“The Situation” – True Dramatic Arc vs. Static Situational Narrative

A Case Study in One Dimensional Storytelling


There is a saboteur lurking in your writing dream, wearing a mask of perfect acceptability.  This killer is seductive, because at a glance he fits right in with your other writing guests, commiserating and kibitzing about the “nature of story” in a way that seems so… normal and harmless.

But in the end what he’s selling is toxic.  And you may not ever really know he was there… because nobody really talks about this.

It’s true, all stories present a “situation” of some kind.

You create a character and plop them into your story world, which by definition is situational.

Or at least it should be, because a novel or screenplay that simply defines a story world and a character – without giving them something to DO – is (also by definition) already broken.

If you have a “plot,” then you have a “situation.”

That said, it is entirely possible to have a situation that is not yet a plot… and that’s the hidden story killer waiting to destroy your writing dream.

The story of your summer vacation, for example.  It was summer, you were on a trip… hence, a situation.   But you’d need a lot more to turn it into a story someone will want to read… because we’ve all been on a summer vacation.

Our stories demand more  of us, as authors, than situations.

Permit me another situational analogy.

A strictly situational story is like a student away at college who never really attends classes.  He’s there, wearing the sweat shirt, partying and hanging out, but at some point he will fail if doing the required academic work doesn’t happen.  The “situation” is that he’s atschool, and you can write all about it… episodically, vividly, nostalgically…without a shred of dramatic context.  More like a diary or a student profile.

But until something happens in the story that creates and sustains a dramatic spine, it never really becomes a story at all.  Certainly not a novel or a screenplay that stands a shot at actually selling.

It’s an easy mistake to make. 

One that I see frequently in my work as a story coach.  It’s easy because we usually begin the story development process with just that – a situation – one that entices us and becomes, in our minds, the landscape for a story.

But too often the story never surfaces.  The situation remains the focus, without anything really happening within it.

I’m sharing one of those case studies with you here, in the hope that it will help you understand the critical difference between writing about a “situation” and actually creating dramatic narrative across a dramatic story arc.

The difference is everything.  It’s an essential understanding to writing a story that works.

Read the case study here: Case Study in Situational Arcs.

The take-away is in the feedback shown in this case study.  Notice that the concept is effective, but the premise never really creates a dramatic arc.  It describes a situation – and only a situationbut not anything specific that happens in a dramatic context.

What is a dramatic context

One in which you’ve given your hero a goal and a need, with stakes attached… and then you’ve put something in the hero’s way – an antagonistic obstacle – that calls upon the hero to take action — to respond to a threat or opportunity, and then to attack the problem — through confrontation and the embracing of inevitable conflict.

All of it with compelling STAKES in play.

If you go to a hockey game, that’s just a situation.  You can write 100,000 words about your night out at the arena, and make this situation vivid as can be.

But it’s not a dramatic arc until you include something happening that meets those dramatic criteria … like,  you have a blackout and end up framed for trying to rob the concession stand… or someone takes your seat when you go to get a hot dog and threatens bodily harm if you don’t get lost… or you meet your dream lover between periods, waiting next to the restroom, but she/he is wearing a wedding ring… and, you soon discover, is married to one of the players… who beats her/him… and, feeling the chemistry between you,  she/he asks for your help…  you get the idea.

A tour of the situation – your visit to the game – is never enough.

Notice, in this case study, that this writer never really gives us a dramatic arc to sink our reader teeth into.  There are goals and context (itself merely more situational fodder) for something in that vein, but those, too, are really just more situations, rather than problems the hero is being asked to engage with through action, or with stakes hanging in the balance.

As usual, this case study is available as a learning tool because the writer was courageous and generous enough to agree to share.  So please, if you have helpful feedback of your own, please feel free to comment and chip in.

Are you relying on a situation that is light on dramatic context?  Give your hero something juicy to do, with something hanging in the balance, and watch your story transform into something with real dramatic chops.




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5 Responses to “The Situation” – True Dramatic Arc vs. Static Situational Narrative

  1. Pingback: “The Situation” – True Dramatic Arc vs. Static Situational Narrative | The blog of COOPER APPAREL. Find us at https://www.facebook.com/Coopertees

  2. As authors, we’re used to writing enticing blurbs—or chapter cliffhangers—that raise questions rather than giving answers. In contrast, putting our story concept into words requires that we state the main problem facing our protagonist, reveal how the protagonist intends to solve the problem, and explain what serious outcome there might be if he/she doesn’t solve it.

    Speaking from experience, it’s hard for an author to let someone like Larry into their brains, even though we might have asked for his help. I applaud this case-study author for being brave enough to do that and for sharing her study with us. I suspect she already knows her full concept but didn’t state it properly. Which gave Larry an opportunity to explain the important difference between a situation and a dramatic arc. And gave us all an opportunity to learn a bit more about how to write a story concept. Thank you, author. Thank you, Larry!

  3. DUH! Of course I got the words concept and premise mixed up, further confusing others, I would guess. Please replace the word “concept” with the word “premise” in my comment above. Sorry about that. My fingers aren’t awake yet.

  4. Great article that I wish I understood years ago. In fact, I could have been a case study four years ago when you (Larry) critiqued a couple of my early works. It was a tough lesson but it made me better. Thank you!

  5. Kerry Boytzun

    Do you ever wish you had the resources to make big changes in your life? Resources like physical health, stamina, energy, and the economic type of money (not credit), a change of venue, and other people to help out in the tasks?

    I do.

    Without key resources, you can’t make it happen. Without the magic, Harry Potter would have never made it out of town. Superman without the super powers is just another man. Steve Jobs without the technological wizards would never have “created” the Ipads and Iphones.

    Dreams are about “What If” you had those resources, AND the opportunity to use them.

    I read stories to see about those that got the chance and what they did with it. Your Dramatic Context puts this together. A fictional piece (TV show, movie, book) needs more than conflict within a situation. You want your story to emulate a dream where we can root for the hero that has a chance–to make the big change.

    Can we relate to your story situation? For me, love stories that are the most interesting are those where the two in love differ in background that the background threatens to tear them apart: (race, religion, economic class). Can this love affair be used to mend the background’s differences such as Race for example. Race, whereby the pigment of ones skin is used as an excuse to blame the good or bad people DO.

    In the romance story, can the couple, albeit the author, weave a goal that would prove to the town that their racial differences are just a cover for good vs. evil, or economic resources (thus the town could accept a mixed race marriage? The author could show that race is really the haves vs that have-nots, and whatever the race of the have-nots is always blamed for the side effects of being poor: crime, broken families. The reality is that the skin pigment has nothing to do with it.

    Larry, your “The $49 Quick Hit Concept Analysis Questionnaire” is a great value to an author firing up a story. Can’t tell you how many authors I’ve run into over the last few years who would have heard your expertise BEFORE they wrote the book.