Friday Exercise: Story Elements

Posted on 03 July 2009

TheatreSports spends a lot of time training their performers in certain elements of story in order that they can automatically improvise a storied event. Some standup comedians like to tell shaggy dog stories, tall tales, narrate
humorous events, etc. Then of course a comedian may find themselves writing for cartoons, sketch shows, sitcoms, or film comedies. Therefore it is useful to get a grasp on storytelling elements.

Comedy is so much about playing with and even exceeding cultural expectations and structures that our definitions of story have to be more flexible than will be taught at film school or courses on writing genre fiction.

As I mentioned in another entry, stories are about change, usually changes brought about by a significant and/or meaningful event. For instance: a people have been living peacefully on an island for generations, then their mountain
explodes into a volcano; two sisters and a mother haven’t spoken in decades, then the mother dies; or a fellow eats a strange purple carrot and is transformed into a talking rabbit. None of these are stories in and of themselves, but we can sense the possibility of a story. We now need to put together a set of elements that will help to clarify the situation and then organise them into a plot.

These are the most relevant elements:

  • Events
  • Characters:  1) their relationships, 2) their motivations and goals, 3) their efforts
  • Challenges
  • Changes
  • Location
  • Time period
  • Punchline or moral (optional)

Events

For a short story you may have only one particular event around which other elements develop. For longer stories you may have one large event, plus many smaller events which lead up to and away from that central occurence. For the story about the volcano, you might start by describing an event to do with a tremor, which should be a warning of events to come. After the volcano has blown you may now describe events to do with rescuing survivors. Longer stories may also involve a series of episodic events. This is a common structure for comedic works, written examples would be The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchhausen and Journey to the West.

Characters

A story must have thinking actors who generate, participate in, and bear witness to the events. The actors need not be apparently human: they may be animal, object, or a disembodied concept. However, they must have a self-reflective inner life such that they are making conscious decisions about how they are interacting with their world. We as humans have a great capacity for projecting ourselves onto other people and beings, thereby giving us the capacity for empathy and a broad sense of moral judgement. It’s for this reason that stories such as Peter Rabbit or Wall-E can achieve success.

To place a character within a story we must know who they relate to, how, and how they feel about these connections. Certainly family relations will be important, but so will a character’s relationships with friends, co-workers, and various members of the community. Each relationship will involve the character being of higher, lower or equal status than the other and feeling close or distant—like or dislike.

We make sense of a character’s actions by keeping them consistent with their motivations and goals. Characters always come from some place: experiences, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and desires. These form their motivations. They are always going some place: they have in mind who they would like to be, what they would like to be doing with whom, and what they would like to achieve in the future.

We come to understand the nature of a character by the external enactment of their inner world. These are the efforts they choose to make. Which efforts they select and the degree to which they are willing to follow through on them will reflect their true priorities and inner growth.

Challenges

I use the term “challenge” instead of “conflict”, because challenges are about process and either characters meet their challenges or they don’t. Conflict on the otherhand can be endless. I also don’t subscribe to the old cultural
viewpoint that it is humanity’s place to dominate nature as if we are in some way wrestling with and defeating a god. So when characters have to deal with harsh natural conditions such as a snowstorm, the snowstorm is in no way actively attempting to dominate them, therefore there is no conflict, but there is the challenge for survival.

The classic challenges are:

  • Characters vs characters
  • Characters vs the system
  • Characters vs nature
  • Characters vs themselves

Most stories will involve at some level, whether apparent or not, characters vs themselves. Standup tends to boil these challenges down to tight efficient events that quickly resolve into a punchline. Comic stories also frequently make the resolution of one challenge the basis for the next challenge which will be correspondingly larger until ultimate disaster looms requiring an outrageous solution.

Changes

The primary changes will be characters’s relationship to themselves, others, the shape of their life, and the world as it is. As characters change their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, they will change their outer world. As characters’s world changes, they will change their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. For lengthier storytelling it is important to represent this back and forth tidal flow. Changes do not have to be big to be important or interesting, but they do need to resonate with the concerns of your audience.

Location

You may have more than one location represented in your stories, but they will need to bring context to the change you are presenting.

Time period

This is the scope of your story. Are you including events from over several years, twenty-four hours, twenty minutes, etc and are these events current or perhaps happening in the future or past? In comedy especially you usually want to keep the duration of your events as narrow as possible. Stories sprawling throughout time and space tend to lose humorous pacing. However, comic novelist Terry Pratchett is fond of starting his novels at the beginning of DiscWorld time. Douglas Adams had The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy span from the big bang to the death of the universe.

Punchline or moral

Audience’s no longer find it fashionable to read stories to do with moral upliftment. However, comedy continues to use the moral of the story as a device for creating a capper. The standup will say something like, “And the moral of
the story is…never wear purple shoes in the rain.” The moral is trivial and nonsensical, but told right causes the story to end with a big laugh.

Your exercise for today is to come up with three scenarios. These scenarios will involve a character, an event suggestive of a challenge, what the character is like before facing the event and what they are like afterward. For example:

Character: Justine the grumpy plumber.
Event: A geyser bursts through the centre of a customer’s house.
Before event: Grumpy and lonely.
After event: Wealthy and in love.

Character: Harold the singing garbage pickup man.
Event: A garbage bin becomes the portal to another universe with good and bad aliens.
Before event: Well liked, but not well respected.
After event: Well liked, well loved, respected, and a hero.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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