How can my wife’s account of her day be so dull (sorry, darling), while an animation featuring simple shapes can be so compelling?
The answer is that the animation (which features the Heider-Simmel illusion) contains story elements, such as protagonists, villains, and conflict. If we understand these elements, and how they work together, we can use them to create content that is engaging, relatable, and memorable.
Stories follow a five-part structure: inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution. Typically, the majority of a story takes place in the second stage, where life for our protagonist becomes progressively more difficult. Before we investigate further, let’s briefly recap the event which kicks off a story: the inciting incident.
We start with the protagonist, whose life is in balance. There are ups and downs, of course, but nothing too dramatic. Then one day . . . boom! Something happens—a tragic misfortune, a mysterious discovery, a golden opportunity—something that radically upsets the balance of forces in our protagonist’s life. This is the inciting incident: the event that unleashes the forces in the story and pushes the hero on their quest to restore balance.
Consciously or subconsciously, the protagonist pursues an object of desire—the thing that (hopefully) will restore balance. This object could be internal (happiness) or external (a promotion). The desire for this goal is proportional to the level of risk the protagonist is willing to take. How much did Faust want worldly pleasure and unlimited knowledge? Enough to sell his soul to the devil.
Normally, when we want something, we take the most obvious, least risky action. In life, we sometimes get what we want in the first go; in drama, the protagonist must not succeed right away. They must struggle—not because the writer is a sadist, but simply in order to avoid a premature resolution.
In one of Aesop’s most memorable fables, a crow, flying about on a hot summer’s day, wants a drink of water. The crow sticks its beak into a pitcher of water, but is unable to reach the water and drink.
The crow’s conservative action produced a reaction different from what it expected. This gap between expectation and result is drama.
Sometimes our actions produce a reaction greater than our expectations: Upon arriving in Wonderland, Alice had trouble entering the garden. The “drink me” potion made her small enough to get though the garden door, but then she was unable to reach the key. The “eat me” cake made her grow as expected, but she grew far too large and she began to cry. Forces seemed to be working against Alice.
If you want to bring your story to a boil, you need to turn up the heat. The only way to do this is by increasing the pressure on your protagonist. This is because a character or story can only be as interesting and compelling as the sum total of forces working against the hero: the forces of antagonism.
There are four types of such forces: inner, interpersonal, environmental, and institutional. Many stories dwell on one kind of force—the fable of The Crow and the Pitcher presents a physical challenge, which the crow must overcome (by dropping pebbles into the pitcher to raise the water level). Other complex stories manage to include more than one kind of antagonistic force. Ripley from the Alien franchise, Jesus Christ in the Gospels, and Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption all needed to face their inner fears as well as deal with interpersonal, physical, and institutional challenges. But it doesn’t have to be so heavy. Sometimes the conflict between desire and reality leads to comedy.
The clip above features Mr. Bean trying to copy during an exam. His first attempt to cheat fails because it is far too conservative. Does he give up? Of course not. He’s still at risk of failing the exam, and he feels his attempt almost succeeded. So he tries again. Each time he fails, his attempts become progressively more brazen. He tries diversion, stealth, and his last attempt borders on harassment. The increasingly desperate attempts raise the tension and hilarity.
To hold the audience’s interest, each attempt and failure should be considered a point of no return. To meet the forces of antagonism, subsequent acts must be progressively more daring, more ingenious, all the way to the end. And Mr. Bean does not let us down.
Turning from Mr. Bean to the Beast, let’s look at another example.
In The Exorcist, a 12-year-old girl named Regan is possessed by the Devil. When Regan first displays strange symptoms, her worried mother, Chris, takes her to a doctor. The doctor fails to diagnose or treat her. Her “conservative” attempt to help her daughter and restore the balance in her life had not produced the desired outcome. The doctor recommends a psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist fails to break through using hypnosis, Chris—who declared that she was not religious—has no one else to turn to apart from an exorcist. The progression from doctor to psychiatrist to exorcist is dramatic because it’s a progression into the unknown—from body, to mind, to soul. Not only do we feel that Chris is quickly running out of options, but the implications of having to depend on an exorcist to save her daughter are truly frightening.
Story elements like progressive complications are not limited to the heroes of film and literature. The same logic applies to daily life. If I’m trying to get into my apartment, I wouldn’t start by scaling the exterior wall and forcing the kitchen window. First, I’d try my keys, and if that failed, I’d call a locksmith. That’s why I can relate to stories (or commercials, or video games) with progressive complications.
So how can content creators and writers use story elements to connect with their audience? Ask yourself: What does your audience want? What triggered this desire? What are the forces of antagonism? If you can answer these questions in your content, then you will be telling the story of your audience. They will respond.