Friday, December 11, 2009

Building A Story – ACT I: The Basics, The Mechanics

I was chatting with a colleague and close friend of mine just the other day, and we were discussing the best method of utilizing random pieces of a story that pop into your head, on a whim. She had mentioned that she had an idea for a character, but couldn’t decide how to wrap a story around him, or place him within a story.

This is common. You’ll have a stroke of genius, a moment of clarity, a trial and tribulation when it comes to gathering all the ingredients for a new project. You’ll need personalities, themes, missions, problems, entertainment, and thought provoking emotions. So, where do you start when it comes to crafting?

The Story Arc
A Story Arc is the skeleton of any story—written or filmed. It lives in three acts, and dictates the flow of every story. Tried and true, it will ensure that you take all the right roads on your writing journey-- granted that you have some prior understanding of writing. Once you discover and study the story arc, creating a story will be easier than you ever imagined.


There are two main functions in the first act; the setup, and the inciting incident. While the inciting incident will straddle and mark the line of Act I & Act II, the set up/hook must be presented first and foremost.

Let’s use one of my favorite films, The Station Agent, as an example, (I know, I know—most of you probably haven’t seen it. You should, it’s terrific.) Alongside showing us the set up, Act I will also introduce us to all main characters—usually. I’ll get to that. For the most part, we will become acquainted with our protagonist; we’ll learn their:

- Goal/ desire - Recall an earlier post where I explained the protagonist’s Inner & Outer Motives?

Outer Motivation= (Physical Achievement/Goal) = PLOT
-> This must be a tangible goal, and will be resolved by the protag’s success or failure of attaining said goal.

Inner Motivation= (Why they’re pursuing that particular goal)=THEME
->The protag’s inner need will govern this and it, in turn, will govern the way the protag views him/herself and others.

- Need/Flaw – The need/flaw of a character is directly associated with the inner motivation, in that it is subconscious; in the beginning of your story, the protagonist may not recognize this flaw, so throughout the course of the story—while they pursue the goal/achievement (the outer motivation—they will be tried and tested and put into situations that challenge their world view. Coming full circle at the climax, they will recognize and repair this flaw. (We’ll mention this more when we discuss the CHARACTER ARC.)

In The Station Agent, the story begins by introducing us to Finbar, a man of no more than 4' 5". He works in shop that sells model trains. His coworker (and only friend) Henry is the only person he has any human contact with because he’s self conscious of his petite stature. However, Henry dies, leaving to Finbar, by will, an abandoned train station. Being that Finbar is such a miserable little man and has no personal ties, friends, family, or roots of any kind, he packs up and leaves, heading out to this station in hopes of being a hermit and never having to deal with another human being, ever again.

This is the set up for The Station Agent. It introduces us to the main character, allows us to see the core of his “problem” and situation in his daily life. We come to know him as somewhat hermit-like and emotionally cold from living a life where he’s never been accepted—except, of course, by his friend who dies. What luck! Sounds like me.

Anyway, there are two other essential elements at work here, though they’re fairly elusive and difficult to distinctly identify-- unless you have prior knowledge of their existence-- they are vital elements and must be present in any set-up.

Based on the need/flaw of the story, your protag will, subsequently, have what is known as a Clear World View. In The Station Agent, Finbar views the world as cold and uncaring, and he believes no one will ever accept him. In turn, he has adopted a similar policy and refuses to “let anyone in”.

This is also second element that is at work in the set up. More specifically put; you must express to your reader/viewer the wound that has led to the need/flaw. This is pretty self explanatory, and in my own round-about way, I’ve already covered this, so no need for reiterating.

Once you’ve laid the foundation of your story in Act I, you’ll be ready to tackle your Inciting Incident. We’ll tackle that in the next installment, Building A Story – ACT II: The Basics, The Mechanics.