Deconstruction Demystified

by | Jan 24, 2024 | Writing with StoryCAD

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If you’ve already lined up your story’s scenes in order and have a detailed list of characters, you’re well on your way. These are the essential preliminaries. Now, the real fun begins. It’s time to dive into the heart of your story, to understand its arc. This involves identifying several crucial elements to truly grasp the essence and trajectory of your narrative.

In order to do so, you need to identify the following:

The protagonist is one of the major characters, obviously. If you’re not sure who that is, ask yourself who is present at the start and the end of the story, which character has gained or lost the most, and who has changed the most. Usually these are the same character, your protagonist. If it’s still not clear, congratulations, you’ve identified a problem with the story.

You will usually have identified your antagonist as well, if it’s ‘man against man’. This the start of your next task, identifying the story problem. The story problem has several parts, one of them is your protagonist’s opposition- another person, nature, society, a situation, fate (found usually only in high tragedy), or even himself. The conflict is not the problem, though, just a part of it. The other pieces are your protagonist’s goal- what the conflict is keeping his from getting- and his motivation for wanting it. If you can’t identify the story problem, congratulations- you’ve identified a story structure issue to work on.

There is also another part of the problem- its resolution. The resolution has its own parts: the outcome, which can be generalized to success or failure, and also how it’s achieved (the method). Note that not all failed outcomes are bad; your protagonist may ‘come to realize’ that things aren’t what they seem, or may abandon a goal. If the goal is unworthy, this is still a happy ending. Or he may be rehabilitated, giving up a negative trait. Again, a happy ending.

The story problem will take place over time, and will have to be set up, developed, and resolved. These are the classic three act structures. The development phase (Act 2) is usually thought of as making things worse. You put your hero up a pole. Then you put a bear under him. Then you grease the pole. The point where things can’t get any worse is the crisis, the most important turning point of the story.

The story may have and usually will have more than one problem, of course. But only one of the problems is the significant one, the Story Problem with capital letters. If you can’t tell which problem is the story problem, congratulations. You have another structure issue.

One way to identify the problems in your story is to remember that the scenes in your story need to contribute to the three act structure each problem must have, and to find for each scene the problem it relates to. Each story problem divides into the scenes that set it up, complicate it, and resolve it. Scenes do other things, of course- but advancing the story is the major one.

Finally, you can ask yourself what your story problem means- its theme. That’s not essential, but until you’ve done your homework, you can’t really say, with certainty, what the theme is. The theme is the story’s underlying moral or message. It’s a distillation of the premise, just as the distillation of the story problem. The premise is an answer to the question ‘What’s your story about?’; it’s how you pitch your story in a sentence or two. The theme lofts your premise into the land of glittering generalities. If your subject is depression of the death of a spouse, and your premise has your protagonist overcome her depression by winning a new romantic interest, your theme might be ‘love overcomes depression.’