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Events are Moments, Stories are Progressions

Events aren’t a story. A story is structured in such a way that there is a progression. “Progression” is a vague term, so to clarify, in a story, events build upon each other, leading toward the point of highest drama (the climax) and a conclusion.

A woman walks to a store and down the street to buy a sandwich.

This is an explanation of some events that occurred. This is not a story. To make this a story, we first need to find something that gets the reader interested in what is happening.

A stranger in a blue sedan watches as the woman walks down the street to buy a sandwich.

We’re bringing tension to the scene (notice, it’s not a story yet) by placing an anonymous stranger nearby, watching the woman. This is called a plot complication.

A stranger in a blue sedan watches as the woman walks down the street to buy a sandwich. He waits until she’s inside the store, then gets out of his car, walks up to her house, and steps inside.

The writer is now pointing the story in the direction of some pivotal moment in the future. At this point the reader (you) may be anticipating a struggle in the house, or if nothing else some sort of confrontation. This is what is referred to as “rising action.” While no novel is built the same, rising action in the story is generally how the writer gets the reader to become increasingly involved in what is going on.

A stranger in a blue sedan watches as the woman walks down the street to buy a sandwich. He waits until she’s inside the store, then gets out of his car, walks up to her house, and steps inside.

The woman hears the sound of her front door opening and closing, and picks a knife up from the counter.

Now we have our characters, an initiatory event and rising action. From here the reader expects to read the climax and resolution. Consider the following graph:

FreytagMountain

 

Not every story will fit this chart perfectly, but as a general guide, this will take you places. Scenes can be seen as the “up jags” on the left side of the mountain, as events occur to the character(s) in the story. Complications (obstacles, revelations, new ways of thinking) heighten tension as the story moves toward an inevitable climax: the event(s) that have a transformative effect on the character(s) and/or the world around them.

Finally, we have the resolution / denouement / the wind-down / the wrap-up on the right side of the mountain. Note that the end line on the right is higher than the initial line on the left: we have reached a new baseline, one that is higher than before, because the characters have learned from the experiences they’ve had, or the world around them is now in a new configuration (or both).

All that being said,  let’s end with famed writer Kurt Vonnegut, who walks us through his understanding of how stories can be shaped.

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