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The Arc and Art of Storytelling

We are wired for stories.  No doubt about that, we love a good story, whether it’s uplifting, heartbreaking, or suspenseful.  And the most memorable are the stories that have characters or situations that we can relate to, that we empathize with.  Those stories draw on our personal experiences or on universal experiences and human emotions.

My favorite story of all time is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  If you have never read it, yes I said, “read it,” then you need to right now.  Not from your Kindle either, go to a thrift shop and find a hard copy, we stare at too many screens these days.  Seriously, stop reading my crappy article a go!

While there are so many great examples of good storytelling through books and films, The Count is my go to.  I’ve read it three times.  The beauty of this story and many others is the wonderful narrative arc that plays out from beginning to end.  So what’s needed for this “wonderful narrative arc?”

You need characters.  A main protagonist is usually key and some people would say that at least two characters are needed.  Castaway is a good example of a single protagonist, though Wilson did come in later.  At any rate, you need to develop this character.  Make the audience invest in him/her/it completely.

In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmund Dantes is an innocent, hardworking French sailor who is loved, respected and adored by friends, family, the lovely Mercedes and by all of his mates aboard the Pharaon.  But not everyone feels this way about Dantes in fact; they are extremely jealous of him and plot his tortured future. (that’s a hell-of-a pitch btw)

The who, what, why, when, where, and how.  Fairly self-explanatory.  Set the scene.  Where are we and at what time?  Who is this character?  What issues, problems, goals does this character have?  Why does this character have these goals?  What motivates this character?  How is this character going to achieve these goals?  Your story can be built from this point to various obstacles and/or the conflict.

Conflicts arise.  There need to be obstacles of some sort along the way and/or one big conflict.  Even smaller ones that lead to small triumphs are good to have, but still the ultimate goal has yet to be achieved.

Dantes is indeed imprisoned for life by his conspirators in a dungeon for a crime he did not commit.  He is tortured and beaten for years with only his mind for company.  By chance he meets another prisoner who is trying to escape by digging through the walls and floors.  They decided to escape together, but his new friend dies.  Because of this friend’s death, Dantes can escape.  The obstacles rise and fall (or they just rise), the plot goes deeper and eventually you reach the climax!

To reach climax is not the end.  Here is the pinnacle, the tipping point in the story where it could go well, not so well or really, really bad.  In most action films this is the big fight against the ultimate nemesis.

In the film The Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes and the man who plotted to put him in prison fight to the death.  Everything done to Dantes by his enemies and everything Dantes has secretly done to his enemies in revenge has built up to this one moment.  The book is slightly different, better in my opinion, but none-the-less this is a good example.

Resolution please.  The end has come, your protagonist is either dead or won the victory and, depending on your story, they are both great endings!  Normally your protagonist has also changed in some way, made some sort of realization, the trials your character has faced had some affect.  Win or lose, your character is forever altered by the events that have taken place.

Dantes realizes his revenge had gained him very little in the sense of personal fulfillment, but in the process of amassing wealth and new relationships and using them to conspire against his enemies, he was also able to find new love and leave his vengeful life behind.  Essentially the same affect in both the book and movie, but the ending in the book is so much better, read it!

Final thoughts.  We all intuitively know what a good story is, the problem is many of us don’t know how to write or tell a good story ourselves.  To quote William F. Nolan, writer of Logan’s Run, “Simply because you can write a fine letter to your grandma does not mean you can tell a proper story. Telling a story is not an easy task, even if one adheres to the basics,” it takes practice, so keep writing.

My suggestion would be to read other fictional novels by classic authors like Dumas, Jules Verne, and also modern authors like Stephen King.  If you read books like these and break down the basic structure – character, goal, conflict, climax and resolution – you’ll be better at writing your own stories.

If you hate reading, shame on you.  As an alternative, do this analysis with films.  Classic films like The Wizard of OZ or even more recent films like Avatar can tell you a lot about storytelling and the narrative arc. Or listen to the great storytelling on This American Life with Ira Glass.  And yes, this all applies to outdoor adventure filmmaking as well, very much so.

Happy writing!