The vast majority of western storytelling (and the only type of story I feel any right to comment on) revolves around a central plot, or said another way, the Story Question. Introduced during the inciting incident (more on this plot device later), the Story Question boils down to a fairly simple formula, When x happens to the protagonist, then he/she must set out on a quest to achieve y, but will they succeed when the antagonist tries to get in their way? Now at first, second, and fifteenth glance, you may be ready to call horse dung on this idea. There’s no way complex and riveting stories can be reduced to such a simple, and quite frankly mind-numbing derivative, equation.
So let’s look at a couple of examples: Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope. In the movie you have smugglers, mystic unquantifiable powers, laser swords, a dark empire, aliens, and two robots acting as spiritual ancestors of Abbott and Castelo. The equation simply cannot work. Cue dramatic music. When the captured princess sends vital information for the rebellion to an old hermit named Obi Wan, he and the young Luke Skywalker set out to aid the rebels and rescue the princess, but will they succeed before the ruthless Darth Vader destroys the rebel’s planet with the Death Star?
Okay fine, you say slyly, but that’s an action movie, their for meatheads and simpletons. Give me something with emotion. How about a romantic comedy, there’s way too much going on to be boiled down to a compound sentence. Let’s take How to Lose a Guy in 10 days. When lady’s man Ben enters a bet to make a women fall in love with him for a promotion, he sets out to woo the lovely Andie, but will he succeed when she intentionally tries to sabotage the relationship for a women’s article she’s writing called, “How to lose a guy in 10 days?
This when-then-will pattern underpins all quality, western stories. Until you can articulate that question, you don’t have a full story. Once you discover the question, it’s the road or quest your story will take from beginning to end. And take note, your audience or reader expect this question to be answered by the end of the story. It’s literally the catharsis that allows them to disengage from the story and feel satisfied. This obviously is not all that a quality story entails (secondary characters, imaginative environments, laser swords), but all of those pieces are built upon the foundation of the Story Question.