The Threat and The Essential Elements of Story

by James Bonnet

In the previous story course article, I talked about the role of the problem in a great story, its enormous potential power and its incredible relevance to our lives.

The components of the problem are: the threat, which is the cause of the problem; the hook, which is the unique aspect of the threat that makes the threat more dangerous and intriguing; the inciting action, which is the action being taken by the threat; the victim(s), who suffer the consequences of the inciting action; and the state of misfortune, which is the collective state of mind of those in the entity who have suffered a loss or foresee a danger to themselves or others in the future. And finally there is the real cause of the problem, which will take us inside the golden paradigm to thearchetypal characters that influence the actions of the central characters.

In this article I will talk about the threat, which, like the subject and the problem, can be taken to the quintessential and transformed into another important source of power. It is, in fact, the very thing that brings the story into being and creates all of the other essential elements without which there would be no story.

Before I talk about the threat, however, I should say a few words about the larger entity being transformed, which is closely aligned with the problem and the threat. These larger entities are the groups that we form to help solve the problems that plague our real world – i.e. we form governments to protect our lives and our liberty, a justice department to protect our civil rights, hospitals to fight disease, schools to fight ignorance, financial institutions to prevent poverty and pursue wealth, police to protect us from crime and prevent injustice, guilds and unions to secure our independence and protect us from exploitation, and so on. These larger entities, either real or invented in the imagination of a writer or filmmaker, are organized around a leadership and form the larger context which surround and support the stories being told. All of these entities have the same underlying structure and these are the same hidden structures that are found in all great stories and in our story model, The Golden Paradigm.

The threat – i.e. a villain (or antihero), an asteroid, a disease, a hurricane, a shark – is the cause of the problem that brings about the change to an undesirable state – to a state of misfortune.

In the movie, Argo, the larger entity being transformed is the U. S. Embassy in Iran. A huge, angry mob of fundamentalists is the threat. They storm the embassy and take possession of  the embassy and its staff (the inciting action.) And that creates the problem (the scores of American hostages) which brings about the state of misfortune.

Equally significant in a great story is the fact that this threat will become the principal source of resistance that opposes the action when someone tries to solve this problem and restore a state of good fortune. This resistance will create the complicationscrisis, need for a climactic actionand resolution of the classical story structure that occurs when a problem-solving action encounters resistance.

In Argo, the story is focused on the plight of six U. S. embassy workers who escaped from the embassy and have taken refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. The Iranian fundamentalists are the main source of resistance that creates the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical structure when Ben Affleck, a CIA agent, tries to help these six embassy workers pose as low-budget Hollywood filmmakers and slip through the suspicious and potentially deadly fundamentalist security guards to escape from Iran.

In The Hunger Games, the larger entity being transformed is Panem, the capitol and the twelve districts it controls. Donald Sutherland, the white clad storm troopers, and the outlandishly dressed ruling class are the threat. They have taken possession of Panem and are determined to keep it – and that created the problem that brought about the state of misfortune being suffered by the ordinary citizens – and Sutherland and company will be the main source of resistance, which will create the complications and other components of the classical structure, when and if, someone tries to solve this larger problem. The problem facing Katniss, the central character of the first film, is surviving a fight to the death. The resistance and components of the classical story structure arise from the fact that her fight to the death is against 20 or so other well-trained young killers, all of whom desperately hope they will be the last one standing.

In Tana French’s best-selling novel, Faithful Place, the larger entity being transformed is a cul-de-sac in the heart of Dublin where Francis Mackey, the central character, grew up. The threat is the murderer of Francis’ fiancé, an innocent young girl killed twenty-two years earlier in Number 16, an abandoned house in the cul-de-sac – and that created the problem and the state of misfortune. The murderer will also be the main source of resistance that creates the complications and other components of the classical structure that delay or hinder the investigation when Francis tries to solve that mystery.

In Hugo, the larger entity being transformed is a Paris railroad station and its environs; the threat is the Station Inspector, who hounds Hugo Cabret, a young orphan, and creates the problem, namely, the unpleasant fate of orphans in post-World War I Paris (the state of misfortune). A second but related problem and state of misfortune is the undeserved obscurity of George Melies, a once famous pioneer filmmaker who has been completely forgotten and now sells toys in the railroad station. The Station Inspector is the main source of resistance that creates the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical story structure when Hugo tries to save the automaton and gain recognition for Melies.

You can see this same pattern at work in real life as well.

In World War II, the larger entity being transformed was Europe. Hitler was the threat – and his taking possession of Europe created the problem which brought about the state of misfortune. He was also the main source of the resistance that created the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical story structure when the Allies got together to try and solve this problem.

In the recent encounter with “a perfect storm,” New York and New Jersey are the larger entities that were being transformed. Hurricane Sandy was the threat. It smashed into the two states with incredible force and storm surges and that created the problem that brought about the widespread death and destruction – the state of misfortune. This terrible storm would also have been the main source of resistance that would create the complications and other components of the classical story structure if anyone, like the policeman who died saving a family, tried to brave the storm to save lives or prevent catastrophic damage.

In all of these examples, there is a larger entity being transformed, the threat is the cause of the problem that brings about a change of fortune and is also the main source of the resistance that creates the components of the classical story structure when someone tries to solve the problem. The problemchange of fortune, andcomplications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical structure constitute the very essence of story – that without which there would be no story. Meaning, if you eliminate any of these essential elements, you will have no story, or you will have something that feels somewhat less than a story.

The threat, then, is obviously important, since it creates all of the elements that constitute the essence of story – that without which there would be no story. The threat is, in fact, the very thing that brings the story into being.

Without Bernie Madoff what would we know about his Ponzi scheme and the billions lost by his investors? We know what we know because of the problem he created. Without the murder of Francis’ fiancé in Number 16, Faithful Place, what would we know about Francis, his daughter Holly, and his dysfunctional family? Very little, if anything. What we know, we know because of the problem created by the murderer. Without the angry mob of Iranian fundamentalists in Argo storming the U. S. embassy and taking American hostages, what would we know about the normal, daily routines of the American workers in that embassy in an unthreatened time frame? Not very much, I think. That angry mob created the events and the resistance that brought that story into being.

So the threat and the story structures it creates is obviously something worth knowing about and something worth thinking about. These structures are, in fact, essential. And if the story you’re working on doesn’t work, or it doesn’t feel like a story, these are the elements you should look at first.

* * * * * * * *

In the next story course article, I will continue my exploration of the threat, which is also the key to creating an effective log line and high concept great idea – which is to say: an intriguing story idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all. I will also show you how to create an effective threat and hook and take them to the quintessential. This article should arrive in about three weeks.

In the meantime, I will send you two other short articles concerning three other important Golden Paradigm structures: The Scourge Being Avoided and The Value Being Pursued and The Larger Entity Being Transformed, all of which are closely aligned with the problem and the threat and have real potential power.

To read the previous article

To read about the author