William Bernhardt is a writer who writes about the writing process. He told me something about story that I can’t stop thinking about. He gave me a “Story Formula” that I think is really sexy and powerful and, best of all, easy to understand.
Just for the hell of it, I’m going to name this particular story formula the “Avalanche Method.”
In this post I am going to give an overview of the Avalanche Method. And I’ll give some examples from famous movies and TV shows. My hope is that, whenever I apply this formula to a new story in the future, or whenever I talk about this story formula in a blogpost, I can link back to this post for reference.
So here we go:
!!!!!!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!! I’m going to give away the endings to Breaking Bad, Braveheart, The Matrix, and Harry Potter. (Which is the greater crime – having never finished Harry Potter, or having never seen Mel Gibson shirtless in Braveheart?)
1) A good story begins with an Inciting Incident, which throws the protagonist into a completely different frame of reference. It’s an exciting event that catapults us from normal boring life and into a story. The inciting incident is where you want your story to begin. Usually it’s a shocking and strange event. Everyday life is boring: an inciting incident is not boring.
Examples of Inciting Incident: In the TV show “Breaking Bad”, the inciting incident is when Walter White first cooks meth with Jesse. In the movie “Braveheart”, the inciting incident is when William Wallace’s girlfriend is killed by the English soldiers. In the movie “The Matrix”, the inciting incident is when Neo swallows the red pill. In the Harry Potter series, the inciting incident is when Voldemort kills Harry’s parents and leaves a scar on little baby Harry’s forehead.
2) Fast forward now to the END of a story, or, The Climax. Everyone knows that the climax is the big action scene at the end. But in the Avalanche Method of storytelling, we understand that the climax is directly linked to the inciting incident. In other words, once the inciting incident happens, the climax can’t help but happen.
Of course there many ways a story could end, and it’s the writer’s job to decide which version of the climax is most satisfying (Voldemort could have killed Harry Potter and taken over the world, for example). BUT, in any case, the climax represents the necessary release of tension – or catharsis, as Aristotle would say – that was originally created by the inciting incident.
The Inciting Incident is the snowflake that starts the Avalanche. The climax is when the massive wall of snow and debris and destruction finally comes to rest.
Examples of Climax: In, “Breaking Bad”, the climax is when Walter White finally dies after a brilliant shootout in the meth lab and Jesse zooms away in his car. Ever since that first day that Walter White cooked meth, we knew that this day was inevitable. He was either going to take over the world or die trying. Now finally we are relieved and the show is over. In “Braveheart”, the climax is William Wallace being tortured and killed. From the moment his wife was murdered, we knew that he was going to free Scotland or die trying, there was no other way. In “The Matrix” – the first movie at least – the Climax is when Neo outmatches the agents and realizes his true potiential. The story ends here. In order to create sequels, the writers will have to come up with new powers and forces for NEO to battle, powers that are even stronger than the agents were. In “Harry Potter”, the climax is when Harry finally defeats Voldemort. This last battle is so damn satisfying because we KNEW it was coming, ever since Voldemort left that scar on Harry’s head, this battle had to happen. Once it’s over, the tension is released, we can rest easy, and there’s no reason to write an 8th book.
3) So what happens inbetween the Inciting Incident and the Climax? The avalanche rolls down the mountain, growing and growing as it goes. The stakes get higher. The action gets more intense. The destruction doubles and then quadruples. This is the bulk of the story, the fun part, the ups and the downs, but really it’s all just building up to the climax that we need and know is coming.
So there you have it. That’s the Avalanche Method of writing stories. It’s helpful for me because it’s easy to understand. It’s logical. It’s a place to begin.
A million good stories have been built up from this foundation. And there’s still room for a million more.