Storytelling is an art. You have to practice it. You have a captive audience. Get to it! Tell a story.
Every story has these elements:
- A protagonist introduced / A reflective character introduced / A love interest introduced (Love interest is usually a subplot.)
- Protagonist’s goal explained
- Antagonist (introduced) blocks Protagonist from reaching goal
- *Protagonist’s reaction to the obstacle and he/she continues to the goal
- *Antagonist blocks goal again
- Protagonist prevails in climactic episode
- Antagonist overcome and conflict resolved
- Denouement (Ending)
*Steps five and six repeat in rising action toward the climax.
Most teachers instruct their students to start their stories with an attention grabbing opening. In television, they call it “The Teaser.” But good writers always start with setting. Setting must be established quickly or there is no context for the story.
Both Star Wars and Star Trek understand that this principle is paramount for a great story. Each Star Wars movie begins Long ago in a galaxy far, far away… and the first words of Star Trek are Space, the final frontier. Each book for young readers establishes the setting in the first two or three pages. Fairy tales start Once upon a time.
Setting is place and time, not just place. This is one of the biggest mistakes that I must undo when teaching setting. It seems place is so important in primary literature, since most stories take place in the present, that time is overlooked.
However, when students tell a story, the opposite is true. They establish setting first. “One time when I was six I was going to Disneyland and…” They’ll let you know when everything happened by connecting all the plot points with the word “then.” Then, my dog bit my mom. Then, my mom said some bad words. Then, my dad took her to the hospital. Then, I asked my mom why it was okay for her to use those words when she told me that I can’t. Teach setting as time and place.
Setting answers the questions When? and Where?
The Protagonist and the Reflective (The Hero and the Buddy)
If I could get primary teachers to do anything it would be to teach the word protagonist. I have to un-teach “The Protagonist.” Hero is a good second choice.
The protagonist has to have a sidekick or a buddy. The sidekick is also called the reflective character. The reflective character acts as a mirror to reflect back onto the protagonist his or her thoughts, feelings, and decisions. The reflective is a sounding board for the protagonist. Dorothy had Toto. Babe had Fly. Luke Skywalker has R2D2. Kirk has Spock. Frodo had Samwise. The Lone Ranger couldn’t really be alone; he has to have Tonto. Roy Rogers had Trigger. Forrest had Mama, then Bubba, then Lt. Dan, the Mama again.
The reflective does three things: 1. Answers all the protagonist’s questions. 2. Listens to all the protagonist’s thoughts. 3. Explains and furthers the exposition of the story.
The protagonist and the sidekick answers the question Who?
The protagonist must set and attain a goal in the story. Dorothy returned to Kansas and her home. Babe found his place on the farm. Luke destroyed the Death Star. Frodo destroyed the ring. Forrest got Jenny. Without a goal, there is no story (and without a goal there can be no conflict.)
The protagonist’s goal answers the question What (does he want to do)?
So far, this is the BEGINNING of the story.
Antagonist prevents the protagonist from reaching the goal.
The antagonist stands in the way of the protagonist getting what he wants. The protagonist faces conflict, challenge, and danger created by the antagonist. The protagonist also confronts himself or herself through the antagonist. Dorothy’s yellow brick road home led to the Wicked Witch more than once. Luke faced the best antagonist of all time, Darth Vader. Frodo’s challenge came in the form of the Great Eye of Sauron.
The antagonist doesn’t always have to be a person. In Hatchet, nature becomes the antagonist blocking Brian’s goal of survival. Forrest Gump confronted his own intellectual deficits and people’s perception of him.
The protagonist’s goal being blocked by the antagonist answers the question Why (can’t he succeed)?
PROTAGONIST’S REACTION TO BLOCKED GOAL
The protagonist’s reaction to a blocked goal shows the reader the character traits of the protagonist. If the protagonist confronts the obstacle, he is courageous. If the protagonist runs from the obstacle, he is initially a coward, but will usually change by the end of the story. The obstacle faced must be more prohibitive each time it appears, and the protagonist’s reaction to obstacle must become stronger and stronger. In this way, the character of the protagonist changes or grows. This is called the arc of the character. Note that Forrest Gump does not change, but everyone around Forrest changes.
The antagonist must not arc. The antagonist is always bad. The antagonist does not change.
This obstacle/reaction creates the rising action of the plot. The rising action creates or shows the character traits of the protagonist. This element of story is usually omitted in a middle school student’s writing. Yet, the character arc is essential in a successful story. This is why characters are so flat in middle school writing. They simply are not developed.
What if the protagonist stayed the same from the beginning of the story till the end? Dorothy would never confront the Wicked Witch or the Wizard. Babe would not chase off the killer dogs and become a sheep-pig. Luke Skywalker would stay at home with his uncle and aunt and work on the farm. Frodo would become the slave of Sauron. Forrest would work at a Sonic or a hardware store in Green Bow, Alabama.
The protagonist must react to the obstacle, and the reaction must be stronger with each obstacle encountered. He or she must grow. must arc.
This is the MIDDLE of the story.
PROTAGONIST PREVAILS IN A PLOT CLIMAX, OVERCOMES THE ANTAGONIST, AND RESOLVES THE CONFLICT BY ATTAINING THE GOAL
Eventually, the protagonist attains his or her goal. (If the goal is not attained, you have been watching a European film in a trendy movie house and drinking chardonnay instead of Coke Zero.) The action of the plot rises until it can rise no more, and a specific plot event leads to the climax of the story. The protagonist and the antagonist must be present and face each other, or the protagonist must face a device created by the antagonist. Immediately following the climax, the conflict is resolved and the goal attained.
But just before the protagonist accomplishes the goal and prior to the climax, it must appear that all hope is lost and there is no way that the protagonist can attain the goal. The flying monkeys capture Dorothy and she is unable to turn over the hourglass. Babe’s registration as a sheepdog is questioned. Using the onboard targeting computer, Luke cannot drop the photon torpedo into the exhaust duct of the Death Star. Gollum attacks Frodo and bites off the finger that holds the ring. Jenny disappears into the dark of night and runs away from Forrest.
Immediately after this hopelessness, the protagonist prevails in a face-to-face meeting with the antagonist. Dorothy splashes soapy water onto the Wicked Witch and stands up to the Wizard. Babe wins the sheep-herding contest. Luke blows up the Death Star using the Force. The ring is destroyed in the fire of Mt. Doom in a fight between Frodo and Gollum. Forrest reunites with Jenny, provides safety and comfort for her in her final days, and becomes a father to little Forrest.
Rising action leads to hopelessness. Hopelessness leads to climax. Climax leads to resolution of the conflict.
This resolution of plot answers the question What happens?
DENOUEMENT / ENDING
Most middle school students have been taught to think that the resolution is the end of the since first grade. Every textbook I have used in twenty years of teaching writing does the same thing. But there has to be an ending to the story, and the resolution is not the ending. A final scene concludes the story and gives it that finished feeling. This may be the reason that kids write “The End” at the end of their stories. Their stories feel incomplete.
After the climax and resolution, Dorothy (in the film) sees the Wizard float off, meets Glenda again, clicks her heels, and returns home to Kansas. She then tells the dream to Auntie Em and the others. Babe looks up at the Farmer and receives, “Well done, pig.” Luke reunites with Han, Leah, and his droid friends to receive accolades from Princess Leia. In the book, Frodo returns to the Shire, cleans it up from the evil effects of Sauron’s reign, and sails off with the Elves (The book has seven endings.) Forrest finds his son and continues his simple life, presumably mowing lawns and working with the PTSA.
At the end of the story ask yourself, “Does it feel finished?” If it doesn’t, figure out why and write enough to make the ending satisfying.
The climax, the resolution, and the denouement comprise the end of the story.
Now, go tell some stories.
©2018 Douglas Hanks. All rights reserved.
This outline for story is explained in more detail in Story by Robert McKee.
Two paths photo by Jens Lelie.