The opening scenes of a story set the tone and creates the story's world. The inciting incident sets the story in motion. But one of the most important and least talked about elements of dramatic storytelling is the build.
One of the most important but least talked about elements of dramatic storytelling is the build.
All dramatic narratives begin on a static and sedate note as the world of the story is established and the main characters are introduced in the script’s first act. The inciting incident then sets the plot in motion, albeit at a slow pace. The End-of-Act I plot twist kicks the plot into a higher gear and from there on the story’s momentum and intensity should continue to build at an ever-increasing rate of speed and intensity as the plot points start coming faster and faster; as the narrative grows more complex; as the obstacles the protagonist must face and overcome as he pursues his primary goal become bigger and bigger; as the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist mushrooms; and as the stakes for the all of the characters become larger and more vital until everything finally comes to a head in a (relatively) big and explosive climax.
The metaphorical image that always comes to mind when I think of the build is a snowball rolling down a hill toward a stone wall: the first act is when the snow falls on the ground; the inciting incident in when someone first gathers the snow and packs it into a ball; the End-of-Act I plot twist is when the person sends the snowball rolling down the hill; the build is when the snowball starts going faster and faster as it barrels down the slope, growing larger and larger as it picks up more and more snow until it becomes the size of a boulder; and the climax is when the massive snowball finally smashes against the wall.
For a dramatic narrative to be successful, you must do all you can to facilitate the build. Here are some suggestions for doing so:
- Develop a very strong first act: the purpose of a first act is to set the story’s style (to let the audience know that it will be a comedy or a drama or an action film or a horror movie or a musical; if it will be a broad piece or a subtle one; and so on); to establish the story’s setting; to introduce its main characters; and to present its inciting incident. If all of these elements are clearly established by the author and filmmakers and clearly understood by the audience, then everything is in place for the story itself to build smoothly and continuously in the second act without the narrative needing to stop and explain who is who, where we are, and so on and thus interrupt the momentum.
- Present a clear inciting incident and a clear End-of-Act I twist: Writers often make the mistake of burying these two very important story elements – by making them too low-key or obscure or by including multiple incitements and twists when there should only be one of each. For the story to build properly, it must have a crystal clear starting point (the inciting incident) and it must head in a very clear and specific direction, which a clear and dynamic End-of-Act-I plot twist will give it.
- Provide the protagonist with a clear goal and a plan for accomplishing it: in the aftermath of the End-of-Act-I plot twist, the protagonist of a dramatic narrative should develop a clear goal that she/he then sets out to achieve. It is the pursuit of this goal that serves as the engine that drives the plot forward and thus allows it to build. The protagonist should also develop a plan for reaching his goal that is clearly laid out at the at the beginning of Act II, before the protagonist embarks on his journey. This will clarify the story’s direction and thus facilitate the build.
- In the second act of a dramatic narrative, the protagonist is confronted with a series of obstacles that he must overcome in order to achieve his goal. Each obstacle in the series must be larger and harder to overcome than the one before. These ever-increasing challenges are the very definition of build.
- In the second act of a dramatic narrative, the protagonist comes into conflict with the story’s antagonist. That conflict will take the form of attack-counterattack-counter-counterattack and so on. To increase the build, each new round of attacks must be bigger and more intense than the one before. The back-and-forth must not stay on the same level, lest the narrative simply become tit-for-tat.
- The cause-and-effect from one scene to the next must be clear and understandable: A must lead clearly to B, B must lead clearly to C, C must lead clearly to D, and so on. This will allow the narrative to proceed smoothly, picking up speed and steadily building, without the audience having to pull itself out of the movie to figure out what is happening; how we got here from there; and so on. Clear and understandable cause-and-effect is especially vital in stories that have a complex narrative structure (non-linear, flashback-heavy, and so on). The more complex the narrative, the clearer the progression needs to be for the story to build efficiently.
- Only scenes that directly advance the narrative should be included in the screenplay. This will allow the plot to build smoothly and steadily without the stops and starts that extraneous scenes will by definition interject. Any scene that does not propel the story forward should be cut.
- Only subplots that directly support the main plotline and move it forward should be included in the screenplay. Too many beginning screenwriters include irrelevant subplots that have little to do with the main narrative in their scripts and these inclusions block the main narrative and keep it from building a smooth and consistent manner.
- Get all exposition out of the way by the halfway mark. First acts are by definition nothing but exposition because that is the section of the script in which the main story elements -- premise, setting, characters, etc. – are established. Additional exposition is required at the beginning of the second act, after the plot has been redirected by the End-of-Act I plot twist and the protagonist develops a goal and a plan for achieving it, all of which must be laid out and explained. But once this has been done, no more exposition should be introduced. That will leave the plot free to advance and build without needing to constantly stop to ‘splain stuff.
- Only employ non-linear storytelling techniques (time-shifting plotlines, flashbacks, cutaways, etc.) if they are absolutely vital to the tale you are telling and if they are organic to your core concept and premise. Dramatic narratives are inherently linear and so any non-linear device will automatically slow down the narrative momentum and interrupt the narrative build. Therefore, you should never use them arbitrarily or simply as a stylistic affectation and if you do decide they are vital, use them as sparingly as possible so as to disrupt the build as little as possible. If you do opt to use them, then make sure the cause-and-effect is as clear and rock solid as you can make it.
Observing these principles will assist you in crafting a plot that builds properly from inciting incident to explosive climax. And remember – if you build it, they will come (sorry).
Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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