Tension and Growth

Somebody, somewhere must’ve said, “Life is Growth.”

While we’re alive, we experience change and we learn from it. In the beginning, we start small and grow bigger, learn how to walk, say “Mama,” and run without hitting walls.

Why? Because we see others, our parents, doing it and we want to do the same.

That wanting is tension. We feel a desire to do something, to achieve, to change.

So, we make an attempt. We fail or we succeed. Either way, we experience growth. We discover what will or won’t work. We understand, better than we used to, how the world works.

Story telling, even a simple nursery rhyme, often incorporates this same cycle.

Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

Tension: They wanted a pail full of water.

Growth: They tried to climb the hill but failed. In fact, it sounds like Jack is dead. No doubt, Jill has learned a valuable lesson: the hill is a lot more dangerous than she imagined!

Jill’s reality, her concept of the world, changes. And in most stories, her concept, her “World View” will become more complex, more comprehensive.

Basic Story Structure

Here’s a graph of what Jill experienced. Let’s call this an Action Cycle.

In Jill’s Action Cycle, her “World View” begins on the left. She believes things work a certain way.

An “Event” happens: Jill realizes her bucket is empty. She doesn’t like that. She feels a tension because she wants to have it full of water. Jill decides to try and fill it from the well at the top of a hill and thinks, “Jack and I can climb that hill and fill our pail.” (Her current “World View” includes the belief that she can do that with Jack’s help.)

So she batts her eye lashes, flounces her curly locks, and smiles at Jack. Jack succumbs to the rush of hormones, takes Jill’s hand, and—the fool!—”Tries” to climb the mountain.

In this nursery rhyme, they “Fail,” and Jack gets the worst of it. While Jill doesn’t end up with her pail full with water, she does learn something. She now has a “New World View” that climbing hills takes more than a cute guy and hand-holding.

Structure of Novels

A novel is a bigger story. In a novel, Jill would attempt the hill again. But this time, she might use a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance control arms front and rear.

The protagonist, that’s the main character, starts with a set of beliefs. Something happens and he (or she) is forced to adapt. In so doing, he experiences the first hump and, succeed or fail, he learns a lesson. He now has a (slightly) more comprehensive view of the world.

Then, he tries again and, succeed or fail, he learns another lesson. His view of the world becomes more complex.

In our nursery rhyme, Jill attacks the hill in her $50,000 ATV. She gets much closer to the top but, at the last minute, the boulder she’s almost over shifts beneath her vehicle and tumbles away. Her ATV slams down, bounds over sideways and, roped and bound inside the roll cage, Jill tumbles with the vehicle down the hill and, at the bottom, plunges upside down into the lake.

But, there’s more to come so, somehow, Jill finds the knife in her pocket, cuts the webbing of the safety harness, and swims to the surface gasping for breath.

The protagonist, educated by the school of hard knocks, tries one more time.

Jill eschews boyfriends and vehicles alike. She’s gonna do it “on my own.” She max’s out her VISA card at the neighborhood outfitters store and, dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt, fluorescent green shorts, and hands caked with climbing chalk, she free climbs the North Face. There’s a slip near the top and she’s dangling by a mere two fingers, but kicks her muscle-rippling legs just right to get three, then four fingers onto the tiny ledge before pulling herself up with one arm and getting two hands onto the rock. And a single heave takes her up and over the protrusion.

She’s on the top! After catching her breath, she fills the bucket and skips down the other side. (That’s called the denouement. It’s the final, final New World View in Jill’s story.)

Three Act Format

In the world of fiction, these three humps are often presented in a Three Act format. The big story is divided into three parts, Act I, Act II, and Act III, in such a way to keep you coming back to see what happens next. And, over thousands of years, the following formula has been found to pique our interest and elicit dollars from our wallets.


Act I: We meet the main character, the protagonist, and see his normal world. Then, something happens. According to the character’s belief system, he (or she) reacts and attempts some response, some action, to deal with the event. It is important to note that, in this first cycle, the protagonist does a knee-jerk reaction. There’s no thinking. “Aha, A has happened so I need to do B.” Cut and dried. No thinking.

And, in Act I, that attempt always fails. Guaranteed! The character is shocked; the world does not work like he/she thought, and—Oh Crap!—the curtain drops. End of Act I.

Audience reaction is “What’s he gonna do?” In a stage play, they murmur with the person in the next seat and anxiously await the rise of the curtain for the next act. In a novel, the reader turns the page to see what comes next.

Act II: The main character knows the world doesn’t work like it used to. They’ve learned something. And since the previous attempt failed, they still need to rectify or do something about what happened back in Act I. So, they get creative and come up with something new to try. Unlike Act I, however, we get to see not only what the protagonist attempts, and whether or not he succeeds—he usually doesn’t—but then we also see the character’s realization that’s often expressed as, “Gee, this is gonna be harder than I thought.” In other words, the character grows a second time.

At the end of Act II, we—the audience of the play or reader of the novel—get a glimpse of the biggest obstacle facing the main character.

Curtain drop. House lights up. Hurry to beat the line at the bathroom and, “I’ll meet you in the Green Room.” Then, espresso or alcoholic libation in hand, “Pretty good, so far. What do you think is gonna happen?” House lights blink, drink up, scurry back to our seats. House lights fade, murmuring in the audience dissipates, and the curtain rises.

Act III: This is it, the biggee! The main character begins his final assault and, do or die, this is it. The ascent to the climax—the third (or higher) Try in the story—requires the most effort, threatens death to the protagonist and everything he/she cares about, and typically entails a very low probability of success.

If the story is a trajedy, the protagonist fails. He/she dies along with all the good people in the world. The baddies win. (And there’s gonna be a sequel wherein we learn the main character wasn’t really killed, or Dr. Kildaire brought him back to life, or Mr. Jordan arrives from Saint Christopher’s office, says “There’s been a small mistake,” and finds our protagonist a new body to inhabit for the rest of his/her divinely-planned life.!)

If it’s a happy story, then the protagonist succeeds and we stand to applaud the cast, hold hands on the way out to the parking lot, and drive home singing the chorus from the final number.

A good work of fiction will have these three humps.

Multiple Story Lines

A better work will have more, and not just more humps. It may have multiple story lines each with their own set of roller-coasters.

In the very best fiction, the author will include more story lines. And they’ll make sure they overlap in such a way that as one story line struggles toward the summit, the other will plummet off a cliff.

Romantic relationships are common for additional story lines. (Story lines are also referred to as Arcs: Story Arcs, Character Arcs, Romantic Arcs.) The author will place the growth cycles of each Arc so it is out of phase with other Arcs. That is, when the action drops to some New World View, the romance will have heated up and somebody’s gotta do something.

Even so, these additional cycle(s) have the same elements, the same shape and inflection points as above. They have Events: “Will he kiss me?” or “My period is late.” These cause the character(s) to Try for a solution. And at the end of each attempt (Try), there will be a romantic climax (!). The character(s) will, through the experience, developed a new, more comprehensive New World View: “He loves me,” or perhaps, “It’s not yours.”

Entertainment includes these same four basic elements of Event, Try, Success/Fail, and New World View. Each time through the mill, “Reality” is raised; it becomes more and more comprehensive.

Music uses this same structure. Composers use words such as “tension” and “release.” They “develop” the melody over time. Simple songs called Ballads always have a story. (Many songs, however, are simply about a feeling. In these, there’s no growth. We are invited to share the poet’s self-pity, ecstasy, or fixation on that brown-eyed girl.)

Stage plays are built this way: there’s a problem; the main character tries to solve it (and fails); and he/she tries again and again until the final climax.

And so are stories, from nursery rhymes to short stories, chapter books, novels, movies, and movie sequels.

Tension, Try, and Grow.

Footnote: It’s worth adding that, with each experience, characters may learn the wrong thing. Experience can lead us astray. Associating with the “wrong kinds of people” can be a bad thing. Prison movies where the main character “learns” all the wrong things often end with the character’s demise trying to put those bad lessons into practice.

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