You can compare reading a story with climbing a mountain. You start by getting familiar with your setting. Next you begin the long, steady climb, with all its zigs, zags, and pitfalls. The most exciting moment comes as you finally arrive at the apex—and then you descend rapidly down the other side. Your journey ends with satisfaction when you reach the bottom.
How can a writer take readers on such an adventure? Follow a traditional format for storytelling through these five stages.
Begin your story with a bit of background. Here’s where you establish the setting, introduce the protagonist, and lay out some key details to provide context for the story.
Conflict is crucial in a good story. The narrative begins to take shape when you introduce a conflict or obstacle. In storytelling, this is known as rising action, and there are several ways a writer can do this:
Man against himself is an internal conflict that arises when the character struggles against his or her conscience. The character may be wrestling with a decision, dealing with a bad habit, or fighting a temptation, for example.
Man against man is an external conflict between two characters. This conflict can be physical, such as a gunfight in the Old West, or it can be emotional, such as a false accusation by a trusted friend.
Man against forces greater than himself is an external conflict in which the character struggles with forces beyond his control. Examples include roaring rapids, a hurricane, a cholera epidemic, or an encounter with a fire-breathing dragon.
If a story were a mountain, the climax would be the peak. This is the turning point of the story. The action is the most exciting or intense, and the characters face the conflict and start to solve it. At the story’s climax:
- The meteor strikes the earth;
- The knight slays the dragon and rescues the princess; or
- The big battle scene occurs.
Once the climax has been reached and the problem resolved, it’s time for the characters to tie up loose ends and bring closure where needed. Known as falling action, examples can include:
- Rounding up the cattle after the big stampede;
- Reuniting a man with his long-lost brother; or
- Getting the injured child into the raft and riding the rapids to safety.
The wrap-up of a story is known as the dénouement (day-noo-mon‘). By this part of the story, everything has been resolved and the reader has closure. We see how the characters have changed over time, or how life returns to normal. For example:
- The bully learns the errors of his ways;
- The family rebuilds their home after a devastating fire; or
- Wedding bells ring for a couple who have overcome many obstacles and found true love.
These are the five typical stages of storytelling. Clearly, there’s much more to writing a story, including character and plot development. Your first step, though, is understanding what lies ahead.
Are you ready to face the mountain?
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