Elements of Storytelling, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, For Parents, Resources

Elements of Storytelling: The End

From here on out, the goal is to get the protagonist back to a State of Perfection (SOP). It may or may not be the same SOP as the beginning, but they’ve got to end up better off somehow after the story is over. But don’t jump straight to the big finish just yet; there’s still some important work to do. In fact, there was so much to say about constructing the end of a story, we decided to break this post into two parts. This post will cover everything between the Midpoint and the Finale, and next week we’ll finish up the whole story.

Proving it was False

We left off last time talking about the Midpoint of a story and how it must be either a false peak or a false collapse for the protagonist(s). The story needs to illustrate the consequences of the Midpoint and how it drives the hero to undergo a change. Otherwise, the events the audience has just witnessed hold no meaning and won’t communicate the team understands the theme of the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skit to the judges.

If the protagonist is feeling good in the middle of the story, they need to get knocked down again before the end. They could find out a decision they made earlier in the story has unintended consequences. Maybe they lose an important object or a companion is kidnapped by the antagonist while their back is turned. Perhaps the whole Midpoint was actually just a trap or distraction to lure the protagonist away from the real action. Or when the antagonist is backed into a corner, they do something desperate and create an even bigger problem than before. No matter what you choose, creating more opportunities for reversals leads to an audience (and judges!) more invested in the story.

If the protagonist is suffering from a false collapse at the Midpoint or as a result of proving just how false their peak really was, it’s time to build them back up. It’s reasonable to put them through another moment of debate and doubt that mirrors the first. After all, they’ve either just succeeded and found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, or they think they’ve just lost everything. Plus, the stakes just keep getting higher. The protagonist needs a reminder of what makes them special and what it took to get them this far. This could be a great opportunity for a pep talk by a companion on the quest or some kind words from a wise stranger. If the protagonist is faced with a new challenge and uses a new skill they’ve learned, or moves away from a negative behavior they’ve developed since the story began, it gives them the strength to carry on.

Raise the Stakes

If your story is doing its job, the audience is already invested. Now, it’s time to double down on the danger. This doesn’t mean to jump straight to a universe-ending scenario just for the sake of making things more exciting. The danger needs to feel like it is to scale with what has come before. For instance, the soccer player who pushes away their childhood friend in order to fit in with her teammates probably won’t need to save the entire planet. But she could be peer-pressured into doing something that would get her kicked off the team if caught, or put the league in jeopardy.

In a general sense, the stakes of a story are bounded by how far the protagonist is able to travel. This might seem weird, but think about it. Stories with kids at the center usually stretch about as far as they can reach on their bikes. The neighborhood, the school, or maybe the whole town could be in peril, but the next state over? Probably not. On the other extreme, any story that includes the means to travel between planets is basically going to have a planet-sized threat looming over it by definition. The stakes could be expanded on their own, or as part of the second plot point.

Plot Point #2

If besting the antagonist was easy, the good guys would always win in the middle. Instead, there must be some new development after the events of the Midpoint to bring the tale to a thrilling conclusion. This usually comes in the form of new information the protagonist didn’t have before. They may need to travel to a new location, consult an expert, retrieve an artifact, or any number of different tasks to give them the leg up they need. This is the last chance to infuse new knowledge into the story, or the solution will feel like it comes out of nowhere and won’t give the audience the satisfaction they are looking for. As fun as it can be to throw in a twist, it’s better if the audience gets to anticipate the ending somehow first. There’s still time for a twist; in fact, good finales always throw in a curve-ball (which we’ll discuss more next week). But the people watching the skit will have more fun if they think they know how the story will end before they actually see it happen.

To bring us back to Star Wars, this is the scene in the war room at the rebel base. Luke finds out that the impenetrable Death Star has a weakness after all, and he will be part of the team that will try to take it out. If the fleet took off with no plan or knowledge of how they might succeed, there wouldn’t be any tension for the audience. But as long as there is a chance, no matter how small, that the good guys will win, the story feels compelling all the way to the last moments.

In terms of the five-minute time limit of a P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skit, this event must occur no later than the end of the fourth minute to ensure there is enough time to get the protagonist back to their SOP.

This brings us to the finale, which we’ll discuss next time!

Elements of Storytelling, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, Resources

Elements of Storytelling: The Beginning

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.