The five commandment story formula in action

Hi everyone,

Last post, I outlined a formula designed to help pinpoint the five commandments of storytelling (from Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid methodology), or the inciting incident, progressive complications (including the turning point), crisis question, climax action, and resolution of each unit of story.

The formula looks like this:

Event happens. But, complication happens. When turning point happens, character must choose between crisis question option 1 or crisis question option 2. Character chooses climax choice/action, and as a result, resolution happens.

If you want a more in depth explanation of what I mean by any of that, please just pop on over to my last post, and you’ll find all you need to know.

What I like about this strategy is that it:

  1. Separates out each commandment as a distinct action and forces you to have strong choices for each
  2. Ensures you have all five (six, really) commandments
  3. Shows the direct cause and effect chain of the story

To demonstrate what I mean, here are just some of the more common problems or pitfalls this technique can help you find, as well as examples for each.

Example 1, redundant commandments

Steven is put in prison under false accusations. But, he stumbles into an escape plot in the works by his cellmate. When his cellmate invites him to join in on the escape, he must choose between trying to escape and risking further punishment or staying put and risking facing the false charges. Steven chooses to escape, and as a result, he escapes.

The problem with this example is that there is no distinction between the climax and the resolution. The climax (character(s) acting on the choice they made in response to their crisis question), must be different than the resolution (what happens after they act). By using this equation, it’s easy to pinpoint when different pieces of the equation are functionally the same. A better resolution in this case could be “is caught by the guards,” “is separated from his cellmate within the prison’s sewage system,” or “is injured when they jump off the prison wall.” The point is that the action the character takes in the climax should have a very clear cause and effect relationship to what happens next. One should lead to the other.

Example 2, false choices

Steven develops a crush on Suzy. But, when he flirts with her, she reciprocates his affection. When Suzy asks him on a date, he must choose between saying yes or no. He chooses to say yes, and as a result, they go out on a date.

The problem with this example, besides being incredibly boring, is that there’s no crisis choice. If he says yes, he gets to go out on a date with his crush. If he says no, he doesn’t go on a date with the girl he likes. There’s no crisis there, just an obvious choice. A better option would be:

Steven develops a crush on Suzy. But, he when he flirts with her, she abruptly leaves the room. When Steven finds out Suzy is going to start working opposite shifts, Steven must choose between risking rejection and asking her out or staying quiet and missing his chance. He chooses to switch his own shifts , and as a result, they are assigned to be partners at work.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out about this example.

First, by choosing a stronger complication, there is more tension and intrigue off the bat.

Second, the climax action choice your character makes does not have to fall neatly into one of the two obvious choices you’ve already put forth in the crisis. In fact, it can often by fun and surprising for your character to show some ingenuity and figure out a way to surpass both bad choices to get both of the goods.

Example 3, no through line

Steven’s favorite baseball team makes it to the world series. But, his trauma from his relationship with his ex-wife makes it hard for him to talk to girls. When Carl from work invites him to the first game in the series, Steven must choose between missing an important work deadline to go to the game or staying late at work and finishing the project. He chooses to go to the game and as a result, meets the love of his life.

In this example, we see events that don’t follow a clear through line of cause and effect. Is Steven’s trauma from his past marriage a valid complication within the story at large? Yes. Is it important to the story at large? Yes. Will it impact his new relationship? Of course. But does it complicate the situation in which his coworker invites him to a game and the decision regarding work vs. baseball? No. This is why it is important to keep the specific story events you choose for these equations separated out as either internal or external and to only use one per equation.

A better example focusing on the external would be:

Steven’s favorite baseball team makes it to the world series. But, a major deadline gets bumped up on one of his projects at work. When his coworker Carl asks him if he wants to go to the big game, he must choose between skipping work to go to the game or going to the game and risking consequences at work. He chooses to go to the game, and as a result gets fired from his job.

The cause and effect here is much more clear. However, it is important to note that the kind of story you’re telling, the genre, will impact what you should focus on. If you’re writing a romance, for example, a better example might be as follows.

Steven’s favorite baseball team makes it to the world series. But, the only person he knows who has tickets is his coworker Suzy. When Suzy asks him if he’d like to come, he must choose between going on the first date since his divorce and getting to see the game or protecting himself from getting hurt again and missing the game. He chooses to go to the game, and as a result, starts developing feelings for Suzy.

One other tip: As you get better at these, you can start tweaking the language/formula a bit to sound more natural. For example, using the story above, instead of saying “must choose between missing a deadline and going to the game or making the work deadline and missing the game” you could just say “choose between going to the game or staying late,” because in your story, you know the implied pros and cons of each. Likewise, if you want to take out “s/he chooses” and just put their climax action “Steven goes to the game,” or other small tweaks, that’s fine. I just find it helpful to have those bumpers in place when you’re starting out because they make everything super clear.

In any case, these are just a few things this equation can do to help you pinpoint problems in your work. Try coming up with your own examples or test the formula out on your own work, and feel free to share examples or improvements in the comments below!

So, how about you? Any formulas, tips, or tricks you use to test if your writing is working? Any examples you’ve tried using this one? Let me know in the comments below, and if you want more content like this, nerdy recommendations, or stories of my writing journey, feel free to follow me here or on social media using the links below or on the sidebar. Thanks for reading!

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