The 4 Parts

What do you call a guy with no arms or legs on a grill?

Frank.

What do you call a girl with no arms or legs on a grill?

Patty.

What do you call a guy with no arms or legs in a pile of leaves?

Rustle.

I could go on: no arms or legs hanging on the wall (Art), so small you can’t see him (Adam), lying in front of your door (Matt), etc. But why am I tormenting you with these bad jokes?

It’s because I’m a meanie, that’s why. Now let’s get on with the lesson. Actually, there’s a point. A person without arms and legs can’t do the things one with arms and legs can. You may have a person in the water, but he’s no swimmer (he’s Bob).

So just as a football player, gymnast, or ballerina each needs certain parts to do what they do, so a killer story needs certain parts to do what it does. It needs, in fact, four things. If you’re missing one, you have something, but it ain’t a killer story.

So what are these parts?

  1. Setting
  2. Character
  3. Problem
  4. Plot

Now some people might say that a story doesn’t need all four. They might point to some experimental oddity. That’s fine. But I’m not talking about writing wackjobs. I’m talking about writing killer stories.

What you need to learn is how these four parts combine to produce the emotional effects readers crave.

Again, someone might complain. Plot? I don’t need no stinking lowbrow plot.  And who needs setting? I’m a bare-bones stage writer. As for characters–this is an epic, multi-generational–

Stop.

You DO need them. But there’s a HUGE variety in what you can do with the parts. Look at these three cars. Look at the variety. Each has a different form because each has a different function. Yet each has a number of essential parts.

OSCAR MAYER WEINER CAR

Function: advertising

FORMULA ONE CAR

Function: racing

FORD STATION WAGON

Function: get family from point A to point B without being eaten by bears

Despite the different functions and forms, all of these cars share some common features–wheels, steering mechanisms, motors. These are essential parts.

Killer stories have essential parts. They have a setting, character, problem, and plot. But those parts have an almost unlimited variety of options. There are thousands of characters that might fill any given role. Thousands of settings. Thousands of problems. Thousands of plots. 

What features your settings, characters, problems, and plots take on will depend on what jazzes you at the moment and on your objectives, however vague they may be.  But you must have all four parts.

Maybe you don’t emphasize setting in your story like someone else might. That’s fine. You still need setting. Maybe you don’t have external and internal problems. That’s fine. You still need a problem. You need a character. And you need a plot.

This isn’t a formula. It’s just how things work. If you want to fly, you need to follow certain principles. There are tons of different ways to fly, but all follow the principles. It’s the same with human emotion. If you want to generate a story experience of a certain type, then you’ve got to follow certain principles. This isn’t a matter of taste. It’s just how things work.

A story, a killer story, one that provides the kinds of emotions you read for, one people will stand in line at midnight to buy, requires setting, character, problem, and plot.

A lot of writers can’t seem to get a story moving. Often the reason is that they haven’t taken any time to invent something for ALL four parts. They spend forever on the character and neglect problem. Or they spend all their time exploring the setting and never get around to character. Or they have setting and character but have no plot.

You need all four parts.

You need to be on the look out for ideas in all four categories. You need to get familiar with how all four work. And how these four parts work to manage and guide reader emotions will be the subject of our next lessons.   

So what do you call a gal with no arms or legs on a tennis court?

That would be…Annette.

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2 Responses to The 4 Parts

  1. Kent Jones says:

    A guy with no arms or legs water skiing? Skip.

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