So, the waters of Northamptonshire finally receded far enough to allow my weekend jogs around the reservoir to recommence and, with them, comes the opportunity to review some fundamental thoughts about story structure.
It took a while, but yes, I still think I’m right: all models about structure (Hero’s Journey, Three Act Structure, Four Act Structure, Propp’s Analysis of folk tales etc.) can be condensed into a time line and four plot points:
- Stories start with some exposition and an ‘Inciting Incident’ – a glimpse at something new/odd/threatening/ challenging. Let’s call that ‘II’.
- It takes a while for the hero (male or female) to accept that they have to tackle the problem/ accept the challenge. That’s the bit from ‘II’ to Plot Point 1 (‘PP1’). At PP1, the hero grasps the mettle and gets on with it.
Note: If you take the Exposition and the Incident together, you’ve got what some people call the ‘premise’, though the way some people define ‘premise’, it might include PP1 as well.
- From ‘PP1’ to Plot Point 2 (‘PP2’), it seems like the hero is succeeding. But then the real bad guy(s) turns up and it ends in a crisis at PP2:- the hero gets beaten, humiliated and left in a heap.
- From ‘PP2’ to Plot Point (‘PP3’), it emerges that the hero didn’t really understand what they were fighting/facing; they rethink. By ‘PP3’, they are ready to change their life/approach/belief system. The ‘essence of the story’ centres on this emotional change.
- From ‘PP3’ to Plot Point 4 (‘PP4’), the hero is doing what is necessary to prepare to test their new found belief/life attitude/resolve etc.
- At ‘PP4’, they are validated/proved correct (or occasionally proved wrong). The test they face is a thinly disguised rerun of the ‘PP2’ debacle, except that the enhanced hero produces a different result. The rest of the story is a rounding off/celebration of victory (or occasionally, the mourning of defeat)
BUT WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT
If the above simplification is right, i.e. this is how all story models are structured, the next question is ‘why?’. The best answer I can come up with is that what we’re creating is something like a ‘Thought Experiment about Character’.
This is how I think about it. We are putting the hero character in a particular situation because we’re interested in what happens. We like to validate our values and beliefs in ‘extremis’, but we wouldn’t really like the things that happen to heroes to happen to us, however heroic they seem by the end. Fictional heroes are useful (and safe) substitutes. We can check what makes him/her succeed and fail in our chosen test, thus validating a ‘truth’ in our minds and we don’t have to leave our armchair, fly through space, or tackle alligators to do it.
I’m a scientist at heart, so I can tell you how this experimental stuff works. I learned scientific method from an early age. You do an experiment under fixed conditions, you change one thing, you do the experiment again and you observe the difference in the result. “Ah-ha,” you say in your post-experimental write-up, “I can now come to a conclusion, because the difference in the result is clearly down to the one single, controlled change I made in the conditions.”
In narrative, we first test an ‘unchanged’ or ‘unperfected’ character. Failure occurs. We force a single change in the character and test again to see whether the change now helps him/her to succeed. Bingo! We know what really matters in that situation. It’s that one thing that turned our hero from a loser to a winner.
It becomes my ‘inciting incident and four plot point’ structure like this:
1) I explain the nature of the experimental set up (Premise= Inciting Incident and PP#1)
2) I show you that the results are negative with the character in his unchanged state (PP#2)
3) I change one component part of the character (behaviour, beliefs, value system) (PP#3)
4) Now in the changed condition, I repeat the experiment, achieving a different result. Hence showing the effect of changing the character (PP#4)
There are, of course, many possible types of Thought Experiment involving character, but let me suggest a couple to fully illustrate the theory:
• A Belief is Justified (i.e. a belief held by the main character, or formed by them in the course of the narrative, is tested and validated). This one’s common in those good vs evil narratives. The hero has to commit himself/herself to moral goodness before succeeding. Think of Luke Skywalker. He has to believe in the right side of the force before he can defeat the evil empire.
• Desire and Need are Matched (i.e. a desire expressed by the main character, or modified in the course of the narrative, will satisfy the character’s real need.) This one’s common in Rom-Coms. The hero starts off pursuing one thing (the apparent love of their life) and ends up realising it’s someone or something else (more worthy) they really love. Think ‘When Harry Me Sally’, or maybe even ‘Pretty Woman’.