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Friday, March 14, 2008

"Series of Un/Fortunate Events"

In the previous post, I wrote out a basic outline which can be matched with many traditionally structured dramatic stories. In this outline, I included what I call "Major Pivots" or "Major Twists," though I'm partial to calling them the former, only because other books call it differently.

A Major Pivot is a radical shift in a story's narrative that strongly influences how the next scenes will play out. It's like saying, "Whoa, now THIS changes everything."

We realize that all stories are just a series of events, but what makes an event more compelling is when it institutes a change, great or small, in the physical and/or emotional circumstances of the lead character. If an event does not contribute anything to the whole story, the event is useless and thus unnecessary. As Sandra Scofield says in The Scene Book, every scene has to have a function.

So, effectively, every event or scene you have in your story should end with a pivot, a change.

Event ---> Pivot ---> Event ---> Pivot ...

For a simple example, Joe wakes up late in the morning (event). He starts off his day frustrated (pivot). The roads are clogged with traffic (event), leading to greater frustration (pivot). His girlfriend calls him up on his mobile and berates him for failing to remember her birthday (event), convincing Joe that the day isn't going to be a breeze (pivot). And so forth and so on.

Notice that every event contributes to a change in Joe's mental/emotional state. They all add up, fueling Joe's negativity, and orient the readers into the development of Joe's state of mind.

Now all these are just little itty-bitty pivots. Individually they're not much, but provide indisputable impact on Joe's growing ire. But somewhere along the line, according to your grand story plan, you will introduce a Major Pivot, after an event that will bring about a whammy of an impact. Every pivot before it was the fuel, and then you light the match.

The Major Pivot comes into the story first with the Inciting Incident, or that one event that will provoke your major character into doing something, the action core of your plot. At this point, your character thinks, "It's going to take a lot of work, but I have to do this!" This tells the reader that, "Okay, this is the reason you're reading this story." Will your main character succeed or not?

The next few events and pivots involve your main character in the process of trying to achieve his goal. There will be Complications that will test your character's patience. The second Major Pivot happens after you throw in your first mother monkey wrench. This is the point wherein you character says, "This isn't as easy as I thought." Doubt begins to set in.

After that, your character continues to pursue his goal but with a little more caution. You introduce a series of more events, each one changing the character's assessment of the situation. He begins to think that's he's got it all figured out. Then, boom! You throw in your next monkey wrench, but this time from left field. Your main character goes for a tailspin. The Major Pivot happens--your main character is left with very little, if not a single, option. In other stories, the main character throws in the towel.

The third act comes in, and the next series of events is meant to put your main character back in the situation in time for the home stretch. The "final battle" happens--will the story's Conclusion place your character as a success or a failure? That's your choice. The Denouement caps your story as a postscript, essentially allowing your character to assess what has happened, if he survives.

Again, the above is a very simple approach. It can actually become more comprehensive than that. And an event does not have to be physical. It can be emotional, mental, even spiritual. What is important is that each event contributes to the escalation of your story's urgency, repeatedly challenging your character's intent of pursuing the goal.

Now we go to your chosen plot. What is your inciting event? What are your monkey wrenches? Indicate them with conviction--encircle them or highlight them with a marker. If you're not convinced that these events are strongly significant, then you may have to rework the events a bit by giving them more punch. Traditionally there can only be one inciting event and a couple of monkey wrenches. Having three is still okay if you have a particularly long story; more than three can tire your reader into thinking, "When is this ever going to end?" And you wouldn't want that.

In my next post, I'll talk about "plot-driven" and "character-driven" stories, and how you can figure character action and emotion into your story using the Event/Pivot scheme. It's very simple, at least theoretically.



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