There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that the movie Star Wars was originally the first act of a longer screenplay. That means that Lucas had written a second and a third act intended to round out the story. Yet this movie stands nicely alone with it’s own three acts. And it also forms the first part of a trilogy that also hangs together as a story.
What is going on?Any decent story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Some ways of describing this in a more useful way is to think of it in terms of three acts (cold-openings and epilogues kind of ruin this, but bear with me). Others look for an Inciting Incident, a Turnaround and a Climax. As a whole, the three Star Wars movies exhibit all these qualities: the whole arc of Luke and the droids on Tattoine would be what gets him involved in the rebels’ problems. His training on Dagobah, and then Darth Vader’s trap on Bespin is clearly the Turnaround. And the destruction of the Empire, along with the redemption of Vader are part of the Climax.
But you see the same structure in any one of the three movies, too. In fact, you can break it down further. Vader boarding Leia’s ship could well be the inciting incident of the Tattoine part of the first movie, the Turnaround would be after Luke discovers his childhood home destroyed and the Climax when the Millenium Falcon escapes the planet. Stories within stories. Like the rings of an onion.
I have Kate Forsyth (amongst others) to thank for teaching me that the emotional intensity of a plot should go in waves, gradually rising until the climax of the story. But each of those waves can be a cycle, too, and within each scene you can do it as well. Stories within stories.
David Eddings even lampshaded it in a thoroughly amazing way.
Eddings’ two book series are The Belgariad and The Mallorean and both build upon the best of story-telling traditions. Both of them are fantasy adventure stories built around the Journey meta-type and one of the key pieces of the meta-physics in this world is how certain things have been repeating themselves again and again until The Final Confrontation. In fact, the cycles have been getting closer together, so much so that two of the main characters, Garion and Belgarath, actually notice it and have a discussion about this. Two characters in a story talking about their own story.
My current short story is an experiment in planning. It has an untrained witch, pregnant to her farmer husband running away from soldiers of the local lord. This is a land where superstition abounds. They seek shelter from rain and encounter a pair of mercenaries from a neighbouring land who do not have the same superstitions about witches (though they know about them), but also just want to shelter from the rain. Cue fear and conflict. And then my hero and his wife hear from one of the mercenaries who is trying to get back to his pregnant sister. Turns out my hero has misjudged them and once some explanations happen, realize they can all help each other.
Nice litle story? Perhaps. But I can hear my normal critic asking me “where’s the rest of the story?” And she’s right. This is a good first act and there are more than enough story elements here to make a second and a third.
Stories within stories. Onion rings.