This reminded me of my asking the very same question of one of my mentors at the London International Film School, many years ago. The advice I received back then was the same advice I offered my Sydney students: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it?
This generic question incapsulates most traditional tales in one single sentence. Answering it involves telling a story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, seeks to solve it, is opposed in solving it by the antagonist, and either succeeds or fails to do so by the end of the story. Chunking these considerations into separate parts, yields, most typically, a three act structure based upon that well known Aristotelian observation that a story has a beginning (what is the problem), a middle (how does the protagonist engage with the problem) and an end (how is the problem finally resolved/unresolved).
Probing the sentence further we uncover a psychological element: What does your protagonist ‘want’? Exploring your protagonist’s want(s) leads us to consider deeper elements of his/her life such as background, occupation, relationships, psychology, want versus need (see previous post). Some of these elements are typically revealed in the story’s subplot, involving minor characters who are arrayed into two main camps, the protagonists’ and the antagonists’. Typically, the subplot acts as a foil to the plot, highlighting, either by comparison or by contrast, similarities and differences in character, values, goals, as well as strengths and weaknesses of the major characters.
Exploring the Inner and Outer Journey
The question also hints at a dual journey to be undertaken by the protagonist in order to achieve his/her want: Clearly there is an outer goal to be achieved in order to fulfill the want, which, most typically, involves a physical entity or result: get the girl, stop the bomb from exploding in downtown Los Angeles, save the cat (outer journey). But the want involves a need: Why does the protagonist need to risk life and limb to do so (inner journey)?
We can see, even from a brief exploration of this basic question, how probing it yields an individual story that is, nevertheless, based upon a general truth. A typical story is nothing other than the tale of someone who wants to achieve something because of some deep psychological/human need, but is being prevented from doing so by opposing forces.
At the deepest level, individual stories may be summed up in universal structures. One such structure comes in the form of a question: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it? In answering this general question, you are, in fact, telling an individual story.
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