When it comes to designing a story—and a great story is most certainly designed—I’m a big fan of knowing, at least generally, where I’m going, and then working back from that, as well as filling in forward and backward from events in between that that ending requires to happen.
Even more important is the cause-and-effect that all needs to entail. My sense is that that’s the biggest mistake most new storytellers make, confusing chronological order with cause and effect. It’s not enough for an event to come after something; chronological ≠ causation. it has relate to and compel the story forward in some way. In some genres and story types, that will be a specific and obvious domino effect; “this causes that.” In others it might be more an accumulation of subtler, contributory changes and shifts, like a wave growing before it crashes on a shore.
Either way, and in every story, there has to be a sense of irreversible, irresistible, compelled motion, either by pushing or pulling, toward an inevitable finale. And there has to be a sense of connective tissue between all of that or the audience is going to feel, consciously or not, the disconnected nature of it, especially in an ensemble piece. That’s actually something I’ve struggled with in my latest project, which is made harder by being a true-story ensemble piece. Even with the huge benefit of true events at the critical story junctures, creating that general, culminating force in a largely character-driven story is tricky.
It’s actually the reason I’ve found it necessary myself to shift from the “chain of events” toward a wave analogy. It forces me to think of scenes not merely being linked together, but contributing, each in its own part and way, to something larger, and to the story’s overall momentum.
“Pushed vs. pulled” has also proved an interesting perspective to take when conceiving finding that motion. Is the character “thrust into” a situation where he’s carried along irresistibly by something, or pulled irresistibly toward something? Is it a tailwind story or a gravity story? In character terms, it can be seen essentially as a war between comfort and curiosity. Which one’s greater?
These aren’t a substitute for the thematic “moral of the story” approach I believe is necessary to give a story its initial shape, and the organizing principle it needs to feel cohesive and to resonate. (More on that later.) But they have proved quite helpful mental devices in helping clarify, really, what’s going on with the characters within the poles of the story. Because whether it seems like there’s a wind blowing them, or a magnet pulling them from one end or the other, that feeling ultimately stems from what’s inside them. What’s holding them back, or pushing them ahead, or pulling them forward, all against their will. Visualizing that second-level story motion can reveal a lot, and help you avoid storyteller’s block. (More on that later, too.)