Using the Storyteller’s Principles—a Basic Checklist
The following is a list of the basic principles of narrative construction that are explored in this book. Use the list to analyze and critique the story or narrative piece you’re working on. If one of these elements is missing, work on ways of revising the narrative to make that element present. In other words, use this list as a series of prompts to further revision and writing.
1. Think of story as a series of actions: these actions are attempts by the character to reach a goal/solve a problem/overcome a conflict/complete a journey.
2. So ask the question: What does my protagonist want? (remember: no goal or desire = no story).
3. So ask the question: How can I create a situation where my protagonist must take actions? (as opposed to remaining passive).
4. These actions by the protagonist are often in ascending order
of increased tension.
5. In classic drama this ascension leads to the three-act play:
I. The initial call to or announcement of the goal
II. Struggle and doubt
III. The final battle
6. Tension is created when the protagonist appears to be losing or struggling in the pursuit of the goal.
7. Each action represents a choice; with each choice there is a loss and gain
that is, each action/choice leads to a different path
and the chosen path may or may not lead the protagonist to the goal
(the protagonist doesn’t get to go back in time and make a different choice).
8. Sometimes there is tension between a conscious desire and an unconscious desire. In the course of a story, this unconscious desire may increasingly assert itself and bubble up into the consciousness of the protagonist, that is, the protagonist’s actions make this conflict visible to the protagonist.
9. It may occur that the conscious goal of the protagonist at the beginning of the story is replaced at the end by a goal that was originally unconscious and made its appearance in the course of the story.
10. Sometimes the protagonist’s unconscious desires remain unconscious
that is, the reader perceives them but the protagonist does not
(Hemingway’s iceberg—the nine-tenths beneath the surface versus the story’s visible one-tenth).
11. Tension is created each time a protagonist acts to pursue his goal and something thwarts his progress toward his goal.
12. There is often a gap between the intentions of a protagonist’s action and the results: He takes action, and the world reacts in ways he didn’t foresee or predict. Sometimes the thwarting or complicating reaction to the action comes from within the protagonist (i.e., the unconscious desire making itself manifest).
13. Arguments are a source of tension because the protagonist desires one thing and the antagonist desires something else (i.e., two conflicting desires).
14. External conflicts with other characters often reflect internal conflicts within the protagonist.
15. Internal conflicts or irreconcilable conflicts (desires) occur when the protagonist’s actions for and his pursuit of the original goal conflict with his actions for and pursuit of another goal that he also desires—that is, the protagonist wants goal A, but he also wants goal B, which conflicts with goal A.
16. When faced with irreconcilable conflicts/desires, protagonists often lie to others and to themselves in order to deny the irreconcilability.
17. When protagonists lie—especially about the nature of their reality—that lie will generally come back and bite them in the ass (i.e., the gap between expectations and results). Work on ways—other characters, circumstances—to expose the protagonist’s lies or to put pressure on the protagonist to reveal the truth. A helpful analogy is to think of other characters as police investigators or prosecuting attorneys trying to trip up the protagonist and catch the protagonist in a lie. David Mamet: “A play begins with a lie. When the lie is exposed, the play is over.”
18. The choices a protagonist makes concerning irreconcilable conflicts, desires, reveals his or her character (i.e., it is under pressure that character is revealed).
19. No conflict/irreconcilable desires/tension/thwarting/difficulty = no story. Often, especially when the writer identifies with the protagonist in some way, the writer doesn’t make the pursuit of the goal difficult enough for the protagonist.
20. Your job as the writer is to create difficulties for your protagonist in pursuit of the goal. In doing this, two models are useful:
A. The God who rains down calamity on Job, who completely disrupts Job’s happy and stable life.
B. The devil, who tempts the protagonist, often with other desires and things the protagonist wants. The devil is probably the more useful model for creating irreconcilable conflicts/desires.
21. Out of the goals and conflicts of the protagonist come the themes of the story.
22. In the struggle toward and pursuit of the goal, the protagonist creates her own fate and reveals her character.