Stories are often classified by type, such as mystery, romance or adventure. Or, you can gather them under the headings of dramas, comedies or tragedies. Dramas are basic stories about some interesting or exciting events. Comedies are stories that take a humorous or lighthearted approach. Tragedies are stories in which the hero valiantly battles forces too powerful to overcome. Tragedies have an unhappy ending. However you think of them, all are about someone doing something; they are a combination of character and plot.
“Characters” are the someone, the people in the story. They may be the people around you or people that you invent. While there may be other characters, every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist, or hero, is whom the story is about. The hero can be a man, a woman, a child or even an animal. The antagonist is the opposing force; usually a villain but it could be a force of nature or even the hero’s internal conflicts.
“Plot” is the something that these people do. If you think of a story as a journey, plot is the road map that keeps you from getting lost along the way. In this article, we will help you develop your road map.
Basic Building Blocks
Every story has three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end. In live theater, these parts are called “acts.” Each of these parts has an important function: The beginning serves to introduce the characters and establish the problem the hero must solve.
Every story has three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end.
The middle is the most involved, and usually the longest part. The hero must overcome increasing difficulties. Just when it looks like the antagonist is going to win, we have…
The end in which the hero puts out a supreme effort and reaches his or her goal – usually. Most stories have happy endings. The audience does not want to cheer for a hero through all her trials only to see her go down in flames at the end. If the story has an unhappy ending, the hero (or at least the audience) should gain something, like a better understanding of herself or the world.
You often hear that a story requires conflict. This does not necessarily mean gunfights or fisticuffs. “Conflict” is another name for the difficulties that the hero has to overcome. “Boy meets girl, boy courts girl, boy gets girl” may be the way it usually happens in real life, but audiences don’t watch videos to see the kind of life they are already living. Storytellers learned long ago that “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” is more interesting.
Let’s look at some familiar stories and see how they fit the basic pattern. As you watch stories, look for the three-act structure. See who is established in the beginning and what the protagonist’s goal is. The transition to the middle can usually be identified by a dramatic change in the hero’s situation.
In the middle, observe the obstacles or problems that are placed in the way of the hero. These difficulties often increase in severity until it seems that there is no way the hero can gain the goal. The transition to the end may be another radical change in the situation.
In the end, the protagonist manages to best the opposition and reach the goal. The story quickly winds down after that, tying up loose ends.
Case study 1: Little Red Riding Hood.
In the beginning, we meet Little Red Riding Hood who is tripping through the woods on her way to Grandmas. On the way, she meets the Big Bad Wolf. We have met the characters and learned Red’s goal.
In the Middle, the Wolf takes a shortcut to Grandmas, disposes of her, and slips into bed disguised as the old lady. When Red comes in, she begins to get suspicious. Tension rises and the situation degenerates until the Wolf chases Red around the house, and in older versions of the story, eats Red.
In the end, Reds screams bring in a brave woodsman, who kills the Wolf with his axe and saves the girl (in the versions of the story where Red gets eaten, the woodsman saves Red by splitting open the Wolf’s stomach).
Case Study 2: The Three Little Pigs
In the beginning, our heroes, the pigs, go forth into the world. Cheerfully, they build themselves a straw house. Suddenly our favorite villain, the Wolf, shows up.
In the middle, the Wolf blows down the straw house, with the pigs barely escaping. They try again with a house made of sticks, but this does not stop our villain either. Finally, the pigs figure it out and build a brick house.
In the end, the Wolf, never one to give up easily, tries to get into the house by coming down the chimney; but our heroes are too clever for him and have the pot of boiling water ready. The pigs have out-smarted their menace and live happily ever after.
Note: Russian Playwright Anton Chekhov said that if a gun is seen in the first act it must be fired in the last act. The reverse of that is especially true. If you intend to have the hero use some prop to help solve the problem (like Red shooting the Wolf) then that prop must be established early on in the show – but done casually so as not to draw attention to itself.
The Plot Kit
Having observed how stories are constructed, you can easily put together one of your own. Below are some elements that you can adapt to make a story:
Here you have an infinity of choices. Some of them are:
- “Once upon a time,” still a good way to start the telling of a fable or any story set in an indeterminate time.
- Dawn, or the beginning of someone’s day.
- Boy meets girl.
- Someone commits a crime.
- A ghost appears and demands revenge for his murder. I know, I know, this one has been used already. But Shakespeare wasn’t the first to use it, nor the last. It is perfectly alright to take an existing storyline and put your own spin on it. The very best have done so.
Here are some ways to keep your story exciting and moving forward:
Use a “Rule of Three.” As in the story of the Little Pig, the hero tries two things that don’t work before figuring out one that will. Three seems to be a magic number; more failures make the hero look like a real loser, fewer do not build up sufficient tension. The hero continues to fail until he hits bottom; then begins with small successes to work himself back up to where he can take on the villain once again. Or, the hero loses the big battle, then retires to lick his wounds and prepare for the final confrontation. Some examples of things that keep the plot moving are
- The protagonist goes to an unfamiliar place.
- A natural disaster occurs.
- The hero gives in to some temptation.
- A mysterious stranger appears.
- Here are a few choices for endings:
- The hero triumphs and lives happily ever after. This is the most common and generally the most satisfying ending.
- The hero fails to achieve the goal but gains some valuable understanding.
- The hero dies, perhaps after achieving the goal, perhaps after failing. A tragic ending takes real skill to keep it from being depressing.
- The twist or surprise ending. If you use this ending, make sure that the surprise is based on the material that went before. If it is totally unrelated (i.e., the killer is someone we never heard of) your audience will boo.
After solving the problem, the hero rides off into the sunset (on his horse, or bike, or skateboard).
All successful stories have common characteristics. They show someone, that we care about, striving against difficulties to achieve a worthwhile goal. The way to organize your story is to give it a proven beginning, middle, and end. The beginning introduces us to the main characters and what they are after. The middle shows the heroes progress against whatever threatens to keep him from the goal. The end shows how the hero finally triumphs. By organizing the storyline of your video around these elements, you will understand the secret formula to good story writing and you will keep your audience’s interest to the very end.