I was always averse to studying the elements of a story. I still remember a kind of icky feeling from 7th grade, when I first learned the basic plot diagram (you know, initial events, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement - don’t forget the second “e”) because let’s be honest, stories don’t really HAPPEN according to a pre-set formulas... right?
But once I actually started telling stories, I realized that formulas are extremely helpful. It’s a big part of why I write these blogposts. So today I am going to write about a formula that is used in many stories — and prove to you why, even though stories don't occur according to formulas, formulas can still be your friend.
Here’s the formula: “Someone does something because, but...”
I picked up this week’s nugget of storytelling gold from Rob Rosenthal, the producer/teacher behind the podcast How Sound. He pulled it from a CBC style book (That's "Canadian Broadcasting Company"), and in order to help unpack it, I'll give you an even more distilled version of the formula: “X because Y, but Z”
This tiny formula is in the DNA of practically every story you’ve ever recognized as a story: someone wants/believes/achieves something (X) because it has everything to do with who that person is, and how the world works (Y), but then something happens (Z). This “something” was unexpected, but it is immediately relevant to the story, and the tension between Z and Y and X becomes a seed that develops into the entirety of the story.
Consider the piece, “Just Another Fish Story,” which we featured on our blog about a year ago. Here’s how this story goes: a huge, dead whale is stuck on a beach; it can’t go anywhere (X) because no one in the small town of Lubec, Maine, has a boat big enough to tow it to sea (Y). But the people of Lubec find a way to bid farewell to the whale, in a proper and graceful way (Z).
This formula is so useful and effective that Rosenthal follows it when he does the host intro to this story. He thought this piece was going turn out to be a complete failure (X), because the whale story occurred over ten years ago, and because the producer didn’t have a clear plan (Y). But she didn’t follow his advice (Z) and she ended up producing one of his favorite stories.
This kind of thing can be tremendously helpful when trying to establish the basic structure of a story you’re trying to tell. If you ever find yourself stuck in the process of producing a story, see if you can tell it to someone (or to yourself) in the “X because Y, but Z” formula. Go ahead and try it. Rob won’t mind.
Just Another Fish Story
Story by Molly Menschel, Intro by Rob Rosenthal, 2004
(note: Saltcast, which features the Menschel story is the previous iteration of How Sound. The two podcasts are essentially the same; How Sound is the newer one.)