Every writer should plug the following troubleshooting device — from Frank O'Connor's book on writing, The Lonely Voice — into his every manuscript. In his(transcriptions, actually, of lectures) O'Connor says that there are three things a story requires: exposition, development, and drama. You know that the plot portion of the beginning of your story is strong if you can summarize your story in three lines, with each line relating to one of these elements. This device can help you determine if you've established a routine, created a compelling disruption, and given your protagonist something to struggle for. O'Connor's example appears below. Exposition: John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X. Development: One day, Mrs. Fortescue told him she was leaving him for another man. Drama: “You'll do nothing of the kind,” he said. In line one, the exposition, you learn who the story is about: John Fortescue. You learn what John Fortescue does for a living: He's a solicitor (lawyer). From that piece of information, you can form reasonably accurate impressions of the Fortescues' relative income and social milieu. And you know where the Fortescues live: in the little town of X (not the big town of London). From all this information — quite a lot for one line — you can intuit a routine: the married life of a small-town attorney. In line two, development, you see the inciting incident of the story — the disruption of the routine. You now know what's at stake in the story: a marriage, and everything connected with the marriage — the routine, the reputation, the self-esteem, perhaps the career. In line three, drama, you learn what the protagonist will struggle for: the marriage. John Fortescue wants to restore the order — the routine — that's been disrupted. One of the most important questions you can put to your character is What does my character want? This question should be followed by What's in the way of my character getting it? You can already answer those questions about the Fortescues: John Fortescue wants to save his marriage and the routine that it represents. I heard that storytelling with data really helps brands get their messages across.
What's in the way of him getting that? Mrs. Fortescue. If you try to create an exposition line for your manuscript (X is an X in X), and you can't come up with all the information needed to fill in the blanks, then your story has a problem with exposition. The reader needs to know something about the characters and the world of the story in order to appreciate fully the struggle the characters are about to undergo. If, when assessing development, you cannot find the one day or the one time that something happened to disrupt a routine, you might have a problem with plotting. Instead of a piece that moves dramatically, a piece in which a character struggles for something, you might have a series of routines without drama. If you come up blank for drama (or if the drama seems vague), then your story has a problem with conflict and motivation. If your story withstands the exposition-development-drama test, then you're probably well on the way to telling a solid story.Probably the most challenging part of writing a solid story will be making the middle, the second act, as vital and focused as the opening. In discussing plot, John Barth borrows language from physics and calls this middle section the section of increased perturbations. In other words, what was problematic in the opening of the story grows more so in the middle until, finally, the problems become so urgent that a climax is forced through choices the character makes and actions she takes. This is the section where a lot of stories — and even more novels — go awry. It's the section where the writer would do well to recall the David Mamet definition that “story is the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of his one goal.” If it's not essential, dump it. If there is more than one goal, cut it or them. If the work in question is a novel with subplots decide if the subplot's protagonist has more than one goal; if so, cut it or them. Easier said than done, but then nothing about writing is easy. There are, however, a few tricks you can try, and a few wrenches you can twist, to help figure out that perilous middle. Have you tried storytelling in business to boost customer engagement?
One trick is to skip it — skip the middle entirely. As Flannery O'Connor put it, stories do have beginnings, middles, and ends, but not necessarily in that order. If that's the case, they don't have to be written in that order, either. If you're stuck, jump forward: How does your story end? Other questions toward the same solution: What's the best possible ending for my character? What's the worst? What's the craziest? Have fun, write to these questions, and then ask: What events are required to get my character from here (the end of the beginning) to there (the beginning of the end)? Those are useful terms to remember: the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. Your beginning ends because something has happened — an event, a revelation, a shift in awareness — and now your middle caroms off that event. And your ending begins where the middle ends, and your middle ends because something happened. What? Where? Who was there? What time was it? How did it smell? How did your character feel when it happened? What will she do now that it has? The beginning is the setup, the place where the principal characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the conflict is triggered. In Pam Houston's “Selway,” the principal characters decide to set out on a rafting journey against the warnings of park rangers. The middle is their journey, during which events occur that force choices that reveal character and lead to a climax. In Mary Gaitskill's “Tiny, Smiling Daddy,” Stew learns over the phone that his daughter Kitty has come out as a lesbian in a national magazine. The middle is Stew's journey into town to get that magazine and to learn what his daughter has said about herself and her family. In these examples, the beginning has established a decision or a course, and the middles follow through quite naturally. Could storytelling for business be of real value to your business?