You’ve probably read at least one novel that didn’t hang together.
Maybe it had multiple storylines elbowing each other in the ribs while fighting for your attention.
Maybe the story seemed to stop and start as the character indulged in apparently-random introspection on their way to nowhere.
Maybe it felt like someone had jammed several story ideas into a blender and hit FRAPPE.
Light and frothy, but definitely not much of a story.
How many stories have you seen with these problems? Where the elements of their premises didn’t stitch together? A story engine with all the necessary gears, but each one is spinning in isolation, with nothing hooked up to anything else.
Even if characters changed by the end of the story, their internal conflicts didn’t motivate them to do things or affect their decisions when it came to defeating their enemies. They could get into trouble and stay there until they had defeated the big bad, but their struggles to save the day didn’t drive them to reconsider their previous decisions or face their deepest fears.
Understanding how to map a premise so you can see all the parts of your story engine will help you to identify, and fix the problem. Then your external and internal arcs will compliment each other.
How to Make the Gears on Your Story Engine Mesh
Your story’s external arc is the storyline that deals with your protagonist’s efforts to defeat the Antagonist.
The internal arc is the storyline that deals with your protagonist’s efforts to overcome their biggest flaw, face down their biggest fear, or heal the wound inflicted by a traumatic past event they never quite got over.
If the reader cares about your protagonist, then the ups and downs of their efforts to defeat the Antagonist will take them on an emotional journey.
Likewise, assuming your reader cares, the ups and downs of the protagonist’s efforts to become a better person will also take the reader on an emotional journey.
When the external and internal arcs head in separate directions, the reader’s attention is split and the emotional impact of each storyline is diluted.
When the external and internal arcs are woven together so that each one feeds into and affects the other, your story’s emotional power is greatly multiplied.
How do you weave these storylines together?
By setting them up in advance so that they’re tied together through your protagonist.
The premise pyramid helps you do that — and helps you recognize when you haven’t.
So let’s get to building that pyramid — no rocks required!
The Premise Pyramid
This pyramid contains the basic elements of a complete premise and shows the relationships between them.
Genre gives rise to Setting, Character, and Situation — because genre directs what kinds of story worlds you can write about, what kinds of people live in those story worlds, and what kinds of lives those people are able to lead. Every genre leans toward certain story types, character archetypes, and story tropes; whether you choose from those or find a creative way to introduce elements that don’t usually appear in your genre is up to you.
Setting is the broken world that gives birth to your story’s Antagonist, who represents or reflects whatever is broken in the story world.
Character — more specifically, your protagonist — comes into conflict with the Antagonist to generate your story’s External Arc.
Character also comes into conflict with Situation — the present-day aftermath of the backstory that’s creating your protagonist’s internal conflict, generating your story’s Internal Arc.
Theme, at the top of the pyramid, is the natural result of your story’s External Arc and Internal Arc being resolved. Each of these arcs might have its own theme, or both might support a single theme.
It’s fine to wait until after the story is plotted or written to fill in the Theme section of your pyramid. If the story shifts enough while you’re writing it, the theme might too.
But if all the other elements are nailed down, the likely theme of your story becomes easier to predict.
Let’s dig into the premise pyramid more deeply, using a few movies to illustrate how it works.
Level One: Genre and Sub-genre
The foundation of the premise pyramid is genre, because genre suggests all the elements in your story.
We say suggests, because if you can find a way to bring in an element that doesn’t usually exist within your genre and it improves your story, go for it. But please set up your story world’s rules so the reader will buy that the element belongs there. For example, you might want your readers to believe there could be Amish vampires in space. (Kerry Nietz, we salute you!)
Cross-genre authors don’t have to choose. It’s fine to put more than one genre at the bottom of your pyramid, although it’s still good to know which one might be predominant.
Literary writers, you’re not exempt from filling out the Genre section either. You might not be writing genre fiction, but you can probably identify a story type (i.e. coming of age, descent into madness), a literary form (i.e. tragedy, comedy, drama) or a schema (i.e. stream-of-consciousness, epistolary) that has conventions you’ll be selectively following, playing with, or breaking. Whatever story type, literary form, or schema you’ll be exploring, put that in the Genre section of your premise pyramid.
Once you’ve identified your genre and sub-genre, you might also add a few of the tropes or conventions you plan to include in your story.
Let’s use Star Wars: A New Hope to demonstrate how to fill out the story pyramid.
The genre would be science fiction, and the sub-genre would be space opera — an adventure-focused type of sci-fi that’s been occasionally categorized as a “western in space,” with ships instead of horses, blasters instead of guns, etc. Other examples of space opera include the original Star Trek, Firefly, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Starship Troopers, Flash Gordon and Dune.
Space opera often includes robots, space battles, aliens, energy weapons, damsels in distress, space stations, lost cultures, psychic powers, faster-than-light travel, high tech, a galactic empire, and exotic planets, inhabited or otherwise. The Star Wars universe includes all these things and more: the lost culture of the Jedi, a space station so big it appears to be a moon, epic space battles between the Empire and the Rebellion, light sabers, and droids programmed for comic relief.
We’ll talk more about this later, but some of the best-loved tropes in Star Wars are actually fantasy tropes given a new twist by reimagining them from a science fiction perspective.
Level Two: Setting, Character, and Situation
The next level of the premise pyramid contains three major story elements: setting, character, and situation. All three of these are born out of genre.
When talking about Setting, we’re not just talking about the rules of the story world or specific locations within the story world. We’re also talking about the Antagonist — the character that embodies whatever is fundamentally wrong with the story world.
Your setting has a flaw. Or something that represents its inhabitants’ greatest fear. Or it’s been wounded in some way by a terrible event in the past that’s thrown everything out of whack.
This is worth repeating: get it wrong, the emotional impact of your story will suffer.
Your Antagonist embodies whatever is fundamentally wrong with the story world.
Their evil plan is their flawed/fear-based/wounded/misguided attempt to fix the story world. Maybe not for everyone. Maybe just for himself and a few close friends. Or the people he deems worthy.
And of course, because your Antagonist is misguided, his plan will probably make things worse for the people he doesn’t care about — especially the protagonist. Because their definition of better is misguided as well.
The Character section of the pyramid refers to your protagonist, the person this story is about. The person who will face off against the Antagonist at the story’s climax, and strike the decisive blow that changes everything. Or fails to, if you’re writing that kind of story.
If you’re writing something with an ensemble cast, where multiple characters serve as a single protagonist, or you have a story with two or more genuine protagonists, we’ll talk about how to use the premise pyramid for those situations in a moment.
Situation consists of:
- The traumatic backstory that creates or enables the protagonist’s biggest flaw, that allows his deepest fear to exist in the story world, or that inflicts the wound that is keeping the protagonist from being whole, and
- All the ways the flaw, fear, or wound is warping the protagonist’s life and keeping the protagonist trapped in a rut, where they can never achieve their full potential or find true happiness.
You might be thinking, backstory. But there’s a reason this part of the premise pyramid isn’t called “backstory.” Most writers hear that word, and they start thinking about ancient history to reveal in flashbacks.
Yet, that’s the least powerful way to use backstory in fiction.
It’s more effective to think about how the after-effects of that ancient history are affecting your protagonist’s life in their present. Instead of showing the fight that happened a decade ago, show me the scar, the limp, or the grimace of pain when your character is forced to test the limits of that old injury.
You’re supposed to show instead of tell, so you might as well make it easy on yourself and build that into your story right from the start.
Let’s look at Level Two of the premise pyramid for Star Wars: A New Hope.
- The genre elements of space opera give rise to setting locations and world elements:
- The Death Star (a space station)
- Tatooine (a desert planet whose inhabitants are oppressed by the Empire)
- The Millennium Falcon (a ship that’s practically a character in the movie)
- Imperial Star Destroyers (massive ships which dwarf any other ships in the movie, demonstrating how the Empire has consolidated power and wealth for the purpose of oppressing its citizens)
- Light sabers and blasters (energy weapons)
- Wookies (aliens)
- The Mos Eisley space port cantina (alien culture)
- Storm troopers (the Empire’s soldiers)
The Antagonist, Darth Vader, embodies the tyrannical, ruthless callousness with which the Empire treats its citizens.
Lord Vader is willing to torture anyone who rebels against his authority (Princess Leia), blow up an entire planet of innocent civilians as an interrogation tactic (Alderaan), psychically choke anyone who questions his decisions, and murder his former mentor for old time’s sake. As the Emperor’s right-hand man, Vader is the living, breathing-with-the-help-of-a-respirator incarnation of the Empire’s tyranny.
Genre elements also give rise to Luke Skywalker’s character. More specifically, the genre of fantasy, because he’s based on the archetypal hero of the Hero’s Journey, transplanted into a sci-fi setting. An orphan who’s been hidden away in a remote location to escape the Antagonist, with special powers he only discovers after getting drawn into conflict with the Empire. He’s the underdog who proves that one person really can make a difference.
He’s an innocent, action-oriented, and impulsive, with a bit of a rebellious streak. This is his first rodeo, but determination and enthusiasm (alongside the friends he wins during his quest) make up for his lack of experience.
Luke’s Situation is also a typical fantasy backstory garbed in futuristic details. When the movie opens, Luke feels trapped on the moisture farm, resenting that his Uncle Owen won’t let him apply to the Academy so he can become a pilot and follow in his late father’s footsteps. Luke believes he flew a spice freighter, and died in an unremarkable way.
Luke was raised by Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru because of his father’s death. He’s trapped on Tatooine, unable to pursue his true calling as a pilot because his family can’t afford to hire help around the farm because the Empire squeezes its subjects dry, not caring enough to offer subsidies to struggling moisture farms who provide the much-needed water that keeps the Empire’s desert planets functioning. In other words, Luke’s present-day crap is clearly linked to Vader’s actions, even though they’ve not yet met.
When Obi-Wan Kenobi reveals that Luke’s father fought in the Clone Wars against the Emperor whose subjects barely scrape by on crappy planets like Tatooine (where the Jawas always overcharge for droids), Luke sees his entire life in a brand new light. His father’s death now connects him to the Rebellion working to overthrow the Empire.
This revelation also creates a dilemma for Luke, rooted in deep dissatisfaction with his present days. If he couldn’t live up to his father’s legacy of being a pilot on a spice freighter, how could he ever live up to the legacy of a man who died using his piloting skills to fight the very Empire that’s oppressing good people like his aunt and uncle?
Learning that his father was a hero who sacrificed himself for the rebellion sets the stage for Luke to become a hero while also giving him an abstract reason to oppose Vader.
Then, Obi-Wan drops another bomb: Darth Vader killed Luke’s father.
Before hearing this, Luke has no focus for his resentment. He’s been screwed by the same system as everyone else. That doesn’t make him special.
But after learning that Vader murdered his father and doomed him to a life of misery? All of the reasons Luke’s life sucks suddenly have a face (or a mask) to make it personal.
And it becomes even more so as the story progresses. Vader’s troops kill Luke’s adopted father, then Vader himself ends Obi-Wan, our hero’s latest father figure. It’s clearly dangerous to be a dad in a galaxy far, far away.
Lucas did a stellar job of using Situation to connect Luke and Vader through backstory in a way that manifests in the present and requires zero flashbacks.
Level Three: External and Internal Conflicts
When the Level Two elements of Setting, Character, and Situation come into conflict, they generate the third level of the premise pyramid.
When Character (your protagonist) comes into conflict with Setting (embodied by your Antagonist), everything your Antagonist and protagonist do in their struggle to defeat each other (External Conflict) generates your story’s External Arc.
When Character (your protagonist) comes into conflict with Situation, your protagonist’s limitations collide with his desires, and he experiences internal conflict that generates his Internal Arc. Because as your character reaches for what he wants, his flaw/fear/wound is crippling, and he’s forced to face down and transcend whatever happened in the past that made him a less-than-complete person. His internal conflict trips him up, while driving him to take chances instead of playing it safe. That’s what gets him out of his rut and in over his head.
Now comes the really cool part — setting these two storylines up so that they make each other stronger before dovetailing at the end.
What does that mean?
Right up until your Antagonist is defeated, every time your protagonist tries to solve a problem in the external world, they create a new one for themselves. That’s good storytelling, but it also has a fancy name: escalation of conflict.
Every time a new problem lands in your protagonist’s lap, he has two choices. He can solve it the way he always would have before, thereby allowing himself to be controlled by backstory trauma, or he can solve it in a way that he’d usually be afraid to try, which then aids him in transcending backstory trauma.
Sometimes he chooses the old way, and sometimes he chooses the new way — more of the former during the story’s first half, then increasingly more of the latter during the second half of the story.
When he reaches the climax, your protagonist must think like someone who wasn’t traumatized or wounded by something deep in his past. Even though he’s been practicing that kind of thinking all the way through the story.
And practice is the right word. Because at first, he won’t be good at doing things the new way. In fact, he’s going to suck at it when he first starts. The decisions he makes will create loads of new problems to solve. Great news for you — characters who can’t stay out of trouble are so much easier to plot for!
Make sure the conflicts of the External Arc will trigger a choice between being controlled by backstory trauma or transcending it. You want your story’s conflict to generate disasters that:
- Remind your protagonist of their backstory trauma in some way, even if it’s subtle enough that they don’t quite understand why the disaster is so upsetting,
- Force your protagonist to notice the way they’re crippled because of the backstory trauma, or
- Demand that your protagonist do the one thing he can’t or won’t do because of the backstory wound.
This is a lot easier to understand with an example. Let’s look at the external and internal arcs for Star Wars: A New Hope. The goal isn’t to state them as a snazzy marketing blurb at this point in the process, it’s to clearly describe the story’s biggest conflicts.
External Arc: When Luke Skywalker (Character) discovers that his aunt and uncle have been murdered because their droid possesses secret plans that could topple the oppressive Empire (Setting), he risks delivering the plans to the rebels and joining its attempt to blow up the Death Star commanded by Darth Vader (External Conflict).
Did you notice that this summary of the external arc doesn’t even mention rescuing Princess Leia? That’s because she was a side quest that unfolded from the main external conflict. For this brief summary, we only want your protagonist’s main mission.
Internal Arc: When Luke Skywalker (Character) is told that his father was a rebel pilot killed by Darth Vader (Situation), he embraces his Jedi abilities and learns to follow his heart instead of his head (Internal Conflict).
There’s nothing in this statement about Luke’s developing friendship with Han and Chewbacca, or about Obi-Wan mentoring him by making him fight a floating laser ball blindfolded. Again, those are wonderful side quests that unfolded from the main internal conflict.
Notice that Darth Vader is part of both the external and internal conflicts. It’s his job as the Antagonist to drive the external conflict by pursuing his own agenda (rule the universe with an armored fist!) and remind your protagonist of his flaws, especially the backstory weakness.
George Lucas bridges the gap between Luke’s external and internal arcs by making Vader the villain of both Luke’s present and past. He isn’t just ruining Luke’s universe today by crushing the rebels and terrorizing everyone else — he also ruined his entire life and crushed all of his dreams by murdering his father in the past (Luke thinks), and thereby forcing him to waste his life fixing evaporators instead of flying spaceship.
To make sure that Vader would trigger Luke’s wound around the death of his biological father, Lucas made Vader responsible for the deaths of his adopted father (Uncle Owen) and his father-figure (Obi-Wan). There’s no way Luke can interact with (or think about) Darth Vader without also feeling the pain of losing his father(s). Everything Vader does throughout the film forces Luke to deal with that backstory trauma.
It’s also important to notice that to beat Vader in the external arc, Luke had to be a good enough pilot to destroy the Death Star by following his heart. What dilemma was Luke facing at the start of the movie?
He was stuck between doing the logical thing (work on the farm until his uncle could afford to hire help) and following his heart (apply for the Academy and become a pilot now).
The dilemma Luke couldn’t resolve at the start of the film — whether to follow his head or his heart — is the same one that gets him into trouble at the end of the first act. Luke is following his heart when he agrees to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan and deliver R2D2 to Princess Leia’s father.
Does that turn out to be a good idea? Nope. It gets him attacked in the Mos Eisley cantina, captured by the Death Star tractor beam, nearly killed in a trash compactor, shot at by half the stormtroopers in the galaxy, and ridiculed for being short. Luke also has to watch as his mentor is murdered … by the same person he thinks killed his father.
But he gets better at recognizing when he should follow his heart as the film progresses, and successfully resolves this dilemma once and for all at the climax, when he turns off his targeting computer and “trusts his feelings” as he takes his final shot at the Death Star’s exhaust port.
That’s how you do it, you double-whammy the reader.
Make sure that your protagonist strongly associates something your Antagonist is doing with the protagonist’s backstory trauma.
Then make sure the dilemma created by the backstory trauma — the problem that’s ruining your protagonist’s life in some way at the beginning of the story — is the same one your protagonist must resolve in order to defeat your Antagonist. Whenever the protagonist creates a new problem for themselves, make sure they view it through the lens of their core dilemma.
Level Four: Theme
First, the good news. If you want to ignore theme, you can. Your story will have one anyway. Maybe several. At least one of which readers will insist is there, even if you try to explain that you were trying to say the opposite. (Just ask Ray Bradbury!)
But … the power of your theme is dependent on how good you naturally are at presenting it with enough subtlety to avoid sounding preachy, but enough clarity to ensure your readers get it. Sometimes you’ll nail it better than with others. Blame it on your subconscious, dropping the ball again.
Maximize the potential impact of your story’s premise by focusing on two main themes: the messages delivered by your external and internal arcs.
Let the other, smaller themes in the story surface organically wherever they want to. Make a note of what conclusion the reader might draw from the fact that:
- Your protagonist defeats (or doesn’t defeat) your Antagonist, and
- Your protagonist chooses between the way he’s always done things and a new, better way of doing things.
If you’re aware of these two primary messages your story will deliver to readers, you’ll make stronger and more nuanced choices as you plot and write your draft. Each disaster forcing your protagonist to make a decision as they get closer to their goal will be shaped by these two themes.
(Pantsers and literary writers: if this stresses you out, don’t worry. It’s also an option to wait until you’ve written your draft before making this determination. You can use the pyramid as a guide to tweak your revision.)
Google “themes in star wars a new hope,” and you’ll see more than a lifetime’s worth of articles. If the internet is to be believed, A New Hope contains hundreds of themes.
But if I was trying to write this story, or a story based on it, I would only worry about two…
External Arc Theme: a pure heart is more important than skill or experience.
Internal Arc Theme: when in doubt, trust your feelings.
In delivering the external arc theme, George Lucas made a point to emphasize Luke’s innocence, youth, and inexperience. He wears white, a color associated with innocence and purity. He’s the voice of idealism in the movie — he doesn’t argue for what’s practical, he argues for what’s right, even when Han points out how risky and unprofitable it will be.
Luke is willing to make a fool of himself for the sake of learning his Jedi powers, and believes what Obi-Wan tells him about his father without question. He’s willing to stick with his principles, turning his targeting computer off even when his fellow rebels question that decision.
George Lucas clearly shows us that his protagonist is an innocent who’s not yet been corrupted by life in the Empire. He includes Han Solo as a powerful reminder of all the ways one must compromise to flourish under its rule.
When it comes to the internal arc theme, Lucas starts at the beginning of the movie. We see how much Luke wants to leave the farm and become a pilot, through his conversations with his aunt and uncle. But if Luke had followed his heart from the start, he might’ve ended up flying a TIE fighter for the very same Empire that’s been keeping him trapped on Tatooine.
Because he hasn’t yet started on his character arc and is still thinking selfishly, following his heart would have led him to misuse his latent abilities.
Once his aunt and uncle are killed by stormtroopers looking for the droids, Luke is jolted out of his self-absorption and becomes increasingly committed to a cause bigger than himself: first agreeing to help Ben return the droids to Alderaan, then rescuing Leia from the Death Star, and finally joining the rebellion himself.
In the only training scene, we see Luke trying to defend himself when he can’t see, followed by a conversation between Obi-Wan and Han about the usefulness of the Force versus a blaster. This conversation introduces the idea that intuition or feelings might be more powerful than logical thought, if you know how to tap it. But based on Luke’s results, it seems like relying on what you can see and touch and understand might be a better idea.
Throughout the middle of the movie, Luke is the voice of idealism and Han is the rational, practical voice recommending that he look out for number one. His arguments aren’t frivolous: Han is horribly right about all the bad things that can happen to them if they follow their hearts. He’s right to have a bad feeling about things.
When Luke discovers that Princess Leia is being held on the Death Star, for the first time in the movie he chooses to trust his feelings in the service of a greater good by rescuing Leia. They succeed, although they lose Obi-Wan in the process, and again, Luke is given reason to doubt his feelings. Yes, they rescued Leia, but why did Obi-Wan allow Vader to kill him? Did using the Force and trusting his feelings cause Obi-Wan to lose the fight?
Luke chooses to join the rebels, despite Han’s logical arguments that he should opt out of what was likely a suicide mission. He’s been defending his choices to follow his heart throughout the entire film, and he attempts to convince Han to do the same.
His character arc is complete when he listens to his dead mentor’s voice and decides to trust his feelings instead of his targeting computer. The movie drives the point home when the Millennium Falcon shows up out of nowhere to save Luke from being blown to bits just before he can strike the decisive blow that destroys the Death Star.
Not only does Luke succeed by trusting his feelings, he convinces Han (representing the opposing view) to come over to his side, effectively winning the argument they’ve been having that mirrors Luke’s internal conflict.
Everything your protagonist says and does is an opportunity to show your story’s two main themes — so you don’t have to spell it out at the story’s end. But you’ll miss a lot of those opportunities if you’re not aware of what your story wants to say.
What If Your Story Has More Than One Protagonist?
Commercial movies usually have one protagonist or an ensemble cast where two or more characters fulfill the role of protagonist as a group.
Novels and television series have much more room for multiple protagonists, often with separate storylines that may converge and diverge. If you’re writing a novel with more than one protagonist, we recommend creating a separate pyramid for each of them.
What does it mean to fill the role of the protagonist in a story?
In terms of story roles, the protagonist is the character who strikes the decisive blow that defeats (or fails to defeat) the Antagonist.
Because of this, the protagonist often has a character arc (although this is optional).
If a group of characters must act as a team to strike that decisive blow that defeats the villain, then you’ve got an ensemble cast acting as a single protagonist. The Avengers is a great example. Yes, the Hulk is the one who slams Loki into the floor of the Avengers tower at the end of the movie’s climax, but only because the team has defeated Loki’s army, closed the portal they were coming through, and cornered the villain together. No single member of the team strikes the decisive blow; it’s only by working together that they’re able to do this.
If a group of characters acts as a team to oppose the Antagonist, but one of them strikes the decisive blow that wins or loses the day, the character who strikes is the protagonist, and the rest of the group are main characters functioning as allies. Monsters Inc. is a great example. Sulley is the protagonist, and Mike and Boo are his allies. We’ll talk about this in depth when we get to the Monsters Inc. pyramid. But first let’s look at The Avengers.
Ensemble Cast Acting as a Single Protagonist: The Avengers
If you’re writing a story with an ensemble cast, you can map your premise with one pyramid. Let’s take a deeper look at how that works, using The Avengers.
Level One: Genre and Sub-genre
Since this is a superhero comic book adaptation, genre elements include a fun blend of elements from science fiction and fantasy. Conquest-hungry aliens, dimensional portals, Norse deities, magical artifacts, mad scientists with tech advanced enough to seem like magic, super-cool weapons and impossible gadgets, a flying fortress for the good guys to use as their secret hideout, a secret organization working behind the scenes to protect normal people and led by a mysterious figure, and superheroes ranging from divine to mutated by gamma radiation to normal human beings who’ve developed their combat skills to superhuman levels.
Level Two: Setting, Character, and Situation
The Norse trickster god Loki, Thor’s brother, is the Antagonist for this film. In the first Thor movie, he made his bid for the throne of Asgard after Thor proved himself unworthy to rule. But despite Loki’s machinations, he failed — and since he can’t rule Asgard, he’ll settle for conquering Earth, with the help of an army of aliens called the Chitauri.
How does Loki embody what’s broken in the Avengers’ world (Setting)?
Earth has come to the universe’s attention, but our planet is unprepared to deal with the aliens and supernatural beings. To stand a chance, we’d have to unite as a species, and the world’s nations are too busy fighting among themselves to mount a global defense.
This sets up a nice parallel with the Avengers themselves: all six are loners who, for various reasons, aren’t ready to work together as a team either (Character).
Because this is an ensemble cast, in the Character section of the pyramid, I’d write: six superheroes who must learn to work together as a team.
But since each of them has a different backstory driving them into this movie, the Situation section of the pyramid needs to include an entry for each member of the cast.
Steve Rogers/Captain America’s situation is that he’s a leader who’s lost his team, thanks to being frozen since World War II. He’s a product of another time, and feels that the world he woke up in has lost its moral compass.
Tony Stark/Iron Man is a lone wolf who’s never encountered a foe he couldn’t defeat on his own, until now. He’s uninterested in taking orders from anyone, and he has a deep distrust of the government that’s requested his help.
Bruce Banner/The Hulk becomes a monster whenever he loses control of his anger, and he’s horrified that he might hurt an innocent bystander, so he’s spent years isolating himself while working to control his inner monster. He believes that if he joins the team, he might kill them and leave Earth unprotected.
Natasha Romanov/Black Widow was trained from childhood to be a spy and assassin by the Russian government. When Hawkeye was sent to stop her, he chose to offer her a second chance instead. She wants to make up for her dark past by doing the right thing in the present, but she’s also not sure she deserves to be one of the good guys.
Clint Barton/Hawkeye is a Boy Scout type, loyal to SHIELD and comfortable being part of a team. But at the beginning of the movie, he’s mentally enslaved by Loki and ordered to fight against his teammates. Later, once freed from Loki’s influence, he must wrestle with the guilt over what Loki made him do.
Thor has been humbled by the discovery that his arrogance caused him to be unworthy of wielding his hammer, Mjolnir, alongside the realization that he didn’t want to become King of Asgard. (His rejection of the throne that Odin refuses to give to Loki adds an extra layer of complexity to their relationship.) He hasn’t completely abandoned his arrogance, though: Thor openly states that he considers humans to be “petty and tiny,” and at the beginning of the film, he considers himself to be the only one with a chance of stopping Loki.
Level Three: External and Internal Conflict
The External Conflict in The Avengers is straightforward: the team must stop Loki from summoning a Chitauri army and conquering Earth. Before they succeed, they:
- Try to stop him from stealing what he needs to build a portal-generating device (they fail)
- Rescue their mind-controlled friends (they rescue Hawkeye around the midpoint, and Dr. Selvig at the climax)
- Capture Loki (they succeed at the midpoint, but only because he wants to be captured, and he escapes as soon as he’s able to sow dissent among them)
The climax is a full-on battle against Loki and his alien army that only ends when they figure out how to shut down the device that’s generating the portal (by sending a nuke through to destroy the rest of the Chitauri forces) and capture Loki for real.
Notice that the superhero team’s failures mid-movie establish what they must do to win at the climax. This isn’t a coincidence. If your Antagonist switches to a new plan or resources that weren’t so much as hinted at earlier in the story, your reader will feel cheated, because it means the protagonist’s earlier struggles were irrelevant.
As with the Situation section of the Avengers’ premise pyramid, the Internal Conflict section will address each of the ensemble cast’s personal internal conflicts.
- Captain America: desire to lead vs. fear that the others won’t follow
- Iron Man: self-preservation vs. self-sacrifice
- The Hulk: desire to protect humanity vs. protecting his teammates
- Black Widow: unworthiness vs. worthiness
- Hawkeye: desire to fight vs. fear that Loki will make him betray his teammates again
- Thor: arrogance vs. humility
Level Four: Theme
The theme of The Avengers’ external arc is the same as its internal one: united we stand, divided we fall. (Or to say it another way, our flaws don’t matter if we combine our strengths.) Whedon used both arcs to drive his message home in a way that doesn’t feel preachy, because it arises both from the way the team defeats Loki and in the way that they overcome their personal flaws to form valuable friendships.
Contrast this with Star Wars: A New Hope, where the internal and external arcs supported different themes. Is one way better than the other?
Absolutely not. It’s just a matter of what you want to say and how you want to say it.
Star Wars is a single protagonist story, and having two strong themes gives the movie more depth, a good choice considering that Luke Skywalker is a relatively naive character with a straightforward narrative.
The Avengers, with its ensemble cast of wayward superheroes who must act as a group protagonist, could have felt disjointed and incoherent, but wrapping a unified theme through both major story arcs gives the movie a unity of vision it might not have had otherwise.
Here’s the pyramid for The Avengers:
Genre/Sub-genre: invading alien army, dimensional portals, Norse deities, magical artifacts, mad scientist, futuristic weapons, a helicarrier as a secret hideout, a secret world-saving organization, and superheroes of all types.
Setting: Earth, fragmented and unprepared to defend itself from aliens, gods, and monsters, is ripe for conquest by Loki, Thor’s brother.
Character: six superheroes who must become a team to protect humanity.
Situation: Captain America, feels the others have lost their moral compass; Iron Man, distrusts the government and the concept of teams; the Hulk, fears he’ll hurt his teammates; Black Widow, feels she doesn’t deserve to be part of the team; Hawkeye, guilt about what he did under Loki’s influence; Thor, feels humans are petty and weak.
External Arc: defeat Loki’s army, close the portal they’re coming through, capture Loki.
Internal Arc: Captain America, desire to lead vs. fear that others won’t follow; Iron Man, self-preservation vs. self-sacrifice; the Hulk, protect humanity vs. protect his teammates; Black Widow, unworthiness vs. worthiness; Hawkeye, desire to help vs. fear that Loki can make him betray the team; Thor, arrogance vs. humility.
Theme: united we stand, divided we fall.
Using the sides of the pyramid, we come up with the External and Internal Arcs:
External Arc: When six superheroes who are used to working alone (Character) are asked to defend Earth, whose governments are not yet working together to mount a strong defense (Setting), they must stop an alien army coming through a dimensional portal to invade New York (External Conflict) and capture the trickster god Loki who leads them (Antagonist).
Internal Arc: When these six superheroes (Character) fail to protect Agent Phil Coulson through a failure in teamwork (Situation), they must find a way to overcome their issues and work together (Internal Conflict).
For the sake of conciseness, I’ve phrased the Internal Arc from the perspective of the entire ensemble. But if you find it more helpful when you’re writing to show their specific arcs, you can break it down like this:
Detailed Internal Arc: When these six superheroes (Character) fail to protect Agent Phil Coulson through a failure of teamwork (Situation), Captain America must step into the role of leader, Iron Man must choose self-sacrifice, the Hulk must risk hurting his teammates, Black Widow must believe she’s worthy, Hawkeye must overcome his fear of being controlled again, and Thor must surrender his sense of superiority (Internal Conflict).
Group of Main Characters, One is the Protagonist: Monsters Inc.
The protagonist is the person who strikes the decisive blow against the Antagonist, but Pixar did something interesting which created the illusion that Mike, and possibly Boo, were protagonists. That gave this movie a lot more heart than a story this simple usually has.
Let’s run this movie through the pyramid.
Level One: Genre and Sub-genre
This is a simple fantasy story built around the trope of “the monster in the closet,” with elements of satire and parody that make the world more interesting for adults. It’s funny to think of monsters hiding in closets to scare children turned into an industry, with a production line, quotas, and a hierarchy of employees who have some of the same everyday problems that anyone who’s ever had a job has probably faced — and a genius way to add a layer of interest for parents who are only watching this movie because their kids want to.
We have fantasy elements like nightmare monsters, including the “exiled” ones who are now forced to live in the human world: the Abominable Snowman, who wishes people would call him the Adorable Snowman; Bigfoot; and the Loch Ness Monster. Portals allow monsters to travel between their world and ours.
Those fantasy elements are mixed with mundane elements you’d see in a factory: an assembly line, a training simulator for new employees, a locker room, a boss who’s worried about having to shut the factory down. There’s a running gag about Mike never filing his paperwork, which pays off in a twist at the end.
Because the monsters believe a lie — that contact with children will kill them — they are also subject to a terrifying organization dedicated to preventing the monster world from being contaminated by contact with humans.
Level Two: Setting, Character, and Situation
The Setting of this movie is a world where everything is literally powered by children’s screams of fear — this is what’s broken, and Sulley has adapted to it by becoming one of the best at scaring children, which he sees as just a job (i.e. he is broken too, desensitized to the fear he’s causing others to suffer).
In order to make sure they remain desensitized to the children’s fear, monsters are taught to fear “contamination” by children, and they believe that they could die if a child touches them. Even though it’s the monsters’ job to provoke terror in others, they also live in fear of being killed by their victims.
The world’s rules are fear-based, and that’s driven home by the way the Child Detection Agency (CDA) swarms through the factory at any hint of contamination. We see what looks like mobilization for a global epidemic over a stray sock that a monster accidentally brings back with him, and the CDA agents apparently have the authority to question or arrest any monster who might have been contaminated.
This is a perfect setting for a story about the power of connection to overcome fear. Sulley fixes this world by realizing that children’s laughter is a stronger source of power than their screams of fear, and thus turns the Scare factory into a Laugh factory, where it’s everyone’s job to make children happy. Sulley realizes this only after he makes a connection with Boo, a human child who’s being regularly scared by the story’s Antagonist.
How is the Antagonist of this story a reflection of what’s broken in this world?
We have two potential Antagonists: Mr. Waternoose, the owner of the factory and Sulley’s mentor and boss. Waternoose seems like a good guy who’s just doing what’s needed to keep the lights on, for his employees and his city, but he’s helping to perpetuate the monster world’s fear is power mentality.
The other potential Antagonist is Randall, the #2 employee who’s never managed to outdo Sulley, and who’s desperate enough to try cheating. We learn that he wants to kidnap Boo so he can harvest her screams nonstop via a scream extraction machine.
At the end of the film, when we discover that Mr. Waternoose designed the kidnapping scheme to harvest more fear-power, it’s tempting to think that he’s the true Antagonist. And he is the villain behind the plot, but in terms of his function in the story, he behaves as an ally to Randall, who fills the role of Antagonist.
Randall is the one who is dealt the decisive blow by Sulley. Once he’s banished to a swamp in the human world, all Sulley and Mike have to do is tell the CDA what they know, and Waternoose is done.
The movie’s creators still give Mike his moment when he leads Waternoose to a place where the CDA can hear his confession, but we’re in the story’s resolution at that point, and we learn that the CDA was already running a sting to prove their suspicions about Waternoose. Mike’s taping of the confession is not necessary to defeat the villain; it’s in the movie because it’s a satisfying way to show the loose ends getting wrapped up and acknowledge Mike’s role as Sulley’s ally.
Let’s take a brief look at Character and Situation.
Sulley is the factory’s very best Scarer, and his Situation is that he wants to make his mentor Waternoose and his best friend Mike proud.
Mike is Sulley’s assistant, and his Situation is that his career is hitched to Sulley’s wagon, which makes it harder for him to look good to the woman he loves if anything goes wrong with Sulley’s career.
Boo seems to be a perfectly normal toddler, but she’s been terrorized by Randall for who knows how long.
Level Three: External and Internal Arc
The External Arc for this movie is simple: Sulley and his allies must stop Randall from abducting Boo and expose his plan to the authorities.
When we see how Character and Situation give rise to Internal Arc, the Monsters Inc. pyramid gets even more interesting.
One of the reasons Sulley, Mike, and Boo all feel like protagonists is that their creators gave each of them a full character arc.
Sulley’s character arc is to move from being proud of scaring children to being ashamed of scaring them. Before he connects with Boo, he sees the child as something dangerous that he must face to do his job, but once he comes to know her as a person and sees himself through her eyes, he understands that his society is preying on innocents and that being part of that has turned him into a bully. This arc arises from his Situation: he was Waternoose’s best pupil, and has spent his career trying to make the old monster proud by being the best at being scary. Only his love for Boo helps him to finally see that what he really wants is to be her friend.
And there’s a nice touch of irony in his relationship with Boo. Sulley’s job is to make her afraid, but through their interactions, he teaches her not to be.
Mike’s character arc is to move from living vicariously through his friend’s success, as Sulley’s assistant, to being successful in his own right. Mike lives in a society where he’s not able to do the high-status job of Scarer because he’s funny and kind of goofy looking. The best success he can hope to achieve at the start of the movie is to assist Sulley in being #1, and a big part of his frustration comes from Sulley ignoring Mike’s advice and endangering both their careers as the Scarer gets more attached to Boo.
After Sulley gets himself and Mike banished to the Himalayas by discovering Waternoose’s villainy, Mike and Sulley fight over the fact that Sulley scuttled what career Mike had without consulting him.
But once the world of Monstropolis is shifted from fear-power to laugh-power, it becomes possible for Mike to step into the high-status job he’s always wanted. Now he can finally compete to be the #1 employee by using his goofy looks and his great sense of humor to make children laugh.
Boo’s character arc is to move from being afraid of Randall to not being afraid of him, which allows her to distract Randall at a crucial moment at the climax so that Sulley can defeat the literal monster. It’s her love for Sulley (or “Kitty,” as she calls him), that gives her the strength to do this. This fixes what was broken in her world — that she’s terrified of the monsters in the closet — and from here on out, we know that she’ll never let a monster bully her again.
If the creative geniuses at Pixar had only given Sulley a character arc, and left Mike and Boo unchanged, it would’ve been much easier to see Sulley as the protagonist. They could’ve told the story that way, and it would’ve worked.
But it wouldn’t have had nearly the emotional impact that it did. Mike’s coming into his own and Boo’s learning to overcome her fear were touching moments that made the story’s climax and resolution more satisfying.
Level Four: Theme
All three character arcs support the movie’s theme: love is more powerful than fear. We see that in how the world is fixed — children’s laughter yields ten times more power than their screams. We also see it in the way that the love the three main characters have for each other helps them become better people.
Here’s the Monsters, Inc. pyramid:
Genre/Sub-genre: monsters, closets, assembly lines, factory-related objects like hardhats and goggles, training simulator, locker room, paperwork, Children Detection Agency.
Setting: in Monstropolis, a city powered by fear, Randall is kidnapping children to extract screams from them.
Character: Sulley, the monster whose record Randall has never been able to beat.
Situation: Sulley has always been proud of his ability to scare children, wants to make his mentor proud.
External Conflict: stop Randall from kidnapping children and expose him to the authorities, along with Waternoose.
Internal Conflict: Sulley moves from being proud of scaring children to ashamed of it.
Theme: love is more powerful than fear.
Using the sides of the pyramid to find the External and Internal Arcs:
External Arc: When #1 Scarer Sulley (Character) makes contact with the child Boo, he is afraid that the Child Detection Agency will suspect him of bringing her into the monster world (Setting), so he must return her to her own world (External Conflict) before #2 Scarer Randall can torture her with a scream extracting machine (Antagonist).
Internal Arc: When Sulley sees himself through Boo’s eyes (Character), he becomes ashamed of the job he was once proud to do (Situation) and must choose between loyalty to his mentor and his love for Boo (Internal Conflict).
When a story doesn’t hang together, there’s usually an underlying problem with its premise: even if each of the core elements is strong, their relationships to each other must be equally durable.
Level 1 of the premise pyramid contains genre elements: the types of story worlds you can write about, the kinds of people who live in those story worlds, and the kinds of lives those people can lead.
Genre elements give birth to Level 2 of the premise pyramid, which contains three aspects of story: Setting, Character, and Situation.
Setting is the broken world that gives birth to your story’s Antagonist, who embodies this brokenness.
Character refers to your protagonist and the traits that the story will require from her.
Situation refers to how your protagonist is suffering in the present as a result of the backstory that connects her in some way with the Antagonist.
Character clashing with Setting (and the Antagonist, as its representative) gives rise to your story’s External Arc: the storyline focusing on how your protagonist defeats or fails to defeat your Antagonist.
Character clashing with Situation gives rise to your story’s Internal Arc: the storyline focusing on the primary dilemma your protagonist struggles to resolve.
The resolution of the external and internal arcs generates your story’s main Theme(s). Sometimes each arc will deliver its own theme; other times, both arcs will deliver the same one, reinforcing each other.
Choose a movie you’ve seen at least once and break its premise down using the pyramid.
Now get out there and start changing the world with your stories.
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