Welcome back for another installment of our series about how to craft a compelling story and get the right message across. (If you haven’t read our first P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box series full of tips for getting noticed, getting higher scores, and crafting awesome costumes and props, make sure to check that one out, too!)
So far in Elements of Storytelling, we’ve addressed the importance of themes, protagonists, and antagonists. Now, it’s time to take a look at how to structure a story and use the five minutes allotted to the skit to the best advantage. With so little time both to plan and to perform, it’s important to choose the right starting point.
Contrary to what Maria has to say on the matter, good stories should start as close to the central conflict as possible. If your protagonist is the painter Michelangelo, it really isn’t that important to see how he learned to walk or the first time he tried spaghetti. Almost everybody walks, so that sort of detail won’t do much good to help establish who he is or what the story is going to be about. If there are 30 seconds at the beginning that don’t directly relate to the theme or plot, then that is 30 seconds wasted.
Set the Scene
On the other hand, if the audience sees someone laying on their back and pretending to paint, that already starts a chain reaction in their brains to figure out who they are seeing. If they have ever heard about the Sistine Chapel ceiling he painted, the audience might be able to guess without any further prompting from a narrator or from dialogue. But just to be safe, it’s a good idea to drop in the name of your protagonist within the first 10 seconds of the play.
Movies and books sometimes include a prologue before a story begins in order to give the audience backstory (eg Lord of the Rings, Stardust), but for USAT this isn’t going to be the best approach. The opening image and establishing the protagonist’s “outsider” status tells the people watching (most importantly, the judges) who they need to be paying attention to from the beginning.
The beginning of a P.A.R.T.Y. skit is also a great time to let the backdrops, props, and costumes do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. If the background shows a forest, the audience already has a lot of information to go on. If there are people sitting in a circle on the ground in front of those trees pretending to cook, the audience can make a reasonable guess they are probably looking at a camping trip. Add a sash with scout badges, and we know even more.
These sorts of visual cues are very important and establish your opening image. The protagonist should be present, and will either be in a state of perfection (SOP) or state of imperfection (SOI). In an SOP, they should be happy and comfortable with the world, and no matter what happens in the story, the goal will be to return them to their SOP. This state can’t last very long, and losing it should be directly tied to the conflict and theme. If a story begins with a SOI, then the ending should be working toward a reversal of fortune or attitude at the end.
How do These Terms Apply?
Let’s continue with our camping scenario. A group of Wilderness Scouts is sitting around the fire. One of the scouts is having an awesome time, and the rest are complaining about the bugs, the smoke, and the cold. The protagonist must be the happy camper in their SOP, because remember, protagonists are the oddballs and outsiders.
Then, something happens (called the inciting incident) that forces the protagonist out of their SOP and into the story. Perhaps it’s a flash flood, alien invasion, or rift in time, but something must occur to send the protagonist on an adventure. If you wanted to start with the same scenario but using a SOI instead, the protagonist is the only person who isn’t having a good time before the inciting incident occurs.
After the inciting incident, which should happen no later than one minute into the skit, the story really takes off. Stay tuned for our next Elements of Storytelling post to find out how to get the most out of the middle.