It’s Complicated

Part 7 of “The Language of Story”

A quick recap.

Aristotle tells us that all story is composed of parts.

We introduce Aristotle to recursion to discover that each of those Aristotelian parts of the story can be broken down into smaller parts.

We think about how those parts affect us as consumers of story depending on the pattern they create. We listen to the insight engendered by our storyteller’s mind. Two dramatic beats is too brief a pattern to encompass a compelling story; six beats is too long. Three to five beats is the magic number that creates the most effective pattern for crafting compelling story.

(In the last few installments, we’ve been talking mostly about film, but if your focus is prose fiction, please hang tough. All of this discussion is entirely relevant to prose fiction of any length. Talking about film just makes for an easy starting point.)

Having mangled Aristotle once, we’re going to do so again by messing around a bit with his terminology. Aristotle talked about story being composed of a beginning, a middle, and an end — but our response to that is a defiant shout-out that one single middle ain’t enough for us, old man. Because on the assumption that we don’t want our story to have more than one beginning or one end, our observation that three to five beats makes an optimal dramatic delivery system means we need one to three middles to fit in between our beginning and end.

So far so good.

But in thinking about our multiple middles, it’s easy to make a more profound observation about Aristotle’s analysis of drama in Poetics. Knowing that something is the beginning, or the first middle, or the second middle, or the end really only tells us where those parts occur. It doesn’t tell us anything about what those parts of the story are actually doing at their proscribed locations within the story.

Every bit of a story has a function. Every bit of a story has a place. And although there’s a relationship between place and function, function is ultimately most important.

An Aristotelian view of story structure does an adequate job of describing a story that already exists. But our purpose in rebuilding that view of structure is to come up with tools to help us shape stories that don’t exist yet. As such, our neo-Aristotelian model of story structure is all about function.

Standard act structure, as devised by the stage play writers who followed Aristotle, has already covered function. Using the standard terminology of stagecraft, Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end can be more usefully defined:

Every story has a setup, a complication, and a resolution.

This provides a much better context than “Beginning, Middle, End” for thinking about what’s going on in each part of a story. Borrowing from the standard analysis of dramatic storytelling, a setup beat establishes what’s going on — setting the scene, introducing the characters, et al. A complication beat takes what’s been previously introduced and mixes things up. It twists the story, pushing the dramatic arcs of the characters in unexpected directions by creating tension and conflict. The resolution beat settles and ties up that tension and conflict, putting things back on an even keel.

Easy. Except we mess it up by remembering that we’ve expanded Aristotle to incorporate the idea that three to five beats is the optimal pattern with which to create story.

When talking about feature film (again, just for the nonce), our expanded act structure of three to five dramatic beats breaks a screen story down into a setup, one to three complications, and a resolution.

Feeding our structure back into the neo-Aristotelian mechanic, we know that acts break down to sequences. Thus, each of the setup, complication, and resolution acts of our story can be deftly unwoven to reveal its own setup sequence, its one to three complication sequences, and its resolution sequence.

Likewise, we know that sequences can be broken down to scenes, so that each sequence above can be broken down to reveal its own setup scene, its one to three complication scenes, and its resolution scene.

Scenes become story beats, so that each of those scenes can be broken down to reveal its own setup story beat, one to three complication story beats, and a resolution story beat. (We include this for completeness, but as in the earlier installments, we’re mostly ignoring story beats for now.)

Now, this is all pretty straightforward. It’s all intuitive on many obvious levels, and it’s not like any of you are going “Oh, man! I just realized I was having a hard time with this story because I had the resolution at the front! Bad writer! Bad!”

Here’s why it’s important, though.

Setup, complications, and resolution are part of our neo-Aristotelian paradigm. As talked about above, we feed each part of the story into the Aristotle machine and chip off smaller parts, each a reflection of the structure above. Setup, complications, resolution.

Each part of the story has a function. Each act serves as the setup, one of the complications, or the resolution of the story as a whole.

Each sequence serves as the setup, one of the complications, or the resolution of one of the acts.

Each scene serves as the setup, one of the complications, or the resolution of one of the sequences.

From act level to scene level, every piece of the story serves as a functional component of that story — setting up, complicating, and resolving to push the story inexorably forward.

Exercise — Get Func[tion]y

Go back to the exercise from a couple of installments ago, in which you thought about a recently-seen-and-remembered feature film, summarized its story in three to five acts, then focused in on each of those acts to summarize them as three to five sequences. You can use the actual output of that exercise, or do it again for a different film if you like.

Whether you’re doing the exercise for a different film or using the output of the original exercise, in addition to looking at the sentences you used to describe each part of the story in their original context — as the beginning, the middles, and the end — think of each sentence in the expanded context of what function it serves in the story — setup, complications, resolution.

What you’ll likely find is that each sentence you crafted at the act level (summarizing the story in five sentences) automatically locks into functional place quite nicely. This makes sense given that you’re using this paradigm to analyze a story that someone else already wrote, rewrote, workshopped, got notes for, and rewrote again before it was actually made. Whatever the process by which the writer shaped and honed his or story, then had it honed again by actors, director, editor, and studio, its structure has been safely beaten into shape.

However, what you might also find is that at the sequence level, the sentences you wrote don’t automatically line up with that structural paradigm. The reason for this is simply that when you wrote those sentences, we hadn’t talked about any of that setup, complication, resolution stuff yet, so that you were only thinking in terms of beginning, middle, and end. And as you dig deeper into the story, it’s easier to lose track of the function of the parts of the story as you focus solely on their placement and position.

When you wrote your original sentences, you were focusing on the order of the dramatic beats in the story, not on the function of those dramatic beats.

Now that you are thinking in terms of setup, complication, and resolution, rewrite and refine the sequence breakdowns. As you do, think about how the feeling of each of your sentences changes in tone, even if only subtly.

If you’re like most people doing this exercise, thinking in terms of setup, complications, and resolution — the function of each part of the story — lets you focus and refine the story much more effectively than simply thinking in terms of where each part of the story falls.

When you’re thinking solely in terms of beginning, middle, and end, all you can really do is say, “Well, the beginning’s been running for a while now, so I guess the middle must start around here.”

When you’re thinking in terms of setup, complication, and resolution, you can say, “This section twists the story and raises the dramatic stakes. The complication starts here.”

As you did last time, work all the way through all your three to five acts, breaking each down to three to five sequences. Same drill as always — one properly formed sentence each.

(As before, please DON’T dig deeper and start breaking your sequences down to the scene level. We’ll tackle that next time.)

When you’re done, compare the revised version of your sequence beats to the original version. Which has more of a sense of narrative movement? Which has more energy and focus? Which does a better job of capturing the essence of the story?

Here’s a snapshot of a story as a whole, from the act level down to the scene level.

For the purpose of discussion, we’re looking above at a four-act feature film story, with each section breaking down to four smaller subsections all the way down. (There’s nothing special about this particular structure; it just makes it relatively easy to create the graphic. In particular, it’s important to remember that the number of narrative beats at any level is rarely this consistent. It’s always about a flexible structure of three to five narrative beats, determined by the demands of the story.)

The above story has four acts, each of which have four sequences, each of which have four scenes. That’s 4 x 4 x 4 = 64 scenes. There are no hard and fast rules for how many scenes a film should have (and the number of scenes can vary greatly depending on the type of story), but most references and screenwriting books will tell you that sixty-four scenes is very much in line for what you want in a 100- to 120-page feature script.

Scenes are important (especially in film, but also in prose fiction; a scene just has a slightly different definition in prose fiction). And in exploring the parameters of our neo-Aristotelian paradigm, we can see how to work from the top level of story down to the level of the scenes that ultimately make up our story. But that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

It’s good to understand the functional relationship of scenes to the story as a whole, by exploring the idea of how the structure of acts breaks down into a structure of sequences, which in turn breaks down into a structure of scenes. It’s important to be able to see the process in the opposite direction, where the structure of the scenes feeds into the structure of the sequences, which feeds into the structure of the acts, which creates the story as a whole.

It’s very bad to forget that functional relationship. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to forget it — and most of the problems we encounter as writers take root in the moments when we forget it.

We know and understand story innately, but that understanding is largely subconscious. We know and understand words innately, and that understanding is entirely conscious. And as with many things in life, our conscious focus can too easily shut down our subconscious understanding if we let it.

Learning how to maintain a conscious focus on narrative structure and the function of every individual part of a story is the secret to understanding the language of story.

NEXT: Not in the Cards