Hello again!

We talked about a lot last week. (if you’re just coming into this, start here)

Let’s see what we learned:

  1. Writers write.
  2. There are no new ideas. Not basic ones, anyway. We’ll talk later about what I call idea combinations (also known as plot twists), which is where so-called ‘new’ ideas come from.
  3. Stories come from inside you. The more you understand what’s going on inside you, the better your stories will be.
  4. A story tells an event or series of events, and has a beginning, middle and ending.

Now that you know the basic story has a beginning, middle and ending (this is called a story arc, by the way), you can write any size story you like. You could use the three-scene story you made, for example, as the beginning, middle or ending part of a larger, nine-scene story.

But what if you wanted to write a play, or a movie, or a novel? Those are really long stories. Are they written any differently?

Yes and no. Those of you familiar with the theater recognize the basic structure of a story as similar to that of a standard play. Three acts, with a beginning, middle and ending. Novels are the same way, just written in a different format.

Like a tree has much more to it than a leaf does, your novel, movie, or play will have much more to it than your three-scene story does. It has to, or there would be nothing to write all those thousands of words about. But keeping the structure of that little three-scene story in mind (beginning, middle, ending) will help you to set up bigger stories. More on that later.

Let’s go back to the idea of the story arc. This is often drawn like someone throwing a ball across the yard to a friend. The ball goes up and forward then the ball goes down. Up is the beginning, down is the ending, and where the ball is at its highest is the middle. Keep that image in your mind for a moment.

How is the beginning, when the ball is being thrown, different from the ending?

In the beginning, the ball is going up, in the ending the ball is going down. In the same way, your beginning scene(s) should lead the reader to anticipate the middle, while the ending scene(s) lead down to “The End”.

If you remember, my beginning scene in the waterfall story ended with the three men anchoring their raft over a waterfall. That doesn’t sound very smart, and portends something bad might happen. The beginning scene also sets up who is there, where they are, and their relationships to each other. Three men, wildlife photographers, raft on a river with a waterfall. The most important thing the beginning does is ask a question. This story’s question was “what will happen to these men?”.

The ending scene in my waterfall story tied up the loose ends. The men survived, but they lost the very thing they came to get, the photos. We find out “what happened”. The meaning of the story is often summarized in the ending. We understand that more will happen after the story is over, but for this little slice of time, we’ve got the answer to the question we asked in the beginning, and so we’re satisfied.

A story is an event or series of events, but these events don’t happen by themselves. The reason why a story is interesting is that it’s happening to someone. This leads us to lesson five:

Lesson number five: people make stories happen.

There are two parts to any story: the plot (what happens) and the characters (who makes it happen). Look at your three-scene story. What would it be like without people in it? There would be no story. My waterfall story without the men would be simply a waterfall and a river.

If you have people sitting doing ‘nothing’ (ala Waiting for Godot)…they are still doing something. They are sitting for a reason, or waiting for someone, with some expectation. Not the most interesting plot, but there’s one there.

The flip side to that extreme is the action movie full of chase scenes or dogfights, where all you see is cars or planes zooming around and don’t see people for several seconds at a time. There are still people making all that happen.

Even stories that are about animated rabbits or dogs and cats or robots are really about people in disguise.

The way we began looking at this was through how we felt about something exciting. So we’re getting the people part down pretty well. Think of what the people in a scene, every scene, might be feeling, smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing, and you’ll be way ahead of the game.

But while we have that story arc (what happened) there is also something called a character arc (how the people in the story changed because of what happened). Not only do the people make the story happen, the story makes the people into something they weren’t at the beginning.

So look at your story. Did the people in it change at all? They should have.

A character arc is similar to a story arc. The ball goes up and forward, the ball goes down. A character arc has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The people in the story start a certain way. Things happen in the middle, and by then end these people have changed in some way. They might look at things differently, change something significant in the way they live their lives, start, end, or change a relationship, or even die.

If your story feels “not done” or you’re wondering what it’s about, a lack of character change might be the reason.

Today, when you’re reading a story or watching a television story or movie, look for the story arc (what happened) and character arc (how the people changed) in what you see. See if you can find the beginning, middle and ending of the story. If you like, report back with what you’ve discovered. You might explain this better than I do!

We’ll talk more about writing tomorrow.