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Story Structure: The Tragedy, Mystery and Romance Of Genre

By James Bonnet

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In my previous articles I pointed out that all great stories have the same underlying, universal structure - namely, there is a threat, either agent or perpetrator, that creates a problem that brings about a change to a state of misfortune and is the main source of resistance that opposes the action when someone tries to solve the problem and restore a state of good fortune. In stories that end tragically, it's the reverse - the story starts in a state of good fortune and ends unhappily. In either case, the resistance to the central action will create the classical story structure - i.e. the complications, crisis, climax and resolution that occur when a problem solving (or problem creating) action encounters resistance. The problem, change of fortune, and complications, crisis, climax, and resolution constitute the very essence of story - that without which there would be no story.

I then suggested that, besides this universal structure, there were three other story dimensions that had to be mastered to make your stories truly great: The Metaphor, The Genre and The Narrative Structure. These three qualities account for the differences that make great stories that have similar structures appear fresh and unique - and this is true in both the novel and the film. This article will be about the genre structures.

The genre structures govern the plots and subplots of the story, and also the feelings that create the emotional adventure that will be experienced by the audience as entertainment - all of which arise when you make one of the plots or certain character dimensions dominant.

How then are genres like drama, romance, tragedy, comedy and black comedy created, given that they all have the same underlying structure?

To begin with, a drama can be described as a story in which the characters are as people are generally found in real life, no better, no worse. So if you wish to create a drama, the first thing you will do is make it about real people who behave as people do in real life.

However, if you exaggerate the nobility of the characters, i.e. you make the characters in your story bigger and better than they are usually found to be in real life and the story has a happy ending, you will create a romance like many of the stories associated with the legends of King Arthur. But if you exaggerate the nobility of the characters and the story has an unhappy or tragic ending, you will create a true tragedy like Macbeth.

On the other hand, if you exaggerate the ludicrousness of the characters, i.e. if you make them more ridiculous than they are generally found in real life and the story has a happy ending, you create a comedy like Groundhog Day; and if you exaggerate the ludicrousness of the characters, and the story has an unhappy or tragic ending, you create a black comedy like Dr. Strangelove.

Again, given that they have the same underlying structure, how are mysteries, love stories, war stories, adventures, horror and ghost stories created?

A great story has four different types of plots or actions which have either a mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual character. And when you sort these out, they become the plots and subplots of your story. The dominant action or plot will give the story its genre. You can recognize which is which by how the actions end.

Mental story actions (plots) end in solutions or enigmas. When this plot is dominant it's called a mystery. The dominant plot of a Sherlock Holmes' whodunit is mental. It's a mystery. The identity of the killer has to be figured out with the mind. Ordinary People is a psychological mystery. The dominant plot is the solution to the mystery of the boy's suicidal tendencies.

Emotional story actions (plots) end in separation or reunion. When this action is dominant, it's a love story. Casablanca is a love story. The dominant plot is emotional, and it ends in the separation of the lovers. The most important thread that has to be worked out is Rick's relationship with Ilsa. He has to understand why she didn't show up at the railway station in Paris. All of this is emotional. The mystery surrounding Rick's neutrality, the transcendental powers of the letters of transit and the physical struggle with the Germans and the Vichy government are minor by comparison. That is why it is considered to be a love story. The emotional element is dominant. In Shakespeare in Love it is the same - the dominant plot is emotional and it ends in separation. Also, it doesn't have to be boy - girl. The dominant plot of Oliver Twist is emotional. It ends with the reunion of the boy, Oliver, with his rightful guardian. The dominant plot of The Champ is also emotional. It ends, when the father dies, with the separation of the boy from his father. In Finding Nemo, the emotional, dominant plot ends with the reunion of Nemo and his father.

Physical story actions end in victory or defeat. When this action is dominant, I call it a war story. The dominant plot of Jaws is physical, a war with a shark, and it will end in either victory or defeat. The dominant plot of Gladiator is also physical - a war between Russell Crowe (Maximus) and Joaquin Phoenix (Commodus), and it ends in victory or defeat. Rocky and Chariots of Fire are also physical. The dominant plots are resolved by a physical action and they will end with a victory or defeat.

Spiritual story actions end in transcendence or descendence. When this action is dominant, I call the story transcendental. When you transcend, you achieve a higher plane, you gain a little bit of Paradise. When you descend, you slip to a lower plane, you gain a little bit of Hell. Like Ghost, the dominant plot of The Sixth Sense is transcendental. It ends with the central character, Bruce Willis, transcending to a higher plane. In The Passion of The Christ, the story of Jesus' death and resurrection is transcendental. Gladiator also ends with Russell Crowe achieving a higher plane. He rejoins his wife and son in Elysium, the Roman Paradise, but it's not the dominant plot.

These structures are interrelated and interdependent. In order to do something physical, you have to accomplish something mental; in order to accomplish something mental, you have to achieve something emotional, etc. In Jaws, to restore Amity Island to its former tranquility (spiritual), Roy Scheider has to physically confront and destroy the shark (physical). To accomplish that he needs to understand the nature of the beast (mental), and to do that he needs to get the cooperation of the experts, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw (emotional).

In any event, the dominant plot which gives the story its genre also helps, along with the metaphor and narrative structure, to make stories with similar structures appear different and unique. In Gladiator, Commodus is the threat. His taking possession of the empire creates the problem that brings about the change of fortune and is the main source of resistance that creates the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical structure when Maximus tries to solve that problem by destroying Commodus. In Jaws, the shark is the threat, his eating of swimmers at the beginning of the tourist season creates the problem that brings about a state of misfortune and he is the main source of resistance that creates the classical structure when Roy Scheider, the sheriff, tries to solve that problem by destroying the shark.

If you make your dominant plot equal parts mystery and action, you will get an adventure, like Indiana Jones or National Treasure. The mystery (where is the treasure?) and the action (the physical obstacles and threats that stand in the way) will climax more or less simultaneously at the end - i.e. the good guys and bad guys fight it out just when the treasure has finally been discovered and it will end in either victory or defeat.

If you mix equal parts action and love story, one of the genres you can get is a horror movie. In King Kong, the giant gorilla takes possession of the love interest, Naomi Watts, and the final reunion of the hero with the captured love interest takes place at the same time as the battle with the monster that will end in either victory or defeat.

In another article, I will talk about the Narrative Structure, which governs how the story is told - the arrangement of the incidents, the sequence of events, the emphasis each dimension or quality is given - the central event, character and action that comprise the focus of the story and the various points of view through which the events of the story are perceived. All of which help to not only make the story unique, it adds clarity and meaning - and also power and magic.

About James Bonnet

James Bonnet is an internationally known writer, teacher and story consultant. He has been a professional writer for more than 40 years. He started out as an actor in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello. He landed his first professional writing job when he was 23, writing for a television series called It’s A Man’s World. He was elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writer's Guild of America and has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. The important  new ideas about story in his book Stealing Fire from the Gods: The Complete Guide to Story For Writers And Filmmakers are having a major impact on writers in all media. In his forthcoming book, Cracking the Story Code: The Hidden Structures in Great Stories and What They Mean, he will thoroughly analyze fifty of the world’s greatest stories and the extraordinary secrets they reveal about ourselves and our evolutionary path.  Learn more at www.storymaking.com.

Screenwriting Article by James Bonnet

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