How Stories Work

Whether you are taking senior photos, writing a novel, or gigging as a musician, you are telling stories. Some paint the stories with a brush, others shoot the story with a camera, but all creatives are trying to tell some kind of story. Regardless of the art form, it is imperative that you as a creative know the difference between a good story and a bad one.

In order to better understand quality storytelling, below is a broken-down story using The Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson as an example. The movies describe one epic tale and display a classic style of storytelling.

Typically, stories follow a pattern or creative arc. This arc is often referred to as "Freytag's Pyramid," named after Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright.

The Exposition is the beginning of the story, when you first meet characters and the scene is set. In The Lord of the Rings, this is the sequence in the Shire when you first meet Frodo and Gandalf. 

The Inciting Incident is the problem that needs a solution and begins the rising action. Gollum reveals the whereabouts of the ring, sending everything into motion.

The Rising Action is the battle, the fight scenes. Or it could be an emotional conflict that must be resolved. In The Lord of the Rings alone there are multiple examples of rising action: will Frodo's decide to take the ring to Mordor? Can the fellowship overcome insurmountable odds and thousands of orcs? Will elves and dwarves be able to fight together? All of these build the action.

Each Lord of the Rings movie has it's own Climax, but the climax of the larger story is obviously near the end where the ring is finally destroyed in Mount Doom. The climax typically comes near the end of a story.

Falling Action is where the action wraps up. The Dead Army comes and finishes off the orcs. Frodo and Sam are saved by the Eagles. Any part of the viewer that's still on-edge is set to rest.

Finally, the Resolution. This is where the story comes full circle and all discrepancies or confusions are resolved, also called the epilogue. All of Gondor bows to the Hobbits. Frodo sails to the Undying Lands. Sam marries Rosie. These aren't essential to the story, however if you as a storyteller have gotten your audience to invest any emotional energy into your characters, they have a right to know the detailed outcome. 

It is important to understand that Freytag's Pyramid is just a guideline for your storytelling mind. They are rules, and they can/have/should be broken. Movies like "Pulp Fiction" break the narrative arc on purpose in order to create an awkward, uncomfortable feeling within the viewer. But be careful when using this tactic. You have to know the rules before you can break them!

Challenge: As you consume media over the next week, look for three good stories in pictures and plot them along Freytag's Pyramid. Does it fit right? Is it missing any pieces? A good photo will tell a complete story, or at least have Rising Action, Climax, and Falling Action.

-Matt Scofield | Director & Editor at 14K Media