The Structure

Table of Contents

Chapter 2

THE STRUCTURE OF THE STORY

  1. The Prologue.
  2. The splash.
  3. Nailing the main characters.
  4. The meat of the story.
  5. Act Three: The payoff.
  6. Epilogue.

Beginning, middle, and end

Aristotle had a lot to say about structure in stories, and in a nutshell it comes down to this:  Stories should have a beginning, middle, and end.  Of course, what we create in each section, and how these sections are used to build the story requires a little more development.

And so, as Aristotle advises, I will start at the beginning…

 

  1. THE PROLOGUE

We, the movie audience, or the reader, or the game player have just paid our 10, 20, or 60 bucks – and now before us lies the unknown.  Someone may have already told us about the story, but even still we hardly have more than a passing sense for who these characters are and why this story is about them. The trailers for the movie, the artwork on the book cover, the logo on the Blu-ray case – these are mere teasers to pique our interest.  And even if someone were to sketch out the whole story for us, we still have yet to experience it for ourselves.

As a writer, on the other hand, I know my story inside and out, and for many years I fretted over how the audience, or reader, or game player might see right through the whole thing if I dropped too many early clues.  But I have since discovered that you can’t drop too many clues in the first few scene – the prologue – because the audience has no idea at this point what anything means.  In fact, a storyteller could present the very last scene of the entire story as a prologue (like you see in many trailers), and nobody would know enough to understand that the beans had just been spilled.  Rather than worry over spilled bean, and rather than keeping the audience in the dark – the first step in any storytelling is exactly the opposite.  From the very first bit of action, notes of music, visualized scenery, and words of dialogue – you must clearly show exactly what will happen, why it will happen, and who will be in the middle of it.

But this does not mean that the prologue says this directly (although it could).  For the scene, the writer usually picks some smaller metaphor that evokes symbolic elements found throughout the story, including references to the main events of the story.  For example, the introductory scene of Men in Black has the camera following a meandering dragonfly as it wanders through various desert perils only to be squashed on the windshield of a van-load of illegal migrant workers.  Perfecto! That is exactly what happens in the rest of movie – a ‘bug’ alien wanders around metropolitan New York avoiding one peril after another (mainly hunted by MIB), then winds up squashed in the end.  Whether the audience realizes this or not, during the three-minute prologue they just saw the core elements of the story in a nutshell.  Are they upset about this?  Of course not.  They now have a framework and outline in mind, but they still have no idea yet what it means.  The depth and greater meaning of the story will come later.

Think about how stories often start with the final climactic moment.  The movie Gandhi starts this way – with his murder.  But rather than spoiling the story, the opening scene here convinces the audience that Gandhi is committed enough to his cause to die for it.  If there is no sensible way to begin with a metaphor – like squashed dragonflies – starting at the end and working backwards is an entirely valid way to begin your story.  In fact, as long as a scene delivers an essential outline of the story, you can use any element at any point in the story for a prologue.  A story is about meaning – not events – and no matter what you offer during the first scene, your audience still hasn’t yet experienced the story.

During your prologue, don’t hold back.  During the few minutes, your audience simply wants to know what the story is about.  Once that is settled, they’ll kick and ready themselves for the ride ahead.

 

  1. THE SPLASH

The next step is stating your premise in no uncertain terms.  In Men in Black, as soon as the dragonfly is smashed on the windshield, we are immediately shown how there are aliens on Earth – and not just the regular sort of aliens the U.S. government arrests at our southern border – but the kind from outer space.

Act 1, Scene 2 – here it is, right in our face, with no dithering on the point:  Space aliens really do exist, they live among us, and because size does not matter, they fit right in.  That is the premise of Men in Black.  Or put another way, tabloid news about space aliens is entirely true.

While the Scene 2 develops, the point is driven home in every way possible. Nothing is wasted.  Even the metaphor of migrant ‘alien’ workers comes into play when the smuggler’s van is discovered by the US border patrol.  One of the ‘Mexican aliens’ hiding in the van is a space alien in disguise, and there is no lingering doubt about where the movie is headed once the space creature is smeared all over the desert sand by the sudden appearance of an MIB team.

Is what the tabloids say about aliens really true?  It’s starting to look that way.  Of course we haven’t yet encountered any tabloids in the movie, so this particular connection has yet to be made.  But the Scene 2 splash has made its point, and now it’s just a matter of adding depth by telling the same story again in greater detail.

 

  1. NAILING THE MAIN CHARACTERS

In the Scene 2 we see K acting really cool in a tense situation.  In fact he’s about as cool as they come, maybe even a bit cooler than he would like to be. Also, from this scene we gather that K’s job is to track down aliens who violate the terms of their Earth visas, and based on the performance of K’s elderly partner we also understand how K might be looking for a new partner.

Enter James – soon to be ‘J.’

We meet James as a young New York City cop chasing someone on foot.  In fact, the ‘someone’ is really fast and able to jump from street-level to the roof of a building no less!  But James runs him down anyway the old-fashion human way – finally cornering what is clearly an alien disguised as a human.

Are we convinced that James is an amazing human?  Yes.  Is he resourceful?  Absolutely!  Is he funny?  That too, especially when he jumps from a bridge onto an open-topped tour bus with the excuse of how it’s “raining black people in New York!”  In less than two minutes we already have a feeling for this guy’s inner strength, determination, and total incapacity to give up.

Next we meet ‘Edgar’ (and the bug) in a no less memorable way.  The bug’s spaceship crash-lands into the real Edgar’s pickup truck, and when Edgar, shotgun in hand, swaggers out to investigate, the bug steals his skin.  Although the bug’s character could have started then, the real Edgar is almost as annoying and conceited as the bug itself – so no moment is lost in developing the bug’s character.

In the first twenty minutes, we already have a clear picture of K, J, and the bug, and now the meat of the story can begin.

 

  1. THE MEAT OF THE STORY

With the basic story outlined, the premise revealed, and the core nature of the main characters introduced, ‘Act 1’ is complete.  What comes next, what screenwriters call ‘Act 2’ (and many other less charitable names), is almost always the hardest section to create.  We have launched our story.  Now what?  The answer is that you do everything you’ve just done again, and again, and again – while bringing the protagonist and antagonist into closer conflict.

At first, J and K encounter a small crater made by the bug’s spaceship. The spaceship is gone along with the bug in its Edgar suit.  Evidently, this is no mystery to the other aliens on the Earth who are leaving in droves.  Something is up – a major war perhaps.  And in this way, once again, we hear evidence of the premise – Aliens are on the Earth – because otherwise none would be leaving now!

In fact, by leaving Manhattan to reach their various jump-off points, the aliens are violating the terms of their Earth visas, and this finally draws the attention of MIB.  The aliens know something that MIB doesn’t see yet – the Earth is about to be blown to bits.

What do the tabloids tell us when we’re standing in the supermarket checkout line?  Don’t they often predict how the Earth is about to be blown up by some pissed-off aliens?  This point culminates when the aliens who work for MIB start packing up.

Finally, after a series of gags along these lines, the premise is again laid at the audience’s feet in no uncertain terms, when, to the utter amazement of J – K consults a news stand, scanning tabloid headlines – “the most authoritative reporting on the planet,” K deadpans.

That’s when I fell out of my chair – perfecto!

Okay, we’ve got it – the tabloids are right.  Space aliens exist.  The Earth is minutes from doomsday on a regular basis.  Even, Silvester Stallone is an alien!  But now what?

As I wrote in Chapter 1, the story can not end until the protagonist defeats the antagonist in some fitting way.  And this is what happens in Act 3.

 

  1. ACT THREE: THE PAYOFF

Throughout Act 2, the protagonist (both K and J) come into increasingly closer contact with the antagonist (the bug).  Each time they seem closer to stopping him, and each time the bug is closer to his own quest of stealing the galaxy.  Finally, the bug grabs the galaxy, takes off in a spaceship disguised as a 1964 World’s Fair sculpture, and is shot out of the sky by K and J.

The bug is furious for being stopped in his tracks, so furious so that he sheds his Edgar skin, and for the first time we see the thing for what it is – a 20-foot tall monster (remember size does not matter), and now the fight is on to keep the bug from climbing aboard a twin spaceship sculpture, leaving the Earth for good (with K and two blaster weapons in its stomach to boot).

Here again, J shows his relentless determination – in fact, this is the key factor that defeats the bug.  With K still swallowed by the bug, and without a useful weapon, J confronts the 20-foot beast by waving useless sticks, hurling lots of mouth, and surviving the bugs’ attacks long enough for K to cut his way out.  If not for the first scene where James chases the amazing alien on foot, we might never have bought this climactic sequence.  But we totally accept J’s resilience, and based on this the story arrives at a fitting conclusion.

So how does it end? Most fittingly. The bug gets squashed, just like the dragonfly was squashed in the prologue. In fact, every story should be this well-aligned where, on some level, the audience is ready knows how the story must end – because what happens at the end of the prologue should always happens at the conclusion of the main story.

Is there any doubt that the tabloids are right? No!

Has the bug been squashed? Yes!

The story is over,

It’s time to roll the credits as soon as we can.

 

  1. EPILOGUE

Leaving a major question hanging can be an annoyance just when you have produced a satisfying conclusion.  The story is over, but sometimes there’s a burning question that deserves a brief answer – such as, did the main character survive the final scene?  An important point of ‘closure’ like that can be cleared up in an epilogue.

Nothing major should happen in an epilogue.  At most you should only tie up the most pressing loose ends.  Nobody expects a story to wrap up even minor event.  Most of all, keep it short, and if possible, leave it out altogether unless a loose end is crying out for resolution. Audiences don’t want to hear anything new raised at this point except their burning question.

You may have already noticed that I am using the same storytelling structure in this chapter.  Below I include with my own epilogue where I capture some of the loose points that would have been a distraction had I raised them in the main body of the text…

  • Use foreshadowing as much as possible. For example, K tells J to “never to press the ‘red button’ unless I tell you to.”  And so, it’s fairly obvious that, at some point, K will ask J to push it.  Yet, if we hadn’t been told how the red button is only for a very special occasion, we would have missed the emotional payoff when the time comes to use it.
  • The crucible for this story is a combination of the New York City area (space aliens are allowed only inside this zone because of how they can so easily blend in). The story is also bounded by the Archelien ultimatum to return the galaxy within one galactic week (one hour).  So the story cannot wander much geographically and cannot go on for very long.
  • Notice the arching. The orderly MIB headquarters gets trashed. The bug transforms from something resembling a bumbling human to a menacing 20-foot-tall monster. K finally gets his dream to quit. The pathologist becomes much more human in her demeanor.  Edgar’s wife gets her life back.  J gradually gets a handle on this ‘alien thing’ and earns respect from the big boss, Zed.  And that damn bug finally gets squashed!
  • Who among the main characters is left unchanged? No one.  Even the Earth-like Unisphere sculpture is flattened!  The real Earth – the one we never knew was in constant danger – is saved again just like we see in the tabloids. And as far as the whole planet is concerned, besides a few MIB agents and a few space aliens, nobody ever knows the difference.

Great story.

 
Next Time: The Temperature of the Story

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