What are the Five Commandments of Storytelling?
Every effective story has five structural components that work together to communicate a CONTROLLING IDEA in a way that bypasses readers’ critical minds to touch their hearts and change their worldviews. These components are the Five Commandments of Storytelling.
When most writers and editors talk about Story structure, they rely on a grab bag of different approaches that capture part of but not the whole of Story’s fundamental structure. In the same way, two wings, two jet engines, and a fuselage don’t make a functioning airplane.
In the Story Grid Universe, we understand that Story structure is about embedding GENRE-specific VALUE SHIFTS within every UNIT OF STORY — from the line-by-line BEATS to TROPES to SCENES to SEQUENCES to QUADRANTS to the full STORY — to communicate the ARTIST’s CONTROLLING IDEA.
The Five Commandments of Storytelling are:
1. Inciting Incident
The inciting incident destabilizes the protagonist by upsetting the balance of their life for good or for ill. Every inciting incident is either causal (the result of an active choice by an AVATAR) or coincidental (something unexpected or random or accidental). In response, the protagonist forms a goal, which they begin to pursue. Read more about Inciting Incidents.
2. Turning Point Progressive Complication
The protagonist goes through a series of actions to restore balance to the world after the inciting incident. As these actions fail, it progressively complicates the story until the protagonist faces a final turning point where everything they have tried fails. This can be brought on by AVATAR action (someone does something that renders the protagonists initial strategies useless) or by revelation (when new information is given to the protagonist that forces them to change). Read more about Turning Point Progressive Complications.
When the protagonist’s initial strategy to deal with the inciting incident has failed, they face a dilemma. This is the crisis. The crisis poses a real choice between incompatible options with meaningful stakes. It is always a binary “this or that” choice. Every crisis is either a Best Bad Choice (choosing between two horrible things) or an Irreconcilable Goods choice (choosing between two wonderful things). Read more about Crises.
The climax is the active answer to the question raised by the crisis. The climax always reveals the truth about who the AVATAR really is when they enact their choice under pressure. Read more about Climaxes.
The resolution is what happens as a result of the protagonist’s choice during the climax. Because the crisis had meaningful stakes, when the AVATAR makes a decision, something meaningful will always happen as a result. Read more about Resolutions.
Examples of the Five Commandments of Storytelling
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Scene 19
- Inciting Incident: Causal. Mr. Collins proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet.
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Active. Mr. Collins refuses to accept Elizabeth’s refusal because it doesn’t make sense to him.
- Crisis: Irreconcilable Goods. If Elizabeth accepts Mr. Collins, she’ll save her sisters after her father’s death, but she’ll sentence herself to a lifetime of misery.
- Climax: Elizabeth refuses again.
- Resolution: Mr. Collins calls her charming and Elizabeth realizes the only way Mr. Collins will go away is if her father agrees with her.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, full story
- Inciting Incident: Coincidental. The emergence of an extraordinary external environmental change agent, a Kansas Cyclone.
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Revelatory. Dorothy discovers Oz is not a wizard and he is incapable of granting the group’s wishes.
- Crisis: Best Bad Choice. Should Dorothy quit her quest to return home, remain in the Emerald City, and make the best of things, or should she continue to seek a way home, which looks to be impossible?
- Climax: Dorothy chooses to continue seeking her own way home.
- Resolution: Dorothy finds her way back home.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, Chapter 24
- Inciting Incident: Causal. Poirot calls Sheppard out for hiding a secret.
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Revelatory. Sheppard confesses that he convinced Ralph, after the murder, to hide out.
- Crisis: Best bad choice. Will the killer confess to save Ralph, or will Poirot have to out him or her?
- Climax: No one speaks up. The smoking gun clue arrives.
- Resolution: Poirot dismisses the people in the room except Sheppard.
- Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Scene 2 – “Aaron Burr, sir”
- Inciting Incident: Causal. Hamilton introduces himself to Burr and asks how he graduated from college early.
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Active. Burr advises Hamilton to keep his opinions to himself if he wants to get ahead.
- Crisis: Best bad choice. Following Burr’s advice means Hamilton denies his own instincts and potentially fails in life, but disagreeing with Burr could risk his friendship with someone who could help him.
- Climax: In the last line of the song, Hamilton openly rejects Burr’s advice by saying, “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?”
- Resolution: The resolution comes at the beginning of the next song, “My Shot,” when Laurens, Lafayette, and Mulligan ask Hamilton who he is and what his plans are. This gives Hamilton a chance to prove his intelligence to them.
Common Mistakes with the Five Commandments
Writers can avoid errors in applying the Five Commandments by focusing on how the commandments function together. Here are several common mistakes drawn from Danielle Kiowski’s The Five Commandments of Storytelling.
- The inciting incident does not tie to the climax. The inciting incident must promise the climactic action. In turn, the climax must mirror the inciting incident to show how the protagonist has changed.
- The inciting incident is unresolved at the end of the story. Stories are about processing unexpected change, so if the inciting incident is unresolved, the protagonist has failed to metabolize the invisible phere gorilla.
- The turning point does not complicate from the inciting incident. The turning point illustrates the failure of the protagonist’s initial strategy, so it should arise naturally from a series of complications caused by the gradual breakdown of the procedures the protagonist relies on. A drop-in of an unexpected event undermines this dynamic, even if it prevents the protagonist from following the initial strategy.
- The link between the turning point and the ensuing crisis decision is weak. The crisis must come directly from the turning point. Ensure the turning point is strong enough to force the protagonist to decide, and the options available in the crisis come from the turning point.
- The turning point, crisis, and climax do not follow a consistent protagonist. Switching protagonists breaks the arc and interrupts the construction of the controlling idea. Ensure the same character facing the turning point and grappling with the crisis is the one enacting the climax.
- The resolution does not tie back to the stakes established in the crisis. The crisis makes it clear that the protagonist must suffer some consequence. If they enact the climax and everything goes well, with no cost, this breaks the connection between the resolution and the crisis, undermining the controlling idea by invalidating the stakes.
- The Five Commandments of Storytelling by Danielle Kiowski
- In-depth Course: The Five Commandments of Storytelling
- The Five Commandments and Bruce Springsteen
- Dig into all Five Commandments of Storytelling:
Listen to Shawn Coyne explain the Five Commandments of Storytelling
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