“Get him up the tree; throw rocks at him; get him down”. So runs the formula for the classic story, also known as the three-act play structure or the ‘narrative arc’ of a story. All the ingredients of a satisfying story are here: conflict, challenge, resolution. If you think about it, we are all ‘livers’ of story – and most of us are story ‘tellers’. Our lives are about challenge and resolving challenges – our jobs, our children, our elderly relatives, our health, the settings are rich with potential for story. It is no coincidence that we tune into the three-act structure: if our experiences represent life’s everyday struggle then the desire to share experience – to tell the tale – is pretty universal. As it turns out – the telling of story is hardwired into our brains. But you will agree – some storytellers do it better than others. A good storyteller knows how to tell a story that holds their listeners in thrall, so that we want to know What happened? What happened next? How did you deal with it? How did things resolve? These are the main elements that keep us listening. Contrast that with the friend who starts off ‘well you know I saw Joe Bloggs the other day and he said blah blah blah.’ Your eyes glaze over because you know he or she doesn’t really have a ‘hook’ (the inciting event) – nothing extraordinary has really happened, and the challenges are the same dreary ones you have come to expect (I acknowledge I’m being a bit mean to the dreary fictitious friend). A better storyteller might start with ‘You’ll never guess what happened…’ then recounts the inciting event. ‘Oh,’ you say, gasping a little, eyes widening, your interest piquing, can she keep up the suspense, keep you guessing, will she bring in conflict, ever-increasing pressure and decision points into her story, all those pressure points that try her as an ordinary human being attempting to navigate the obstacles and hurdles of daily life? Can she? Fiction is not the same as real life, though, and many of life’s stories don’t resolve then and there in a neat three act sequence. You may have to wait until the next coffee to hear the end. But she’s got you hooked, hasn’t she? She’s mastered the art of the narrative arc, of the classic three-act play formula. Want to hear the rest? Come to the Narrative Arc and Structuring Your Novel workshop!
Jane Turner Goldsmith is a writer, psychologist and teacher. Her novel Poinciana (Wakefield Press, 2006) was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Prize. She has also published short stories, poetry, children’s fiction, flash pieces and a non-fiction anthology of adoption stories.