I don’t know if everybody has this kind of list, but there are about 60+ movies that I watch over and over– like favorite bedtime stories. If I can’t sleep… if I’m in overload… or just looking for big smiles and narrative comfort food– I go to one of those movies.
Lynn’s List of “Bedtime Story” Movies
Original 3 Star Wars movies
Lord of the Rings trilogy
8 Harry Potter movies
V for Vendetta
Some Like It Hot
Monkey Business (Grant/Rogers)
The 5th Element
Leap of Faith
We’re No Angels (Bogart)
Wizard of Oz
Under the Tuscan Sun
His Girl Friday
Lady in the Water
The Odd Couple
Shakespeare in Love
The Butcher’s Wife
As Good As It Gets
Singin’ In the Rain
My Man Godfrey
The Talk of the Town
North by Northwest
Arsenic and Old Lace
Robin and the Seven Hoods
Sherlock Holmes (Downey)
Young Sherlock Holmes
Julie & Julia
Star Trek (reboot)
Star Trek: The Voyage Home
The Court Jester
The Invisible Man
Our current gaming group meets every 2 weeks, and we are rotating between us — each person takes a couple of months to run a self-contained story-line (all within the same basic universe/historical period,) and then passes it on to the next person. Additionally, for Thanksgiving day, and then again on New Year’s Eve, we played “whoever is in the house”-style games, with either pre-rolled characters passed out randomly, or with off-the-normal-game-track versions of our regular characters.
I know there are a lot of gamers and gaming groups that play HUGE story-arcs for years at a time — but we’re not that kind of group at the moment. Also, since we are nominally, at least, playing D&D-4thEdition, there is a built-in arc of 30 levels of character development, and all the different kinds of characters advance at the same rate. This gives the group of characters a natural life span, before they morph into NPCs, (non-player characters) and the gamers start asking “what’s next?”
And a lot of people I talk with on Facebook have wanted to talk about this kind of SHORT FORM GAMING. And I’ve started piecing together the necessary bits that make short-form and one-shot games work.
So here’s the bits I have so far:
1. The Drop
If you’ve got a room full of people who don’t normally play together, whether they bring their own characters, or pick a pre-rolled character from a hat, the story STORY has to start with their reason for being in the same place at the same time. Why are they all walking along the same road at the same time? Why are they all on the same ship? How did they all come to be at the same inn ?
Either: they have to be answering a global call (the king summoned all adventurer seeking to help defend the kingdom against X;
or: they each have to have a private letter, motivation, wanted poster, map, wanderlust, or tourism brochure that brought them here.
And because you want everybody up and running simultaneously (to prevent the odd-man-out syndrome) the drop needs to be obvious, shared, and over quickly so you can get on with the story. Give the players/characters a chance to introduce themselves (or not if they’re secretive kinds of characters), exchange names, and get an overview of what each one can do for the others.
In narrative terms, this is the description of the STATUS QUO at the beginning of the story.
2. The Hook
The Hook, in any RPG game is exactly the same as it is in any story. This is Narrative Structure 101. You’ve given your players a WHERE and a WHY in The Drop — The Hook is where you give them the WHAT. What has happened to X-Important-Person? What has changed recently? What’s the buzz? What’s the puzzle that has to be figured out? What’s the problem that has to be solved? Who did this horrible thing so the group can go after him/her? What great wrong needs to be righted? Who needs rescuing and why? What has changed in the status quo that makes it no longer acceptable?
In narrative terms — this is the initial COMPLICATION. There will be many complications even in the shortest of short games, with varying degrees of difficulty and danger; but, the hook is what grabs your players and their PCs and drags them into the middle of an EVENT!
For a single shot game, and even for a short-form game — you need to be through with the Drop and the Hook in minutes. Just minutes. Not a half hour. Not an hour.
All players need is enough time to slip into a place, and get comfortable with what their character can and can’t do in this world (as well as how their character will relate to the rest of the group) and then you’re on to what’s next.
I am including action here at the front because it is so important — and really difficult to get right.
An RPG is a really interesting kind of thing when it comes to action. In video or computer games, action comes fast and furious. Depending on the game, either action is non-stop; or, solving puzzles is non-stop. Some games alternate between puzzles and action.
In movies and plays, action is what you build to at the end of each block. Whether it’s each scene (see Hamlet); each act (see the play, Sherlock Holmes) or each narrative arc (see Raiders of the Lost Arc [sic].)
In novels, it can take an entire Harry Potter book to get you to the Chamber of Secrets or the graveyard, or the dungeon room where the Mirror of Erised is stored. Or it can take you 350 pages of Moby Dick to get to the big whale. In absolute terms, it took over 2000 pages to get Harry Potter and Voldemort into the Hogwart’s dining hall — though there was a lot of action to get them there.
In real life — unless you are a cop, a fire fighter, a lawyer or a doctor, — real action happens pretty rarely. Maybe every few years. Even for the cops, fire fighters, lawyers, and doctors — real action is the (yippee!) cozy diner on an otherwise monotonous, bureaucracy-filled highway.
But in RPG land, you have a room full of players trying to figure out what’s going on in this world. Aside from listening to you fill in details of what they see, hear, over-hear, notice, and smell (in narrative terms, this is called EXPOSITION,) your players don’t have much to DO until some action jumps out from behind a tree.
Which is exactly why it should. Action should jump out at them while they’re trying to figure out what’s next. It should jump out at them while they’re trying to figure out a riddle or puzzle. Action should jump out at them while they are making dumb jokes about their character names.
Action JUMPS OUT.
Consider timing. If your game is just one hack-and-slash Orc fight after another, then you’re not gaining any story ground. You’re just racking up experience points.
But, if your exposition and story telling goes on for more than 20-30 minutes without something that JUMPS OUT, then your players are going to get bored. It can’t ALL be about telling the story together — but it does have to move the story along together. This is what timing is all about.
A really excellent professor I had once put it this way:
ACTION IS THE PROCESS OF RECOGNITION OR REVERSAL.
If your players/characters (PCs) aren’t either recognizing (learning something new, going to a new venue, meeting somebody new, discovering some new clue); or reversing (changing their minds, changing their choices, changing the way they behave) — then there is no ACTION. All fights should result in new information. All chases should lead to a place where the PCs can discover something. Surviving a storm should land them in an important new place to explore. Saving a life should reward them with a tale only the survivor can tell. –And killing without a good reason — just for the sake of killing — should carry penalties in-game boons like information, clues, and assistance.
Action is what we mean when we say “Something’s happening.”
And it should happen often, unexpectedly, and without the appearance of premeditation.
If you know your players are crossing a desert — you should have several possible encounters that could befall them in that desert. Scorpions. Snakes. Bandits. Dust storms. A sand schooner full of ladies of the evening. A tent merchant who is really a prince hiding from kidnappers.
If you know your players are running through a rain forest — there should be a list of creatures and/or individuals that live in that forest at your fingertips that the PCs could run into.
***At the very least — there should be some big challenge to the group of PCs within the first hour of playtime. This will give them the opportunity to coordinate and meld as a group.***
It is also important to say that at least the first action/encounter should involve ALL your PCs. It should be like a warm-up exercise. Everybody participates. Everybody gets a chance to fight. Everybody gets a chance to discover something. Everybody gets the experience of having been part of a successful event.
Do it soon. Make it win-able. Make it challenging enough so that it’s not just a slash-a-thon bloodfest Get everybody involved. Give them the chance to work together and see how it feels.
Action is the bread and butter of any story, and it is just as important in a short-form or one-shot RPG. There is a limit to how many opportunities your players will have to join forces and choose — and how many chances they will have at recognition and reversal.
4. Keep Your Eye On The Ball
This one seems obvious if you’ve played RPGs a lot, but for those with less experience, it can be difficult. What I mean by keeping your eye on the ball is this:
KNOW YOUR OUTCOME
Know where your story is going to end. Know what the goal of the story is. George Lucas would say KNOW YOUR McGUFFIN. Know what the thing is that signals the end of the story. Is it the Arc [sic] of the Covenant? Is it the death of Voldemort? Is it getting the chapel built for the nuns? Is it firing all the nuclear weapons in the world at once, and riding one to the ground? Is it getting Julia Roberts and Richard Geer together on the fire escape of her apartment? Is it killing the dragon that has been stealing the children?– or Is it getting the children safely home? What’s the goal?
And if you keep your eye on that goal you can make sure your players don’t distract you or sidetrack you with other adventures THEY THINK they are on.
If your PCs are getting there too quickly — drop some obstacles in their path. A boulder blocking the road (with giant spiders living under it.) Three trolls out trolling for their dinner. A family of bugbears out for a walk while waiting on their porridge to cool. A band of mercenaries who haven’t gotten the word that their war is over.
If your PCs are getting to the McGuffin too slowly — drop in a character, scroll, carrier pigeon with the information, magic, or assistance they need to get on to the final crisis, and thus to the climax of your story.
Keep your eye on the ball — and on the clock — and on your players’ faces for signs of boredom, exhaustion, or enraptured bliss.
A one-shot, or short RPG game is like reading one of those imaginary comic books where the reader gets to decide at every turn which way they will go, who they will fight vs. who they will run from or try to talk out of fighting, and how many times they’ll pause the game to go get a fresh soda. But as the GM/DM, it will always fall to you to be voice that keeps things moving, and insists that there isn’t going to be time to look at every flower growing by the road, or time to talk to every zippy bunny that hops across the road. Keep things moving in the right direction — but most of all — keep things moving.
5. Preparation is Everything
The time to consult books and tables; the time to discuss which weapon each PC is going to use; and even the time to add and recalculate standard bonuses, bonus dice, and modifiers is before the action starts — not in the middle of a fight when other players are waiting for their chance to whack on the ugly goblin marauders. Make sure everybody has all these calculations done in the 10 minutes before you say DROP — and start the game! Give your players a 15 Minute Warning timer if you need to — and tell them to get all these calculations made in that time so that everybody is up and ready to go TOGETHER.
Unlike games that are going to have another Saturday night in a couple of weeks — a one-shot game really is confined by time, and therefore has to smooth and fast.
Even more important — make sure you (the GameMaster or Dungeon Master) have done all your prep well in advance. Your lists of possible encounter, your Monster Manuals, your hand drawn maps and scrolls of messages should already be prepared and at hand before you begin. PLUS some backups.
As long as you know all the ways you’re willing to let the game/story play out, then it will be easy for you to derail dead ends before they happen, and keep your band of gamers from trying to pick a fight with every bar-maid and shopkeeper in the village.
If you are running a one-shot or short-form RPG –always know that the story you are telling is yours. Know your beginning and your ultimate goal.
But also know that the path to that goal, and choices along the way are your players’. Keep your options open; have a backup plan; and have action ready to jump out at your PCs any time there’s a lull. The point is the experience — not the experience points. And the real point is that it be fun for everybody.
directed by: Gregory La Cava
written by: Morrie Ryskind & Eric Hatch from a novel by Eric Hatch
Academy Award Nominations for:
Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (William Powell), Best Actress (Carole Lombard), Best Supporting Actor (Misha Auer), and Best Supporting Actress (Alice Brady) It was the first film to receive nominations in all 4 acting categories.
I know that all the above information can easily be found on the IMDB and other resources online — everybody knows that. But I include it here for a reason. If you are at all a fan of the great “screwball comedies” that owe their existence to the horrific life lived by so many Americans during the Great Depression, then you know each of the actors listed as old friends. They all worked non-stop in the dream-factories of Hollywood to make escapist movies that could offer a couple of hours relief from the worry, hunger, and despair of the outside world.
The Great Depression was both an economic condition, and a psychological one, and it was these people’s jobs to make it a little more survivable and to provide smiles and laughter at a time when those things weren’t always in good supply.
But I include those credits for another reason. If you click on the movie 1-sheet poster at the top, it will take you to the IMDB page. Once there, you have the option of clicking on “full cast and crew.” If you look there, you will see dozens of names of people who have (or more likely, their family members have) added them to the cast list as “uncredited – socialite” “uncredited – waiter” “uncredited – doorman” or some other uncredited member of the cast for the crowd scenes, the scenes at parties or restaurants, and the scenes in the night club.
Is there meaning in this observation? There are a few. First — that people whose only notable screen work was as extras in scenes of black and white make-believe — those people carried their memories home to their families. This must have been on the list of favorite stories to tell around the Thanksgiving table: “grandma, tell us again about making the scavenger-hunt scene in “My Man Godfrey,” or “tell us again what Carole Lombard was like.” “Whose name was sewn into the tuxedo jacket you wore?” or “Did Clark Gable really come to the set the day you were in the cocktail party scene?” Did people really have parties like that in those days?
There’s also an awareness that as long and seemingly boring as the blockbuster mile-long credit reels are — there is somebody paying attention to make sure that everybody who broke their back and worked until 3am gets credit for their hard work and creativity. This was not the case in early Hollywood. Most movies had a limit of 25 people who could be listed in credits. The heads of a few departments. The actors with the most lines. A director, a producer, and a writer. The truth has always been that important movies had teams of writers contributing great jokes or important scenes, and lesser movies were sometimes written by committee. If the gowns were by Edith Head, you can bet there were a dozen artists actually working on the dresses. Or more. And while there has always been a cinematographer and an editor, the legions of electricians, boom operators, and lighting specialists were never given screen credit.
If George Lucas let 8 minutes of credits roll at the end of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 — it was because he was fair and wanted to give credit where credit was due. And that was a fairly original thought.
My Man Godfrey was a big deal in 1936. William Powell was 44, and had been making movies since 1922 in the silent era. As a 14 year veteran of the movie business, and a huge star (The Thin Man series started in 1932) — he wielded enough power to insist that this movie wouldn’t get made with him as Godfrey unless his ex-wife (Lombard) played opposite him. Lombard was already a hit, too, but with a much shorter resume behind her. Her prime — short as it would be — was just beginning. (Lombard died in a plane crash on a 1942 patriotic-publicity tour to sell WWII War Bonds.)
But Powell was a full-blown matinée idol. He had already played the great detective, Philo Vance, in several films, and he was the embodiment of “debonaire.” In his younger days, he was paid to be beautiful — but in his 40s, his on-screen persona was cool and masculine, soft-spoken, often a little tipsy, and always clever and quick with a snappy line. He and his characters were gentleman of intelligence and wit, even when angry or drunk, but especially in love.
So here’s the story:
One upon a time, a spoiled son-of-old-Boston-money, who made his living in high finance before the stock market went boom! was nursing a broken heart with liquor to the point that he ran away from home and was living in a tent/shack city on the Manhattan city dump, at the post of one of the city’s great bridges.
One night, a limo pulls up to the dump and a crowd of top-hatted and splarkly-gowned socialites hop out in search of items on their list of scavenger-hunt treasures, for a charity ball — though hardly any money is ever raised by these escapades for real charity. In this moment, a snotty, rude aristocrat is looking for an item on her list: a “forgotten man” — which was an important phrase in the midst of the Great Depression, and had been co-opted by FDR in one of his famous “Fireside Chats.”. This garbage heap is littered with men who fit FDR’s definition of Forgotten Men — who ran banks, law firms, and investment houses before the crash — as well as a few WWI vets and outright hobo-types.[In the real world of the time, these camps were also populated with many women and children, and a great many older people, but we suspect that would have diverted attention from clean structure of this story.]
Miss Aristocrat-the-Elder (played by the perennial villainess, Gail Patrick) insults our forgotten man, Godfrey, and heaps on apathy toward the poverty and misery all around her. He refuses her overtures to return with her to the city so she can win the hunt — but is more receptive to the cute and warm-hearted ditz of a little sister (Lombard.) So Lombard shows up at the charity ball with Godfrey, wins the prize, and then hires him as the family’s new butler.
Wicked sister is jealous of Lombard’s scavenger hunt win, as well as her sweet and funny exchanges with Godfrey, and so sets about to have Godfrey thrown or carried out of the house, and carried off to jail on a trumped-up charge of stealing a string of pearls.
But Godfrey — even when not quite sober — outsmarts her and uses the pearls she has planted under the mattress in his room as the down payment on an idea to put all the men he met and knew well at the city dump back to work, and bring them back to life with places to live and some pride in their lives and work.
He enlists the help of an old college chum (Alan Mowbray) who has discovered his new found name and life — and the real work begins.
Godfrey is a good guy that we suspect may not always have been so good. But he’s seen the underside of the shiny world he was raised in, and gotten to know personally the people who made his early life as easy-to-be-blase-about as it was. With some new perspective, he is still a gentleman — the perfect butler — but he no longer takes anything or anyone for granted.
Eugene Palette plays the tycoon father of the two girls with the detached but loving patience of a doomed saint. His business interests are slowly being eaten away by the Depression, and wasted away by his air-headed and spoiled family. Godfrey is the only one who notices the signs of stress in his voice and behavior, and at one point even offers himself as a former “dabbler in finance” to try to help, but the proud father cannot admit to his troubles — especially to a butler.
It is only at the end of the movie (after a wonderful hour of Powell and Lombard’s exuberant flirting and chemistry) that Daddy admits to everyone that the family is broke, he has lost everything, and they only have their home and a few baubles left to keep them afloat. His despair is real since he also diverted funds from his shareholders to try to save the business — and that may land him in jail.
When wicked sister, Patrick, takes a final run at Godfrey just for the sport of bringing him down and breaking her sister’s heart, Godfrey enters the parlor with suitcase and overcoat in hand. But before leaving, he presents Pallette with a portfolio of Pallette’s company stock which Godfrey has bought up over the months to keep it out of the hands of others (thus saving the family from ruin;) and returns the mysterious pearl necklace to its wicked owner, thanking her for the use of its capital. He admits to having been working on his own project on the side, and thanks the family for teaching him so much about himself. Thank-yous are said, and Godfrey disappears faster than the family and faithful cook can even say goodbye.
The camera follows Godfrey to the THE DUMP — a booming new club built on the real estate of his former tent city home.
We recognize the valet parking attendant, the head waiter, and several other employees as former forgotten men and city dump residents. We follow Godfrey into his apartment/office, and get to witness him finalizing a deal to install steam heat in the 50 residences adjoining the club where his fellow (and former) forgotten men now live.
Lombard has followed Godfrey, too — and a convenient guest of the club, NY City’s mayor, marries them on the spot (and they live happily ever after — the end.)
It was a great story in 1936. It’s still a great story.
But if you’re a movie fan, you already knew this. If you’re not — you probably already stopped reading. So why write about this great film?
Because for the first time since the Great Depression, people are talking about things like hunger, homelessness, government involvement, and unemployment in something close to the same voice that they talked about it in 1936. For decades, My Man Godfrey was a great and funny film, historical document/artifact, but had lost some of its connection to the world we live in.
In 1936, everybody wanted the federal government to fix the catastrophic circumstances of the Great Depression. To make it all the way it had been before. Americans voted Hoover out of office because he didn’t do enough fast enough — and everything he did failed. FDR came in with an army of idea-men (sorry, but yes, it was just that sexist.) He lived by the policy of “if this doesn’t work, we’ll do something else. If that doesn’t work, we’ll do something else. If that doesn’t work….” And that’s what he did. Over and over and over and over — more ideas, more programs, and more taxes. This was the beginning of spending imaginary money (debt) and of calling on those who had more, to save those who had little.
There’s a line in My Man Godfrey, when Pallette (daddy) and his assembled family are first talking about the family company, and Pallette says,
“I’ve just been going over last month’s bills, and I find that you people have confused me with the Treasury Department! I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make, but I can’t do it when my family spends 50%!”
Times have changed. Morality has changed. The Tax Code has changed. FDR was certainly criticized in his time for the New Deal and all it’s projects. He built the infrastructure of the country, funded the arts projects of the day, and put people to work in record numbers during the Depression — on that 60% tax rate for the rich, and on borrowed money. He did things that people then and now label ABSURD. And that other people called brilliant. Innovative. Courageous.
Today, however, I read a lot of the arguments on both sides of his New Deal. I read articles by the folks who tout WWII as the ultimate solution to the Great Depression, rather than the WPA and all its sister projects. I also read about a current piece of legislation in Montana that talks about how some CO2 in the atmosphere is good for Montana’s coal driven bottom line. Yesterday I read an article claiming that a limited nuclear war — using roughly 100 bombs the size of those dropped on Hiroshima (approximately the number currently in the possession of India and Pakistan) could reverse global warming.
And today I read a current review of My Man Godfrey on RottenTomatoes.com that called it Hollywood Marxism.
Imposing today’s political discourse on a 75-year-old film ultimately does disservice to both. The film should be allowed to have the voice of its own decade, and to represent its own time without the political judgments or condemnation of today’s young writers imposed on it. History is what it is, and does not need to be argued with. Even when we argue, it still is only what it is. Attempting commentary or revision does not change it. This is basically the argument for NOT editing and censoring Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because the characters don’t speak in later-20th-Century politically correct language.[It should also be noted that My Man Godfrey is one of only a handful of movies given a 100% rating by Rotten Tomatoes.]
Pallette’s line was said with such casual nonchalance, that there is no doubt that his attitude toward that 60% was fairly common. His very next line in the movie — in response to Lombard’s, “I don’t think it’s fair that you spend more on the government than you spend on your family…” — says, “That’s just the way it works.” It was actually a wide-spread attitude in the day — many people viewed their income tax as a way to show support for their country in dire and serious times. Their tax was a way to pitch in together to try to get out of the desperate mess that Wall Street and its global counterparts had created.
Last night, on the Late Show with David Letterman, Letterman and ABC news anchor Brian Williams were discussing the current economic situation, taxes etc, and Williams passed on his wife’s suggestion that there should be a box to check on tax forms where people like him (and Letterman) who clearly make too much money (his words) — so much more than the “not quite two nickles” they expected to be making in their lives — could say, “give my tax break money to education.”
There are those out there not so overcome by their own feelings of self-worth and entitlement that they understand their portion should be shared. Some are already philanthropists who fund huge projects all on their own (some are not) — but then that same philanthropy was also at work in the 1930’s — over and above the high income taxes.
Just as clearly, we’re all so far removed from the standard of living common in the 1890s, 1900s, 1910s and 1920s, that we hardly even recognize — and sometimes even deny — the embarrassment of riches we live in. We’ve forgotten the days of owning just one dish and fork and cup per person. We’ve forgotten that getting more dishes or forks or cups meant buying them from someone who knew how to make them, and paying those people for the hours and materials it took to finish them.
It’s also noteworthy that Godfrey, the butler, earns a monthly salary of $150 plus room and board in 1936 — and a $500 necklace was enough seed money to fund a fashionable work-relief project nightclub in Manhattan. This was at a time when my grandparents’ young family of 3 was living in the back store-room of their little dry goods store, on about $45 a month. Even when times were bad, times were good for a good butler in the land of fiction.
In 2004, My Man Godfrey was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its historical and cultural significance (and because it’s a great movie….)
Because the movie is now in the public domain, you can watch it (albeit a very sad print) through many online sites. The restored black and white version, as well as a colorized version are available in CD format, and can be seen occasionally on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) .
(You can find this essay in its complete form through the page-link at the top of my blog’s home page called “How a Story is Shaped…“), or just scroll down this page a bit….
Here’s a nice surprise I found:
This is a link to another blog (!) written by Keith Schock from New Jersey which very graciously takes my long-ago essay on narrative structure and turns it into a lovely .pdf file for his .edu purposes. (Thanks, again!)
I started teaching this material as a grad student back in 1984 — and since then have taught it to just about every person I know!
Nonetheless, the content remains very close to my original essay — so there you are. 12 years in a vacuum and almost completely in tact.
I also find that this same piece is referenced by Google Questions, at least 3 dissertations, an online guide to teaching narrative structure for high school teachers, and a consulting firm that teaches executives/management how to use story in employee relations. And several paragraphs have been lifted by somebody into Wikipedia….
And don’t be thrown by the name on the essay or in his blog. I still go by Lynn. Maupin was my maiden name. Webb is my son’s last name, and the name I got when I married my first husband (who is now chair of the Philosophy Dept, one floor up from my (now) husband, Jim (who is the assoc. chair of the English Dept.) — from whom I got my present last name: Whitlark. Confused? Not a problem. I’ve dropped all previous names except the Lynn and the Whitlark. And the story of all that name changing isn’t nearly as interesting as it could have been. Mostly it’s just evidence that I’ve got a soft spot for good conversation and quick wits.
Here’s the original essay complete:
How a Story is Shaped
Beginning Narrative Structure
by Lynn (Webb) Whitlark
Before I taught people how to construct English sentences; before I taught people to use their library for research; before I taught people to build a positive work environment; before I taught people about working with difficult employees; and before I taught people about their own evolutionary patterns — before all that, I was teaching would-be writers how to construct a story.
This is the standard model of Western narrative structure:
If it looks familiar, it should. If I’d used curves instead of straight line pieces (which I will explain in a moment) it would look like the common image of our heartbeat.
Let’s take the graphic apart:
Consider the bright blue X to be our starting point. The Status Quo of our story.
X Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom far away, there lived a beautiful princess named Snow White…
Now, in order for it to be a story, and not just a description of some status quo — there has to be an initial problem. That’s the pale blue section of our map.
Snow White’s mother died when she was very young, and so she was raised by her loving father, the King, and a palace full of devoted servants. One day, the King chose to remarry, and so brought his new beautiful wife home to the palace to meet Snow White.
This could be just a small problem in some households — we’ve all seen families that blend together easily and smoothly — so for the story to continue forward and not just stop here — another success story for family values — we need to explain why how this family works, how the kingdom works, and what Snow White’s world looks like. This is called Exposition, and is in bright blue again on our map.
Snow White was the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, and with each passing day, grew more and more beautiful.
And the new queen was also beautiful — so beautiful in fact that she hung her treasured and magical mirror on the wall of her bed chamber. Each day, she would go to her mirror and chant her magic spell:
Mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest one of all,
the beautiful maidens in this land,
tell me Mirror, wondrous grand…
To which the mirror would reply in truth,
You are most fair, my Queen
You and no other
no beauty surpasses
the good Queen mother
Which made the Queen exceedingly happy, because she loved being the center of her husband’s world, and the object of envy when other men visited the palace.
A nice, tidy little world this little girl lives in. But in order for it to be a story — it has to continue to move forward. And what propels action in a story is Complication, illustrated on our map with the purple line. In fact, for the story to work, we need a series of complications.
1. The first complication is already in place — it is the step mother’s vanity. That complication needs only to be exploited and exaggerated for the happy status quo to be broken.
2. The second complication is also in place — it is the step mother’s use of magic. In any story, the presence of magic signals possibility an volatility That it is introduced so early is a dead giveaway that there is excitement to come.
On the day the King set aside to celebrate Snow White’s sixteenth birthday, all the preparations had been made and all the guests were beginning to arrive.
Snow White was out walking in her garden, when a handsome prince on a beautiful white horse rode up to the garden gate and saw Snow White there. Thinking she was a beautiful servant girl, he stopped to ask directions to the stable where he might leave his animal while he attended a party in the palace.
At once, Snow White fell in love with the Prince, and seeing the invitation in his hand, decided to surprise him — and so did not tell him she was the princess whose birthday he was there to celebrate.
Upstairs in the palace, the Queen watched this exchange from her window, and grew jealous of Snow White’s beauty and the Prince’s attention. She turned to her magical mirror and recited her charm:
Mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest one of all,
the beautiful maidens in this land,
tell me Mirror, wondrous grand…
But this time, when the mirror answered with the truth, it was a different reply than the Queen had ever heard before:
Beautiful Queen your loveliness engage
but the fairest beauty is on another page
Her skin is fair, her eyes glisten bright
Her lips ruby red, her name — Snow White…
Let’s look at our map again. We’re on the build up course of complications. We’ve just seen a whole string of complications arise. The vanity, the jealousy, the prince’s attention, and the greatest blow of all — even the magic mirror is now on Snow White’s side. What’s a Queen/Wicked Step Mother to do?
More complications, of course. Time for the plot to thicken with a whole stew pot of complications.
So while the party was underway and the King was occupied with all his royal visitors, the Queen called for one of her loyal huntsmen and instructed him to take the beautiful Snow White into the deep dark woods and to shoot her with his bow, then bring her heart back to the palace in her silver jewel box as evidence of his deed.
Being afraid of the powerful and wicked Queen’s magic, the huntsman did as he was told, but when he got to the woods with Snow White, could not bring himself to kill the child for she was so innocent and beautiful. Instead, he told her to run into the forest to save her own life for the Wicked Queen wanted her dead.
To hide his disobedience, the huntsman killed a wild pig, and took the animal’s heart back to the Queen in the jewel box.
Snow White ran and ran through the forest, terrified of her step mother’s jealousy and not understanding at all what darkness and creatures were threatening her.
She ran until she couldn’t run any more — and then she got up and ran again. Across miles of forest and into the deep darkness of night she fled. Afraid to stop even for a moment, she ran all night and then collapsed near a tiny brook that was running out of a mountain side. She took a long drink of the crystal clear water, and when she looked up, she realized she was at the mouth of a clearing where a small cottage was built into the side of the mountain.
Notice all the layers of complication? She’s now far away from home. Alone. Lost. In a dangerous place surrounded by potentially dangerous creatures. Under the constant threat of magic. Tired, hungry and sleepy….
She walked up to the door of the cottage and knocked — but no one answered. But she was so hungry and tired, she pushed the door open, and went inside.
Okay. So we’ve got a new little status quo going. Rather than retell the whole story of Snow White, let’s just grant that she makes friends with the dwarves or thieves or whoever lives in the house; she does a little cooking and cleaning. Maybe she even helps them out in their work. Basically, she relocates to this new part of the forest and makes a new life for herself — this is the calm before the storm — which could be the end of the story except for a couple of further complications:
When the huntsman returned to the palace, he cast his glance down at the ground beneath his feet to avoid looking the evil queen in the eyes. He held out the silver box which contained the wild pig’s heart.
Bad choice. Never NEVER deceive a wicked, magic-using Queen. This is a serious complication. The plot thickens even further.
The Queen took the animal’s heart to the palace kitchens and set it to stew in a pot of soup she intended to feed the King for his dinner.
Just in case the reader doesn’t already know this is a wicked, evil person — the story here shows her doing something absolutely barbaric and disgusting. (No ambiguity allowed in fairy tales….)
So confident was the evil Queen that she had destroyed her only rival, that she forgot to consult her magic mirror for a few days. Then, one day she passed the enchanted thing and asked it her favorite question:
Mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest one of all
the beautiful maidens in this land,
tell me Mirror, wondrous grand…
And the mirror told her the truth:
Beautiful Queen alone at last
but the fairest beauty is not past
Her skin is fair, her eyes glisten bright
Her lips ruby red, her name — Snow White…
The queen was furious! She crashed tables into chairs and ripped the draperies from her walls in her fury. When at last her madness subsided, she turned again to her mirror and commanded it to tell her where Snow White was, if she was not dead.
And the mirror told her the truth:
At this point, the plot is about as thick as anybody can stand. Lies. Deception. Jealousy. Magic. Attempted murder. Attempted cannibalism. Complication after complication after complication. How much worse could it get? We are approaching the point of no return….
How much worse could it get? A lot worse. We’re about to enter the phase of the story called Crisis, which is identified on the map by a red line. This is where the story heats up. And this is the part of the story where there’s no going back. Once the Crisis has begun, there is no way out but through (as they say). Up until that moment, as long as we are still in complication — a change of heart in the ANTAGONIST could stop the story cold and everything would return to the initial Status Quo.
The ANTAGONIST is the character in the story you might think of as the “Bad Guy” or the villain If this were a western, the antagonist would be wearing the black hat. In more general terms, the antagonist is the character who stirs up the status quo and causes or uses all the complications. The Wicked Queen is a great antagonist. In many fairy tales, the step mother, the witch, the evil queen and the old crone are often the archetypal antagonists. In this story, we get them all rolled into one convenient package.
By contrast, the PROTAGONIST is the good guy. The hero. The white hat. The innocent, the child, the victim… An antagonist has to have someone to antagonize — or there’s no story. Without a protagonist, a story would just be a biography of a terrible person.
Horrified that her servant huntsman had deceived her, the wicked Queen immediately commanded that he be put to death.
With Snow White’s whereabouts revealed to her by her Magic Mirror, the mad Queen tore the treacherous scrying glass from her chamber wall and threw it from the window into the garden below. Then, the Queen prepared a poison potion that would kill the girl. She dipped a bright red, shiny apple into the potion, then transformed herself into a kindly looking old woman and set out to find Snow White.
The dwarves were away from the cottage when the Queen arrived, and so she approached Snow White without fear of being discovered.
Murder and mayhem are hard to ignore. There is no going back now.
The apple was crisp when Snow White took a bite — but before she could even swallow it, she fell to the ground.
The wicked Queen cackled with delight at her victory and transformed herself back into her original form, then left straight away for the castle. But the purity of Snow White’s heart would save her yet again. When the dwarves returned home, they found her there and as they lifted her to take her inside, the bite of apple fell from her lips to the ground below. Instead of dying from the poison, she fell into a deep and magical sleep.
Crisis is a touchy thing. It has to end the old world forever — and yet leave room for a new one to form. That TURNING POINT between the old way of life and the new one is called the Climax, and is identified on the map with a Red Dot •.
The prince who had first met Snow White in the garden had searched the kingdom high and low to find the missing princess. When at last he found the dwarves’ cottage nestled in the side of the mountain — and saw the beautiful girl he had met in the palace garden sleeping her magical sleep in a glass coffin — he couldn’t bear the sadness of having lost her forever, and so he
shattered the glass coffin and kissed her on the mouth..
Boom, crash, climax.
What happens after the climax? In narrative structure terms, it is called the denouement, which is a French word (pronounced day-nu-moan) which means “what happens after the climax.” This is the cigarette after the story is finished that lets everybody take a deep breath and relax. It is the little drop — the let down and release of energy after the breathlessness of all that sharply building crisis and climax. (Any run up an incline that STEEP will end in breathlessness….) All the wickedness is over. All the monsters have been slain. The good guys in the white hats have won their victory — or if they haven’t, they’ve at least had a good run.
Snow White’s eyes opened slowly and she smiled at the Prince.
In narrative structure, there are two things which make a story end — a REVERSAL or a RECOGNITION. That is, either the story changes direction thereby establishing a New Status Quo (the dark blue X on the map) or somebody learns something that changes their Status Quo forever. Either way, the original status quo X is gone, and a new status quo X is now in place.
In the case of Snow White, the reversal is the resurrection of the Princess, combined with the impending reversal of her fortunes (she’s got her prince now….) and the probable reversal of fortune for the wicked queen who now will be exposed. The recognition is the Prince’s discovery that the girl he has found and kissed back into consciousness is the King’s missing daughter. There is also a hidden recognition buried in there — because now EVERYONE, except possibly the King, knows what a witch his wife is.
And if the story includes a description of the New Status Quo, then that is what is represented on the map by the green line. In our telling of the Snow White story, this might be a description of how the Prince returns Snow White to the King’s place and the Wicked Queen is revealed and punished. Or perhaps a description of how he simply carries her off on his horse to his own kingdom where they live happily ever after. Or maybe the story just ends with them leaving the woods on his horse and the audience is never told how they live their lives after that.
Look at Cinderella:
|X Status Quo||Man and his wife living happily with daughter|
|Initial Problem||mother dies|
|Exposition||father remarries and new family is formed including step sisters, then|
|Complications||father dies, jealousy (again), greed, giving water to the prince, prince’s ball approaches, dirty messy Cinderella not included, nothing to wear, tired from dressing sisters, lonely and alone, fairy godmother helps, magic gown shoes and carriage…|
|Crisis||clock strikes twelve, magic wears off, sisters and step mother lie, prince and his footman are about to leave…|
|• Climax||boom, crash, the shoe fits|
|Denouement||the prince and Cinderella marry|
|Description of New Status Quo||everybody kisses and hugs|
|X New Status Quo||and everybody lives happily ever after|
Or, look at E.T., the Extra Terrestrial
|X Status Quo||little botanist aliens going about their botany business|
|Initial Problem||“Keys” and his men catch them in the act and E.T. is left behind by his friends|
|Exposition||Elliot’s family life, Elliot alone in the world, E.T. alone in the world|
|Complications||E.T. doesn’t speak English, he can’t get home, he has to build his telephone, the kids have to help him, the govt. agents are tracking him, he has to build his phone in the woods on a cold night,|
|Crisis||E.T. is dying from exposure and being here too long and Elliot is connected to him and dying as well — E.T. separates from Elliot and sacrifices himself to save the boy and dies|
|• Climax||boom, crash — E.T. is suddenly resurrected and the alien ship returns for him to take him home|
|Denouement||E.T. tells Elliot he will be always be with him and then leaves|
|Description of New Status Quo||everybody hugs as E.T. gets away safely and all is right with the world|
|X New Status Quo||and Elliot and his family live happily ever after|
|X Status Quo||Everybody goes to Rick’s|
|Initial Problem||The long lost love of Rick’s life shows up at his bar in Casablanca|
|Exposition||World War II milieu; the Nazi influence; the mix of refugees and misfits in Casablanca; Rick’s status as the shady friend of the downtrodden; passive resistance|
|Complications||Ilsa’s husband; Ilsa’s husband is a freedom fighter; the value of the papers required to successfully leave Casablanca for safety; Nazi interference; Rick’s love of Ilsa; murder and mayhem, jealousy|
|Crisis||will Ilsa get the papers to successfully escape with her husband|
|• Climax||boom, crash — the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans — kiss good-bye — Ilsa and her husband escape|
|Denouement||Rick and Henri Renault (the gendarme) find they both like Vichy water|
|Description of New Status Quo||Everybody goes to Rick’s; less passive resistance|
|X New Status Quo||Rick and Renault are now 2 protagonists joined forces and fighting the same antagonist|
Or how about:
|• Climax||Boom, crash — the huntsman crashes the door of grandmother’s house and slays the wolf so that out jumps grandma from his belly!|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — the wolf jumps down the chimney straight into a pot of boiling water!|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — Beauty kisses the beast just as he is about to die, and he magically transforms back into the prince he was born to be. (but tragically — and contrary to the Disney hatchet job on the story — he still dies in her arms.)|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — Jet Rink passes out at the banquet he has thrown in his own honor, proving his own (lack of) metal for all the world to see.|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — the cellar door swings open, revealing the mummified body of Mother Bates in her rocker.|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — the deathstar is blown to smithereens!|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — an American tank with an American G.I. in the perch rolls into the concentration camp announcing that the game is over and our hero’s little son has WON!|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — Juliet sees her dead Romeo in the crypt beside her and stabs herself in her broken heart with his daggar so as to join him in death.|
|• Climax||Boom, crash — Hamlet dies, his mother dies, his stepfather dies, his friends die, his court dies, everybody dies! Well — almost.|
Or, try a slight variation on this theme — the serial structure:
In the serial structure, one narrative cycle ends and another begins, but together they form a complication-tree, leading to a final climax and resolution.
Think about Raiders of the Lost Ark:
|XStatus Quo||Indy is doing his archeologist digging|
|Initial Problem||It’s dangerous|
|Exposition||looking for something looking for something looking for something|
|Complications||traps, spikes, spiders, holes in the ground, dead guys, natives with poison darts, cowardly hired hands, weighted statue pedestal, betrayal by sidekick, lost whip, rolling ball, more dead sidekick|
|Crisis||opposing archeologist with natives and poison there to steal the statue|
|•Climax||boom crash escape|
|Denouement||lost the statue|
|Description of New Status Quo||snakes in the plane|
|X New Status Quo||good guy looses but lives|
|X Status Quo||Two protagonists go in search of the ark|
|Initial Problem||finding the ark without being captured by the Nazis|
|Exposition||new country where you don’t know who your friends are, New ally — Sallah and his family and friends|
|Complications||get jewelry translated, Marion killed, find the map room, Marion seduced, find the Well of Souls, deal with the snakes, save Marion, hoist the ark out|
|Crisis||Indy and Marion caught in the act and sealed in the Well of Souls with 10,000 snakes and no flashlight|
|• Climax||boom, crash, escape through the walls|
|Denouement||Indy and Marion live|
|Description of New Status Quo||Indy still on the trail of the ark|
|X New Status Quo||Adventurist protagonist on his own again to rescue the ark|
And on and on it goes, with each complication-crisis-climax cycle progressively more intense than what went before — until the final boom-crash — the hand of God wipes out the Nazis — and Indy and Marion live in a world where there is an ark somewhere buried in a new U.S. Government Well of Souls.
No. But it’s the most natural way to tell a story. It’s in the shape of a heartbeat for a reason — because it is organic and natural to us.
There are other alterations — but only in the hand of a master storyteller can they work. Steven Spielberg used a false climax in Poltergeist and scared his audience to death when the real one finally showed up — they had already smoked their narrative cigarette and were preparing for the credits to roll so they could go home. Then BOOM-CRASH-CLIMAX and the unsuspecting audience was caught off guard and therefore in shock rather than just typical movie theater horror. (A really really effective tool once, but subsequent copy-cat scripts were far less successful because the savvy audience had learned the trick….)
In the case of The Metamorphosis, the story doesn’t get much further than the initial complication (waking up as a cockroach) and an exposition of the new world that reveals.
Some stories begin with the crisis, or even the climax, and then “flashback” to the original status quo to reveal the complications which led to that dramatic point. This is a common technique for murder mysteries. Still the same structure — just in a different order.
Modern story tellers intertwine many stories so that they all unfold together and others, like Quinten Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction don’t use a full narrative structure for any one of those intertwined stories, but instead let each story and set of characters carry different parts of the structure. This is a very complex and unusual form — but still the same basic narrative structure.
The award winning playwright, Sam Shepherd, wrote an experimental one-act play called “Action” — which has none. Not only is it difficult to watch because of it’s static structure — according to many actors, it is nearly impossible to learn because there is no “narrative flow” to attach lines to. It isn’t performed often because the experience often described by audience members (those not interested in experiencing drama-less drama, or story-less story) as pointless. With no reversal or recognition to learn from, and no complications and crises to vicariously overcome — there can be no catharsis and no audience resolution. And unless you’ve already got your Pulitzer for drama or Nobel for literature, you may want to leave such experiments to the professionals.
Another variation on our theme can be seen as “nested” story arcs in Orsen Well’s classic movie, Citizen Kane. In this film (I use film, myth, and fairy tale to illustrate most often because they are the stories most of us have in common) there is an over-arc story — the life of Kane; but there are smaller story arcs included in the “testimony” of each of the witnesses who are interviewed by the newsman in search of Rosebud. Each testimony is an independent narrative, but contributes a complication to the wider story. In this case, Kane’s death — the climax — is the first thing the audience sees and the rest of the movie is a solving of the mystery of his last words. By the time the movie ends, the jolting new status quo solves the riddle by way of the furnace and is nothing more than the audience and the filmmaker sharing their cigarette.
In the text above, reference was made to biography and descriptive prose. Narrative structure is not absolute in either of these forms — but in both cases, it will make them more interesting and easier to read or hear. A lot of what readers are describing when they use words like “boring” and “dry” is prose devoid of narrative structure. Any life story will be more captivating if it follows this pattern. Consider a telling of Lindbergh’s life — where the complications, crisis and climax of his transatlantic flight, and then the complications, crisis and climax of his son’s kidnapping etc… are told in this structure — as opposed to a telling of his life that merely recites the facts, dates, names and places. The difference between a great biographer and one who is merely accurate — is in how well they tell the story.
Likewise, descriptive prose takes on a much more interesting quality when the “drama” of what is being described is also included. Describing the House of Representatives as
“a building full of men and women about the work of the nation”
may be accurate — but it is completely different than talking about
“a cold stone structure full of men and women just like us, who must daily consider the weighty matters of government and the future of their nation.”
Within the adjectives, imperatives, and comparatives there is an allusion to past, present and future — the stuff narratives are made of. The implication of the second description is that there are eight million stories in the naked city…. And that is a conservative estimate.
Listen to a classical symphony and maybe you can find parallels to narrative structure there.
Look at the little “birdline” that decorates this page. There is narrative structure built into it. Birds on the telephone line are status quo — then some complication interrupts their rest (wind? noise? bigger birds? electrical burst?) — the interruption becomes critical and boom-crash — birds fly. Or maybe these birds are landing instead of taking off. In that case, the story is completely different….
A lot of things follow this heartbeat shape and narrative pattern. Why? Because it is basically a graph and description of how change occurs. From flying to resting. From resting to flying….
Any individual or organization which goes through a series of complications, a crisis, or any turning point in their existence — and experiences a REVERSAL or a RECOGNITION (a learning) — is following this pattern. If they’re experiencing complications and crises without learning or changing coarse — then they don’t climax and their story doesn’t end. They just keep climbing to higher and higher levels of crisis management.
Almost all management consulting is an attempt to bring a narrative cycle to denouement (exhale) and a new status quo.
The same is true of any therapeutic situation: the client is on his way from X to X . And if the therapist is good — he or she will get there without too much trauma along the way!
Narrative structure is simply a map of how these changes happen. And this only makes sense, because a good story is ALWAYS about change. That is the very definition of ACTION — which is the primary ingredient of a good story. Movement from point A to point B. Movement from X to X .
And what all does that include? Everything. Including psycho-social evolution —
Any change in evolutionary development will occur along this map and follow this pattern.
Amazing, isn’t it?