We are born story-telling machines.
I am sitting at a big table with ten other students in novelist Porochista Khakpour’s living room. Porochista asks the woman on her right to start telling a story. Then the next person in line tacks on a sentence, and so the story grows, handed from writer to writer. I am sitting at the half-way mark.
When it’s my turn I introduce a massive conflict.
I feel it in my bones — all that build up has to explode into SOMETHING or the story will die. Then, as it makes its way around the table, the conflict gets resolved and the story ends.
Porochista has led this exercise hundreds of times. Without fail, the person sitting at the halfway point blows the story wide open. The timing of a narrative arc is visceral, its rules universal and unspoken.
Trey Parker, co-creator of the TV show South Park, calls it the ABT structure. X happens AND Y happens BUT then conflict happens and THEREFORE a resolution can unfold.
When you use his ABT framework, you avoid writing stories that are flat and boring. ABT forces us to write the stories readers crave.
Even in these Atomic Essays, there’s only so much set up required, or we lose our readers. We need to engage our readers with a personal anecdote, resolve the conflict, and package up the takeaway tidily. Get the cadence wrong, and they go back to their cat videos.
If it’s good enough for South Park, it’s good enough for our essays.