What gives a good story its pace and tempo? How do storytellers make sure their work builds to a memorable climax? Let’s break down the concept of story progression.
You’ve probably heard people talk about the ‘narrative arc’ or the ‘character arc’ before, but they’re two poorly defined terms that conjure up misleading definitions.
What we mean by arc is ‘change’ — something has to change in your story or, to be frank, it is not a story.
Progression, then, is how you structure the change in your story. It’s extremely simple to use and is one of the best ways to make your narrative as intentionally powerful as possible.
First, let’s define progression. In The Visual Story, cinematographer Bruce Block breaks it down into its most simple definition. “A progression begins as one thing and changes to something else,” he says.
“Progressions are fundamental to story or musical structure and they’re fundamental to visual structure.”
Progression can be applied to all the elements at your command as a storyteller: the story events themselves, the images, the sounds, the lighting, the tempo, and so on.
Choosing which elements to apply progression to is a fundamental part of good story design. You don’t need to apply progression to every element in a story — in fact, leaving some parts unchanged helps to heighten the progression of the elements you do change.
In order to control progression, we need to be able to see it. Block offers a simple and easy to replicate model for structuring progression: mapping intensity.
Why intensity? It’s well understood that all stories peak at a climax of some sort and it’s generally agreed that the climax is the most intense moment of a story. No event ought to be more exciting, engrossing, surprising or revealing than the climax.