by James Bonnet
In my previous articles – The Essence of Story, Beyond Theme: Story’s New Unified Field, The Metaphor Is King, and The Tragedy, Mystery, and Romance of Genre, I pointed out that all great stories have the same underlying, universal structure – namely, there is a threat, either agent or perpetrator, that creates a problem that brings about a change to a state of misfortune and is the main source of resistance that opposes the action when someone tries to solve the problem and restore a state of good fortune.
In stories that end tragically it’s the reverse – the story starts in a state of good fortune and ends unhappily. In either case, the resistance to the central action will create the classical story structure – i.e. the complications, crisis, climax and resolution that occur when a problem solving (or problem creating) action encounters resistance. The problem, change of fortune, and complications, crisis, climax, and resolution constitute the very essence of story – without which there would be no story.
I then suggested that, besides this universal structure, there were three other story dimensions that had to be mastered to make your stories truly great – The Metaphor, The Genre and The Narrative Structure. These three qualities account for the differences that make great stories that have similar structures appear fresh and unique – and this is true in both the novel and the film.
This article will be about the Narrative Structure, which governs how the story is told – how the incidents are arranged, the emphasis given to each dimension or quality, the focus of the story and the various points of view through which the events of the story will be perceived. All of which help to not only make the story unique, they add clarity and meaning – and also power and magic.
We start with the story focus.
Once you’ve worked out the underlying universal structure described above, there are an infinite number of ways to tell that story. For one thing, you can focus the story anywhere you like. The actions that created the main problem and the actions that help to resolve it are made up of many other smaller actions and problems, any one of which can be the focus of the story.
Take World War II as an example. The entity being transformed is Europe. Hitler is the threat. His taking possession of Europe is the inciting action that creates the problem and he is also the main source of resistance that creates the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical structure when the Allies get together hoping to destroy Hitler and liberate the continent. The Longest Day, a focus on that larger story, is all about D-Day, the taking of Normandy’s beaches by the allied forces. The entire story is focused on that one battle, but the larger story, WWII, that has the underlying universal structure, is very much in the background.
In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg isolates a dilemma of justice and humanity surrounding one individual soldier who is caught up in that same invasion. In Schindler’s List, another story in the larger context of that same war, a factory full of Jews is rescued from the Holocaust by one enterprising German businessman. In Casablanca, a former patriot and freedom fighter named Rick has become disillusioned and dropped out of the fight. The principal action of the story focuses on how Rick is brought back into the fight. And, here again, the larger problem of World War II is ever present in the background.
In The Iliad, the entity being transformed is Greece. Paris is the threat and his seduction of King Menelaos’ wife, Helen, creates the problem that brings about the change of fortune – and his countrymen, the Trojans, are the main source of resistance that creates the classical structure when the Greeks arrive with an army intending to get her back. The focus of the story has to do with Achilles’ anger. Nine years into the war, Achilles and Menelaos’ brother, Agamemnon, have an argument over a girl who was given to Achilles as a prize. Agamemnon takes the girl back. Achilles feels dishonored, gets angry and drops out of the fight. The Greek army falls apart without Achilles and is almost destroyed. The story ends when Achilles lets go of his anger and returns to the fight. But this incident, which encompasses the entire book of The Iliad, is only a very small part of the larger, whole story, which contains the universal structures we have described.
The Odyssey is another focus on that same larger story and reveals Odysseus’ ten year struggle to return home. You could create a hundred other stories, each focusing on a different aspect of that one passage. And that is, in fact, what Euripides and many other Greek dramatists did (Iphigenia, Trojan Women, Orestes, etc.)
In The Sixth Sense, Philadelphia is the larger entity being transformed. The threat comes from the legions of dead people who are stuck in limbo and have unfinished emotional business. The story is focused on a young boy who can see these dead people but is terrified of his psychic gift, and the story tells us all about how his fear came about and how that fear was resolved.
There can be more than one story focus. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Russia is the larger entity being transformed. Napoleon is the threat. His invasion creates the problem that brings about a state of misfortune. This story is told from the point of view of at least four different main characters – Pierre, Natasha, Nicolas Rostov, and Prince Andrew. Each one is a separate focus, which contains its own line of action and character progression. The same is true of the movie, Traffic, which also has four separate focuses. In the larger whole story, there is the big war on drugs. The person who has the responsibility to solve that problem is Michael Douglas, the newly appointed drug czar. Another focus is the plight of Douglas’ daughter, who is a drug addict. The third focus tells us the story of Benicio Del Toro, a narcotics cop in Tijuana who is going up against a local drug lord and a corrupt general who is backed up by a small army. The fourth focus is on Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is being drawn into the downside. Her husband, a big drug dealer, has been arrested and this story is focused on her transformation from an innocent housewife, who can’t bear to lose her current life style, into an accomplice in the murder of the key witness against her husband.
In Star Wars, the larger entity being transformed is an entire galaxy. The Evil Emperor and Darth Vader take possession of the galaxy and are the main source of resistance that creates the classical structure when Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi try to solve that problem. This larger story is told in the context of six different parts, or six separate focuses. The three parts on the downside tell us how Anakin Skywalker was drawn into the dark side, transformed into Darth Vader, and the role he plays as the Evil Emperor’s principal ally. The three parts on the upside tell us how Luke Skywalker is drawn into the fight and how the Evil Empire is ultimately defeated.
Another dimension of narrative structure is point of view (POV), and once you’ve worked out the larger story, you can tell the story from the POV of any character. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, there is a murder and a police investigation. Most stories of this type are told from the point of view of the police investigator. Dostoyevsky tells his story from the point of view of the murderer. The police inspector makes only occasional appearances but he’s out there somewhere trying to solve the problem. Cinderella is told from the point of view of the victim and A Christmas Carol from the point of view of the threat. Dead Poet’s Society is told from the point of view of Robin Williams, the mentor of the future heroes. All of these stories have the same basic structure and as long as they are connected to the larger story in the background, you can focus on anyone’s point of view that you choose.
Another dimension is sequence. If you lay out all the actions, including past history and afterthought, in chronological order, the incidents can then be presented in almost any sequence – i.e. having created your story, you can now tell that story in just about any way that you like. You can begin the story in the middle of the crisis or climax and bring everything else in as part of the exposition. Or the story can begin a year after the climactic battle ends, which is to say, after you have established the basic story, you have almost unlimited creative freedom when it comes to how the incidents of that narrative are arranged and revealed.
Another important quality of narrative structure is emphasis, and the emphasis you give an element will depend on its importance relative to the whole. In real life when you have a problem, you can look at any aspect of the problem in as much detail as you like – and so it is with story. You can develop or give special emphasis to any part of the focus structure you choose. You can concentrate your story at a particular point and intensify it or spread it out as much as necessary. You can make the climax last two minutes or spread it out over fifteen rounds of boxing, as in Rocky. As long as it is consistent with the subject you are trying to explore, you can take any part of your story and intensify, deepen or elongate it as much as you like.
Harry Potter, in this regard, is a very interesting case. In the whole story, passage preparation is one of the many important steps the hero has to pass through. And if special training is required, then the mentor will provide it. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi has to teach Luke how to use the light saber, and this exercise lasts only a few minutes. In Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling has expanded that one step, Harry’s training, into seven books. Think of that. You can focus in on one step of the passage and expand it into any number of books that you like, as long as it is connected to, and an integral part of, the larger, whole story passage, which, as I’ve been saying, is held together by the basic, universal structure all great stories have in common.
And this concludes our description of the qualities that make great stories appear unique and different, when in fact they are all different facets of the same thing.
James Bonnet is an internationally known writer, teacher and story consultant. He was elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writer’s Guild of America and has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. The radical new ideas about story in his book Stealing Fire from the Gods: A Complete Guide to Story For Writers And Filmmakers are having a major impact on writers in all media.