Though many writers use these terms interchangeably, they refer to two different kinds of functions in your story’s structure.
The Protagonist is the driver behind the effort to achieve the story’s goal.
The Main Character grapples with a personal issue of morality, philosophy, or point of view.
Often these two functions are given to the same character in your story. When they are both combined into one individual, it forms the basis of the stereotypical “hero” who not only must achieve the goal, but must also resolve a personal issue.
But, these functions can be given to two separate characters, such as in both the book and movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird in which the protagonist is Atticus, the righteous lawyer in a 1930s southern town who seeks to get a fair trial for a black man accused of rape.
But, the main character is Atticus’ young daughter, Scout. No only do we see the story unfold through her eyes, but she has to grow to rid herself of her own bias against the mentally impaired man who lives next door, Boo Radley.
She sees him as a boogey man – someone out to hurt children. But in fact, Boo is protective of the children and prevents the antagonist of the story from harming the children.
The structure is stronger since Atticus never has to question his beliefs in equal protection under the law and can therefore fight for his goal wholeheartedly. But with Scout’s prejudice against Boo without ever having met him, we learn how easy it is for even the most good-natured and innocent of us to harbor bias and prejudice while never seeing it in ourselves.
Story structure is built on fours, not on twos. Though it may seem like conflict is created between two opposing forces, there are two other forces at play as well.
Consider a dramatic circuit consisting of four elements: Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power – just like an electrical circuit.
Every scene has all four elements and if one is missing, the circuit is incomplete and the story won’t flow.
But there’s more to it than that. These four elements have a relationship that we see in many areas of life.
Here are some other sets of four that create the same kind of internal mechanism:
Earth, Water, Wind, Fire
Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb
Red, Blue, Green, Brightness
Universe, Physics, Mind, Psychology
Mass, Energy, Space, Time
Characters, Plot, Theme, Genre
Motivation, Method, Evaluation, Purpose
As you can see, each group of four has a very similar feel. And the last item in each set seems a little out of place compared to the other three.
There’s an important psychological reason for that, but it would require going way too deep for this post. For now, just know that stories reflect how we think, and we think in four dimensions because we perceive four dimensions. So, it is no surprise that story structure is also based on fours, because that is the way we fully explore a topic in fiction or in life.
Most authors think of plot as what their story is about. And beyond that, they recognize key events and turning points in the story that are part of plot as well. That’s a good place to start, because it is how plot appears from the creative perspective as you are developing and writing your story.
But plot is quite a bit more than that. Structurally, a plot needs specific story points such as a goal, requirements that need to be met to achieve that goal, and even the price that will be paid if the goal is not met.
In this installment of our series on story structure, we’re going to reveal the key story points of plot and lay out the structural timeline as well.
By the time we’re done, you’ll have a much more refined understanding of what plot structure is, and how to manipulate it to create just the kind of story you want.
Let’s begin with the four most important plot points: Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings. All four of these work together to define what your story is about, what needs to be done, and what happens if the protagonist fails. Taken all together, these are the control knobs that adjust your plot’s dramatic tension.
Let’s investigate each of these four primary plot points:
Goal is really about as straight-forward as it seems: what the characters of your story are trying to achieve. Now, keep in mind that the protagonist is leader of the effort to achieve the goal. And, as we all know, there’s also going to be an antagonist who is working against the protagonist, either to prevent the goal from being achieved, or to achieve it for himself instead.
Without a goal, there is no clear cut destination your characters are trying to reach. So, you’ll need to describe that goal in no uncertain terms of your story will come off as unfocused and without a defined purpose. To your readers (or audience) it will seem to meander.
What kinds of things can be a goal? Just about anything: To escape from something or someone, to complete a task, to obtain something (could be a treasure, a diploma, or someone’s love), to discover something, to become a better person, to come to terms with the past. Really, almost anything can be a goal. It just needs to be something you don’t currently have, and can’t get just by snapping your fingers – you have to work for it.
Requirements describe the specific steps that must be taken or the necessary conditions that must be met for the goal to be achieved. If any step or condition is not completed, the goal will not be achieved.
Why are requirements important? Without them, your characters (and readers) have no idea what is needed to arrive at the goal. So, everything that happens seems arbitrary. And if they are ultimately successful, it comes off as if the characters just magically achieved the goal – it just happened, not because they worked to make it happen, but just because after running around in all kinds of directions, eventually the goal just plopped down in their lap for no apparent reason.
Like goals, requirements can be all kinds of things: getting the approval of all the members of the board of directors to stop an immoral project, gathering all the ingredients for the secret formula to saving the dying princess, searching the rooms in a haunted house to find an close the portal to hell, meeting the conditions necessary to prove you are worthy of someone’s love.
The key point in regard to requirements is that they be a limited set – a specific number of items or steps, well-delineated right up front, so the reader knows exactly what conditions must be met and can, therefore, track progress toward the goal.
Consequences are the bad things that will happen if the goal is not achieved. Why are consequences necessary? Because they double the motivation to achieve the goal. Without consequences, characters, just like real people, are likely at some point to say, “Hey, that goal would’ve been nice, but geesh, these requirements are just too darn hard. That goal ain’t worth it!”
But, with consequences in place, there is a price to pay if you just give up on the goal. If the goal isn’t achieved, you (and/or those you care about) will suffer. Achieving the goal not only obtains a good thing, but also prevents a bad one. And that is why your characters will push on to the end.
Forewarnings are the indicators that the consequences are gaining on you. They could be cracks in the dam that show it is getting closer to the consequence of it breaking and flooding the town if the goal of diverting the water upstream isn’t achieved or some unknown individual buying up more and more shares of stock until the consequence of him gaining control of the company prevents you from the goal of stopping an evil project.
As with requirements, forewarnings need to be clearly specified, but they don’t have to be a specific number of them. For example, how many cracks does it take before the dam breaks? With forewarnings, additional cracks, small pieces of concrete popping out, shuddering do to increasing instability, all these things can indicate the dam is getting closer to breaking, and collectively they ratchet up the motivation for the characters to push harder and faster because time and/or options are running out.
You can easily see how Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings work together as the master controllers of any plot’s structure.
These are the four power-drivers of the plot. However, there are many other plot points that fine tune how the dramatic tension of the Big Four is channeled through your story. But that is a subject for a future installment in our ongoing series on story structure.
This entire story structure series is referenced from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Also, you may wish to try our Dramatica Story Structure Software with the world’s only patented interactive Story Engine. The Story Engine cross-references your answers to questions about your story to generate a structure that perfectly supports your intent, free of holes or inconsistencies.
Story Structure | How Did Structure End Up In Stories?
In previous installments of this series, we’ve looked into where story structure came from and what it really represents. In this segment we’ll explore how structure ended up in stories in the first place.
To begin, consider an old Gary Larson cartoon that showed open pasture land with a number of blobs with beaks scattered on the ground. The caption was “Boneless Chicken Ranch.”
That’s pretty much why stories have structure. Without a framework or some kind of scaffolding, stories would be no more than amorphous lumps of passionate wordplay that make no sense and hold no meaning.
We know stories are more organized than that. We can see it in characters that interact in essential but predictable ways. We can sense it when we intuitively know an act is coming to an end and a new phase of the story’s journey is about to begin. And we can feel it when a story comes to a conclusion and we find ourselves satisfied that everything is all wrapped up with no loose ends.
Story structure, then, is a pretty sophisticated enchilada, which begs the question, how did it worm its way into storytelling.
For the answer, let’s travel back in time before there were any storytellers at all – back to the beginning of communication itself.
Let’s consider a fundamental issue: how is communication even possible? Here’s why…
Scientists tell us that the first thing a baby learns is that there are things that are part of it (its fingers and toes, for example) and things that are not part of it (such as a bottle or toy). That’s a pretty big leap, actually: “Not everything I perceive is part of me.”
The next step is to recognize that one is not alone; “There are others like me who are not me.” And finally, we come to realize that we have physical attributes in common with those others – we also have eyes, hands, feet, etc.
For a baby, it cries when it is hungry or when it needs to be changed, or when it accidentally slams its arm onto the hard posts of its cradle. And then another epiphany happens: the baby makes the connection that when one of the others does something like bump their arm on the cradle, they exclaim an audible pain sound as well.
Soon the baby begins to realize that these others react the same way it does to the same stimuli (not in those words of course). And from this, the final step of connection is that if the others respond the same way to the same things, they must be having the same experience (pain in this example) as the baby experiences.
This is the fundamental human connection and the foundation of communication: You look like me and feel like me, so I can understand what is going on with you by considering what would make me act that way.
From there, it is a pretty small step for a child to understand what’s going on when an adult steps on a toy, for example, and this leads to the ability to anticipate the reactions of others by knowing how one would react oneself to the same situation.
What’s more, the child can now learn by seeing an adult or other child do something that has never happened to it before and watch how the other person responds. All these things we do in common because our brains, and therefore the seat of our minds, is the same. Where we differ are in the unique experiences we have.
Now all this happens without any intent to communicate. But what if we want to get some help from others with a problem? For example, we’re hungry and we would like someone to give us some food.
We might approach this by trying present some physical actions that we anticipate the other person would understand because if they did those actions it would have a certain meaning.
So, we rub our belly with a pained expression on our face and point plaintively at our open mouth. Most anybody on the planet is going to see that and understand we wand to eat. That’s because underneath it all we’re really all the same.
In this manner, sign language develops, and at its most basic level, it conveys meaning across cultures and time. Even complex descriptions of a journey and what was found can be transmitted and received.
For example, you point in a particular direction and use your finger to indicate walking, then walking up and down a series of hills, then being surprised by something. You reach out and start pulling small items off the thing you found, putting them in your mouth, chewing, swallowing, and rubbing your belly with a satisfied smile on your face.
It’s really just charades, and a lot of communication can be sent using nothing more than this. You can even move beyond simply reporting your condition or something you did and begin to warn folks off from things you’ve seen turn bad the same way over and over again.
For example, you discover a certain kind of berry bush and, through personal experience, have come to know that such a bush often has a bear nearby because they lover this particular kind of fruit.
So, you train your children to avoid those kinds of bushes, and tell them why – all using sign language and example, perhaps by showing them such a bush and using charades to illustrate a bear attacking, then pointing at the bush and illustrating, “No!” non-verbally.
Now we’ve moved into a new kind of communication. We are no longer trying to relate an actual event or a current condition, but are trying to convince others to act in a certain manner based on summing up our personal experience. We might do this out of compassion or altruism, or for some self-serving reason, ranging from giving folks bad directions to keep them away from something you want for yourself, or even to increase your power or hold over them, or to target an enemy.
Next, we bring language online. Now we have words for things like hills, and walking, and berries, and bears. And we also have words for complex concepts such as love, hate, jealousy, and selflessness.
And this is where stories really begin. And, honestly, they really haven’t changed all that much since then, save for being a bit more sophisticated and detailed.
But here’s the crux. When you are telling a story to manipulate people’s hearts and minds, no matter why you are doing it, you take on a burden of proof if you are to convince them to accept your point of view and adopt it as their own.
Prior to this, simply describing a series of events or a quest or journey (whether true to life or a made up fiction) only required that it made sense and felt right. Simply put, there are no holes or missteps in the logic of it and the emotional path of the people you are talking about follows a believable flow from one feeling to the next – no gaps, no unmotivated changes. This mirrors real life and your audience will think, “Sure, that could happen.”
In short, just conveying information is a simple statement that this leads to that and ends up here.
But now that you are trying to manipulate your audience by telling them they should never take a particular path or always so something particular in a given situation – well you’ve moved beyond a simple statement to a blanket statement. There will be some who say, “Well what wouldn’t happened if the fella in your story tried this” or “What if he had done that instead?”
If you are an early storyteller and your audience is right there, you can counter that rebuttal to your blanket statement by adding additional information by explaining how your character would have ended up worse off if he had done as the audience member suggested, and therefore your proposed approach is still best.
If you could counter any rebuttals that come up while you are telling the story, you’ve made your case and your audience will likely buy into it. So, if your point is strong, you’re likely to prevail in your efforts to convince your audience.
But a problem arises when the story is repeated by others who haven’t thought it through and can’t counter those rebuttals. And, if it become a ballad, or is published in written form, there’s no countering argument at all, so the blanket statement is rejected.
The solution, of course, is to include in the story all the counter-arguments necessary to counter any reasonable rebuttal. In this way, the story become pre-loaded with a complete supporting argument for the author’s point of view, rather than just a blanket statement born of experience.
Such a beast is a much more powerful kind of story and has much more impact on an audience than the unsupported blanket statement.
Problem is, how can you anticipate all the exceptions an audience might take to your story so you can incorporate counter arguments? Well it turns out, the same kinds of rebuttals keep coming up over and over again, regardless of the story.
For example, audiences want to see what happens if you try to figure things out and also what happens if you just charge on ahead driven by passion. Eventually, this leads to the creation of a couple of archetypal characters who represent these two approaches: the Reason archetype and the Emotion archetype.
You see these two characters (and a lot of other archetypes) in every single story that feels complete. And you see these characters in every day life as well. We all know someone who always tries to figure things out and someone who just follows their heart.
We all have a sense of logic and a passionate heart, but we tend to favor one over the other. So, in an audience, we’re likely to see a hole in a story if we don’t see our favored approach taken. And those are just the kinds of holes the author needs to fill if they are to have an airtight argument that their blanket statement is sound.
And so, in our characters, our plot, our theme, and our genre, storytellers began to see what dramatic elements were always necessary to include to make a sound argument to make their point.
Very gradually, these elements became the conventions of storytelling – to have a protagonist driven by a personal issue, to have a goal with specific requirements to be met and a consequence to face if they aren’t – these and scores of other items became nuts and bolts that form the framework of story structure – the scaffolding that holds the story up so it doesn’t suffer the same fate as the boneless chicken ranch.
In other installments, we’ll see how these essential dramatic items fall into families of similar traits, and can actually be accessed through something of a Periodic Table of Story Elements, providing a really clear look at story structure and a really useful way of accessing it.
This entire series is drawn from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Story Structure | Where Does Story Structure Come From?
In previous installments of this series, we’ve determined that stories do, in fact have structure. And, we explored how each story’s structure is something of a map that shows us how to go about solving a particular kind of problem or how to improve something our lives. This could be by achieving a goal, learning how to cope, learning a new way of looking at life, etc.
But that’s all pretty nebulous. So, if stories have structure, it has to be something more tangible. And yet, it also has to be flexible enough to account for all the different kinds of stories that have been told.
That’s a pretty tall order! And yet, here we are: with an innate sense that some sort of structure does exist, yet a frustrating inability to see it clearly, though we can almost make it out, moving around in the dark waters beneath our subject matter and storytelling style.
In this installment, we’re going to strip all that away and take a good look at the beast. And to do that, we’re going to explore where story structure comes from in the first place.
Story structure begins with us. Not surprising since stories are about people, after all. But more specifically, story structure begins with how each of us, as individuals, go about solving problems and trying to improve our lives.
When confronted by something we’d like to change or something new we’d like to attain, we look at from all sides: with our logic, how we feel about, or with a skeptical eye, for example.
We consider the issue through each of these perspectives (or filters) and see how things look. Do any of these suggest a course of action? Which ones look promising, and which ones set up a red flag: “Best to not do anything at all!”
Then, our mind takes over and collates all those assessments, “This feels right, but it makes not sense at all,” or, “I know it’s the right thing to do, but I just can’t tolerate it.”
At some point, we’ve thought about it enough, and we determine our plan for what we’re going to do and/or how we are going to respond.
That’s pretty much how problem solving works for you (at a greatly simplified level) and for your main character too!
Story structure for your main character (excluding the rest of the story) boils down to this: It shows the timeline of how your main character examines the central issue at the heart of their personal journey and then makes a decision about the best path to take.
But what about the rest of the story? What about all those other characters beside the main character – the ones who are in all kinds of relationships struggling with each other over the goal at the center of the plot? Where does that story structure come from?
Actually, the same place – just bigger.
Here’s how it works…
When people get together around a common issue (like a goal or a cause), after a while that group begins to self-organize. One person will emerge as the Voice Of Reason for the group, another as Passionate Heart, and yet another as the Resident Skeptic.
You see, when we work together to resolve something of common interest, we still use the same tools and perspectives we do as individuals. The difference is, that for ourselves we do all of those jobs like general practitioners because there’s just us to do them.
But in a group, if each individual tried to do all the jobs, it would be a mess! Everyone would be overlapping their effort, and since each one would be doing many jobs, they couldn’t devote all their time to any one job.
So socially, we understand that intuitively. And that’s why in a group, people begin to specialize. One looks at the issue solely through the eyes of Reason. Another is the Skeptic who questions everything. Both are essential perspectives to take, but by specializing, each one can devote all their time to a single perspective and go for a deep dive. They can work their way down into the details that no one person could do if they were trying to do a lot of other jobs too.
In this way, by specializing, the group can see deeper into every issue it encounters, and that serves every member of the group.
But here’s the cool thing… Because all those jobs in the group are the same ones we use as individuals, the structure of the group is nearly identical to the structure we use in our own minds. In a sense, it becomes a map of our own minds’ problem solving processes, but something external to ourselves – visible in the way the group is organized. In short, we can see the workings of our own minds in the workings of any organized group. Whoa…
Just as the structure of the main character is based on the structure of our own internal problem solving processes, the structure of the overall story is based on the structure of how a group goes about solving problems.
So you have two identical maps of the problem solving process in a story: 1. The individual trying to work out what’s best for him or her. 2. The group trying to figure what’s best for it (and all its members).
But here’s the clincher:
What’s best for an individual is not always what’s best for the group he belongs in. In other words, the needs of the one are often in conflict with the needs of the many. And the truth of the matter is, all dramatic tension is created by that conflict between what the individual wants to achieve for himself or herself and what their group’s agenda demands of them as a member of the group. Again, whoa.
Think about that. Story structure is like a wheel within a wheel. The individual is struggling to navigate their life to resolve their issues, all the why trying to negotiate their participation the the group effort.
Kinda feels like everything from A Christmas Carol to Hamlet and touches on genres from Romance to Action to Buddy Stories, Comedies, Westerns, Spy Thrillers, you name it.
And that is why story structure was so hard to see: Since stories unfold over time, everyone was looking for a timeline kind of structure. But the truth is, stories are only timelines from the perspective of the reader or audience, because that is how they are exposed to it.
From an author’s point of view, the story is a done deal. They see it complete – beginning, middle, and end all at once. An author stands outside of time and works out his or her structure as if it were a framework for the story – scaffolding that supports their message or intent.
A tweak here, and adjustment there, and the dramatic forces that represent the kinds of things we encounter in everyday life are fine-tuned to provide just the point of view the author wants the reader or audience to arrive at, once the storytelling is over and they look back at everything they experienced to understand what it meant.
Well that’s quite a journey we’ve taken here ourselves. But it led to a new way of looking at story structure that brings brings it into greater focus by seeing where it came from in the first place.
In other installments in this series we’ll talk about the specific dramatic elements and components that make up structure, and how you can use them together to create just the impact you want to have.
This entire series is drawn from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Welcome to our new series that explores the elements of story structure and describes how they work together to form a framework for your story.
We begin with a fundamental question:
Does Story Structure Exist?
It might seem a silly question on its face, but dig a little deeper and it is worthy of an answer – especially if you want to justify putting time into studying it!
Some folks feel stories are so organic and fluid that they can’t possibly described by a fixed and restrictive structure.
Other folks note that the same elements and forms keep showing up such as protagonist, goal, and acts, and figure there must be some Great Wheel that drives a story forward.
Over the years theorists like Joseph Campbell championed the concept of the mythic Hero and his relationships with other archetypes who helped or hindered him along the way (based on archetypes of the Collective Unconscious originally outlined by Jung).
Other theorists, such as Chris Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey, adapted and extended Campbell into a practical guide for story development.
Many have found these perspectives useful forming and refining stories, but many others have found them limiting and incomplete. Still, the bottom line is that most writers sense there is some underlying mechanism that gives stories their spines, but they also tend to feel that the truth of it is foggy at best and obscure at worst.
And that is where we will leave things (until next time) with this conclusion: Story structure probably exists, but no one has ever gotten a really good look at it nor laid out a complete explanation for it much less a practical guide for employing it.
In our next installment, we’ll take our first step into a new way of looking at story structure that incorporates but also transcends the other theories mentioned here so far.
At the core of a story’s message is a very simple issue – whether the author is telling us it is better to be like the main character or not. This is usually thought of as the moral of the story and is proven to the readers or audience by how the main character fares after making a choice or taking a leap of faith at the climax.
For characters like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the message is that it is better to change one’s attitude toward others and adopt a new way of thinking. If you do, things will work out better. But for other characters, such as in Field of Dreams or Rocky, the message is to stick by your beliefs because that’s the only way to solve your problems.
Sometimes change is good, as with Scrooge. But imagine if Ray had given up on building the ball field or Rocky Balboa had determined there was no way to win and he shouldn’t continue to try.
Stories can be written about characters who change or about characters who don’t. That’s the first part of the message. The second part is what happens to the character in the end as a result of their choice to change or not.
This results in four possibilities:
The main character changes and things work out for the better.
The main character changes and things work out for the worse.
The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the better.
The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the worse.
Each of the four combinations provides a different kind of message about changing or sticking to your beliefs. So far, so good. But now you need to get that message across to your readers or audience.
The first part of conveying your message is to be clear about the nature of the human quality or thought pattern that your moral is about. That aspect of your main character that defines him, just as Scrooge’s lack of concern for his fellow man is the issue at the heart of him. How you do this can be subtle or straight out, but by the time the moment of choice is upon your main character, your audience or reader needs to absolutely and with total clarity know what that issue is or your message will be unclear.
The second part of conveying your message is to show that as a result of his or her choice, your main character is better off or worse off than they were. This element of your message has two components:
Did they achieve the goal?
Are they in an emotionally better place than they were.
For example, suppose you have a story in which a character changes his beliefs, achieves the goal, and is elated. That’s fine, and the message is that whatever his issue was, it was good he changed his point of view. But change is not always good, so in another story a character might change his beliefs, still achieve the goal, but be miserable in the end because he hadn’t resolved his anguish or he had to take on an emotional burden to accomplish his quest. For example, in Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos has to kill the person he loves the most to accomplish his goal, and this leaves him logistically satisfied yet emotionally devastated.
On the opposite side, a character might remain steadfast in his beliefs, fail in the goal but find personal salvation or true happiness in the end. Or a character might remain steadfast, succeed in the goal but be left personally raw. An example of this last combination can be seen in Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling is successful in saving the senator’s daughter, but could not let go of the screaming lambs in her memory, as pointed out in the end by Hannibal Lecter (“Tell me, Clarice,” are the lambs still screaming?”) This is why the ending music over her graduation ceremony is so somber – she achieved the goal but could not let go of her angst.
And, of course, you can have the quintessential tragedy in which a change or a steadfast character fails and the goal and is miserable in the end, such as in Hamlet, or the penultimate feel good story in which a change or steadfast character both succeeds in the goal and find (or holds onto) great happiness, true love, etc., as in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV)
The point here is that change, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad until you see the results of that change. And also, a character does not have to change to grow, but can grow in his or her resolve.
And finally, the ramifications don’t have to be cut and dried: all good or all bad. Rather, by treating the goal and the emotional outcome separately, you have the opportunity to temper your message with bitter sweet and sweet bitter endings as well, thereby creating a more complex message for your readers or viewers.
Melanie Anne Phillips Co-creator, StoryWeaver Creator, Dramatica
Do you want your story to focus on waiting for something to begin or something to end? The answer to this question determines the feel of the story to one of being chased or one of pursuing.
Over the course of your story, your Main Character will either grow out of something or grow into something.
If your story concerns a Main Character who Changes, they will eventually come to believe they are the cause of their own problems (that’s why they change).
If your Main Character grows out of an old attitude or approach (e.g. loses the chip on their shoulder), then they are a Stop character. If they grow into a new way of being (e.g. fills a hole in their heart), then they are a Start character.
But If your story concerns a Main Character who Remains Steadfast, something in the world around her will appear to be the cause of their troubles. If they are trying to hold out long enough for something to stop bothering them, then they are a Stop character. If they are trying to hold out long enough for something to begin, then she is a Start character.
If you want the emphasis in your story to be on troubles which have to end, choose “Stop.” If you want to emphasize positive things that need to begin, choose “Start.”
Whether a Main Character eventually changes its nature or remains steadfast, it will still grow over the course of the story. This growth has a direction. Either it will grow into something (Start) or grow out of something (Stop).
As an example we can look to Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Does Scrooge need to change because he is excessively miserly (Stop), or because he lacks generosity (Start)? In the Dickens’ story it is clear that Scrooge’s problems stem from his passive lack of compassion, not from his active greed. It is not that he is on the attack, but that he does not help others where help is desperately needed. So, according to the way Charles Dickens told the story, Scrooge needs to Start being generous, rather than Stop being miserly.
A Main Character who changes either grows by adding a characteristic it lacks (Start) or by dropping a characteristic it already has (Stop). Either way, its make up is changed in nature.
In contrast, a Main Character who remains steadfast it its approach/beliefs, does not change in nature. Rather, it grows in its resolve to remain unchanged. It can grow by holding out against something that is increasingly bad while waiting for it to Stop. Or, it can grow by holding out for something in her environment to Start. Either way, the change appears somewhere in its environment instead of in the character itself.
EXAMPLE STORIES: Start and Stop
STORIES that have Growth of Start:
A Doll’s House: Nora must stand on her own and start a new life.
The Age of Innocence: Newland must start to externalize his liberal ideas of living, if he is to achieve true happiness in his life.
All About Eve: Margo has to start believing in herself. She must begin to be comfortable with her age, and accept that Bill loves her for who she is, on the stage and off.
Apt Pupil: Todd starts acting on the evils of Dussander’s memories. He tortures and kills winos, then moves on to kill whoever gets in his way (Rubber Ed), and next, anonymous freeway travelers.
Blade Runner: Deckard needs to start getting in touch with his emotions if he’s to get past being a killing machine and become more human.
Bringing Up Baby: David ultimately needs to do something about the fact that deep down he really loves Susan. Early on, he admits that “In moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn to you. But, well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.” When David jumps to Susan’s rescue at the end (after Susan has just dragged in the wild leopard), Susan accepts it as an acknowledgment of his love.
Candida: Morell needs to hold out for Candida to make the decision to stay with him.
Casablanca: Rick must start becoming the conscientious man he was in Paris, pick up the fight against the Nazis, and fill the hole in his heart created by Ilsa’s desertion.
The Glass Menagerie: Laura is holding out for something good to come into her life — for her “Prince Charming” to arrive and take her away to live happily ever after.
The Graduate: Ben has a hole in his heart. A huge sucking chest wound (metaphorically speaking) of a hole that needs to be filled by starting on a path of his own choosing. However, it could be said that Ben is wasting his time and should stuff aside all of his feelings, lie about the affair, pretend to be interested in plastics, and move onto the business of aggressively pursuing his future. That’s probably what he should start doing if he wants to achieve the objective story goal. But would that make him happy?
Klute: While investigating leads in Tom’s disappearance, Klute stays close to Bree, holding out for the man who’s stalking her to make a mistake and reveal himself.
Othello: Othello must start to realize that he can’t run his marriage using the same unbending discipline and militaristic thinking he uses to rule his soldiers. He must start to question Iago’s motives for accusing Desdemona of being unfaithful, and look beyond the surface of events for their true meaning and greater implications.
The Philadelphia Story: Ultimately, Tracy must start being more forgiving and more accepting of human frailties.
Quills: Abbe de Coulmier needs to take the upper hand in his relationship with The Marquis to be successful in restraining the inmate’s prose. This does not happen.
Rear Window: The firmly entrenched bachelor, Jeff, needs to start admitting what he likes about marriage–he obviously enjoys being pampered by his nurse–and commit to his relationship with Lisa, before he turns into a “lonesome and bitter old man.” He also needs to begin a personal involvement with Thorwald if he’s to entrap him.
Rebel Without a Cause: Jim wants Frank to start to act like a man so that he can respect him as a father; Jim’s family moves constantly, ostensibly to give their son a fresh start each time: Ray: That why you moved from the last town? ‘Cause you were in trouble? You can talk about it if you want to–I know about it anyway. Routine check.
Jim: And they think they are protecting me by moving.
Ray: You were getting a good start in the wrong direction back there. Why did you do it? (Stern 15)
Romeo and Juliet: Romeo has to start acting like the man that Juliet is certain he can be.
Rosemary’s Baby: Rosemary must take charge of her own life and that of the baby’s.
Searching for Bobby Fischer: Josh holds out for Bruce and Fred’s unconditional support.
Sula: Nel starts living her own life independent of hurt and anger.
Sunset Boulevard: Joe must start to act with more integrity if he’s going to truly be a success. He needs to start telling the truth to the finance men, to Norma about her script, to Artie and Betty about his relationship with Norma, if he hopes to set things straight in his life. He needs to stop lying to himself about getting by on trite stories and concentrate on writing meaningful material instead.
To Kill a Mockingbird: Scout lacks open-mindedness as she sees issues in black and white. Her tolerance of individual differences starts when she can understand another person’s point of view.
Tootsie: Michael must start to think about other people’s needs and feelings, instead of pushing his values and opinions on everyone.
Unforgiven: Although Munny tells the Kid that he’s “not like that no more,” he must unfortunately disregard the wishes of his late wife and start using his meanness and killing skills if he’s to succeed and survive in this violent, lawless environment.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Martha has strayed far too far into the land of perception. Even though Martha says, “Truth and illusion, George; you don’t know the difference,” it is actually Martha who cannot tell the difference anymore and George must hold out for Martha to start being able to recognize the difference.
Washington Square: Regarding Catherine, the audience is waiting for her to start standing up for herself.
When Harry Met Sally: Harry’s loneliness increases when he fails to make the obvious decision to become romantically involved with his best (girl) friend. It is once he comprehends his friendship with her does not have to be exclusive of an intimate relationship, he can start living a fulfilling life, “And I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible” (Ephron, Reiner, & Scheinman, 1988, p. 120).
Witness: Rachel needs to fill the gap left by the death of her husband, Jacob. She needs someone to love–who’ll appreciate her sexuality–and be a father for Samuel.
X-Files: Beyond the Sea: Scully has to start to believe in herself apart from what her father may have thought of her life choices. She must believe in her ability to solve this case without the guidance of her partner, and act effectively to save the kidnap victims.
STORIES that have Growth of Stop:
A Clockwork Orange: Alex is caught up in circumstances beyond his control as he becomes a pawn of political machinations–he tries to hold out until it stops. Alex’s nature is trapped in a society not of his own making–society attempts to make his behavior conform by forcing him to go to school, imprisoning him, and brainwashing him. Alex is trying to keep his nature intact while outlasting these threats. From society’s viewpoint, it is waiting for Alex to stop committing random acts of senseless violence.
All That Jazz: If Joe is to live, he must stop drinking, drugging, and screwing around.
Audrey, Katie, and Michelle entreat him to do this, singing: “You better stop, you better change, you better stop and change your ways today” (Aurthur and Fosse 143).
Amadeus: Salieri must Stop Mozart, his music, his fame. He must stop God in His choice of Mozart as His Voice. He must stop his own adherence to his part of the bargain he made with God.
Barefoot in the Park: In order to have a happy marriage, Paul realizes he must stop his controlling behavior.
Being There: Chance must hold on until he finds a permanent living arrangement.
Body Heat: EVERYONE tells Ned he should stop his destructive behavior–from the judge at the beginning, to Lowenstein (the D.A.), to Oscar (the Detective), to Edmond Walker (Mattie’s husband), to the arsonist, etc. And, indeed, Ned really does need to stop–a lesson he learns too late.
Boyz N The Hood: Tre must stop giving into the temptation to act before he thinks. He needs to look at the possible consequences of his actions.
Braveheart: Wallace, like the audience, is waiting for England to stop its oppression and domination of Scotland; waiting for the Scottish lords to stop their cross-purposes and unite against England.
Bull Durham: Annie needs to stop being quite so in control of her life (and everyone else’s). Only by giving up on her self-imposed rules and preconceptions does she find true fulfillment.
Charlotte’s Web: Wilbur stops acting like a helpless piglet and grows up.
Chinatown: Jake is trying to hold out for the inequities in life to end. This is difficult because he is in a business that focuses on people’s troubles.
The Client: Reggie needs to stop making decisions based on what may be likely. She often doesn’t have enough information and that gets her into trouble.
The Crucible: John is waiting for the madness of the witch trials to stop and his life to return to some semblance of normalcy.
El Mariachi: El Mariachi must stop living in a dream world and prepare to face the harsh realities of a drifter’ s existence: “All I wanted was to be a mariachi like my ancestors. But the city I thought would bring me luck, brought only a curse. I lost my guitar, my hand, and her. With this injury I may never play the guitar again. Without her, I have no love. But with the dog, and the weapons, I’m prepared for the future.” (Rodriguez, 1993)
Four Weddings And A Funeral: Charles needs to stop sabotaging his relationships.
The Fugitive: Dr. Kimble must wait for this terrible situation–the ignorance of his innocence and efforts to remove him permanently from society–to end.
The Godfather: Michael resists association with his family at first, indicating that he plans to be with Kaye and not get involved in the family business. He stops this resistance, however, when all of his family’s power is threatened and he becomes the only one capable of preserving it.
The Great Gatsby: Nick stop’s reserving judgment, as illustrated in his moral indictment of Tom and Daisy Buchanan: “I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”
Hamlet: Hamlet must stop mulling over the information given to him by his father’s ghost. Only then may he begin to accept the knowledge as truth and act accordingly.
Harold and Maude: Harold must lose his fear of change, and stop alienating those who try to get close to him by faking suicide.
Heavenly Creatures: Pauline needs to stop her obsession of being with Juliet, and stop living in a fantasy world of her own creation where problems are easily resolved by violent acts.
Lawrence of Arabia: Lawrence needs to stop believing he’s infallible, the only one with the right answers. He needs to realize there are forces at work larger than him, and that he cannot make everything “written in here” (in his head) come true by sheer force of will.
Lolita: The reader wants Humbert to stop molesting Lolita.
The Piano Lesson: Berniece has to stop blaming her brother for her husband’s death. She must also quit using the piano as an excuse for her fear and bitterness, and take steps to bury the past and get on with her life.
Platoon: Chris must stop thinking that war will define him as a man.
Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth must discard her prejudice of Mr. Darcy.
Rain Man: Charlie must stop his materialistic, selfish, non-committal attitude toward life. He cares only about the money he didn’t get from his father and considers Raymond only as a way to get it: CHARLIE: I got him and they want him. I’m going to keep him until I get my half. I deserve that.
Reservoir Dogs: Mr. White must stop believing his own (faulty) instincts.
Revenge of the Nerds: Lewis holds fast against the onslaught of the Alpha-Betas and the Pi Deltas who persecute him for being a nerd. They are pressuring him, with the help of the Greek Council and the football coach, to give up trying to amount to anything at Adams, and Lewis remains steadfast until they stop.
The Silence of the Lambs: Steadfast in her resolve, Clarice must hold out until the process that is threatening the “lambs” (specifically the serial killer, generally all killers) comes to an end.
The Simpsons Christmas Special: Homer needs to stop fumbling with the truth and bumbling with his efforts to cover up his actions.
All Good Things (Star Trek: The Next Generation): Picard must stop looking at the universe and the time-space continuum in a linear fashion if he is to recognize the advantage of his time-shifting and solve the meaning of the paradox. At the scene of the “Trial,” Picard says to Q that seven years earlier Q had already tried him and his crew. Q responded flippantly that Picard always looks at time in such a “linear” fashion.
Star Wars: Luke must stop testing his readiness and listening to others’ advice so that he may trust in himself.
The Sun Also Rises: The audience is waiting for Jake to stop obsessing over Brett.
Taxi Driver: Travis needs to stop being God’s policeman–obsessing over the kind of people he dislikes doing their thing, on the streets of New York City or in the back seat of his cab–and get a life of his own.
Toy Story: Woody needs to stop feeling entitled to sole possession of the “spot” on Andy’s bed. He needs to stop being insecure, competitive, and jealous. He needs to stop measuring himself in terms of “playtime.” If he would stop all these things, he could relax and accept a new state of affairs which is out of his control anyway.
The Verdict: Frank must stop disbelieving that the Justice System is completely unjust.
The Wild Bunch: Pike Bishop is “tired of being hunted.” He hides out in Mexico, holding out for his pursuers–“Railroad men– Pinkertons — bounty hunters.”–especially Thornton, to give up or be killed by Mapache’s men.
Imagine a story’s structure as a war and the Main Character as a soldier making his way across the field of battle. In your mind’s eye, you likely see they whole scene spread out in front of you, as if you were a general on a hill watching the conflict unfold.
That all-seeing “God’s eye view” is a perspective not available to the Main Character, but only the author and audience (as he chooses to reveal it, here and there, casting light on that dark understanding of what is really going on or keeping the readers in the dark.
But there is a second point of view implied in this war of words – that of the Main Character himself. The Main Character has no idea what lies over the next hill, or what troubles may be lurking in the bushes. Like all of us, he must rely on our experience in trying to make it through alive.
The view through the eyes of the Main Character puts your readers in his shoes, experiencing the pressures first hand, feeling the power of the moment. In a sense, this most perspective connects the Main Character’s tribulations (both logistic and emotional) to those we all grapple with in real life. It draws us in, makes us personally involved, and also causes us to see the message or moral of the story as being applicable to our own journey.
Many authors establish both the overall story and the Main Character’s glimpse of it and stop there, believing they have covered all the angles. After all, the Main Character can’t see the big picture and that overview can’t portray the immediacy of the struggle on the ground. All bases covered, right?
In fact, no. Suddenly, through the smoke of dramatic explosions the Main Character spies a murky figure standing right in his path. In this fog of war, he cannot tell if this other soldier is a friend or foe. Either way, he is blocking the road.
As the Main Character approaches, this other soldier starts waving his arms and shouts, “Change course – get off this road!” Convinced he is on the best path, the Main Character yells back, “Get out of my way!” Again the figure shouts, “Change course!” Again the Main Character replies, “Let me pass!”
The Main Character has no way of knowing if his opposite is a comrade trying to prevent him from walking into a mine field or an enemy fifth column combatant trying to lure him into an ambush. But if he stops on the road, he remains exposed with danger all around. And so, he continues on, following the plan that still seems best to him.
Eventually, the two soldiers converge, and when they do it becomes a moment of truth in which one will win out. Either the Main Character will alter course or his steadfastness will cause the other soldier to step aside.
This other soldier is called the Influence character, and though you may not have heard of him, this other soldier is essential to describing the pressures that bring the Main Character to a point of decision.
In our own minds we are often confronted by issues that question our approach, attitude, or the value of our hard-gained experience. But we don’t simply adopt a new point of view when our old methods have served us so well for so long. Rather, we consider how things might go if we adopted this new system of thinking right up to the moment we have to make a choice.
It is a long hard thing within us to reach a point of change, and so too is it a difficult feat for the Main Character. In fact, it takes the whole story to reach that point of climax where the Main Character must choose to stay on course or to step off into the darkness, hoping they’ve made the right choice – the classic “Leap of Faith.”
This other character provides a third perspective to a story’s structure – that of an opposing belief system that the Main Character is pressured to consider. What would the original Star Wars have been without Obi Wan Kenobi continually urging Luke to “Trust the force?” How about A Christmas Carol without Marley’s ghost, as well as the ghosts of Past, Present, and Future?
Without an Influence character, there is no reason for the Main Character to question his beliefs. But just having an opposing perspective isn’t all that an Influence Character brings to a story.
A convincing theme or message is not built just by establishing an alternative world view to that of the Main Character. That would come off as simply moralizing since it presents the two sides as cut and dried, in black and white. Few life-changing decisions in life are as simple as that.
Rather, the two views must also be played against each other in many scenarios so the Main Character (who represents us all) can begin to connect the dots and ultimately choose the tried and true approach that isn’t working or the new approach that has never been tried. In other words, at the moment of conflict, both courses are evenly balanced which is why, no matter which side the Main Character comes down on, it is a leap of faith.
It is that repeated questioning of the Main Character’s closely held beliefs that comprises the fourth perspective of our story when seen as a war – the personal story between the Main Character and the Influence Character in which the author’s message is argued.
This fourth point of view elevates a structure from being a simple tale that states “here is how it is,” to a fully developed story that makes the case for “here’s why it is as it is.” Such stories feel far more complete, even though they may still work well-enough to be successful without it.
For example, in the movie, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington, King of Halloween Town, is dissatisfied with his lot in life and decides to take over Christmas by kidnapping Santa Claus.
The kidnapping and all that follows in the plot is that Overall perspective of the general on the hill.
Jack is the Main Character, trying to improve his life through altering his situation, embodying perspective number two.
Jack’s girlfriend, Sally, is the Influence Character, providing the third perspective: an alternative belief system. As Wikipedia puts it: “Sally is the only one to have doubts about Jack’s Christmas plan.” Essentially, he tell Jack that Halloween and Christmas should not be mixed and he should be satisfied with who he is.
But that fourth perspective is missing – the thematic argument between those two conflicting points of view that would have provided a strong and organic message to the story. Sally states her opposition, but she and Jack never pit one way of looking at the world against the other, not through discussions, nor argument, nor even through a series of scenes illustrating the value of one over the other.
Think back to A Christmas Carol. How many times is Scrooge’s world view contrasted against that of the ghosts in a whole series of scenarios? But in Nightmare, the opposing world view is stated but never argued, leaving the story, though incredibly inventive and exciting, somehow less satisfying in a way the audience can’t quite identify.
All four of these perspectives are needed for a story structure to be as powerful as it can be. In developing your own stories, consider our analogy of story structure as war to ensure that each of them is present, and your story will be far stronger for it.
You can make your story a lot more focused and targeted if you narrow down the kind of story you are creating. A good place to start is to figure out which of the four basic types of stories is most like yours.
Now, these four story categories are a lot like the basic colors – Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. In practice there’s really a whole spectrum of stories out there, but you can begin adding clarity to your story by dividing them into these four groups: Situation, Activity, Mind Set, and Manner of Thinking.
Situation stories are like Poseidon Adventure where folks are trapped in an overturned cruise ship in the middle of the ocean or the original Die Hard where terrorists have trapped people in a skyscraper. Each is a fixed situation and until they get out of that situation, they’re just stuck in a real problem.
Activity stories are more like The African Queen where the characters have to make it down a jungle river in order to blow up an enemy ship or The Great Race where the characters have to participate in a turn-of-the-19th-century auto race from New York to Paris, the hard way around. Each of these stories is about a an ongoing physical effort, and is quite unlike a fixed situation story.
Mind Set stories are like A Christmas Carol where it is Scrooge’s attitude that is the underlying problem or like To Kill a Mockingbird in which people’s prejudice is the mind set that is causing the story’s problem. Each of these stories is about an unchanging state of mind, and the story’s problems will continue until that mind set is changed or overcome.
Manner of Thinking stories are like Hamlet where his father has been murdered and he wants to take revenge but keeps overthinking the plumbing and getting lost in his own ponderings or like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in which the characters are out to cause as much emotional pain as they can in their ceaseless predatory bickering. Each of these stories is about problems created by people who’s way of thinking is off-kilter and problematic, and the difficulties will continue unless the some to grips with things.
So, fixed situations, ongoing activities, fixed mind sets, and ongoing problems with the way folks are thinking. Those are the primary colors of types of stories.
Now, just knowing what type of story you are writing doesn’t write it for you. But by understanding which of these categories your story falls into, you can better target your efforts and give your plot, in fact your entire structure, a consistent and focused core.