Storytelling vocabulary

Storytelling – or scenario, dramaturgy, scriptwriting, playwriting, songwriting… – has its specific words, its descriptive concepts, usable to analyze any artwork and to create some new works.
Here are the names and definitions of the main storytelling words and concepts that are used in the Story&Drama storytelling tutorials and analyses:

Story

story is made of a series of coherent narrative facts belonging to one or several plots.

For example :

  • The story of the movie Pulp Fiction tells 10 plots, whereas within a similar duration The Godfather tells 27 plots
  • The story of the tale for children The Little Prince tells 25 plots
  • The story of the french song Ma direction (link in french) by Sexion d’Assaut tells 4 plots
  • The story of the TV series Game Of Thrones tells more than 100 plots
  • The story of the music video of the song Karma police (link in french) by Radiohead tells 1 plot, the music video of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (link in french) tells 7 plots!

Plot

A plot is a series of narrative facts connected by a unity of action and characters (including necessarily a Hero and most of the times, but not always, an Antagonist).

One can represent any plot this way (simply, then a more complex way) :

Hero wants to reach a goal – opposes an Antagonist, meets obstacles and problems, gets supported by Helpers, is sent to a mission by a Mentor and discouraged by a Skeptic.

For example :

  • In a plot of The Godfather, Michael Corleone, Hero, wants to assassinate (goal) the police captain McCluskey and the gangster Sollozzo, both responsible for two murder attempts on Michael’s father Vito Corleone.  Michael’s brother  Sonny is Skeptic, but Tom Hagen et the killer Clemenza accept to take the roles of Helpers.
  • The main plot of The Little Prince tells about how the Hero, a plane pilot who has crashed in the desert, tries to survive and fix his plane (goal). This long plot frames a series of short plots, including the little prince as the Hero, that has the goal to explore the universe and find a friend.
  • The plot of Karma police (link in french) by Radiohead shows an invisible driver who hunts a poor pedestrian (goal unknown, perhaps: to kill this pedestrian? to scare him?), but this hunt finally turns against the hunter…

Acts

Functionnally, any plot is made of 3 parts, the 3 Acts :

  • Act I – Introduction
  • Act II – Development
  • Act III – Conclusion

Plot point

A plot is made of plot points, events, facts linked to the action line.

Those plot points can belong to several types, according to their situation and their function in the plot :

Act I

  • Exposition / initial situation: presents the elements that define the action : the world (time, place, culture…), the genre
  • Starter: fact that brings the Hero, actively (will, desire…) or passively (reaction, problem…) to define a goal and mobilize ressources (skills / forces / qualities, Helpers…) to reach it.
  • Dramatic question: what is at stake in a plot, explicitly or implicitly. This question problematizes the goal : will the Hero be able to reach it?

Act II

  • Process: any fact that shows the Hero acting or reacting so as to reach the goal. It often takes the shape of a meeting with a Helper of the Antagonist, or an internal conflict between the Hero and his Helpers or between the Helpers, or an obstacle, a problem.

Act III

  • Crisis : intense moment when the Hero approaches the goal, is ready to reach it, and very often meets his main Antagonist as an obstacle.
  • Climax : most intense point of the action and of the crisis, when the goal is either definitely reached or impossible to reach.
  • Answer to the dramatic question : explicitly or implicitly, this answer finally satisfies the expectations of the audience, and determines the final content of what was at stake in the plot (goal reached? Yes / No / A little bit / Much / Impossible to know, etc).

Composition / Structures of plots

Most of the times, when a story tells several plots, 5, 20, 100, those plots are not presented flatly one after the other, they are mounted together and shown with different types of structures :

  • Plots in series : it is the case of all the works by episodes, re-using the same central characters, and changing the circumstances. It is the case with Calvin And Hobbes, The Godfather I, II et III, the episodes of Game Of Thrones, Columbo, FRIENDS…
  • Parallel / interlaced plots : the plot points of 2 plots or more are interlaced together. If we have a plot A that contains the plot points A1, A2, A3, and a plot B that contains the plot points B1, B2, B3, the final composition could tell the facts in this order: A1 B3 A2 B2 A3 B1 (between a thousand other possibilities).
  • Factorial plots : a plot is used as a plot point of another plot. It is the basic structure of all the episodes of the TV series Columbo : a murder (goal of the Hero of the plot A) does the general exposition of the enquiry about it by the inspector Columbo (plot B). In this case, the murderer who is the Hero of plot A becomes the Antagonist of plot B, whose Columbo is the Hero (goal : arrest the murderer).
  • Included plots : a plot is included within another. For example, a character of a main plot about revenge (plot A) tells its past (plot B).
  • Crossed plots : two plots fusion or meet in one of their plot points.

Character

A character is a being that plays a role in a plot.

One can distinguish 3 types of characters :

  • The main actantial characters: the Hero et the Antagonist
  • The actantial characters : all those who play a real role in a plot, that is: the Hero and the Antagonist, plus their Mentors, Skeptics, and all of their Helpers.
  • The  non-actantial characters : those who are mentioned without them playing any significant role in the action (the by-passers, the crowd, the normal world around the action).

Actantial means “that have a defined function in the plot, for or against the goal of the Hero“.

A character is often a human being but can also be :

  • A thing (a storm, a letter…)
  • A problem (the unability to do something, the security system of a bank one wants to rob…)
  • A concept or an abstraction (Revolution, justice, love…)

Hero : it is the main character of a plot, the one who has the goal, who mainly makes the action or deals with its consequences.

Antagonist : it is the main opponent of Hero. The goal of the Antagonist opposes the goal  of the Hero. (And if it is not the case, there is a bug somewhere!)

Careful: the notions of Hero and Antagonist are purely descriptive, not moral. A hatable, mad, mean, bad character can fully be a Hero, who wants to destroy, kill etc. Reciprocally an Antagonist might be a nice woman who refuses to give her love to a man (thus she is the Antagonist of his love), or a cop who wants to identify a killer (the killer acts and the cop reacts), etc.

  • A sick person fighting against cancer is Hero, the cancer is Antagonist.
  • A feminist activist fighting against machismo is Hero, machismo is Antagonist (and can be represented by various men, women, behaviors, ideas, dialogs…)

A character can be several people, things etc. : a soccer team, Hero of a tournament; a duo of cops, Hero of a police enquiry; a group of friends, Hero of an adventure, etc.

  • In Calvin And Hobbes, they often are the unique Hero of the plots. When they argue, they become Hero and Antagonist. They also can play Hero + Helper, etc.

Helper : to reach their goal, the Hero and the Antagonist meet other characters that provide them help, ressources, informations, forces.

Mentor : it is a character that provides the goal to the Hero, send hom in a mission.

  • In a plot of the The Godfather, Vito Corleone (Mentor) sends Tom Hagen (Hero) to threat a disobedient Hollywood producer (Antagonist) so as to force him to give a role in a movie to the protected singer Johnny Fontane (who has no actantial role, and is just supposed to benefit the action).

Skeptic : it is a character who morally oppose s the goal of the Hero, but without stopping him practically (otherwise he would become an Antagonist or a Helper of the Antagonist).

  • A little girl (Hero) wants to leave home, her best friend (Skeptic) tells her it’s not a good idea et her mother (Antagonist) stops her from leaving.

Identification

It is the automatic process that brings the audience to get interested in a story as if they would live it, mentally processing many dramatic data. Without identification, no dramatic tension, thus no pleasure!

Dramatic tension

The dramatic tension is the basis energy at work in any story, any drama. Without tension, the audience stops being interested in the action.

The tension feeds itself with uncertainty, conflicts, problems.

It is conditionned by the capacity of identification of the audience to the characters, especially to the Hero.

Prognosis

Mentally processed, felt by the audience, the prognosis is an estimation of the odds the Hero or any other character has to reach his goal in various circumstances, plot point after plot point.

It is strictly correlated with the dramatic tension, and has to change often in better or worse, otherwise the audience gets bored since nothing comes to surprise its expectations.


You will find many other detailed descriptions of many other technical words and expressions of storytelling in the Story&Drama tutorials and analyses, illustrated with many examples.

For example the notions of chronology, action duration, narrative logics, dramatic effects (time lock, pattern repetition…), information distribution, genretone,  register, narrator, point of view, etc.

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