Stories are what distinguish us as human. Every personal essay, business plan, gossipy conversation, novel and movie is just a narrative, a story we tell. But, as with anything people do, some narratives work better than others. Plan your story by using some basic tools to develop the narrative into a coherent and memorable tale.
It was a dark and stormy night…well, maybe not. But the setting does matter because it alerts the reader to context, and context is how people make sense of the information they take in. Setting is the backdrop, the geographic location, the moment in history, the climate or the weather. Setting can be the atmosphere and curling tendrils of fog or shafts of summer sun around the action. Setting is usually historically in the past, and so most stories are told in the past tense. This is logical because a story is a recounting, although there are no hard and fast rules and that one may be broken.
The characters embody the story. It happens to them and because of them. The protagonist is the central character, often referred to as the hero, although that character may be anything but likable or heroic. There can be more than one protagonist in a story, but sticking to one simplifies things for the writer and the reader. The antagonist is the opposing force -- the villain. The antagonist is the cause or the representation of the conflict for the protagonist and may be dark and unlikable or sunny and deceptive. An opposing force doesn’t always have to be a person, although that option is very satisfying. It may be society, events or an internal struggle that takes place wholly within the protagonist. Animals may be protagonists or antagonists, but this is very tough to pull off credibly. “Jaws” might be a good example of a story with a non-human antagonist.
Plot is what happens. It has a beginning, middle and end, although they aren’t always in order in a story and may not be entirely visible. The beginning is the introduction to the hero, the setting, the conflict and the story. As the narrative unfolds, the problems and conflicts surface and start to influence events. The climax is the point of highest drama, the moment the plot has been building toward. The solution and conclusion explain and resolve the narrative so the story can end. A good plot is known as a page-turner because things happen at a pace which engages the readers and keeps them glued firmly to the book -- or the screen.
The conflict is the reason for the story, the hook for the reader or viewer, the point of telling the story at all. Conflict is struggle and it always involves the protagonist, pitted against the antagonist, threatened in some way with some undesirable complication or loss. A conflict can exist between two characters, between the main character and society or between the opposing forces within the main character. It must reach a conclusion for the narrative to be satisfying, although there is no requirement for a neat, perfectly wrapped-up ending. Conflict is the spice and the edge-of-your-seat material. It follows an arc that rises throughout the story to the climax and then subsides to resolution, propelling the audience from “Once upon a time…” to “...happily -- or not -- ever after. The end.”