Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Tale of Two Graphs

One day, some guy decided to create a diagram that simplifies the parts of the story structure. It's a good graph for a few reasons listed below. In turn, it has a few flaws. First, let's see an example.

This graph represents the structure of a three-act play. We see the Set-Up (commonly: exposition), the rising action, a climax, and a resolution. Let's ignore the two turning points, which are typically used to sustain interest over intermissions.

I want to focus on the concept of rising action. In sketch comedy, rising action is the key to success. After all, rising action means that you raise the stakes on your conflict. It's a small conflict at first, but it bubbles up. This is great for comedy, and it's great for any story.

Here's one problem: the graph implies that we can add onto our conflict. In other words, we can easily create a conflict that builds to a climax. It's easy: throw an obstacle in the way of a main character, continue to raise the stakes, and then figure out a solution. There, that's your story...

I drew this graph to illustrate a new point in story structure. Imagine a ball at the top. Gravity pulls the ball down the slope. So, instead of a boil, we have momentum. The author doesn't raise the stakes; the central conflict builds its own momentum.

I'd use this perspective to understand how external forces affect the main character's actions. She might be making decisions, but the conflict is going to lead her somewhere. I started thinking about this concept while watching Star Wars: A New Hope. Luke does want to leave his uncle's farm. The want is not enough to continue the story. Yes, he wants, but why hasn't it happened. He hasn't hit the point of no return. He leaves the planet only when storm troopers kill his uncle and aunt, leaving the farm in shambles. He can't return to his old equilibrium, and the event has pushed Luke down the slope.

I also drew this graph because I don't believe characters end where they began. The first graph implies this. We start on a plane, rise up, and drop back to the same plane. At the end of the Star Wars trilogy, Luke doesn't return to living on a farm. So, I stress this point in my graph because all good stories leave our protagonists in different equilibriums.

Finally, my graph shows that the conflict has a definite end. A climax, in turn, only comes when the stakes can't go higher. What's wrong with that? Well, a good conflict inherently has an end. Hamlet's conflict will end when he kills his uncle and mother, or kill himself. Harold and Kumar's conflict ends when they get to White Castle. Etc. The ball comes to stop.

The first graph has inspired millions of authors, but it could use some refining. The bottom line is that your story will need an urgent conflict (one the characters can't give up), momentum, and a definite end.

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