Writing Tip of the Week – Story Structure: The Beginning, Part Two

Last week, we talked about some of the elements that go into the Beginning of a story.  Whether a novel, a short story, a screenplay, or a play, there are important items to consider from the start as you develop your story.  In this post, we’ll talk about a few more things to consider as you work on creating the beginning of your story. 

A Basic Formula

One of my screenwriting professors once wrote a basic formula on the board that holds true for pretty much all commercial stories:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict = Drama

Think about most movies or novels of today, and this formula rings true.  We are presented with a Hero.  That hero has a Goal they wish to achieve.  There’s some Opposition in the way of the Hero achieving the stated goal.  That Opposition leads to Conflict.  And that Conflict translates to Dramatic tension. 

As you develop your story, make sure that the three main ingredients are clear.  Then you can find ways to create conflict that increases the dramatic tension of the story.

What is an Antagonist?

When we think about the concept of an Antagonist, we are usually drawn to the big guns: The Joker (The Dark Knight), Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War), Cruella DeVil (101 Dalmatians), Loki (Avengers), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Dr. No (Dr. No), Hades (Hercules), Dr. Evil (Austin Powers), Scar (The Lion King), or the Evil Queen in Snow White.  These are clear-cut antagonistic characters that oppose the goals of the hero in their respective stories.

However, an Antagonist doesn’t have to be a maniacal super-villain or an evil entity bent on world domination.  Anyone in your story who opposes your main character’s goals and is a constant block to them achieving that goal is an antagonist.

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods’s antagonist is her ex-boyfriend, Warner.

In Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad’s antagonist is Velma Von Tussle and her daughter.

In October Sky, Homer Hickam’s antagonist is his father.

Even if the antagonist wants what’s best for the main character, they can still be an antagonizing force getting in the way of their goal if what they want for the main character is in conflict with what the antagonist wants.

And that conflict leads to dramatic tension.  

I think that because mainstream cinema is saturated with big-time antagonists because of all the superhero movies, it’s easy to forget that romantic comedies function on the formula of starting the partners off in an oppositional relationship.  You’ve Got Mail.  Crazy, Stupid, LoveTwo Weeks NoticeThe Proposal10 Things I Hate About You. All begin with oppositional relationships between the main couple.

How Do You Like Your Stakes?

Your protagonist wants something.  Something big.  If they get it, that’s great.  But what if they don’t get it?  What if all their attempts to achieve their goal fail?  What will happen to them?  Their best friend?  Their family?  Their home?

In other words: What are the Story’s Stakes?

Stakes keep things interesting.  They keep the protagonist motivated to achieve their goal.  They also keep the viewer/reader along for the ride.  What should the stakes feel like?

Life or death.  That’s what things should feel like to your hero if things don’t work out.  I’m not talking literal life or death (unless your story is about that), but the odds have to be pretty steep against the main character once the inciting incident happens that we’re unsure how they’ll reach their intended goal.

If you have a basic idea of what your story is about, who your main character is, what their goal is, and where the story is going, you should start to brainstorm obstacles that the hero might face throughout the story.  Each one should be unique, escalate the stakes, and help move the story and the hero’s character arc along.  

The higher the stakes, the better the dramatic tension.  Most sitcoms have low-stakes situations (Oh, no, the poker game and the dinner party are planned for the same night!).  Dramas tend to have higher stakes (If we don’t find the killer soon, he’ll start killing a new victim at the top of every hour!).  

Think of your favorite movie, or a movie you recently saw.  What were the stakes for the main character?  Were they high or low?  I can tell you that in the new Angelina Jolie movie, Those Who Wish Me Dead, the stakes are very high.  If a movie you watched has low stakes for the main character, did you lose interest?  

Can I Help You?

All protagonists are on a journey.  It may not be away from their uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine to learn the ways of the Force, but they do have to move from point A to point Z by the end of the story.

Is anyone with them? 

Best friends.  Romantic partners.  Sidekicks.  Co-workers.  Family. Neighbors.  Are they people close to the main character that can assist them on their journey?  Every character in a story needs to serve the hero and the story in some important way.  Much like the protagonist and antagonist have a function in the story, the Secondary and Tertiary characters need to as well.  

These characters also help in giving us insight into the main character, they help dimensionalize them, and make them more relatable to the audience.  Who populates the world of the hero? Of the antagonist? What functions do those characters serve throughout the story?

The Big Moment

So, you’ve shown us a glimpse of the protagonist in their natural habitat.  All is good in the world.  And then…BOOM…something unexpected happens that throws their world into a tailspin.  Now, they have to regroup and figure out how to fix, stop, or change whatever has just happened.  The stakes are high.  The Opposition is great.  The way to achieving the goal seems impossible.  But they have a few folks to help them along the way.  

After a few missteps, things start to feel like they’re going the hero’s way.  Maybe getting to that goal will be easier than they thought.  All they have to do is…

BOOM

Something HUGE comes out of nowhere and knocks the wind out of them.  What they thought was the way forward is no longer the way forward.  Everything they thought they knew, every decision they were sure was working, is suddenly turned upside-down.

Welcome to Turning Point 1.

It’s a big moment in the story.  It’s something that shakes things up and takes the hero and the audience in a new direction.  Here’s an example from Legally Blonde (get used to it, I’m gonna use it a lot in this series):

Hero: Elle Woods

Antagonist: Warner

Inciting Incident: Warner dumps Elle as he heads to law school instead of proposing to her.

Hero Goal:  Get into and graduate from Harvard Law School (and reconnect with Warner).

Turning Point 1: At the first party of the semester, Warner tells Elle she’s not smart enough to get a prestigious internship with their law professor.  

Notice how Elle is initially crushed by Warner’s words but then actively pushes through and uses his Opposition to her goal as motivation to keep going.

In the film, this is the start of Act 2.  It’s the end of the Beginning, and the beginning of the Middle.

Homework

Watch some movies and determine what the initial stakes are for the hero and when Turning Point 1 happens. For most two-hour movies, it’s around the 25-30 minute mark.

We’ll talk about the Middle (of a story, not the series starring Patricia Heaton) in two weeks!

A Closer Look: Story Antagonists

Starting this Monday, we will explore the exciting and complex world of story antagonists.  No matter what you call them in your story, they are the primary character in opposition to your main character; the one ultimately preventing your protagonist from achieving their goal.  

Until then, who or what is your favorite fictional antagonist and why?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I look forward to your responses.  

Have a great weekend!