Unity of Opposites: A Storytelling Model

(Part 3 in an erratic series)

Structure is something many writers, especially short story writers, aren’t conscious of. If we are, most likely it’s in the form of the story curve – the classical approach to defining narrative structure – that’s been burned into our consciousness

For decades, the Fichtean curve almost exclusively defined the short story. It goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics and asserts that what a good story does is: establish the conflict, escalate it (in a series of steps), then bring it to crisis and ultimate resolution via a character that faces a moral choice

In the classic curve, the conflict is represented by external events. In more contemporary versions, conflict can be internal. This model prizes plot as a story’s driver, and resolution of one sort or another as a story’s outcome.

Here’s the problem for many contemporary writers: the story curve is rooted in Aristotelian notions not just of narrative, but of the world and the nature of the self. Unified. Knowable. Coherent.

Stories in our fractured, post-coherence age often don’t resolve. They don’t fully add up. Because, for many writers, the world doesn’t fully add up, and stories should reflect our experience. As Donald Barthelme put it, “fragments are the only form I trust.”

Plot is no longer the only engine driving story. Personality, voice, ideas (association), memory, and language can be the shaping force for story.

That said, there remain two common elements in all stories: conflict and movement. Conflict (tension) is still the energy that drives it all. And movement is almost self-evident. A story has to go somewhere – to take readers on a journey. The question becomes what is the nature of that journey.

So how to find a model, a way to describe and focus narrative energy, that allows for a more flexible approach to story? One answer – and a wonderfully useful concept – is the unity of opposites.

As articulated in The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri in 1946, the unity of opposites describes the heart of a story as an opposition, established by character (protagonist), and discernible by three questions:

  • What does the protagonist want?
  • What is in his or her way?
  • How does this opposition play out? 

The unity of opposites says these forces should be strong and evenly matched.

While these three questions can be answered in a variety of ways for any piece of writing, as a writer you want to look for the way that helps you see into the story most fully.

For more than 20 years now, I’ve found them valuable in shaping all kinds of stories, from traditional to wildly innovative. I will start asking myself the questions after a first or second draft, and I will continue to ask them – and watch the answers evolve, grow richer – through succeeding drafts. Until full, complex answers tell me I’m nearing a final draft where a nuanced and emotionally resonant opposition is playing out.

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About the Author

Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.

See other articles by Ron MacLean
by Ron MacLean

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