Flaw vs. Virtue . . . or the Most Important Arc of Your Story

Set-up: 5%

Inciting Incident: 10%

Point of No Return and Catch Clause: 25%

Crisis or Triumph: 75%

Climatic Choice: 80%

Final Shift: 95%

So what’s all that jibba-jabba mean, asks Mr. T who pities the fool for their plotting ignorance?

It means the Set-up of your story (not the whole of it, obviously, because that’s the entire Act 1 ((Act 1 = Set-up, Act 2 = Complications, and Act 3 = Resolution)), but the introduction of it, yes), which establishes your protagonist’s prime desire (not their prime motive, which comes with the Inciting Incident) as well their character flaw, should be complete by 5% into your story.

The Inciting Incident should happen by 10% in, and not only is it the protagonist’s introduction to the story’s central conflict, but this event also tests while proving (to the audience, at least) their character flaw for the burden it really is.

The Point of No Return and its Catch Clause should happen by 25% in, which provides your protagonist the particular avenue to abandoning their flaw for its virtue opposite through the unique adversity of your story.

The Crisis or Triumph (depending on whether your story is an Aristotelian Comedy or Tragedy; I’ll get to this in a moment) should happen by 75% in, and it is either the direct opposite of the Set-up if Crisis (Comedy) or the ultimate manifestation of it if Triumph (Tragedy).

The Climatic Choice should happen by 80% in, where the protagonist progresses toward either their virtue after Crisis or regresses deeper into their flaw toward fault after Triumph.

And the Final Shift of character growth (if Comedy) or character regression (if Tragedy) should happen by 95% into your story, which seals your protagonist’s fate while proving the universal truth of your story’s moral (example: love conquers all; cheaters never win; liars never prosper; et cetera . . . though understand that your story’s moral is based only on the proof of your story and may very well be something like: liars always prosper; cheaters get the best rewards; et cetera. Just because most people want to believe that love conquers all doesn’t mean your particular story can’t prove its opposite as true).

So let’s break all that down, shall we?

First, forget that you believe a Comedy should be all whacky pratfalls and spit-take jokes, because that’s not what we’re referencing here when we speak of Comedy and neither was Aristotle. To reduce this into basic terms, Aristotle claimed all stories can be categorized and condensed as either Comedy (happy ending) or Tragedy (sad ending). So we’ll go with that because I’ve heard Aristotle was a pretty smart fellow and one heck of a ladies man.

In an Aristotelian Comedy, the protagonist is the one who makes the most significant change in terms of their central flaw, and they learn its opposite in the end, their virtue. In an Aristotelian Tragedy, the protagonist is the one who fails to change from their flaw most significantly and therefore fails to gain their potential virtue in the end because they embrace their opposing flaw ever tighter while regressing into fault.

Comedy = flaw progresses into virtue.

Tragedy = flaw regresses into fault.

Now, the Set-up of your story establishes what your protagonist desires, something related to but not the actual main story goal (for example: “I wish we weren’t so poor, mommy” says the starving boy, while his gambling-addicted mother spends their last monies scrounged from car ashtrays thieved at night on yet another lottery ticket that, to kick off their particular story, actually wins this time during the Inciting Incident). Often they state this aloud in an offhanded comment to another character during a minor moment of crisis or whatnot depending on your story’s gripping opener, similar to just as often another character makes an offhanded comment to the protagonist about their character flaw which is also established here then its burden upon them stunting their character growth (which is why the first half of Act 1 is all about stasis = death) proven during the Inciting Incident testing it. The flaw, by the by, is the direct opposite of the necessary virtue required to make your protagonist truly happy; addiction to moderation, for example, or cowardice to bravery as another. This Set-up is your protagonist’s ordinary stasis of life, and they cling to their central character flaw as a self-defense mechanism earned from some past tragedy. In essence it is their protective emotional shield they carry around because they believe it prevents them from getting hurt again while ignoring that it’s really weighing them down and preventing them from achieving their full potential.

The Inciting Incident comes next which provides your protagonist the particular avenue to achieving their manifested desire, and also often provides proof of your protagonist’s flaw as the burden it is. And remember, the Inciting Incident is the protagonist’s first awareness of the story’s central conflict, as well it must be caused by or linked to the antagonist.

After which they enter the Point of No Return that ends Act 1 and begins Act 2, but as with all things life it also comes with a Catch Clause which exists to test their character flaw throughout Act 2.

At the end of Act 2 your protagonist reaches either their Crisis (Comedy) or Triumph (Tragedy). In other terms either their All is Lost or their All is Joy. Take note that the Set-up is the direct opposite of the Crisis (if Comedy), and the Triumph is its ultimate manifestation (if Tragedy). The Crisis is your Comedy protagonist’s lowest point and the exact opposite position or situation from where they desired to be during the Set-up. The Triumph is your Tragedy protagonist’s highest point and the ultimate manifestation of their desire from the Set-up.

Act 3 begins with the Climatic Choice. The Comedy protagonist moves away from their flaw towards its opposite virtue, taking a step in a positive direction of change. The Tragedy protagonist fails to move toward their virtue and instead regresses deeper into their flaw while flourishing it into fault, taking a step in a negative direction of regression.

Again . . .

The Comedy character arc = from flaw to virtue.

The Tragedy character arc = from flaw to fault.

Though remember that great stories always present moments of temptation along the bumpy journey to persuade the protagonist from their path regardless their destination because: internal conflict!

The Final Shift afterwards shows your changing protagonist abandon their flaw while embracing their virtue (Comedy), or your steadfast protagonist wholly embracing their flaw into fault while abandoning their potential virtue altogether (Tragedy).

We’ll use Groundhog Day as a perfect example of Comedy:

Set-up: egocentric (flaw) weatherman reporter Phil (Bill Murray) desires to spend no more than twenty-four hours in loathed Punxsutawney.

Inciting Incident: foul weather prevents Phil and his crew from leaving so that he throws a miserable fit while believing himself above this irritating job as well every annoying person in Punxsutawney.

Point of No Return: stuck in loathed Punxsutawney, Phil wakes up and discovers the day won’t move forward past twenty-four hours.

Catch Clause: as well those obnoxious twenty-four hours keep repeating while only Phil remembers the previous day.

Crisis: Phil wishes the day would last forever because he’s fallen in love with his co-worker Rita, but tomorrow she’ll only remember him as the arrogant jerk she originally knew of him while retaining nothing of their time spent together after the day resets again.

Climatic Choice: Phil resolves to become a better person, moving away from his egocentric flaw toward his compassionate virtue of caring about others more than himself.

Final Shift: a changed and compassionate Phil desires to stay in beloved Punxsutawney forever, but the cycle of repeating twenty-four hours has discontinued so he looks ahead to a brighter future because he’s a changed man worthy of Rita’s love now that his transformation has ended the curse.

Now let’s use Memento as a perfect though sometimes confusing example (because of the unusual way most of the events are presented: backwards) of Tragedy:

Set-up: Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) wants to find his wife’s killer. But he as anterograde amnesia, which means he can’t make new memories and has short-term memory loss every few minutes. He also constantly relives his wife’s brutal attack which provides him obsessive determination for revenge. So he uses tattoos, notes, and polaroids to help him remember clues, such as his tattoo: ‘John G. raped and murdered my wife’.

Inciting Incident: Teddy (who claims himself an undercover police officer assigned to the rape case of Catherine Shelby, and who assists Leonard in his hunt for his wife’s killer) calls Leonard saying he found the latest ‘John G.’

Point of No Return: Natalie, a bar waitress involved in Leonard’s hunt for revenge, hands him an envelope with the killer’s identity.

Catch Clause: Even if Leonard is able to exact revenge, he won’t remember it.

Triumph: Teddy gives Leonard the name and location of another fake killer.

Climatic Choice: After killing the wrong man (Natalie’s drug dealer boyfriend Jimmy Grantz), Leonard bumps into Teddy who admits that he already helped Leonard bring down the man who attacked his wife one year earlier, and has since been using Leonard to kill men named John G. who deserved similar fates. Teddy also explains that Leonard created the name Sammy Jankis to help himself cope with the traumatic truth that he put his diabetic wife into a coma. Leonard writes on Teddy’s polaroid, “Don’t believe his lies” . . . an action which eventually leads to Leonard murdering Teddy (occurring at the start of the movie but is actually the end of the timeline).

Final Shift: Leonard stops to get an “I’ve done it” tattoo, after which his memory resets. He sits holding Natalie’s fateful note about Teddy’s license plate, which will lead Leonard to eventually killing Teddy.

*a bit of explanation about Memento’s confusing plot: the attackers who injured Leonard, causing his condition, raped his wife but didn’t actually kill her.

During his ongoing investigation, Leonard tells the story of Sammy Jankis, a man with the same condition as him, who Leonard investigated when he was an insurance loss adjuster. Jankis killed his diabetic wife by giving her an overdose of insulin because she refused to believe he had anterograde amnesia and so kept requesting more insulin shots in an attempt to force him to admit the truth.

Turns out Leonard killed his wife via an insulin overdose because Leonard is Sammy Jankis, but he created the story as a way of dealing with the guilt.

But maybe you want to stick to the basics without all the extra bells and whistles attached. Or maybe you’re a Pantser just looking for a little plotting kick in the rear to motivate your story into gear before you hand your muse the writing reins. Okay, great! We’ll reduce all that to two simple though important words: Want and Need.

So let’s recap: Aristotle claimed all stories can be categorized and condensed as either Comedy (happy ending) or Tragedy (sad ending).

-ACT 1-

1. Exciting intro hinting at the protagonist’s central flaw.

2. Establish what the protagonist Wants.

3. Establish what the protagonist Needs.

-ACT 2-

*(here inserts the meat of your story rife with complications, twists, and character development).

-ACT 3-

4. Protagonist gets what they Need (Comedy) or not (Tragedy).

5. Protagonist gets what they Want (Comedy) or not (Tragedy).

6. Satisfying outro showing a last reminder of the protagonist’s new dominant virtue or fault.

We’ll use the horror movie classic Jaws (1975) by Steven Spielberg as our perfect example of this basic Want-Need plot:

-ACT 1-

1. Shark attack.

2. Sheriff Brody wants to protect his beach from the man-eating shark.

3. Sheriff Brody needs to overcome his aquaphobia (fear of water).

-ACT 2-

*(the meat of the movie ensues).

-ACT 3-

4. Sheriff Brody overcomes his aquaphobia to confront the man-eating shark.

5. Sheriff Brody kills the shark.

6. Sheriff Brody, laughing in the middle of the ocean while afloat upon the strewn wreckage of the boat, calmly swims back to the peaceful shoreline, and remarks to his surviving companion swimming triumphant beside him: “I used to hate the water.”

Now, understand that two caveats exist with the basic Want-Need plot:

The first caveat is #’s 2 & 3. Depending on your particular story and how you set it up, your protagonist may establish their Need before their Want, or vice versa. Either way, the Inciting Incident which immediately follows your particular 2 & 3 or 3 & 2 combination of scenes presents your protagonist with the surest possible way to achieve both by introducing them to the story’s central conflict. Though whether they eventually achieve one or both or neither depends on if your story is a Comedy or a Tragedy.

The second caveat is #’s 4 & 5. Depending on your particular story and how you resolve it, your protagonist may require their Need to achieve their Want, or vice versa. As in our Jaws example, Sheriff Brody required his Need of overcoming his aquaphobia in order to achieve his Want of confronting then killing the shark to protect his beach.

Most usual the protagonist’s Want is established before their Need in Act 1, and then in Act 3 they get what they Need in order to achieve what they Want.

Simple?

I agree.

Because plot doesn’t have to be complicated . . . or it can be as complex as you wish to make of it.

And the nice feature about establishing your protagonist’s central flaw before you even write your story is that you already know its virtue (the direct opposite) as well as its fault (the flaw magnified). This helps you build all of your story’s scenes, be it Comedy or Tragedy, because every scene in your story should revolve round your protagonist’s flaw and how it impacts every decision they make and every action they take . . . because your protagonist’s central character flaw is the story’s true antagonist.

Happy writing!

adronjsmitley.blogspot.com

VEILFALL: a 353,000-word time-traveling sword & sorcery love story with lots of magic and killing! Amazon: only $2.99 digital, $11.99 paperback, $19.99 hardcover, or FREE with Kindle Unlimited!

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Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com

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Adron J. Smitley

Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com