by Ray Foy
Writing is a means to an end. For many of us, that end is storytelling, which is best done when the telling is composed of “problem-complication-resolution” units. Taken in total, these units comprise a story’s “dramatic arc.”
Aristotle wrote about drama theory in his work, Poetics. He described dramatic structure in a construct we’ve come to know as “Aristotle’s Incline.” This is a framework for storytelling, enlarged upon since classical times, that applies the dramatic arc to three acts. I learned about Aristotle’s Incline from Robert J. Ray’s book, The Weekend Novelist. Pulling from that book, as well as from my writing school notes, I came up with the following depiction:
OUTLINE FOR THE INCLINE
1. ACT I
B. Plot Point 1 (Inciting Incident / First Doorway)
2. ACT II
B. Plot Point 2 (Second Doorway; reverse of fortunes for the protagonist)
3. ACT III
A. Climax (The final conflict where everything is resolved or fails)
B. Wrap-up (The protagonist’s normalcy is restored or evolved)
In a nutshell, the Incline shows a story’s movement upward (increasing dramatic tension) from the opening to the Climax, then dropping back towards the opening normalcy.
SIX KEY SCENES
This outline notes six key scenes within its framework that form anchor-points for your story’s telling. Don’t be misled by the A-B points. They are not the first and second scenes per act (A is the first scene only in Act I). They simply denote the key scenes. A more graphic depiction might be:
(A1) Opening—————PP1 (A2) ——-Mid———PP2 (A3) -———Clx—-Wrap
The key scenes define the dramatic projection of your story, so you must understand what each is meant to accomplish. Let me lay that out for you, in brief. As in my previous post (“The Dramatic Arc”) I’ve illustrated the use of these key scenes with references to H. Rider Haggard’s classic novel, King Solomon’s Mines (KSM).
THE SIX KEY SCENES PER ACT
OPENING: Setup location, situation, and characters. Establish the hero’s normal world.
KSM: In the opening scene, Allan Quatermain is preparing to write his account of seeking the lost diamond mines of King Solomon. He begins by introducing himself and giving his reasons for writing his tale. In the process, we see what constitutes Quatermain’s normal life.
PLOT POINT 1: This scene is a consequence of the Inciting Incident (sometimes it’s the same scene) and it propels the antagonist into the story problem. She is committed. There is no turning back.
KSM: The PP1 scene occurs in Chapter Five. A lot of character and situation setup precedes it, but when Quatermain’s expedition begins its trek into the desert, they are committed. With every step forward from this point, turning back becomes more and more costly until it becomes impossible.
MIDPOINT: High-point of story action for the main plot. Major changes take place such that characters and situations are different from here to the end of the story.
KSM: Chapter Fourteen is pretty much the physical middle of the novel and contains high-point scenes for the three major characters. These scenes recount battles in the tribal war the protagonists have become involved in. Each character is changed by their experiences. Quatermain develops a blood-lusting, martial spirit. Sir Henry is revealed to be an ardent warrior. Good sustains injuries that color his role for the rest of the book (note that midpoint changes can be physical as well as mental/spiritual).
PLOT POINT 2: Reversal of fortunes. The protagonist’s plan backfires. All appears to be lost. The antagonist seems to be winning.
KSM: Chapter Eighteen. The old crone witch doctor has trapped the protagonists in the pitch-dark mines. Captain Good is sick and his love interest is murdered. They have little food and water. Help is far off and couldn’t get through the closed stone door, anyway.
CLIMAX: The actions and/or revelations that resolve the story problem for good or ill.
KSM: The protagonists decide to search the dark tunnels for a way out. Eventually, they find an animal hole dug from the outside, and they escape through it.
WRAP-UP: Results of the climax. Morals of the story are brought out.
KSM: In a fairly lengthy denouement, the protagonists leave their Kukuanna friends and return to England. Quatermain has gained an appreciation for the value of family and friends. All have realized that “Truly wealth…is a valueless thing at the last.”
Aristotle’s Incline is the “big picture” of our story. If you follow it, the key scenes will keep your story moving from inciting incident, through the climax, and to the denouement. I recommend you read The Weekend Novelist and ponder Robert Ray’s discussion of Aristotle’s Incline and the six key scenes. Then implement them in your own writing.