I begin with basics of story mechanics. Probably much of it will be familiar -- feel free to skim if you feel like you’ve heard all of this before.
The thing that creates a story is the ability to ask What happened next? Stories pull us along because we are interested not just in the situation that has been presented, but what happens as a result of it.
Stories are more satisfying when they are linked by causality than coincidence. Rather than this happened and this happened and then that happened, you want something like this happened and made that happen and then those two events made a third event happen.
Not clear? Let's take a basic narrative and see this in action.
The Three Little Pigs
- The wolf attacks the first pig causing him to take shelter in his house of straw.
- The pig's retreat makes the wolf huff and puff.
- The wolf's action results in the straw house being blown down.
- The house's destruction makes the pig take shelter with his brother in a house of twigs.
- The pig's retreat makes the wolf huff and puff a second time.
- The wolf's action results in the twig house being blown down.
- The house's destruction makes the two pigs take shelter with their brother in a house of bricks.
- The pigs' retreat makes the wolf huff and puff.
- Because that is unsuccessful, the wolf climbs into the chimney.
- Because the wolf is coming down the chimney, the pigs put a pot of boiling water in his way.
- Because the water is there, the wolf perishes and the pigs rejoice over a hearty bowl of wolf stew.
If those were ands instead of becauses, the story would certainly have action, but it would feel unsatisfying because part of the narrative contract is that things happen and do so as a result of actions.
Let's look at a story and see the way the events in it happen and cause each other over the course of the story. The example story is Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains." Please go read it now if you're not familiar with it; you can find it in Bradbury's book The Martian Chronicles or here online.
Now that you've read the story, let's think about what happens over the course of it. IBegin with the list of events. We begin with the seven o'clock AM waking of a house driven by an artificial intelligence.
As the story progresses, the events of the house's daily life play out, emphasizing the house's deserted nature. We learn details: it is August 4, 2026, it's someone's birthday, the location is a California town, and the house is the only house standing amid the radioactive ruins of that city. We see the images of the children who died playing, burnt onto the side of the house. The day progresses and the family dog returns after what is clearly a significant amount of time and dies. In the evening, an accident sets the house on fire and it is destroyed.
There is some causality here and there; the dog's body evokes the robot mice. The branch sets off the fire (and we see a lovely recap of what's been established before, including the beautiful twenty dozen bacon strips frantically produced by the stove in its dying minutes.) But it's a more sporadic structure than the three little pigs. Learn the basic story structures and you will be able to use them as templates and refine and alter them as needed. A story in which nothing happens is a scene or a vignette; you need to figure out what can change in order to make it an actual story.
One important thing to note is that we speak the language of story at a basic level; we may not be able to lay out narrative rules, but we know when a story does or doesn’t play by rules, when it fails to ring true or goes in a direction that it shouldn’t. We know this because of all the stories we have absorbed over our lives, starting with the deep steeping in narrative that takes place in our childhood, an inundation of fairy tales, fables, and other basic stories that establish the rules.
A basic part of a story is its arc. The arc, graphed out, is a roughly slanted triangle, with the slope on the lefthand side usually significantly longer. That structure is called Freytag’s pyramid, or sometimes Freytag's triangle.
The X axis of that diagram is the story over time; the Y axis is level of tension in the story. As the storyline progresses, while there may be momentary lulls or dips in tension, the overall movement is upward until we come to the highest point at the moment of resolution. Tension is increased by things like complications, reversals, and raising the stakes. After the resolution, tension dies out of the story and it ends.
Certainly some things happen in "There Will Come Soft Rains". One, we learn what has happened to the family. Two, we see the dog's death and then the house's. And three, the reader's understanding of what the story is about changes as Bradbury underscores why he's chosen a line of a Teasdale poem for the title and we learn that it's not so much about what happened to the family as how little will remains after war. It's a beautiful, deft story, and that ending is killer (despite the typo if you're reading the online version; I believe that "heaper rubble" should be "heap of rubble".)
But more than that, something in the story must change. The problem must be resolved in some fashion, even if it’s only to show that there is no resolution. The change provides the resolution; without it, we have only a scene or static moment, which is generally an unsatisfying thing for a reader. Often (I might go so far as to say usually) there are two changes, an internal one inside the protagonist and the external one taking place around the protagonist.
The change can, in some circumstances, take place outside the story by occurring in the reader’s understanding of the story. What seems innocent (or vile) at the outset turns out to be the opposite. This sort of subtle change can be beautiful when it works. If you look at Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” for example, you can see this sort of shift in play as we learn more about the circumstances behind the story and move from light-hearted to deeply sad. This sort of change is best suited to flash fiction, in my opinion, but it can and does work at greater length, as with Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory (I don’t want to spoil the ending, but urge you to find the book and read it if you haven’t.)
Do you need to understand what will change before you begin to write the story? No. But some story origins will have signs and clues leading to the change, while others will require you step back and consider it in various ways before moving on.
One of the reasons the Bradbury story works well is that it follows the Freytag's triangle pattern. The tension in the story rises and rises until a moment of crisis (the fire) and its resolution, around the 7/8ths mark (depending on the text), after which the tension falls and loose ends as tied up.
I came across the triangle while teaching John Barth's story "Lost in the Funhouse" (included in the book of the same name or available online here) to first year college students, which was a challenging and interesting class.
Barth says of this technique:
While there is no reason to regard this pattern as an absolute necessity, like many other conventions it became conventional because great numbers of people over many years learned by trial and error that it was effective; one ought not to forsake it, therefore, unless one wishes to forsake as well the effect of drama, or has clear cause to feel that deliberate violations of the "normal" pattern can better effect that effect.
We expect this pattern; when it is changed in some way, we notice it, perhaps consciously, perhaps not.
1. Take 2-3 fairytales and look to see how they match (or not) Freytag's triangle. Is the level of tension a consistent rise or sporadic? What other patterns do you notice? Overachievers, try doing this with fairytales from multiple cultures.
2. Now find 2-3 genre short stories from the 20th century (any decade is fair game) and do the same. What differences and similarities do you notice? Overachievers, expand the number and doing looking at multiple groups.
3. Finally, find 2-3 genre stories from within the last decade and repeat one last time. Unless you're looking at wildly experimental stories, you should be noticing a lot of similarities. Again, overachievers can do so by reading more than 2-3 stories.