Here are 7 sentences that will help you construct your story. If that sounds like a 7-Minute Abs commercial, it’s not. I did not make this up. This is basic narrative structure is used in improv, playwrighting, and almost anything you watch on TV and in movies. (Brian McDonald also explores the idea in his fine book, Invisible Ink.)
If you get stuck while constructing your story, try walking your narrative through these seven sentences. They won’t do all the work for you, but if you work through each one carefully and thoughtfully, they will probably get you to where your story has been leading you all along.
That’s the mystery and the joy of storytelling.
At the Beginning…
This should remind you that your first responsibility is to introduce your main character and the situation in which your audience finds them. Where do they live? What is the timeframe? Your audience wants to know who your story is about, and where they are in place and time. That’s what J.K. Rowling does so beautifully when she introduces her audience to Harry Potter’s world.
You must do the same. In your research, you’ll collect all kinds of details and information about your subject that you will share with your audience as your story unfolds. They need to know enough about these essential basics to be able to make sense of the story that you are telling them. Your main character helps your audience to focus on who to watch, and who they understand will lead them through your story.
A Day in the Life…
In this section, you will begin to tell your audience what life was like in the world of your story. At the beginning of the first Star Wars movie, we are given a good introductory overview of the world that Luke Skywalker and his family live in.
Equally important is that the movie establishes that this is Skywalker’s world “in balance.” That doesn’t mean that everything is fine; it means that this is the way things are “at this moment.” Just as you can appreciate what your life is like at this moment, for better or worse. By establishing this, your audience will be able to appreciate how dramatic events could impact and affect Luke and his family. It makes your audience interested in finding out what happens when they see the family’s equilibrium in threat of being turned upside down.
And Then One Day…
Something major happens that throws your main character’s world out of balance and forces them to change something or seek an objective. Their actions must stem from a belief that they will be able to restore their old balance or establish a new happy equilibrium. This major event can be thought of as an inciting incident. It is the pivotal event that launches your story.
Typically, such dramatic events occur early in a story, which allows your audience to follow the main character’s struggles to overcome the pivotal event and regain balance. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident is the tornado. Take a moment to think about your favourite movies or books, and then identify what their pivotal events are.
Because of This…
Your main character begins the pursuit of their goal: restoring or establishing a balance in their lives. That struggle is where the main body of your story takes place because this is where your audience watches how your character attempts to overcome the challenges they encounter. How does your character decide what to try? What information do they acquire that shapes their decisions? Your story is about your main character’s struggle.
Imagine that struggle as taking place on a road trip from St. John’s to Salt Spring Island in BC. That long trip is the arc of your story. Things go wrong on the road, and your character struggles with and overcomes various challenges. Flat tires, out of money, lost in the middle of the night. Those challenges and your character’s ways of trying to overcome them are what makes an interesting story. That’s the narrative arc. What’s your story’s narrative arc?
Not Only, But Also…
In any interesting story, there are challenges which force your character to come up with objectives to overcome those challenges. There must be objectives. In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’ character has one main objective (and it isn’t saving Private Ryan). Sometimes the main character’s objective isn’t obvious, but it is there in any good story. And it’s always simple and direct.
What obstacles does your main character encounter? How do they overcome those challenges? Do they fail in their attempts? How do they evolve as a result?
In the Not Only That, But Also… part of your story, you will explore the challenges that your character faces. It’s a discovery of what is most important to them. Staying alive, getting back home, saving their house, protecting their kids. Obstacles and actions define your character’s personality. Your responsibility as the storyteller is to show us the obstacles and their struggle to overcome them.
Moment of Truth…
As you approach the dramatic climax of your story, your character faces their final obstacle(s) and may even see a glimmer of light in the distance. If your character succeeds in their struggles, then their previous world balance can be restored, or a new world balance can be constructed. If your character fails, then your audience must see how that affected your character and where their failure leaves them.
Whether your character succeeds or fails, your audience should be left with an appreciation of what they went through and an understanding of why success or failure was the result. What knowledge or lessons did your character or those around them learn?
And Ever Since That Day…
This is the final section of your story. Once your audience knows what happened, they should understand what the challenges of the story meant to your main character and how it shaped their life. Possibly how it shaped other people’s lives, too. Terry Fox’s life didn’t have a happy ending. but did the story of his life and its impact on the world have one?