As a writer, media producer, musician and song-writer, I have had a long-term fascination with story. I’ve read nearly two dozen books just on the fundamentals of story – plot, character, dialogue, structure, etc – and come to a distilled recognition of what is a common theme among them all. That is, all story boils down to the 5Cs.
Character + Context + Conflict + Choices = Consequences
To decompress this just a little…
Character delivers the who. Not just what are the names and vital statistics of the people in a story, but also their values, their fears, their strengths, their flaws. Who and what do they love or covet? Why do they act why they do? Every engaging story begins with well-rounded characters who are relateable and in whom the audience can find common ground.
Context is the situation, the setting, the circumstances in which our characters exist; and also their history. Context is the engine that drives the next two C’s. Without context, our characters are just portraits of a person. Context also includes the sum of prior consequences that the character has been subjected to. In other words, context is cumulative. That means you don’t have to re-state context every chapter, every act. If your audience is engaged, they’ll remember.
Conflict happens when two or more narratives are in tension. Whether that be an individual character’s internal and external narratives being at odds, or conflicts arising between multiple characters – whether the narratives concerned are internal or external in nature – the causes of conflict are a result of characters’ context and character.
Choices are the decision points that characters must make to resolve conflicts. Do they submit to another narrative? Does their narrative triumph in some manner? Do they need to negotiate a path of compromise? Or do all parties in conflict fight to a nihilistic stand-still where nobody gets their way? Choices are always informed by character and context, and the options available are constrained by the nature of conflict.
Consequences are what happens when the results of choices are rolled back into context, character and conflict. Is the conflict resolved, escalated, mitigated, aggravated or does it change so that a new set of narratives are in conflict? Consequences are the changes in the overall story narrative that drive character growth, stagnation or ascendance.
Of course, these five elements are iterative and operate at different scales. They can be local to a shot, a scene, a sequence, a chapter, an act, an episode, an arc or a series. The broader the time-scale, the broader the definition of our 5Cs become. Every narrative element of an engaging story contains a set of 5Cs at the micro level, or 5Cs at a macro level. Why? Because without the engine of the 5Cs, nothing interesting happens.
When a story hits a dead spot that seems stagnant or irrelevant, ask yourself “are the 5Cs at work here?” If the answer is no, then you will immediately notice yourself disengaging. Film and TV editors will tend to just leave these kinds of scenes on the cutting room floor if the director bothers to shoot them in the first place. Book editors will bin entire pages if they don’t feel that there is something happening to drive the story towards a new set of consequences that set up the next batch of 5Cs.
This is the most fundamental lesson we are trying to teach within AntipodeYarns. The 5Cs are lessons that can be applied as a means to understand ourselves as creators, a methodology for creating, pitching and assessing stories, or a template on which we can base our writing. We are also trying to convey this lesson to our audience, as we want to cultivate future creators.
Next post in our Story 101 series: Story Structure.