In every writing community, terms like "plot" and "development" and "arc" are constantly thrown around, and everyone expects everyone else to know what they mean without ever clearly defining them. Sure, vague advice about the importance of character development and story structure are great and all, but how do you actually do it? Aside from style and grammar, what are the mechanics behind a well-told story?
What does a good story look like?
The answer is surprisingly simple. Not easy, but simple. Every good story does one thing well: it asks a question, deliberates it, then answers it. This provides a framework of three acts that create what's called dramatic tension.
Here are some examples of what this looks like:
The Little Mermaid
Act one: Will Ariel become human so she can be with the man she loves?
Act two: Only if she can make Eric fall for her without her voice.
Act three: Yes. (Duh, it’s a Disney movie.)
Act one: Is Neo “the one” who can save humanity from their slavery to the Matrix?
Act two: Only if he believes he is.
Act three: Yes.
Act one: Will Jack and Ennis ever be able to share their lives together?
Act two: Life isn’t that simple because of reasons.
Act three: No.
The beginning asks a question, the middle deliberates on it, and the ending answers it. Pretty simple, but all too often beginning writers (and even some who should know better) forget to ask a question in the opening scenes of their story or even in the entire first act. Even more forget to deliberate it or even definitively answer it. If there's no central question holding the story together, there’s also no dramatic tension, and readers have little or no reason to continue on in search of an answer.
Time for some crystal clear definitions.
Here’s what I would consider a functional definition of the modern story: A record of change. As in, something is different at the end of the story than it was at the beginning. The thing within your story that changes is the character, and plot is what makes this change possible and immediate.
Typically, a character begins in one place and ends up in another--physically, emotionally, or spiritually. The path toward change is called a story arc, and this arc ensures that your story has a beginning, middle, and end that build off each other and tie together perfectly. It also ensures that your story has emotional impact, which is the very reason story structure was invented in the first place and still used rigidly today.
What does this change, this story arc, look like all said and done? Back to the examples:
The Little Mermaid
Ariel starts out as a mermaid unable to achieve her dreams of being human, and she ends up a human married to her true love. (Yay for Disney setting unrealistic expectations for children.)
Neo starts out as a nerd stuck in the Matrix and ends up a hero fighting the Matrix itself to free humanity.
Jack and Ennis start out as (relatively) innocent and hopeful young men who fall for each other despite social disapproval. They go through life always hoping to be together but never achieve this dream because Ennis refuses to change and Jack *spoiler*.
Change isn’t always for the better, which is what makes stories so interesting and diverse. Change is, however, always the crux of every great story, and one could argue that you don't even have a story without it.
“Every character changes the story, and every story changes the character.” - Jack M Brickham
As you can probably imagine, there's a lot more to a story than this, but a solid central question around which a story can arc is the backbone that holds everything together. I hope this shed some light on the subject and gives you a framework for viewing and building your stories.
Next up: Character arc and conflict explained.