Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Story Experience

Lots of books, articles, and story consultants get into the technical parts of story:
1. Beginning, Middle, End
2. Inciting incident, Crisis, Climax, Resolution
3. Act I, II, and III
4. Premise, Theme, Conclusion

That is what story looks like from an analytical view point. It's as if you wanted to know what an orange was and you put it under the microscope and analyzed the acidity and talked about the skin and rind. Nothing in there would tell you about the orange experience: how it tastes, the juiciness of it, the fresh smell from the broken skin.

I realized, after reading a lot of books and articles and listening to a lot of podcasts, that there's something else at work here. There's a flavor, a flow, an odor and a substance to story. It's not just about the bones or what you can see from the outside.

It's not even about some backwards process where you write the whole story and then decide what it's about. It's like having someone ask about your boyfriend and you say things like, "He wears a size 12 shoe, has  brown hair, likes to tango, and drives a 2002 Saturn." These little descriptors do not provide the experience of being with your boyfriend. It tells you what he's like on the outside.

Here are my four (so far) categories of the story experience.
  1. The Decision Tree. This is a story that goes from incident to incident like an adventure game with the protagonist making a choice at each crucial juncture. Examples are "Star Wars: A New Hope", "Hitch", "The Mask", and "High Fidelity (the movie)." The protagonist may have more than one choice at each juncture. This is a linear story going from A to B with pauses along the way. There is something nearly predetermined about this story. No matter how many twists and turns there are, you know things will work out, because each decision narrows the options for the next decision.
  2. Interwoven Arcs. In this story each person, animal, element, and item has an arc. Their arcs are independent of each other yet they interact. In "Notting Hill" the eyeglasses move around, get lost, get replaced by prescription goggles, and are found. Each character has it's own arc that interacts with each other characters. Even the seasons are involved as they move through their turns. The arcs show the passage of time, reveal the characters, move the plot along, all while interacting. You could remove each arc, like whole threads, and reweave them. The key in this is that the story is not linear. There are a lot of stories. Other examples are "Slaves of New York" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
  3. Interacting Systems. Unlike arcs, systems have energy centers. Energy moving out from the center causes events. The centers move around pinging off each other, causing other events, making the characters react. Systems can be people, events, or things – even energy itself. Disaster movies are often like this. Something blows up and that unbalances characters who blow up and then perhaps lots of tiny explosions happen until the energy dissipates. "Die Hard", "Independence Day", and "The Fifth Element" are examples of this. Comedies also do this, as in "The Pink Panther" with Inspector Clouseau bumbling around, exploding, and causing other explosions which then move the story into other directions. You could probably think of this as the triangular or pent-angular story depending on how may energy systems you have.
  4. Wormholes. If the decision tree is linear, then wormholes are fields. In this type of the story, the events and characters are avoiding. It's as if the story is walking on stepping stones across the field or moving through wormholes, dropping in one place and emerging in another. Much is unsaid and must be figured out as you watch the movie. A lot of mysteries are like this. Examples of this are "Amadeus", "Phantom of the Opera", "Premonition", and "Kate and Leopold."
Maybe I've just renamed categories already out there somewhere. Important for me is that these are descriptors of the experiential process of making the story, not the bare, dry bones of analysis.

I sure hope this helps. I hope, that when I'm doing my usual seat-of-the-pants writing, I can look at what's happening and say, "Hey! This is a Decision Tree or Interwoven Arcs (or whatever)" which will help me recognize what structure I've got so I can build a better story. Or at least get all the way to end of it, for a change.

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