It’s now time to review the timeless principles that we rely upon to create and evaluate the building blocks of a long form story—scenes. Scenes build into sequences, which build into acts, which create our Beginning hooks, Middle builds and Ending payoffs. Each of these elements must abide by the 5 Commandments of Storytelling.
The five elements that build story are the inciting incident (either causal or coincidental), progressive complications expressed through active or revelatory turning points, a crisis question that requires a choice between at least two negative alternatives or at least two irreconcilable goods, the climax choice and the resolution.
The 5 Commandments of Storytelling
- Inciting Incident
- Progressive Complication
- Active Turning Point
- Revelatory Turning Point
- The Best Bad choice
- Irreconcilable goods
These 5 commandments of storytelling must be clearly defined and executed for each unit of story. I’ll go into further detail about all of the units of story later on, but for now it’s important to note:
The Units of Storytelling
- Every story beat has an inciting incident, progressive complication/s, a crisis, a climax and a resolution.
- A well-designed series of beats builds to the next unit of story, the scene, which also has an inciting incident, progressive complications, a crisis, a climax and a resolution.
- Scenes build into sequences, which also have inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions.
- In turn sequences build into acts, which have their own inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions.
- Subplots also have inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions, and can be tracked in exactly the same way as the global story. They act more like add-on extensions or outbuildings to the property that make the global story a deeper and more satisfying experience.
- And lastly, the global story itself has its own inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution.
The Bio System of Storytelling
Like an organic structure, a Story has a base set of internal materials that integrally combine to form self contained units of mini-story which in turn combine to form even more complex systems and ultimately all of the systems combine to create a work of intellectual property.
Just as cells form tissues, which interact to form organs that work with other organs to form systems (skeletal, nervous, circulatory etc.) with ultimately fourteen systems making up the anatomy of a human being, so do beats combine to form scenes which combine to form sequences which combine to form acts and subplots and ultimately the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff of a global story.
But without the engines of creation (the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution) beats, scenes, sequences, acts, subplots and the global story will have no life. It is never a bad idea to revisit these crucial story elements before we begin a new project or just after we’ve banged out our first draft of a project…just before we put on the editor’s hat.
You Deeply Understand the 5 Commandments
Knowing them and trusting their efficacy are mandatory. A writer who does not pound these concepts into her head will never come close to reaching her artistic potential. There is no escaping them. And anyone who tells you differently is either ignorant or a charlatan. Seriously.
So my advice is to surrender to them. Bow down to them. Hold them closely to your heart. They will save you from yourself. They will outwit and out duel any Bullshit you or anyone else will come up with to get you to ignore them so that you can write “freely.” Sure go nuts on your first draft and riff all you want. But when you dive into your edit, you’ve got to make sure that these five elements are present in every beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot and global story.
Cure for Writer’s Block?
When Moses’ cousin, Morrie the writer, went up the mountain seeking a cure for his writer’s block, God didn’t have time to give him all of the answers. And wouldn’t you know it, Morrie climbed up unprepared. He only had a crumpled coffee shop napkin and a leaky pen in his shirt pocket. So God did Morrie a solid and boiled Story down to just 5 commandments of storytelling.
This article is part of the 5 Commandments of Storytelling series:
- Commandment One: Inciting Incidents
- Commandment Two: Progressive Complication
- Commandment Three: Crisis
- Commandment Four: Climax
- Commandment Four: Resolution