Story Shapes: Four Ways To Think About Narrative Architecture
Story has shape.
We’re often told it has a two-dimensional shape — a common rise (gentle or swift) of a hill, or a scalene triangle. But I call shenanigans on that. I say utter donkeytrousers. I scream to the heavens: heinous skullfuckery! A story has a three- or even a four-dimensional shape. It has movement. It has architecture. It’s not something flat on a piece of paper, but it’s something you can get your hands around, something that moves through space and time.
Admittedly, sometimes the shape of my story manifests as:
a) “Howling haboob.”
b) “Corpulent humpback whale”
c) “Hefty bag full of liposuction fat.”
And that’s okay, as long as this stays inside the first draft. But given my very tight schedule of never-ending deadlines (seriously — it’s deadlines all the way down for my 2015), I am forever in search of ways to make the first draft sing and to make editing even better, faster, like some upgraded Terminator, like maybe a Terminator that got merged with a Xenomorph and a Predator. So, I’m a little bit obsessed with the idea of shaping the story as you go. Having the instinct enough to see what the story looks like now and should look like going forward. Every story of mine gets an outline, and that’s a vital part of my process — but this ain’t my first goat dance. The best outline will never survive contact with the enemy that is the day-to-day writing of a book. It’s easy to sketch out what the thing is gonna look like — but you still have to sit there at the potter’s wheel and shape the wet clay of this motherfucker as you pump the pedal.
I thought, hey, this might make an interesting post.
So, below you’ll find some shapes of narrative. Ways to consider the story not just in an outline, but also as you write and further, during the editing process. Use these as you see fit, or fling them into the howling haboob.
The Peaks And Valleys Of Jagged Mountain
Behold this photo:
That is the Yangzi River Gorge.
(Original photo by Peter Morgan.)
I want you to actually focus on the left, upper quadrant of the photo. There you might see:
And if you stare at it really hard, you will see Jesus flying a hang-glider into Mecha-Hitler’s mountain fortress, firing a pair of TEC-9 submachine guns. You might need some LSD to see that. That’s usually how I see all the Magic Eye paintings — I just drop acid and stare. “I see the connectedness of all things as represented by a spinning fractal wagon wheel in space,” I say. And the guy next to me says, “I see a dolphin.”
That guy didn’t get the good acid.
But I digress.
Regardless of whether or not you see Gunner Jesus, what I want you to see is a narrative shape. A structure for your story. At the simplest level, this structure might be expressed as: action, inaction, action, inaction, and so on. But at the more complex, more meaningful level, what it means is that you have these peaks and valleys, right? The peaks are moments of tension, conflict, action, pain. The valleys are moments of temporary resolution, release, dialogue, development. The peak is the sharp intake of breath; the valley is the exhalation of that breath. A peak steals the oxygen; the valley returns it. (And a story requires oxygen because oxygen is what fuels the fire that will sometimes be required.)
This gives us rhythm.
We need rhythm in our stories, just as we need them in our sentences. One sentence is short. Another takes its time getting to the point. A third sentence takes even longer, meandering and roaming and taking its sweet fucking time because it has to. Narrative is like that. It needs this… variance. This disruption. Without rhythm, it’s just mad, monotonous ululating. We don’t just want a predictable rise and fall because at that point the shape might as well be a straight line. And here you’ll note, too, that this isn’t just like an EKG pulse beat. Note the overall rise of the line. One peak is higher than the last; the next valley is deeper or wider than the one before it.
Even the most batshit thriller, action movie or horror novel needs the downbeats to counterbalance the sharp upticks. A story that’s just go go go breakneck speed is a horse that cannot sustain its gallop. You’ll break the beast’s back with that kind of pace. The downbeats, too, have a secret function: on a roller coaster ride, the hills are the rush, but the valleys are where we learn to anticipate the next hill.
Because we know the ride isn’t over.
The Vomit Comet Roller Coaster
Speaking of roller coasters, here’s a video:
You really only need to watch the first minute or so to get where I’m going.
First lesson: stories are not straight up and down. They go left. They go right. Stories aren’t just pure rise and fall — like roller coasters, they twist, they juke right, they double back on themselves, you barf at the top of a loop, the barf hits you at the bottom of the loop. They go in ways you don’t expect because subverting expectation is something every great story does at some point or another.
Second lesson: watch the way this one goes up, then back, then builds momentum to overcome its first twist and loop. Now, imagine how that applies to a narrative structure. Imagine the tale launching forth toward its first moment of danger, fear, conflict (“inciting incident,” if you care to label it as such) and then watch how it doubles back. Does that mean the story delves into a flashback to give us context for the conflict? Does it invoke some sense of backpedaling or some kind of serious fallback for the character? No idea. But that flashback, backstory or pitfall is what helps us launch the narrative forward again — this time with greater velocity.
Third lesson: every roller coaster is different, and so is every story.
As you’re writing, imagine the tale as a roller coaster. When is it time to build momentum? When is it time to let the momentum carry the tale? When to take a turn, a twist, a loop? What does a loop mean for the flow of the story? Examine, too, the various roller coasters across the country for a lark. Some are classic — up and down and side to side, a slow clacka-clacka-clacka until the fast rattle-bang fall. But some are fucking monkeyshit thunderpants in that the track disappears entirely or you go upside-down or you have to go back in time to help your parents meet and you have to teach them how to make love to one another lest you were never born. (Additional reading: 7 Most Terrifying Roller Coasters In The World.)
The Clockwork Ouroboros
Let’s think a little about loops.
Story as a line — jagged, rising, roller coaster track, line of cocaine across the abs of a male stripper named Randy, whatever — is interesting, and that relative shape works a lot of the time. But let’s look at the idea of a loop. A snake biting its own tail (tale?), maybe, or a spiraling shape corkscrewing ever inward. Think of the parts in a pocketwatch: lots of loops working together. (Many loops, interestingly, with teeth. Jagged teeth like, say, on the peaks of a mountain…)
Now, let’s talk about Chekhov’s Gun.
Which is, paraphrasingly, if you show a gun in the first act, that gun better go off by the third.
Chekhov’s Gun is not about a gun.
It’s about everything inside your story.
What it’s saying is that all the parts of your story should have a chance to come back into the story again and again. It means you do not introduce an element — plot, character, object, twist — without come back to it later. It is the ultimate in hunting and killing: use all parts of the goddamn animal. A supporting character is made meaningful by reiterative inclusion, and an inclusion that continues to move forward (here again: peaks, valleys, twists, turns). It’s not just that a gun introduced will go off later — it’s that every piece of the story is a trap you spring, every character is one who can threaten the plot or change the story, every object worth mentioning is an object worth revisiting. The wheel turns, the gears spin, the loops double back on loops.
What this means, practically speaking is:
Every new thing you introduce should also be complemented with an old thing that will return. I feel my way along the dark forest of writing a new book like this pretty frequently, now — am constantly seeking those opportunities to use the LEGO pieces I already have rather than seeking out new ones. You’re trying to breed familiarity and continuity — good world building and narrative design is stitched together in a layered thread count rather than in a single straight line forward with no way back. Stories should always look back. Find ways to let the snake bite its own tail. Find ways to reenergize old ideas and consistently reintroduce elements you’ve already put on the table. I find nothing so pleasing as returning to a world for a second book, because every element of the first story is a rabbit hole I can fall down again.
And I can bring the audience with me, every time.
Salt, Sugar, Fat
If you wanna make food that people can’t stop eating, you concoct a ratio of salt, sugar, and fat. The three of those things do a sexy tango on your tongue and you undergo a dopamine braingasm. After which you’re all like, “Just one more,” and you say that after every chip of Doritos Habenero Demon Jizz Fiesta flavor that you shove in your fool mouth. Just one more, crunch. Just one more, crunch. Repeat until you’re left with an empty bag and fingers dusted and discolored with Dorito pollen and then you feel intense shame and weep uncontrollably except your tears are just spicy sweet fat running down your cheeks and then diarrhea and probably also you die? Because of Hemorrhagic Diabetes. So delicious.
(Bonus reading: Salt Sugar Fat, a book on the processed food industry.)
Just as the salt-sugar-fat combo makes for tasty, addictive food –
It can make for tasty, addictive storytelling, too.
Roughly a third of each in your story.
Whoa, wait, stop slathering your book in bacon grease and dusting it with Hawaiian sea salt and dark demerera sugar wait no hold on keep doing it. Put it in the oven first. Roast it up. Caramelize the pages. Mm. Yeah. Do it. Do it now. Do it slow.
*eats your book*
No, no, wait, what I mean is — consider these as metaphors.
Salt: grit, conflict, pain, attitude.
Sugar: sentiment, emotion, sweetness.
Fat: backstory, extraneous character dialogue, description.
(Those who say all fat must be cut are wrong. Many of the best stories have some element of fat — because fat is essential. Fat lubricates. It is umami — it gives depth to the flavor you already possess. Certainly a book should not have too much fat, because too much fat is frequently just gross — a single flavor without complexity.)
Consider the story as season to taste. As you write, think: do I have enough of each to form maximum addiction? Look to the stories you’ve loved — books, films, comics. Think about how the ratio works there. Different genres and stories will express different ratios. (50% salt, 30% sugar, 20% fat? What happens when you increase one and decrease another? What effect does that have on the overall feel of the story?) This is crucial in the edit, too — is there value in adding more sweetness to a character? Or is the character already too sweet and needs a little salt to rub in the open wounds? Is the story too lean, too practiced, too tender? A lean cut of meat dries out, and so can a too-lean story, too — we like little deviations and imperfections in the narrative, and so you may add fat to compensate.
The goal, after all, is to keep the reader reading.
And so: what narrative flavor combinations achieve that best?
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There you have it. A handful of new ways to get your hands around the story. Again, the goal: just to think about new ways to organically feel the shape of your story. How to sculpt it as you go — curating it, pushing it, urging it to take a meaningful shape other than FORMLESS SLURRY OF OLD YOGURT INSIDE A RUSTED VAT.
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