. In most stories, it does not warrant attention and is an invisible backdrop. In others, particularly the stories of contemporary thriller feature films, time gains importance through deadlines that foreshorten the audience's perception of the ending. The ticking time bomb, the executioner's deadline and other time limitations make the audience aware of the ending of the story. As in real life, the nagging thought that we do not have much time left, creates danger and so heightens the Suspense.

Complication = First Plot Point: The complication is the initial conflict that sets the story in motion. It is the event or scene that disrupts the protagonist's life and sends him/her on a journey to resolve the conflict. In a short story, the complication is very close to the beginning, as plot time is limited. In a novel or feature film, much more time is devoted to the Set-Up, the time before complication, where the protagonist's character and desires are revealed. Of course, if the complication did not occur, the protagonist's life would not change, and the emotional level of the story would remain constant .

Rising Action = Confrontation: As the protagonist attempts to resolve the conflict presented by the complication, the antagonistic forces try to prevent that. This becomes the rising action of the story. Desire forces the protagonist forward through the story and keeps him/her from giving up to the antagonistic forces that try to prevent resolution. In the contemporary cop-killer movie, for instance, the policeman desires to solve the partner's murder, and that desire is so great not even the threat of firing (by the protagonist's superior, "Turn in your gun. You're off the case!") can deter the protagonist from giving up. The rising action, then, is a power struggle between the protag and those antagonistic forces. Those times when the protag's actions are thwarted (the protag investigates a clue and, upon getting out of the car, witnesses the house explode in flames), are the Crisis moments. At these points, the protag must decide whether to continue or to give up. Here, desire diminishes as the antagonistic forces win a battle. Desire forces the protag on, though, as suspense mounts. Remember that the antagonist forces can change in the story. There can be many obstacles to the protag's desires.

Climax = Epiphany: At the climax moment, the protag realizes the true nature of the complication and its relationship to the protag's life. The writer Virginia Woolf called this the Moment of Being. To her, this was the moment where the universe revealed itself to the protagonist. All the events of the story, all the relationships between the protag and the antagonistic forces become clear. The protag may not know how to resolve the conflict, but all the information is clear and undistorted. In the example of the cop-killer thriller, the climax scene usually centers on the true nature of the partner's death and why the protag has not been able to solve the murder.

Perhaps it's because drugs or guns or extortion were involved, perhaps the protag's boss was involved. The climax of a story is very nearly a religious revelation of information to the protag.

Because of this, the climax is also called the Second Plot Point. Its entertainment value lies in the fact that we would all like to know things for certain. Does she/he really love me? Will all this schooling really pay off in the end? In real life, we rarely know things for certain. The story gives us a model of a character's life where things are revealed in utter clarity.

Resolution and Falling Action: Once the truth is revealed to the protag, a solution to the conflict is possible. The falling action of the story is the process of devising that solution. This is where the protag acts to resolve the conflict. Many times, realizing the truth and acting upon it are two different things. We often would like to change our behavior, but the actions required often deter us. In our cop-killer example, the protag usually cannot reveal the truth of the climax because she or he has been totally discredited during the rising action segment. No one would believe. The protag, then, must formulate a strategy to reveal the antagonist, or purge the demons.

The Resolution is that point when the revelation of the climax becomes visible to the other characters. This is the true ending where all is returned to some level or normalcy. As an overly clear example, the majority of film star Bruce Willis' blood is still inside his body at the climax. By the resolution, it is outside.

Change in Protagonist = Theme: In some stories, the protagonist is changed by the experience of the story. Usually, the change is for the better. Often, the protagonist realizes that the events of the story required a fundamental change in how the protag deals with life. Usual methods of conflict resolution failed; new methods were invented. The new methods were better. This change is called break in conditioned behavior. The protag has learned new survival skills, has become a better individual. How the average reader understands this change and can benefit from it is the Theme of the story.

 Page Created on September 8th, 1998
 Last updated on April 20th,1999
   Copyright (C) 1998/1999 by Nada AbiSamra.

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