A story is more than just a list of events that happen. In fiction, nothing happens in a vacuum – and we’re talking about a metaphorical vacuum, because a whole lot of stuff happens in a vacuum when it comes to space opera/science fantasy epics. What I mean by that, is that things happen, that in turn cause other things to happen (or at least affect how the future things happen).

We have a premise now – a starting situation that tells us the background of the story, and states what type of story we have. We don’t have a list of what happens throughout the story, though you might already have some ideas for events in one of your stories. Before you start thinking about what could happen, it’s time to think about the intended shape of your story. If you look at the progression of a story, taking the events in the order that they’d told, and weight each scene with the level of drama – you can produce a graph that shows the escalation of tension and conflict in the story.

You could be wondering why this matters. Why can’t you blitz the reader with world-changing events through the entire course of the story? It’s a fair question, but here’s another: Have you ever watched a movie where the action scene was great, but felt like it went on for too long? What was exciting to begin with started to drag on, while other movies with shorter action sequences and slower “talk-heavy” scenes don’t seem to have the problem? You most likely have, so what’s happening here?

I don’t want to turn this into a philosophical discussion about life, and whether suffering is necessary for happiness, but what happens is that you’re adapting to a level of drama and excitement, which then becomes the norm. As it’s then the ‘normal’ amount of drama for the movie in question, it loses that level of excitement.

The following is a very simplified graph of different shapes of dramatic tension:

Arc Graph
The higher the point in the graph, the greater the drama

You can’t just draw a line across the top and say that your tension level will be at 11 the whole way through, and expect to deliver it. Your story needs to rise and fall. Even if you do somehow hit upon the formula that allows you to do rise and rise, you need to give the reader or viewer a chance to process what they’ve been given.

You don’t need to decide what the shape of your story will be yet. It’s something that will come out as you write.

The Short Version:

You should think about the flow of your story. Is it a steady progression of ups and downs, or a set of intertwining sub-plots that coalesce into madness? Think about your climax and set-pieces – when do they occur, and how do they build up?

Previous: The Premise

Next: The Outline

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