The Five Story Commandments

by Ray Foy

We tend to consider sets of commandments as ultimate law (i.e., the famous Ten). Within the context of drama, I have found five that struck me as important because they refine and enlarge the dramatic arc of storytelling.

The dramatic arc is the integral component of fiction (and creative nonfiction). It has to be there for all other storytelling aspects to work (character, location, plot, POV, dialogue, etc.). It applies to the story as a whole, to each act, to sequences of scenes, and to each scene. This is probably not something you’ll think about as you write, except in the broadest terms. At some point in revision, however, you should ensure the dramatic arc is reflected in all your story elements.

Learning to think in terms of the dramatic arc will infuse your fiction with the power inherent in that structure and make your writing compelling. The best description of it I’ve seen is from The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. He describes it as Five Story Commandments (FSC) that must be found in all parts of your story. He calls them “commandments” because he expresses some of them in “Thou shalt” sentences. That gets a bit awkward, so let me restate them more succinctly:

COYNE’S FIVE STORY COMMANDMENTS

1. Inciting incident

2. Progressive complications

    a. Active turning point—the story value shifts

    b. Revelatory turning point

3. Crisis—raise a choice the protagonist must make.

    a. Best bad choice or

    b. Irreconcilable good choices

4. Climax: A choice is forced upon the protagonist.

5. Resolution: final value change—reconcile in some way (and resolve or carry tension forward)

Mr. Coyne is adamant about the importance of the Five Story Commandments (dramatic arc). This is what he has to say about using that structure in our writing (by “them” he is referring to the FSC):

Knowing them and trusting their efficacy are mandatory. A writer who does not pound these concepts into her head will never come close to reaching her artistic potential. There is no escaping them. And anyone who tells you differently is either ignorant or a charlatan.  (Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid)

I tend to agree. I have found that learning the dramatic arc to the point that it is second nature has improved my fiction writing tremendously.

Really understanding the dramatic arc takes time, study, and experimenting. Understanding Mr. Coyne’s refinement of the dramatic arc requires some deep-diving into his book. I recommend you do all of the above. Meanwhile, let me try to help by pulling an example (as I have done in previous posts) from H. Rider Haggard’s novel, King Solomon’s Mines.

For this example, I will analyze a scene from the novel to see how it follows the FSC. I’ve chosen one from Chapter Thirteen, where Quatermain is with the Kukuana rebels under attack by King Twala’s army.

THE FSC APPLIED TO A KING SOLOMON’S MINES SCENE

1. INCITING INCIDENT. Waiting on a hill with the rebel army, Quatermain hears the roar of commencing battle on their right and left flanks.

2. PROGRESSIVE COMPLICATIONS:

            a. The rebels are outnumbered.

            b. The king’s army attacks with a barrage of throwing knives.

            c. The attackers overwhelm all the rebel defensive lines.

2a. ACTIVE TURNING POINT. The battle is in doubt until Sir Henry enters the fray and fights with such ferocity as to inspire the rebels to victory on their left and center flanks.

3. CRISIS. The rebel’s right flank gives way and the king’s army advances toward the rebel command center and Quatermain.

3a. BEST BAD CHOICE. As a huge enemy warrior attacks him, Quatermain must either stand his ground and fight (and be killed) or move (running, only to be overtaken and killed). These are both bad choices and he must choose the least bad.

4. CLIMAX. Quatermain chooses to move. He drops to the ground and the enemy warrior trips over him. Quatermain, still on the ground, pulls his revolver and shoots the warrior.

5. RESOLUTION. Quatermain is knocked unconscious and put out of the remaining fight. He awakens to find the battle won and his wounds being tended.

Notice that this is one scene of very many with the FSC version of the dramatic arc applied. You’ll see the same, to one degree or other, in every scene in the novel. You’ll also see it applied to chapters and to the novel as a whole. H. Rider Haggard was certainly not aware of Mr. Coyne’s Five Story Commandments, but he was obviously aware of the dramatic arc.

Am I saying you can’t write a story without integrating the dramatic arc into it? No. You can do that, but what you’ll produce is a weak story, or a piece of writing that is not a story. To write fiction that people will read and enjoy, you must obey the Five Commandments.

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