Temples are places of worship, sanctuaries of knowledge, and monoliths to that which has come before. In this series, I will be exploring the elements that make up the pillars of storytelling. No figurative stone of the storytelling temple is more important than another, and they all work together to make something, that alone, they could not. Join me for part one of this multi-part series into the temple of storytelling. Part One: World Building, Part Two: Character Creation
A few years ago, I went actual, squat over a hole you dig for yourself, backpacking for the first time. There had been plenty of camping experience under my belt, but nothing this real. It was about a twelve-mile hike into the heart of Mammoth in California. Of course, going with a friend, there was a little competition. Nothing said explicitly, but I wouldn't have minded beating him to the camping spot.
The road there would bring us up over a couple thousand feet, between two mountain tops, out of a canyon, into the wilds of the other side. The front side produced picturesque views of green valleys carving through the peaks. The other side, winding paths through the unknown.
I can still remember the struggle each new step brought as we came up between the two peaks to hike our way out of the basin. It was brutal switchbacks all the way up for an amount of time that seemed to get lost in the exhaustion. I had to keep my eyes focused on my feet to forget how much more there was to go.
When the peak mercifully came, the backside of the mountain was wide and sloped gently down at first. It was barren, rock and dirt in place of grass and trees. My friends had nicknamed this side "the moon" in honor of its lifelessness.
Yet, I was winning. My friend was somewhere behind me; I couldn't even see him down below. There was still much of the journey ahead, and a few in the group were well on their way in front of me. I knew I just had to keep going and eventually I would see where they stopped. I went down the side of the moon, through dust and heat, snacking on what little trail mix I had, all while trying to ration the water I carried.
Then I came to a point. The path splintered going in every direction. A few went down into another basin, a small lake sitting in the bottom, then over a creek into thicker forests. The other paths led across more mountains, sloping in the distance, seemingly forever.
I looked back; my friend was finally coming over the top of the moon with his now father-in-law and wife. They had made it together, albeit slower, but as a group. I wanted to win, but I did not know the way. I realized I needed them. Plus, it would probably be more fun together, but that's beside the point! They finally reached me, with snacks and directions, a beautiful combination at that moment. Bits of cheese and salami had never been so unbelievably delicious.
The journey was better together, the struggle continued, but I knew the way now with help and companionship at my side.
As storytellers, we too need to know where we are going or our plot will end up lost in the endless journey, alone.
I chose to have this pillar of the temple be last because the plot utilizes the world building and the characters to a greater end. The elements of a story combine to create a narrative. It's not a matter of just having great characters that live in a world that has a complex and researched history. They have to do things; events need to take place and form into a string of plot that is worth the readers time.
“Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?”
Plot development isn't simply this happened, then this other thing happened, then more of that happened. We all technically have that every day of our lives, but that doesn't mean we should be writing stories about it. Today I got out of bed, made coffee, drove to work, was bored out of my mind most of the day, then went home and got to writing. Who the hell cares? I don't even care! Plot isn't a string of things that happened. Plot is a complex unfolding of events that shape the world that has been established, influence the characters that have been created, and invest the audience into a progression that they lose themselves in. If there isn't meaning to the story, then it isn't a story.
So, you should be thinking ahead. Let's use the image of the temple. Think about it; the foundation is set, the pillars, then the roof, to oversimplify the entire process. The building doesn't happen by accident. There is a plan. Those plans are followed, and there is a progression to the building, you can't suddenly have a roof with no walls. You need to plan out your plot. I think we have all seen movies, read books, and watched TV series that went way off the rails because it was obvious there wasn't much of a plan. (Looking at you Lost). None of us want to write the next story to be added to that list.
This diagram is the most basic plan in storytelling. We all saw this before we even hit high school. Obviously, stories are more complex than this, but this is like the skeleton of a body. You can't see it, but because it's under everything, the rest of the layers can take shape. Following the chart will help you identify parts of your story that contribute to the overall meaning you hope to convey. This will also help you get rid of scenes that don't add to the pillars of your story. Does a scene develop the characters? Does it build the world in a necessary way? Ultimately, all of this feeds into developing the plot, so if a scene doesn't do this, it needs to go. And that isn't easy, I know.
Structure in a story is so necessary we have common, identifiable paths that a plot can take. There is tragedy, comedy, the quest story, rags to riches, and that's just a few. Then there is everyone's favorite: (I say this because it shows up everywhere and the most mega-popular franchises center around it) the Hero's Journey.
I encourage you to do some research on the details of conventional plot structures and see which your story seems to fall into. This can help identify the common tropes of the kind of story that you are telling, give you new ideas, and help set a more solid foundation for your plot.
For our purposes, we will focus on the Hero's Journey, since it really isn't limited to a particular kind of story or genre, but shows up all over the place.
The concept is simple: a hero is called to some quest, there is help along the way, trials, ultimately something that nearly breaks the hero, then a real transformation into someone new (usually stronger depending on the story), then a return to rewards and the familiar.
Think of one of the biggest franchises of all time, Star Wars. Everything centers around the Hero's Journey. Luke Skywalker is called to action when two droids show up at his house with plans for the Death Star. (Which sounds like the strangest door to door salesmen ever). He refuses that quest at first, a typical reaction to the calling, but then finds that he must go when his home is destroyed. Old Ben Kenobi mentors him, bringing him forward into the unknown and starts the hero's trials. Luke has helpers along the way in various characters ranging from Princess Leia to R2-D2. Those trials include facing the Death Star, escaping the Wampa lair, defending Echo Base, training with Master Yoda, and facing Darth Vader. This leads to the revelation and atonement all in the span a few moments facing something Luke cannot overcome while realizing Vader is his father. The atonement continues as he faces Vader again, bringing him back into the light, returning to a victorious rebellion.
Of course, Star Wars has a lot more going on than that, but again, this is the skeleton. Luke doesn't even have to be the favorite character but he is what the story centers around. This is the structure. His journey gives the meaning of the plot, and that's what you should remember. A story isn't the simple graph I showed above, it has so much more, but because you have a structure, you are free to see where the story can flow from there. Structure shouldn't limit you; it should give you the freedom to explore, knowing there is a foundation to return to.
The center of the story can take various shapes, as well. There are plenty of stories that have the setting itself as the center. Saving a city or kingdom is a common goal for the hero. Then there are character driven stories that explore the depths of emotions (or lack thereof) of the people the audience encounters. (A great recent example of this is Manchester by the Sea). Idea centered stories typically revolve around a question like, “What happened to this ancient culture?” Then there is the event centered story: all the dinosaurs busted out of their fences, so that's a problem.
Again, story is complicated. Many narratives touch on multiple drivers like the listed ones in this article, but they can help you see the central point to your story. It's all about knowing what your story stands for. If you don't know, that's where you need to begin.
Keep in mind that you need things for your great characters to do. The world you built will only be memorable based on what happens in it. Don't let those things go to waste because you didn't have any plan for where the narrative would go.
Back in the forests of Mammoth, I fished, catching the native trout that had meat nearly as pink as salmon. A reward for the struggle to get the isolated lakes hidden beyond "the moon." This was only accomplished with my friends, together. The plot of your story, no matter what it is about, is a journey together. It's a place that the audience connects with you.
Where will your plot take them?
The temple we are building would not be much of anything without a roof for the pillars to hold. Your story needs one last thing that affects each stone in its construction. The finale to the Temple of Storytelling will be out soon.