What is the essence, or heart and
soul, of a great story? There are seven critical elements: the
change of fortune, the problem of the story, the complications,
crisis, climax and resolution of the classical structure, and the
threat, which is by far the most important. In this article, we will
examine the threat and its relationship to the other six critical
elements that constitute the very essence of story -- that without
which there would be no story.
The first element is the change of fortune. There is an entity (i.e. an individual, a family,
a town, a country, the world, etc.) and that entity goes from a
desirable to an undesirable state or condition or the reverse. Or as
Aristotle put it: 'The proper magnitude (of a story) is comprised
within such limits that the sequence of events, according to the
laws of probability and necessity, will admit of a change from bad
fortune to good or from good fortune to bad.'
Exorcist,' a little girl is possessed by the Devil and a state of
misfortune exists. Then, the principal action, casting out the
Devil, brings about a state of good fortune. In stories that end
unhappily, it's the reverse. In 'Othello,' a state of good fortune
exists at the beginning. The principal action, perpetrated by Iago,
destroys the Moor with jealousy and a state of tragic misfortune is
The second element, the problem, brings about
these changes of fortune. This problem is a prerequisite in all
stories. You have a problem and that problem is resolved. No matter
how big or small the story, it will be focusing on, or related to, a
problem. And everyone in that story will somehow be involved in that
incident. And everything everyone does in that story will in some
way affect the outcome of that incident. And revealing how that
problem was created and how it can be resolved is at the very heart
of a story.
In 'Kiss The Girls' and 'The Silence Of The
Lambs,' a serial killer is on the loose. That is the problem that
brings about the change of fortune and that is the problem that has
to be resolved. The solution to those problems will be the principal
actions that give a unity of action to these stories.
'Gladiator,' a tyrant has usurped the Roman Empire, preventing the
restoration of the Republic. In 'The Sixth Sense,' there are two
problems: a murdered child psychologist is stuck in limbo, and the
spirits of dead people are haunting a little boy's mind. In
'Independence Day,' aliens have invaded the Earth. In 'Star Wars,'
the Evil Empire has taken possession of the galaxy. In 'The Iliad,'
the Greek army is being decimated because their best warrior has
dropped out of the fight. In the legend of King Arthur, the kingdom
is in a state of anarchy and has to be reunified. In 'Jaws,' it's a
shark problem. In 'The Mummy,' it's a mummy problem. In 'The Perfect
Storm,' it's a weather problem. In 'Traffic,' it's a drug problem.
In 'Armageddon,' it's an asteroid problem. In 'Indecent Proposal,'
it's a temptation problem. In 'Erin Brockovich,' it's an
environmental problem. Each of these stories, and hundreds of others
I could name, revolve around a problem that has to be resolved.
Can any problem be a story? Technically, any problem can be
a story if its solution contains a classical story structure -- i.e.
complications, a crisis, a climax and a resolution. Generally
speaking, however, an audience wouldn't be interested in a story
about some minor problem, like finding your lost keys, unless
something truly funny or horrendous like the end of the world would
happen if you didn't find them. Story is especially interested in
problem-solving actions that involve crises -- critical events that
threaten life, health, wealth, freedom, love, security, happiness,
etc. while testing the limits of human endurance and ingenuity.
Story focuses on problems for the same reason the news only
reports the bad things that are happening in the world -- and not
the good -- because problems are where it's at. If everything is in
perfect harmony, and there are no problems to worry about -- we're
in Paradise. And that's one of the functions of story: to help guide
us to higher, more desirable, less problematic states of being. One
of the ways that a story does this is by revealing the truth and
nature of problems and their solutions.
Next, there's the
super important element called the threat. The threat is the agent
or perpetrator that creates the problem that brings about the
negative state. In 'Kiss the Girls,' the serial killer is the
threat, and the act of murder is the inciting action that creates
the problem that brings about the change to a state of misfortune.
Equally significant in a great story is the fact that this
threat will become the source of resistance that opposes the action
when someone tries to solve this problem and restore a state of good
fortune. This resistance will create the classical structure that
occurs when a problem-solving action encounters resistance.
In 'Harry Potter,' Voldemort is the threat. His efforts in
the seven books to take possession of the wizard world create the
problem that brings about an undesirable state. And he will be the
source of the resistance that creates the classical structure
whenever Harry tries to solve these problems and restore a state of
In 'The Exorcist,' the Devil is the threat. He
takes possession of a young girl and that is the inciting action
that creates the problem and brings about the change of fortune. He
is also the source of resistance that creates the complications,
crisis, climax and resolution when the priest tries to solve that
In 'Ordinary People,' the mother is the cause of
the problem that has brought about the negative state, and she will
be the source of resistance when the psychiatrist, played by Judd
Hirsch, and the boy's father, played by Donald Sutherland, attempt
to solve the mystery of the boy's suicidal tendencies.
'Jaws,' the shark is the threat that causes the problem. In
'Dracula,' it's the Count. In 'On the Waterfront,' it's Johnny
Friendly. In 'Gladiator,' it's Commodus. In 'Braveheart,' it's the
British. In 'The Iliad,' it is the Trojan, Paris. In the Egyptian
myth of Osiris, it's Osiris' brother Set.
In all of these
cases, the threat performs the action that creates the problem that
brings about the change of fortune. It also is the source of
resistance that creates the classical structure when someone tries
to solve the problem and reverse the state of misfortune.
You can see this same pattern at work in real life as well.
In World War II, Hitler was the threat, and his 'taking possession
of Europe' created the problem and the state of misfortune. He was
also the source of the resistance that created the complications,
crisis, climaxes and resolutions of the classical structure when the
Allies tried to solve this problem.
In our latest war, this
is also very evident. Osama Bin Laden, his Al Qaeda terrorist
network and the Taliban are the threat. Their attack on the World
Trade Center and Pentagon is the inciting action that created the
problem that brought a very undesirable state of fear to the United
States. And they will be the source of resistance that creates the
classical structure as we try to solve this problem.
of these examples, the threat is the cause of the problem that
brings about a change of fortune and is the source of the resistance
that creates the classical structure when the good guys try to solve
the problem. The problem, change of fortune and components of the
classical structure constitute the very essence of story -- that
without which there would be no story.
If you think about
it, this is easy to see. Without a problem and change of fortune,
there is no story. If the story ends in the same place it began,
without some significant progress up or down, the audience will
wonder what the point of it was. It will be a very unsatisfactory
experience. Without complications and a crisis, there is no story.
If Cinderella goes to the ball, falls in love with the prince and
marries him without a single hitch, or if Indiana Jones goes after
the Holy Grail and finds it without running into any difficulty
whatsoever, there is no story. The audience is left muttering: So
what? If there are complications and a crisis, but no climax and no
resolution, you will have the same problem. You will leave your
audience feeling completely unfulfilled. They will have the distinct
feeling that the story was left unfinished.
then, is not only the heart of the high concept great idea, it creates
the problem that brings about the change of fortune and provides the
resistance that creates the classical structure, all of which make
up the very essence of story. An element that does all of that is an
element worth thinking about and understanding.