Put Your Milestones Where Your Mouth Is
One of the trickiest skills in storytelling is positioning milestones to reflect plot hierarchy. It's tricky because plot hierarchy can be difficult to identify. When a story springs full-formed in our fevered brain or eeks drip by drop from our curious pen, we tend to see it as an inviolable whole--and our veneration for the Muse makes us balk at the thought of reshaping it. The consumer, however, doesn't give a fig for our Muse. She wants a good story well told. Assuming we've provided the good story, the next step is to tell it well. That requires unity and coherence.
Let's focus on the main plot or A story, the one that shapes the piece from beginning to end. Under its arc, any number of sub-arcs may form. Some of them may intersect with the main arc at various points. It's good if they do. The B story arc certainly should, especially at the end. But a unified and coherent narrative never forgets where it started, where it will end, or what points it will pass through on the way. When we chop a narrative up into eight even sequences, we should find nine milestones that tell us the A story: one very near the first line, one very near the last line, and seven more at the seams between sequences.
Here are some venerable examples.
The Iliad (c. 760 BCE, Homer)
- Homer says he will tell the story of Achilles' vengeance.
- Helen chides Paris for losing the duel with Menalaus, but then has sex with him.
- Hector parts with wife and child before the battle.
- The Trojan camp is near the Greek camp.
- Meriones asks Idomeneus to lend him a spear.
- Hector defeats Ajax.
- Thetis asks Vulcan to make new armour for Achilles.
- Hector stands to fight Achilles. Achilles refuses Hector a decent burial.
- Hector gets a decent burial.
The Fall of Adam (c. 538 BCE, Anonymous)
- The serpent is the most subtle beast of the field.
- Eve tells the serpent that God has commanded her and Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
- Eve eats the fruit and gives some to Adam, who also eats.
- God asks Adam and Eve where they are.
- Eve confesses that the serpent beguiled her into eating the fruit.
- God curses the serpent and Eve.
- God curses Adam.
- God clothes Adam and Eve and recognizes that Adam has become like the Gods (knowing good and evil) and is in danger of eating the fruit of the tree of life and living forever.
- God drives Adam and Eve out of the garden and sets Cherubims and a flaming sword to keep them away from the tree of life.
Oedipus the King (c. 429 BCE, Sophocles)
- Thebes is distressed.
- Oedipus vows to avenge the murder of Laius.
- Teiresias tells Oedipus that Oedipus is the man whose crimes pollute the city.
- Oedipus believes Creon is part of a conspiracy to kill Oedipus and seize the throne.
- Iocasta tells Oedipus how an oracle prophecied that Laius would be murdered by his own son at a place where three ways meet. Oedipus is terrified at the mention of the place. Oedipus asks for details. Oedipus recognizes his murder of an old man in the place described in the prophecy.
- The oracles are in contempt. Men deny Apollo's power. Worship of the gods is passing away. Oedipus is terrified. His judgment is distracted. Iocasta cannot calm him.
- Oedipus insists on knowing the secret of his birth.
- Iocasta realizes Oedipus is her child and the murderer of Laius, and hangs herself. Oedipus finds her dead and gouges out his own eyes.
- Oedipus can no longer have his way in all things.
Lysistrata (c. 411 BCE, Aristophanes)
- Lysistrata has called a meeting of women, but the women haven't shown up yet.
- Lysistrata of Athens and Lampito of Sparta discuss how the war between their cities keeps the men away from their beds. Lysistrata has a way to end the war and asks the women if they are with her.
- The women of Athens have taken the Citadel. The men of Athens prepare to besiege the Citadel.
- The women drive the men back with a sousing. The women would like to stay home, but the men's war has forced them to take action.
- The women drive the Commissioner off with a sousing. The Commissioner withdraws to inform the rest of the Commission of what might happen to them. The men strip for battle.
- Various women attempt to make excuses to go home (so they can have sex with their men). Lysistrata tells the women that an oracle has told her they will prevail if they control their desire for sex but will fail if they give into it.
- As part of a ruse to increase the men's desire for sex (and therefore willingness to end the war), Myrrhine feins willingness to sleep with her husband and makes him promise to vote for a treaty.
- Policed by Lysistrata,the Spartan and Athenian men meet to conlcude a peace.
- Everybody sings and dances.
The Aeneid (c. 29 BCE, Virgil)
- This is an epic about a man and his weapons.
- Led by Pyrrhus (son of Achilles), the Greeks enter Troy.
- King Hyarba asks Zeus to drive Aeneas away from Dido and out of Africa.
- Venus (Aeneas' mother) complains to Neptune that Juno continually persecutes the Trojan refugees.
- King Latinus recognizes Aeneas as the prince prophesied to share his throne and marry his daughter.
- In Aeneas' underworld vision, Caesar conquers many nations.
- Pallas' troops prevail.
- Camilla (an ally of King Turnus) prevails.
- Aeneas kills Turnus in revenge for Turnus' killing of Pallas.
The Gospel of Matthew (c. 90 CE, Anonymous)
- Jesus is a descendant through Joseph of the two great kings (Solomon and David) and the three great patriarchs (Jacob, Isaac and Abraham).
- Jesus gathers a core group of disciples and goes about preaching and healing. He delivers the Beatitudes.
- Jesus heals a leper, the servant of a centurion, and Peter's wife's mother.
- Jesus contends with the Pharisees, who accuse the disciples of not obeying the law.
- Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites.
- The Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus with questions about the law. The disciples bar children from approaching Jesus.
- Jesus confounds all his questioners, suggests that he is the Messiah, and charges his disciples to be humble servants.
- Jesus predicts his own betrayal and crucifixion. Judas arranges to betray Jesus to the high priest.
- Jesus meets the disciples on a mountain, tells them all power is given him in earth and heaven, and instructs them to teach and baptize all nations.
Beowulf (8th to 11th century CE, Anonymous)
- Beowulf is a great king.
- Beowulf visits Hrothgar. Hrothgar hopes Beowulf can defeat Grendel.
- Beowulf fights Grendel.
- The Danes celebrate the defeat of Grendel.
- Beowulf slays Grendel's mother and goes after Grendel.
- Laden with Hrothgar's rewards, Beowulf leaves Daneland for Geatland.
- Beowulf decides to take on the dragon alone.
- While Beowulf nurses his wounds at the mouth of the cave, Wiglaf recovers some treasures from the dragon's hoard.
- Beowulf is honored and laid to rest.
Romeo and Juliet (c. 1591 CE, William Shakespeare)
- Two families are in a feud and two of their children fall in love.
- Romeo has been rejected by Rosaline. Benvolio swears to teach Romeo to forget Rosaline. Paris asks Capulet for Juliet's hand. Capulet invites Paris to a party at his house.
- Crashing the Capulet party with Benvolio, Romeo is smitten by Juliet's beauty. Tybalt swears to make Romeo pay. Romeo and Juliet meet. Romeo learns that Juliet is a Capulet. Juliet learns that Romeo is a Montague.
- Romeo asks Friar Laurence to secretly marry him and Juliet. Friar Laurence thinks Romeo fickle. Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel. Mercutio tells Benvolio that Tybalt is a formidable duelist against whom Romeo doesn't stand a chance.
- Tybalt challenges Romeo. Romeo declines. Mercutio challenges Tybalt. Tybalt accepts. Romeo intervenes. Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeo's arm. Mercutio curses both houses. Romeo regrets not fighting Tybalt. Mercutio dies. Romeo challenges Tybalt. Tybalt accepts. Romeo kills Tybalt. The Prince banishes Romeo from Verona and sentences him to execution if he remains.
- Romeo tells Friar Laurence that banishment from Verona, where Juliet lives, is torture, not mercy. The Nurse tells Romeo how Juliet grieves for both him and Tybalt. Romeo prepares to kill himself for grieving Juliet.
- Juliet goes to confess to Friar Laurence. Paris asks Friar Laurence to marry him and Juliet on Thursday next. Juliet threatens to kill herself if Friar Laurence cannot give her a way to be with Romeo. Friar Laurence tells her he has a way which resembles death.
- Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead. Romeo decides to return to Verona. Romeo buys poison.
- Montague and Capulet make peace. They vow to raise statues to each other's children.
Pride and Prejudice (1813, Jane Austen)
- Mrs. Bennet hopes to marry the newly arrived Mr. Bingley to one of her daughters.
- Elizabeth spars with Darcy in Bingley's drawing room. Darcy keeps looking at Elizabeth.
- Elizabeth learns of Darcy's contempt for Wickham.
- Mrs. Gardiner worries about Elizabeth's preference for Wickham. Mrs. Gardiner recollects hearing Darcy described as a very proud, ill-natured boy.
- Elizabeth rejects Darcy's offer of marriage and scolds him for his arrogance, conceit and selfish disdain for the feelings of others.
- Elizabeth visits and adores Pemberley (and Darcy's tastes in landscaping and décor) and nearly regrets not accepting Darcy's offer of marriage, but remembers that Darcy's prejudice would have deprived her of visits by her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners.
- Lydia has run off with Wickham, whom Elizabeth has learned to be imprudent, extravagant and in debt.
- Bingley and Darcy dine at the Bennets'. Bingley resumes his courtship of Jane. Elizabeth is grateful to Darcy for for providing for the Wickhams.
- Elizabeth and Darcy live happily.
Ivanhoe (1820, Walter Scott)
- England is in turmoil.
- Isaac arranges for Ivanhoe (the Palmer/the Pilgrim) to be outfitted with horse and armor.
- The tournament begins: De Bracy vs. the Disinherited Knight (Ivanhoe).
- Cedric attempts to get Rowena to marry Athelstane.
- Robin Hood and Ivanhoe threaten to attack Front-de-Beouf's castle, where Bois-Gilbert has imprisoned Rebecca.
- Front-de-Beouf lies dying. Ulrica recounts Front-de-Beouf's wrongs to her father and brothers.
- Isaac approaches Templestowe to plead for Rebecca's release.
- The Black Knight (Richard Coeur-de-Lion) travels with Wamba (Cedric's jester).
- Ivanhoe and Rowena prosper under Richard Coeur-de-Lion.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1870, Jules Verne)
- The year 1866 is marked by a bizarre development. Many ships have encountered an enormous, swift, phosphorescent object on the sea.
- Professor Arronax is thrown overboard by a collision and rescued by Conseil, who jumped in after him.
- Nemo takes Professor Arronax on a tour of the Nautilus.
- The crew of the Nautilus is cosmopolitan but none speak French.
- Professor Arronax and Conseil are attacked by Papuans after Conseil shoots at a Papuan who threw a stone that broke a valuable left-swirled snail shell.
- Nemo invites Professor Arronax on a shark hunt.
- Professor Arronax and Ned plan an escape.
- Professor Arronax, Ned and Conseil explore the interior of an extinct volcano.
- Professor Arronax hopes that Nemo and the Nautilus have survived their latest voyage and that discovery can quell the spirit of revenge in Nemo's breast.
Tom Sawyer (1876, Samuel Clemens)
- Tom is in trouble with Aunt Polly.
- Tom sees Becky Thatcher.
- Tom and Becky become steadies.
- Tom gives his Pain-killer to the cat. Aunt Pully hits Tom.
- The boys feel sick after smoking. The boys are caught in a storm.
- Tom fails at a speech.
- Tom and Huck overhear Joe and the Spaniard talking about the cross.
- Tom and Becky are lost in the cave.
- Tom and Huck plan to be robbers. Tom promises to persuade Widow Douglas to ease up on Huck.
The Cat in the Hat (1957, Theodor Geisel)
- Two kids sit in their house all day because of the rain.
- The Cat arrives and suggests having fun.
- The Cat starts juggling various items, including the fishbowl.
- The Cat drops everything it's juggling, including the fish.
- The Cat releases Thing 1 and Thing 2.
- Thing 1 and Thing 2 start flying kites in the house.
- The children's mother approaches the house.
- The Cat has left a big mess.
- The kids wonder if they should tell their mother about the Cat.
Coraline (2002, Neil Gaiman)
- Coraline discovers the door in her new house.
- Coraline's mother won't let Coraline buy green gloves.
- Coraline participates in Miss Spink's circus.
- Coraline's other mother has stolen Coraline's parents. She tries to convince Coraline that her parents grew bored with her and abandoned her.
- Coraline is imprisoned in a closet. She meets the previously imprisoned ghost children.
- Coraline rescues a second marble (ghost child). The other Miss Forcible and Miss Spink have become a single grotesque monster which tries to capture Coraline.
- Coraline feels she has failed. The cat kills the rat. Coraline has the third marble. Now she only needs to rescue her parents.
- Coraline and the freed ghosts have a picnic.
- Coraline is home safe.