I have a theory that one reason why stories are such an important part of the human experience (and have been, through time) is because they are so familiar.
There is a rhythm to them, and the human brain is wired to appreciate rhythm.
I read recently that music is stored in procedural memory — a part of the brain that remains intact for patients who have Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, even as their episodic memory is destroyed.
Using Music to Enhance the Quality of Life of People with Alzheimer's
It is no secret that music has transformative powers. It not only has the ability to change moods and lift spirits, but…
Maybe the rhythm of a story is story is stored there, too. I don’t know. What I do know is that human beings have storytellers (and consumers) for as long as there have been human beings. Longer than recorded history.
Stories have a rhythm that we call a story arc.
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. The story starts, some things happen, the story ends.
I went out hunting today, a wooly mammoth nearly killed me, I brought it home to feed us through the winter.
My aunt and uncle were killed on their moisture farm, I trained to be a Jedi, I destroyed the Death Star.
There is very little about story arc that will ever surprise you, because it’s so familiar. You already understand it, intuitively.
There is a difference, though, between the arc for a tragic story and the arc for a story that’s not tragic. If you’re a writer and you want to write a tragedy, it’s important to understand how tragic stories are put together.
First: Is it Really Tragic?
When I teach story writing in person, I always ask if anyone feels like they’re writing a tragic story. It’s important to know, because the rhythm of a tragic story is different from the rhythm of a non-tragic story.
The beats are there, just in a different order.
Every time, at least a few people raise their hands. If I’m teaching teenagers, at least half of everyone raises their hands.
To make sure, I always tell them what a truly tragic story is.
It boils down to this: in a tragic story the protagonist either dies or would be better off dead.
If your main character is alive at the end, and better off for all the terrible things that happened to them, your story is not tragic. You can write a very sad story — but as long as at the end of the story your protagonist is neither dead or wishing they were dead, your story is not tragic.
There are going to be some spoilers here!
Star Wars: A New Hope is a classic non-tragic story. The main character is alive and heroic at the end.
The Fault in Our Stars is very sad, but not tragic. The main character is alive at the end, and better for having fallen in love, even though the boy she fell in love with died.
The Sons of Anarchy is desperately tragic. The main character commits suicide in the last episode.
Why it Matters
Knowing whether or not you’re writing a tragedy matters because, like I said, the rhythm of a tragic story is different from the rhythm of a non-tragic story.
Most modern stories aren’t tragic. The mid-point climax is almost always a very high point, mirroring the tone of the end of the story. The main climax is the dark night of the soul, which the protagonist has to heroically climb out of.
A non-tragic story arc looks like this: Ordinary world, a mid-point climax that is a big win for the protagonist, a main climax that is also sometimes called the dark night of the soul, a third act twist that turns things around, and a non-tragic resolution and a return to a different, better ordinary world.
In a tragic story, those two major climaxes are inverse. The mid-point mirrors the end of the story — and is the dark night of the soul moment. The main climax is a very high moment, which the protagonist falls from.
A tragic story arc looks like this: Ordinary world, a mid-point climax that is a very low point for the protagonist, a main climax that is the highest point in the story, a third act twist that ruins everything, and a tragic resolution that ends in death or a return to far worse ordinary world.
Pro-Tip: If you’re ever watching a movie or reading a book and everything is looking up for the protagonist three-quarters of the way through, you can be relatively certain that something awful is going to happen.
Break Down of a Truly Tragic Story
I’m watching the Sons of Anarchy right now, which is what has me thinking about tragedy. It follows the tragic story arc perfectly.
Ordinary World: Jax is Vice President of his motorcycle club. His son is born with health problems due to his mother being a drug addict. The doctor who helps his son survive is also his high school sweetheart, Tara.
Midpoint Climax: At the end of the third season, halfway through the series, Opie (Jax’s best friend) kills a Federal Agent in revenge for the death of his wife, which is the beginning of his unraveling and also the beginning of the end for Jax.
Main Climax: In the fifth season, Jax and Tara get married. Jax has pulled off a big, complicated plan that results in ‘short time’ for several club members, but no life sentences or death penalty (which is a major win in this story.)
Third Act Twist: In the sixth season, right at the end, there is a super high moment. Tara has spent the whole season bending herself into pretzels trying to extricate herself — but more importantly her two young sons — from the motorcycle club without getting herself killed. She’s on the verge of turning state’s evidence in exchange for witness protection when Jax finds her. Jax realizes that the only way to save her, his sons, and maybe most importantly himself is to turn himself in. He’ll be in prison for seven years, if he’s lucky, and that will put everything right. After six seasons, he finally does the exact right thing and for about five minutes, it’s perfect. And then, the twist: his mother kills his wife, which throws the whole story into it’s tragic resolution.
There’s another season, but at the end of the sixth season, with the third act twist — both the beautiful high moment when Jax finally figures out how to be a hero, and the tragic fall — everything else is resolution.
Jax has figured out he has to sacrifice himself. If he could have done that by going to prison, the story could have become less tragic. It might have needed another season to develop. But that didn’t happen, and he ends up killing himself to save his children and his club.
Tragic stories are less common, which can mean that their story arc is less intuitive. If you find yourself struggling with your story, it might be because you’re trying to shoehorn your tragedy into a non-tragic story arc.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.