The Basics of Storytelling


I’ll be the first to admit I’m a tad late in posting this. Heh heh, whoops. I’m usually so good about being on time when it comes to comics stuff. But I’d like to take this moment to talk about something that extends well beyond just comics, and if you’re here reading this I can only assume you’ve taken an interest in us that extends beyond our printed page. So let’s talk about the basics of storytelling.

There are three things that any story needs in order to be able to function: A Beginning, a Middle, and an End.

The Beginning is the part where we are introduced to the characters, particularly the main character and his or her problem.

The Middle is where the action and the plot of the story take shape. This is where the main character(s) are confronted with some kind of opposition. Could be from other people or enemies, could be a challenge from the environment.

The End is the part of the story where the main character(s) face and overcome their greatest challenge (or fails, if you’re writing a tragedy). The resolution should be satisfying and, most of all, conclusive for the audience.

I know spelling out something so basic as that may come off as asinine and maybe even condescending, but the truth is that including all three really isn’t as easy as it looks. If you’ve ever tried writing a story, you might know that it is easy to have an idea what characters need to do, but hard to figure out how they all meet or what investment they have in the overarching plot. Sometimes you just can’t end the story right. Other times, you might come up with a set of characters and develop them or the world they live in until the end of time, but never actually figure out how to make them interact in a compelling way that others will buy into.

Don’t even get me started on writing comics. Setting up a comic that makes other people laugh can be the hardest thing in the world. But employing the basic beginning, middle, and end usually helps set up an effective joke. Not all jokes need this of course, but if you’re using it then you’re probably on the right track. You (hopefully) see this on the page all the time in any typical strip, but in this case the satisfying resolution is a solid laugh from the audience.

Let’s take a look at this widely beloved 6 Dollars, Please strip:

The story of this comic is told in three panels. One for each phase of the story. The first panel, our beginning, introduces us to our main character and her problem: As a kid, praying for stuff was confusing business. The middle escalates the problem and the plot when her quest to better understand praying reveals that it as daunting a task as hoping for something that benefits the entire world. What can a child do to better the world? Well, the end gives us the satisfying resolution. A little help beating that goddamn water temple could really go a long way, and anyone that’s ever played that level would certainly know it. That shit is impossible. Of course this strip also requires a dash of knowing your audience to be effective, and it’s always important to know whom your story is for. Most Daily Texan readers are college kids, and would have been about the age Rachel is in this strip when Ocarina of Time came out, so they’d get it. But that doesn’t change the fact this comic employs basic storytelling elements to setup an effective punchline.

Maybe you’re looking to tell stories on a larger scale than comics. Well, thankfully there is a formula for that, and it’s used for everything from writing novels film screenplays. It’s known as the three act structure, and if you can get the gist of it, writing your story essentially becomes a matter of filling in the blanks between your own plot points.

At the simplest level, the Three Act Structure paradigm works something like this:

Separated by Plot Points, its Act 1 (Beginning), Act 2 (Middle), and Act 3 (End) refer not so much the where they actually fall in the timeframe of the story, but rather to the fundamental stages in the story’s development.

In the Beginning, you introduce the reader to the setting, the characters and the situation (conflict) they find themselves in, as well as their goal. Plot Point 1 is a situation that drives the main character from their "normal" life toward some different conflicting situation that the story is about.

-Some great stories will actually begin at Plot Point 1, thrusting the main character right into the thick of things, but they never really leave out Act 1. Rather they fill in the back story along the way.

In the Middle the story develops through a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini crisis. Though each of these crises is temporarily resolved, the story leads inevitably to an ultimate crisis—the Climax. As the story progresses, there is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax. The resolution of the Climax is Plot Point 2.

In the End, the Climax and the loose ends of the story are resolved during the Denouement. Tension rapidly dissipates because it's nearly impossible to sustain a reader's interest very long after the climax. Don’t drag on the ending. Finish your story and get out.

I like to cite romantic comedy films as a pretty good example of the Three Act Structure, because they tend to be so cookie cutter. Here’s an example:

In Act I, we meet our main character, a rich playboy who will never commit. He meets a sweet small-town lady that is too good for him (due to his nature) and falls for her. This is our first Plot Point/Inciting Incident. He needs her in his life, but she is only in it briefly for some generic lifestyle circumstance.

In Act II, he tries to find her, maybe by going to her small town and inserting himself into her way of life. Through a series of wacky incidents, maybe impressing her family, her friends, dealing with animals, etc., he starts to win her over. This is our rising and falling action. Just when he’s got her, he does something true to his old ways and major flaws. Maybe she catches him with an ex, but it’s not what it looks like. So we build toward our Climax.

In Act III, he does what he has to win her back. Maybe with the zaniest antic yet, maybe by professing his love, and it works. Bingo, Plot Point 2. They fall in love, we wind down, and everyone live happily ever after.

If you can adhere to these basic guidelines, and answer the questions of what happens at these points in your story, then you’re well on your way to spinning a well-rounded tale. And if you can get the hang of these rules, then you can even break them to write more unconventional stories.

Here’s a pretty good resource if you want to get a better look at how the Three Act Structure works. It caters to writing screenplays, but it works just the same.

Hope this was relevant to some of you out there. Get writing, readers!