The Nutshell Crisis and Triumph

Comedy Tragedy

Ciao, SEers. I’ve been walking you through Jill Chamberlain’s Nutshell method. If you’ve missed earlier posts, you can find them here:

Last time, we saw how the set-up want related to the crisis or triumph (depending on whether you were writing an Aristotelean comedy or tragedy, respectively). Today, we’re going to look at those elements more closely.

The Aristotelean Comedy and the Crisis

In an Aristotelean comedy, the protagonist’s trajectory through the story looks like a V. Each problem takes them deeper into the hole. For every victory earned, there’s a bigger setback. Then he or she reaches the crisis. This occurs at the 75% mark of the story and is his or her lowest point. It is the exact opposite of where he or she started at the set-up want.

As the protagonist moved through act two, he or she battled through one problem after another. The decisions made need to inform the crisis, so that by the time we reach that point, it is the protagonist’s fault for being in that situation. This can’t be something that just happens to the protagonist; rather, the crisis needs to occur because of earlier choices (the classic cause and effect trajectory).

The crisis gives the protagonist one last choice to make, though neither is a good one. It’s the classic between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place situation. In an Aristotelean comedy, the crisis leads to the climactic choice, which is where the protagonist turns from his or her flaw and embraces the opposite strength. This is the end of act two, and the character arc ceases to be on a downward path and begins rising.

The Aristotelean Tragedy and the Triumph

In an Aristotelean tragedy, the protagonist’s trajectory through the story has the exact opposite shape as the comedy ( Λ ) . Each situation faced looks like a win, taking them higher and higher on their path. Then he or she reaches what appears to be the ultimate triumph (at the 75% point). It’s the place where the protagonist thinks all is well, then he or she experiences a complete reversal of fortune.

The triumph is the place where the protagonist’s downward spiral begins. When faced with the climactic choice in an Aristotelean tragedy, the protagonist fails to acknowledge or recognize the strength that would defeat his or her flaw, and so he or she is unable to overcome it. This fall from grace also needs to be a direct result of the choices the protagonist made. It can’t just happen from an outside source.

I mentioned a “climactic choice” in this section. Next time, we’ll get into detail about that term. But for right now, I’d love to hear your take on triumphs and crises. Do you have a favorite absolute high point or low point in one of your stories? Or in someone else’s work? Have you ever written an Aristotelean tragedy? (Roughly 95% of stories are comedies.) Let’s talk about it.


Staci Troilo Bio

38 thoughts on “The Nutshell Crisis and Triumph

  1. This is a great post! I don’t think I’ve ever used this structure as my characters so far have started too “low” to get a true V going. But my current WIP might be close! I’m going to have to read the rest of this series!

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  2. Pingback: The Nutshell Climactic Choice and Final Step | Story Empire

  3. Well done, Staci. My brain went into a metaphorical scene to grasp the tragedy concept. I’m thinking of the way the highwire artists pretend to slip which causes the audience to gasp as equivalent to the climactic choice. Should the artist go on and cross the wire or stop and save his or her own life. Logic says stop but then where would that leave the audience? No, the act must go on knowing that safety is the wiser choice.

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  4. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Staci Troilo is featured today on Story Empire with another of her very interesting and informative posts on the “Nutshell” Method of writing. If you’re like me, this is something you may not know about at all, or know only in the broadest of terms, so I urge you to drop by and take a look at writing Crisis and Triumph the Aristotelean way. I think you’ll be glad you did, and I hope you’ll share so others can learn, too. Thanks, and thanks to Staci for such an interesting series. 🙂

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  5. All of this has been totally new to me, Staci, and very interesting. (If I’m not careful, I might actually learn something around here! 😀 ) I’ve got to mull these over in great detail before I start my next book. (In other words, soon!) Thanks so much for your careful and clear explanations! Sharing! 🙂

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    • I like to learn new things. I’m always looking for a new method, a little tweak, a massive retooling. Whatever makes life easier, even if it’s harder first. The more I think about this method, the more I can’t wait to try it. I have a book and a half to finish first (already outlined), then I think I can play with this.

      Thanks, Marcia. Mull away!


  6. Another post full of good information and writer food for thought, Staci. I am more familiar with the V type plot than the reversed V. I watched a movie last night that followed this plot structure. And it wasn’t until the last one minute of the movie that the hero was rescued and given the slightest possibility of a happy ever after. I had already decided it was going to be one of those movies that ended with an ‘all is lost.’ To me, that is good writing. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. It’s been so long since I’ve read tragedies, I’m going to have to think hard to remember their structures. To me, The Iliad felt like a tragedy when Troy fell and so few people escaped. Tess of the D’urbervilles felt like a tragedy, too, but it felt like she was beaten down to me. Can’t remember what her choices were that led her to that point. You’re making me think too much:)

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    • It took me a while to unpack her process and reframe it in the format I was used to, but once I did, I recognized it, too. But honestly, Sue, while the “old” way is more familiar to me, I like her way better. I’m really excited to try it. It may not work for me in practice, but in theory, I think it’s brilliant.

      Thanks for the “brava,” but I can’t take any of the credit. 😊

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  8. I think I probably read more tragedies when I was younger. The Once and Future King by T.H. White definitely stands out in my mind as one that made an impression on me. The same with the story of Tristan and Isolde. Now I tend to stick to a regular “V” rather than an inverted one. 🙂
    I have to say that’s a great illustration of the difference between the protagonist’s path!

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    • The tragedy has been appealing to me lately. I really want to write one and actually have a few in mind. I enjoyed The Once and Future King. Tristan and Isolde less so (my sister named one of her dogs Tristan, though her dog is a girl). The story of Oedipus was another that intrigued me (those ancient Greeks sure knew how to write tragedies).

      Thanks, Mae.

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    • It was totally different to me, too, when I first saw it. When I started picking it apart, I realized I knew all these elements. I just never looked at it this way before. But if it takes rearranging things and/or renaming them to help give me or someone else clarity, I’m all for it.

      Thanks, Craig.

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  9. This series is giving me much to think about. I’ve often thought of that “turning point” or climatic choice.

    I’ll mention our favorite movie, Casablanca. Rick’s turning point near the end of the film (or at least we see it then). He gives up his seat on the plane for the greater good. As a writer, I can glean so much from this film.

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    • Comedies are so much more popular. But now that I understand the method, I’d love to try a tragedy. One of the writers in the story studio where I work (the other one who’s as geeky about story structure as I am) is as interested as I am, and we’re thinking about maybe working on one together, actually.

      Comedy or tragedy, the patterns are interesting. Thanks, Denise.

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