Story, Plot, Arc and Theme — how they work together

Story, Plot, Arc and themeAny new writer might well be confused by some of the terms used in writing such as story, plot, arc and theme. Aren’t they interchangeable terms? It’s easy to see why the terms might be confused.

The first person to distinguish story from plot was E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927). Forster wrote a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’

‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. But the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’

This is a reasonable definition of plot. But is story just narrative? In screenwriting, the term ‘story’ is often used in a much wider sense to explain the deeper meaning that the audience experience through the protagonist’s inner struggle to deal with the plot points.  It is what the story is really about. Kate Wright in Screenwriting is Storytelling Creating an A-list Screenplay that Sells explains this approach as follows:

Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each is distinct: Plot is self evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene. Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth–or absolute truth–sequentially, by identifying the inner moral struggle of the main character.

Under this approach both Plot and Story are separate important elements. An audience (or readers) may be fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters in the plot, but what really engages them emotionally is how the main character reacts to this progression of events and this insight is what the story is really about.

Audiences and readers don’t fall in love with a plot, they connect with the main character and experience his/her emotional struggle to deal with those events. As the conflict escalates, audience/reader tension rises until tension is finally resolved at the climax of the story. This release of tension is what Plato described as catharsis: the release of emotion that makes us all feel better. At that point, we figuratively punch the air and celebrate our main character’s victory, or we cry if the story ends in tragedy. This emotional effect is the primary reason why we engaged in the story in the first place. We empathise with the hero/heroine and want to see them succeed. Story is therefore more about the emotional experience of the audience/reader.

How the main character changes over the course of the story is the character arc, or what some screenwriters describe as the hero’s inner journey. It will be part of the audience’s/reader’s emotional experience. For example, it’s Luke Skywalker inner journey from a scared farm boy to courageous Jedi knight.

As explained in the previous blog, the main character usually has a flaw at the start of the story, and during the story the plot challenges the main character to overcome his flaw. And as we have seen from the previous blog, the main character’s flaw or weakness should be the right type of flaw to be tested by the story. Depending on the type of story, the main character’s initial weakness could be anything. For example: naivity, lack of confidence or self belief, hubris, or some negative believe which he/she needs to overcome during the story in order to reach their story goal.

The underlying story is often about what the main character learns during the course of the story. If he/she changes for the good, then the story ending is normally positive. If he/she refuses to change, the story may well end in tragedy. Either way there is a moral undertone that we can attribute to the theme of the story. The theme is the moral of the story or some self evident truth about human nature. For example, even death cannot defeat love (Romeo and Juliet).

So the deeper meaning of story, plot, theme and character arc are all different aspects of a storytelling, but they are closely linked together.

 

Character Arc

nutshellAs a writer, if you want to study story telling there is no better source than world of screenwriting where Hollywood has turned the art of story telling into a science. Of course, writing a novel and writing a screenplay are very different mediums: movies are visual and novels are written. But they both share the same important elements of storytelling. So studying movies is a great way to study how stories work.

Over the past eight years I have read many of the books on story structure, plotting, and character development. So much so, that I thought it was impossible to find a new insight into story development. But once again I’ve been proved wrong. Jill Chamberlain’s The Nutshell Technique provides a fresh new perspective to the subject of character arc.

Generally when writers talk about story structure it is usually about the three-act plot structure and in particular the big turning points in the story at the end of act one (a.k.a turning point one/act one break/point of no return)  and act two (a.k.a turning point two/act two culmination/crisis). Some writers, such Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler, also draw attention to the inner emotional journey our protagonist makes as the plot effects him/her. For example, Luke Skywalker changes from a frightened farm boy into a Jedi knight. This is what we generally refer to as character arc. Not all stories necessarily have a character arc. For example, James Bond and Indiana Jones rarely change in character over the course of a movie. But most do.

Most writers agree that a protagonist should have at least one flaw in order to be three dimensional. No one is perfect. But what makes Chamberlain’s perspective different is that the protagonist’s character arc from Flaw to Strength should be uniquely linked to the main turning points. Or put another way, the protagonist changes because the plot challenges his particular flaw and his view of himself and the world.

A story should be unique to its protagonist. The events of the story should uniquely test traits specific to the protagonist. If I can take your protagonist out and replace them with a completely different character, and with a few tweaks make your script work just as well with a new protagonist, your script is presenting a situation and is not a true story.

Thus a protagonist should not just have a flaw; he/she should have the right flaw to be tested by the plot.

Identifying a central flaw in your protagonist is an essential component of screenplay story structure.

The Nutshell approach is to identify eight important elements that are linked to the protagonists character arc.

  1. Flaw (The protagonist’s initial flaw)
  2. Strength (The final protagonist’s position )
  3. Set-up want (In initial scene )
  4. Point of No return (Plot Point 1/Act One Break)
  5. Catch (at Point of No Return)
  6. Crisis/Triumph (Plot Point 2/Act 2 Culmination)
  7. Climatic Choice (Beginning of Act 3)
  8. Final Step (Final scene)

To do justice to the Nutshell approach requires a detailed reading of the Chamberlain’s book, which explains each of these elements and how they relate to examples in blockbuster movies. What is new and novel in this approach is the Set-up Want and the Catch, which require some further explanation

The Set-up Want is something the protagonists wants from the first scene. It is also the opposite of what the protagonist wants to happen in the Crisis. As the maxim goes sometimes you should be mindful of what you wish for, because the protagonist gets his want at the Point of No Return (Plot Point 1) together with the Catch. For example, Luke Skywalker longed for adventure and to get away from the farm. At Plot Point 1 he finds his aunt and uncle murdered and the farm burned. So In one sense he got what he wanted (an adventure) but the Catch was he had no family left and had no choice but to go with Obi Wan to take the droids to Alderaan.

The Climatic Choice is what gets the protagonist out of the Crisis and into Act 3. And the Final Step is the final scene that shows the protagonists has completed his character arc.

The Nutshell Technique places character arc as an integral element of the story rather than as an optional add on or choice for the writer. The point being that the character arc must fit the story to work. That I believe is a valuable insight that is worth thinking about.

Reading as a writer reads

1I sometimes wonder why we get so excited about holidays.  For me holidays are not about lying in the sun or sun tans. It’s about reconnecting with family, getting away from the pressures of current day life, dining out, some healthy walking and … catching up on my reading. So on my recent holiday to the Canaries we ate well, walked miles and miles, and read a lot.
Really, I didn’t have much choice. My family banned me from reading emails, or using my phone or ipad for the duration of the holiday. Okay, I relapsed once to check flight times and download some KDP data to work on later. But generally I was tech-free for two whole weeks. How many of you can do that?
But technology isn’t the subject of this month’s blog. Instead I chose my holiday activity of reading. Stephen King once said that writers should read a lot to master their craft. As writers, we can appreciate the skills of other writers and learn from them.  I know to progress my skills I need to  read more fiction than I currently do. I  do read a lot — but it’s usually technical material. So on my holiday this autumn I picked five authors to read from my sci-fi genre. I finished three of them and enjoyed them. The other two I started but soon put them down. It wasn’t that these two were particularly badly written.  It’s just that I’m a fussy reader and it was taking too long to get into the story.
It struck me that if I am so fussy about what I read then so are many others. Obviously, to be a successful writer you need to capture the hearts and minds of your readers.  But getting this done in the first line, first paragraph, or first page or the story is hard. And if you don’t achieve it by the first ten pages you’ve probably lost the reader.
In this respect, readers are very different from the audience in a cinema. Members of the audience are unlikely to walk-out in the first ten minutes of a movie. On the other hand, a reader in a book shop, or on Amazon, may only spend a minute or two reading a short sample of the text before choosing to buy or put down the book.
Of course, I’m not the first to stress the importance of the opening scene. There are many books on writing that say the same thing. And if you are looking to sell your story to an agent or publisher the chances are they will reject a book out of hand if they are not impressed within the first few pages. Clearly, how you open a story is important and there are some techniques you can use to capture interest.
One technique writers use is called in medias res.  Here the hero/heroine is thrown into immediate danger to capture the interest of the reader. This technique is often used in action movies. For example, in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark the opening sequence in the Peruvian jungle puts Indiana into a host of death defying incidents as he first recovers and then loses the golden idol. But this technique does not necessarily always work, particularly when we don’t know the hero/heroine. Why should we feel immediate empathy for a character in potential danger when we have barely met them? Finding this empathy in the first few lines or paragraphs of a story therefore requires real writing skill and imagination.
Another technique is to raise a question in the mind of the reader about why a character is behaving in an odd way? For example, why is he standing naked on a bridge in the middle of the night? How did he get there? What is he planning to do? To find out the reader has to read on, and by the time the reader learns the answer the writer has posed another question to pique the reader’s curiosity.
A good opening line is one way of capturing the readers attention. Here are some well-known opening lines from some great writers:

 

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

All children, except one, grow up.—James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan

One of the things writers are warned against is starting with the weather. It’s not that it doesn’t create a mood; it’s just that the technique is overused and cliched. But to prove that there are no rules in writing that can’t be broken, here are some exceptions:

It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.—Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

While opening lines are important, I don’t think writers should necessarily become obsessed with them. Otherwise there is a danger of writing paralysis setting in driven by trying to meet an impossible standard of perfection. If we can’t get past the first line how are we going to finish the draft?
The time to consider the opening line and hone those critical opening paragraphs is when the first draft of the story is complete and you start the editing process; not when you’re writing the first draft. You need to get the story up and running and in the first draft and for that purpose any opening line will do. The opening can be perfected when the story is complete.