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 situation – but 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.