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Story Crisis: Triggering Change in the Protagonist

What is the Story Crisis?

The Crisis of a UNIT OF STORY is a binary, this-or-that, choice that arises out of the TURNING POINT. We reach the Crisis when all of the protagonist’s attempts to go back to the way things were before the INCITING INCIDENT have failed.

The Crisis is what forces the protagonist to change and reveals their true character. Every Crisis must pose a real choice between incompatible options with meaningful stakes. It is the point in the UNIT OF STORY when the reader becomes invested in the story and builds narrative drive.

It is the third of the FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING.

Crisis in Story: Triggering Change in the Protagonist

2 Rules for the Crisis

In order for the Crisis to pull the reader in and keep them turning pages, it must have two important qualities.

1. Incompatible Options

The choice the protagonist faces must be between two mutually exclusive options. By choosing option A, the protagonist completely forgoes option B and vice versa. No matter what the AVATAR chooses, they are giving up something. 

When the choice between option A and B is made (the CLIMAX), the reader sees the protagonist’s true character.

2. Meaningful Stakes

The choice the protagonist faces must matter. It must be a hard decision for the protagonist to make, otherwise it will slow down the NARRATIVE DRIVE and cause the reader to lose interest. It must also be a choice that is hard to go back on. Throughout the story, the stakes of the crisis must build.

2 Categories of Story Crisis

Every crisis falls into one of two categories.

1. Best Bad Choice

A best bad choice crisis forces the protagonist to choose between two negative options. This type of crisis illustrates what the protagonist is willing to endure to get their desired outcome. A best bad choice crisis increases narrative drive because the reader feels anxiety about the risks the protagonist faces when they emerge from the crisis and take a course of action.

2. Irreconcilable Goods

An irreconcilable goods crisis forces the protagonist to choose between two incompatible positive options. The choice is often between something that is good for the self or good for others. It can also highlight the choice between the protagonist’s want and need. An irreconcilable goods choice crisis increases narrative drive because the reader feels excitement about the results the protagonist faces when they emerge from the crisis and take a course of action.

2 Problem Spaces in a Crisis

A crisis presents a choice of value for the protagonist, but it can be presented in two ways.

1. Prioritization

A prioritization crisis presents two competing values to the protagonist. For instance, a character may have to chose between moving towards safety or moving towards truth. In the CLIMAX, we see which value is most important to the protagonist.

2. Optimization

An optimization crisis presents a choice within a single value. For instance, a detective may have to choose between arresting a criminal or exacting revenge. Both of these options are about the value of justice. In the CLIMAX, we see how the protagonist chooses to move towards the value at stake.

Analyzing the Story Crisis

As you review the crisis in your draft or in a story example, answer these questions to verify that the crisis is a compelling choice that will pose a difficult dilemma for the protagonist and keep the reader engaged.

  • Best Bad Choice or Irreconcilable Goods? Determine how the crisis is defined. Explain whether it is a choice between bad options or good options. Does it force the protagonist to accept negative consequences? Or do they need to decide between something that is good for the self and something that is good for others?
  • What are the protagonist’s options? Outline the protagonist’s options. Look for specific text that tells you the different options the protagonist recognizes in the situation. Ensure the protagonist can choose only one of the options.
  • What is at stake? Explain the stakes for each option available in the crisis. Delineate the cost, benefit, and risk for each course of action. This will illustrate the problem space the protagonist navigates as they consider the crisis choice.

Examples of Story Crisis

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Scene 19
    • 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.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, global story
    • 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?
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, Chapter 24 (Scene 25)
    • Best bad choice. Will the killer confess to save Ralph, or will Poirot have to out him or her?
  • Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Scene 2 – “Aaron Burr, sir”
    • 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.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, global story
    • Best bad choice. Will Bilbo endeavor to navigate home by himself or carry on with his mission, search for his companions, and lend them aid?

What’s Next After the Crisis?

The crisis builds narrative drive by pulling the reader into the choice the protagonist must make. A creative crisis with meaningful stakes ensures the reader stays engaged through the fourth of the FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING — the CLIMAX.

Additional Resources for Story Crisis


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