Tools for the craft of story: The basics
A simple three act format and a hero are the basic building blocks of a story. This gives you a beginning, middle and end along with a hero for your readers to identify with. Give your hero a goal and us folk in the audience will want to see what happens.
A good example of a story using these tools are jokes. Let's look at this one:
“Poor Old fool,” thought the well-dressed gentleman as he watched an old man fish in a puddle outside a pub. So he invited the old man inside for a drink. As they sipped their whiskeys, the gentleman thought he’d humor the old man and asked, “So how many have you caught today?”
The old man replied, “You’re the eighth.”
With this, joke we can identify the different tools used.
Act one - This act is to set up the story. We need to tell the audience what the normal situation is, where we are and who we are dealing with. In our joke it's the first sentence. “Poor Old fool,” thought the well-dressed gentleman as he watched an old man fish in a puddle outside a pub. From this sentence we know who we are dealing with, a well dressed man and a poor old fool. We also know where we are, outside a pub. We can also infer that the well dressed man is going to the pub for a drink, his goal, and he feels sorry for the old man because he refers to him as "poor".
Act two - The middle. This is where the new world starts. Here is where the weirdness happens. We go from a normal snapshot of life to discovering a new experience. This new experience is usually something we didn't expect. In our joke it's the following. So he invited the old man inside for a drink. As they sipped their whiskeys, the gentleman thought he’d humor the old man and asked, “So how many have you caught today?” Here the well dressed man deviates from the norm and asks the poor man if he would like a drink. Now if he doesn't ask the poor old man in for a drink we would be hearing a story of normality. Driving to a bar and going inside is something we all do and it's not exciting. Your audience doesn't want to read about their normal life nor do they want to read about your normal life. Don't give them normal, give them different. The end of the second act also sets up the third act or the punchline.
Act three - This is the payoff, the end of the line. Here is where you will deliver the goods. In our joke we deliver the punchline, The old man replied, “You’re the eighth.” Now here is the tough part, act three is where you surprise your audience with an unthinkable solution. You have led your audience down a certain path and in the final act you twist the outcome. Robert McKee refers to in his book called Story the "gap". You have lead the audience down a specific path and they could guess at the final out come but when it's revealed its not what was expected. The larger the "gap" the better the punchline or ending. If the gap is so large that the audience says "l didn't see that coming" AND your ending makes sense within the world you created you have succeeded in telling your story.
That's it. The basic blocks, or tools, one needs to create a simple story. A beginning, middle and end, a hero and a goal. Using these tools you can create simple stories and if you can create a outstanding "gap" you just might have a nice little gem of a story. With the basic tools covered we can dig into some advanced tools to help you in creating a compelling story that has depth.