On Stories and Storytelling (1)
(First of 3 Parts)
Do you really know what a story is?
Answer the question before sliding your eyes down to the next line.
Okay, read on.
Just like you, I know what a story is. I can assure you of that.
Let me begin by saying that I love stories. I am so fascinated by them. Very likely that my having earned the degree Bachelor of Arts in English and my having completed the academic requirements for the degree Master of Arts in English contributed to that. The two main fields of studies (major) in both degrees are English language and literature, but more on literature. We studied, among other things, the different forms of literature – prose and poetry, the body of literature of selected countries, literary criticism, philosophy of literature, and creative writing. Just imagine how many stories I had to read when I was enrolled for subjects like Short Story, Novel, Drama, and Shakespeare. To enhance my understanding of the stories I was reading then, I had to watch their screen adaptation (especially of Shakespeare’s famous plays) if they happened to be available. In short, I became interested with stories, not as a hobby. I studied them. I taught Literature and Literary Criticism when I was teaching in the Philippines. By the way, I worked so hard to become a writer as well. I write dramatic monologues, short stories, novels, and plays. Check my website for some of my works – madligaya.com.
I am so fascinated by the art of knitting together the elements of fiction within the frame of a plot – of how to make sure that the most important element of fiction – conflict – is laid down clearly and passes through exposition, complication, crisis (commonly known as climax), falling action, and resolution. Gustav Freitag, a nineteenth-century German critic, laid this down in what came to be known as the Freitag Pyramid. Crisis – or climax – is at the top of the pyramid. The exposition and complication constitute the rising action which ultimately leads to the crisis. Thereafter is the falling action which leads ultimately to the resolution or the denouement. There are stories (movies) that abruptly ends when the climax is reached. In cases like this the crisis implies the resolution. The resolution is left for the readers to deduce.
When a series of events is not laid down in the conflict-crisis-resolution arc, they are but just that – series of events, not a story. Conflict, crisis, and resolution (call them together as plot) are the necessary features of a story. A narrative, to be classified as a story, requires more than setting, character, theme, point-of-view, tone, and style. No matter how short or long a story is, there should be a conflict, conflict that progresses from the time it is revealed (exposition), becomes complicated, reaches a climax (referred to as crisis earlier), slows down to a falling action, and makes a full stop at the juncture called resolution. Am I right? A writer, as I articulated earlier, may stop raising the action right after reaching the climax to let readers imagine how it ends or create the kind of ending they desire.
In movies (or films), cliffhanger endings have become so popular. In cliffhangers, it can be argued that the story does not immediately end after the climax but somewhere between the falling action and the resolution. There was no clear resolution. It can be argued also that cliffhanger endings are applicable only in the case of standalone movies, not of the serialized ones like the Star Wars, Avengers, and the like. When for example Thanos (in Avengers: Infinity War) snapped his fingers and some of the Avengers were reduced to dust, we were like left hanging and wondering why all those heroes we used to seeing alive and victorious in previous Marvel movies died or disappeared. But it’s not a cliffhanger ending per se because we know that that movie is the 3rd part of the main 4-part Avengers series. We know that the last part of the series is forthcoming. All the Avenger movies, together with all the other standalone Marvel hero movies in previous years, are all part of one whole story.
You might ask, “Where are the events in Avengers 3 located in the Freitag (plot) Pyramid?” It’s in the complication (or rising action part), far away yet from the climax. Your next question might be – “Which part of Avengers 4 is the climax?” It started the moment Tony Starks snapped his fingers and said “I am Iron Man” and culminated at the moment Thanos slowly turned to dust. All the events that followed are parts of a very clear falling action and resolution.
What do you think, am I right not to consider the endings of serialized stories as cliffhanger endings (because of the imaginary “To be continued”)?
An example of a movie that had a climax and a falling action but the resolution was not clear and the audience need to decide what to think about it is the way the movie “Don’t Breathe” ends. (I hope you have watched that movie too… and in case you haven’t, I am sorry if this part of my article will now serve as a spoiler. Just skip reading the rest of this paragraph and proceed to the next one instead in case you’re planning to watch the movie.) The climax of that movie came at exactly the 1:20:43 mark. The blind man, after Rocky hits him repeatedly in the head with a crowbar, falls from the 1st floor of the house to the basement. Part of the falling action shows Rocky coming out of the house alive with the blind man’s money. Later she could be seen with her sister leaving Detroit for California. The movie ends showing that the blind man alive. He survived. And I was left formulating my own resolution… or is a sequel (or a prequel) being planned?
I used to teach Literature, Creative Writing and Literary Criticism in the Philippines. One of my students once asked this question: Should all stories have conflict?
If you were me then, how would you answer?
Do you think a series of events stitched up together in any form can be considered a story without a central conflict?
From Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction: A Guide To Narrative Craft”:
“And story is a form of literature. Like a face, it has necessary features in a necessary harmony… Every face has two eyes, a nose between them, a mouth below; a forehead, two cheeks, two ears, and a jaw. If a face is missing one of these features, you may say, ‘I love this face in spite of its lacking nose’, but you must acknowledge the in spite of. You can’t simply say, ‘This is a wonderful face.’
The same is true of a story. You might say, ‘I love this piece even though there’s no crisis action in it.’ You can’t say, ‘This is a wonderful story.’
Fortunately, the necessary features of the story form are fewer than those of a face. They are conflict, crisis, and resolution.
Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction, necessary because in literature, only trouble is interesting.”
Let the foregoing paragraphs be my answer to the question “Should all stories have conflict?”
If a narrative has no conflict, don’t call it a story. Call it a face without any part that should be there – eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, or forehead.