Stories, writing technique

How to Master Your Craft and Write Wonderful Books

I’m sure you read the title and thought to yourself, “Duh! Thanks for the info, Captain Obvious.” Even so, this post is for the dozens of authors I’ve talked to who take years to write (and rewrite) their work. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I firmly believe that we can work smarter, not harder.) Regardless of whether you’re a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), a plotter (someone who thinks the story through and outlines before they write), or something in between, this post attempts to show the link between the component parts of story structure. There’s also a short addendum on problematic prose and a list for further reading at the end.

Kurt Vonnegut’s The Shapes of Stories

Even though I’ve spent a little over fifteen years studying literature for my day job, I felt I was missing something. I wanted to figure out that je ne sais quoi that great books have without the painstaking process of rewriting my work half a dozen times. As a professor, I tend to hunt for the best way to explain fiction to my students; last summer, my teaching and writing roles intersected when a research group revived Vonnegut’s The Shapes of Stories.1 My students are budding scientists and engineers, so I knew they’d love this:

While the University of Chicago rejected Vonnegut’s thesis, “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales,” on The Shapes of Stories, a recent analysis suggests his theory is sound.  Each of the 1,327 stories researchers mined from Project Gutenberg roughly approximates one of the six arcs Vonnegut outlined decades ago.2

Story-Shapes

It’s worth noting that the sample works span both literary and commercial fiction. If you’re curious about the emotional arc of a particular work of fiction, check out the HedonometerThe next section uses two samples from Hedonometer.org to explore The Shapes of Stories in a more useful way.

Hedonometer and The Shapes of Stories

While Hedonometer doesn’t contain every work of fiction, it does track most classics and a few recent blockbusters. For the purposes of our examination, I’ve used two works of fiction written for young adults: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What’s interesting about these works is that their emotional arcs are the inverse of one another, yet the major turning points of each occur at roughly the same narratological point. For example, here’s the emotional arc for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

HPandSS

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from Hedonometer.org

As you can see, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a variant of the ‘Oedipus’ arc (Fall-Rise-Fall…). An inverse emotional arc for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

AHBF

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Hedonometer.org

The emotional arc in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the inverse of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because it is a variation of the ‘Cinderella’ arc (Rise-Fall-Rise…). What’s interesting is that Hedonometer traces the emotional arcs through language rather than mere plot points. Comparing the two, the more obvious feature is that shifts in the emotional arc (Fall-Rise or Rise-Fall) correspond with a three-act structure. While Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has more rises and falls, fitting a curve with the same number of segments as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone yields the following:

AHBF-approx

What’s of interest here is that the major turning points – as indicated by “MT” in the following figure – occur at similar points in both stories:

HPSS-AHBF-overlay

  • 12-15%: the middle of the Beginning (Act I)
  • 25-32%: the beginning of the Middle (Act II)
  • 45-51%: the middle of the Middle (Act II, midpoint twist)
  • 69-77%: the end of the Middle (Act II) at 69-77%, which marks the beginning of the End (Act III)

Overlays of inverse shapes from Reagan et. al. are equally revealing because they indicate shifts in emotional arcs at regular intervals:

  • ‘Rags to Riches’ (Rise) and ‘Tragedy’ (Fall) Overlay. The fall or rise begins roughly around the 10% mark, peaks at the 90% mark, then declines slightly. Both curves exhibit a self-similar curvature right at the 50% mark. Factoring differences between the turns and intersections, we get 10-40-40-10.Rise-Fall-Overlay
  • ‘Man in a Hole’ (Fall-Rise) and ‘Icarus’ (Rise-Fall) Overlay. The fall or rise begins around the 10% mark, then the next major turn occurs around the 50% mark (midpoint twist), followed by a slight rise or decline around the 90% mark. As with the previous example, the overlaid curves intersect at the 30% and 75% mark for these shapes. Looking at the differences between turns and intervals, we get 10-20-20-20-20-10.ManHole-Icarus-Overlay
  • ‘Cinderella’ (Rise-Fall-Rise) and ‘Oedipus’ (Fall-Rise-Fall) Overlay. The rise or fall begins around the 5% mark, then hits a major turn around the 35% mark, then yet another at the 70% mark, and the final rise or fall flattens around the 95% mark. As with the previous examples, the curves intersect at regular intervals – in this case, they intersect at the 15%, 50%, and 85% marks. What’s interesting about it is that the differences between these intersections are mathematically similar: 15-35-35-15.Cinderella-Oedipus-Overlay

The intervals tend to differ from shape pairing to shape pairing, but each pairing exhibits self-similar shifts throughout the narrative. As with design principles like the rule of thirds and the golden ratio, which I’ll cover in “How to Make Sure Your Book has a Beautiful Cover,” patterns govern the je ne sais quoi of fiction too. As Vonnegut notes, “They’re beautiful shapes.” But symmetry, mathematical symmetry, is the reason they’re beautiful.

How does this knowledge help us as writers? Well, it helps us identify rough shapes in our own work and see if what we’ve written matches readers’ emotional arc expectations. You may be thinking to yourself, “That’s nice, Kris, but I write literary fiction.” Interestingly, you’ll find that widely read works of literature possess these arcs too.

For example, my class delved into Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven a few weeks ago, and we talked about The Shapes of Stories. While The Lathe of Heaven’s overarching emotional arc, which shadows the protagonist (Geroge Orr) throughout the story, is a ‘Man in a Hole’ shape, the antagonist (William Haber) traces the inverse (the ‘Icarus’ shape). Similarly, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has a ‘Man in a Hole’ shape whereas Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has a ‘Cinderella’ shape – you needn’t believe me, go check Hedonometer.org yourself.

The Kinds of Plots Most Readers Enjoy and the Importance of Genre

While I’ve read numerous books on writing, Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid is the one book that factors The Shapes of Stories into its methodology. However, you do not need to buy it to access the information. Shawn offers this information on his website. While I don’t mean to diminish the other works I’ve read, no other book is as self-consciously aware of patterns as The Story Grid.

For Shawn Coyne, every story needs consistent answers to the following six questions:

  1. What’s the Genre?
  2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that Genre?
  3. What’s the point of view?
  4. What are the protagonist’s objects of desire?
  5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?
  6. What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

Coyne devotes much of The Story Grid to explaining the various genres (time genres, reality genres, style genres, structure genres, and content genres) and developed a useful graphic – The Five-Leaf Genre Clover – to help writers maintain consistency and meet readers’ expectations.

As Coyne points out, some story plots will fare better than others. He put together a Story Bell Curve to illustrate which stories will garner the most readers:

StoryBellCurve

Full disclosure: I am an Amazon Services LLC Affiliate, which means that I earn fees if you purchase The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know and/or Punching Babies: a How-to Guide using the links provided. I did not, however, receive either of these books for free; I purchased The Story Grid and Punching Babies and use them for my own writing. I’m self-publishing my novel later this year, so every little bit helps!

Putting The Shapes of Stories to Work: Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid3 and/or Adron J. Smitley’s Punching Babies4

Both Adron J. Smitley’s Punching Babies and Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid outline the three-act structure. I’ve combined the two in the figure below and included The Story Grid’s Kubler-Ross change curve, which Coyne uses to explain “Story as [a] ‘coping with change’ narrative”:

Three-Act-Structure

Both Coyne and Smitley recommend outlining each of the story’s acts. Coyne calls his technique The Foolscap Global Story Grid. What I really like about Coyne’s Foolscap Story Grid is its attention to external and internal charges. Here’s the first half of The Foolscap Global Story Grid so you can see what I mean:

THE FOOLSCAP GLOBAL STORY GRID

GLOBAL STORY

  • External Genre:
  • External Value at Stake:
  • Internal Genre:
  • Internal Value at Stake:
  • Obligatory Scenes and Conventions:
  • Point of View:
  • Objects of Desire:
  • Controlling Idea/Theme:
 BEGINNING HOOK External Charge Internal Charge
  1. Inciting Incident: (Something that shocks the protagonist to the point of denial. There are two types: causal and coincidental.)
  2. Progressive Complication: (The protagonist can no longer deny his or her predicament. There are, once again, two types: active turning point or revelatory turning point. Here the protagonist despairs and deliberates.)
  3. Crisis: (Once the protagonist works through deliberation, he or she will come up with some choices, either the best bad choice or irreconcilable goods. This is often called The Point of No Return, and the protagonist’s decision inevitably leads to the Climax.)
  4. Climax: (The ramifications of the protagonist’s choice at the end of the crisis effect the outcome of the Climax. The Climax results in a new perspective.)
  5. Resolution: (The integration of this new perspective marks the resolution.)

BEYOND THE FOOLSCAP GLOBAL STORY GRID

In Part 4 of The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne outlines “The Five Commandments of Storytelling:”

The five elements that build Story are the Inciting Incident (either causal or coincidental), progressive complications expressed through active or revelatory turning points, a crisis question that requires a choice between at least two negative alternatives or at least two irreconcilable goods, the climax choice, and the resolution.

Here they are in outline form:

  1. Inciting Incident
    1. Causal
    2. Coincidence
  2. Progressive Complication
    1. Active Turning Point
    2. Revelatory Turning Point
  3. Crisis
    1. The Best Bad Choice
    2. Irreconcilable Goods
  4. Climax
  5. Resolution

For each unit of the Story, all five elements must be clearly defined for each of the following: beats, scenes (series of beats), sequences (collections of scenes), and acts (collocations of sequences). Subplots also possess these five elements, and they too must be clearly defined; lastly, the global story (the acts combined) must also have these five elements. As with The Shapes of Stories, it is a self-similar pattern that makes a good story.

Shawn Coyne recently began a plotting initiative, which he shares with his email subscribers. His approach attends to these self-similar structures with his Story Grid Outline Log and makes it easy to trace The Shapes of Stories:

StoryGridOutliningWorkLog

Courtesy of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid Outline Log – available to his free course subscribers.

The part that makes it easy to trace The Shapes of Stories is the value movement that is indicated inside the red box in the figure above. If you think about the events in your story as positive and negative values then rank them from 1 to 10 (in terms of impact or stakes), you’ll see your story’s shape. Not only will this help you write a good story, but it’ll also help you identify parts of your story that don’t work.

ADRON SMITLEY’S 8-STEP PROCESS AND 40-SCENE NOVEL OUTLINE

Adron Smitley breaks the process of writing a novel into 8 steps, which I’ve modified to accommodate Coyne’s “5 Commandments of Storytelling:”

  1. Create and develop your idea for your story – K. M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel Box Set: How to Write Solid Stories That Sell (Helping Writers Become Authors) is great for working through the what-if questions that yield intriguing premises and complications.
  2. Write one descriptive sentence for each of the three acts.
  3. Add a descriptive sentence for each of the eight sequences – 2 sequences for the Beginning Hook, 4 sequences for the Middle Build, and 2 sequences for the Ending Payoff.
  4. Add a descriptive sentence for each of the 20 blocks.
  5. Add a descriptive sentence for each of the 40 scenes.
  6. Expand on each of your 40 scenes with the 5 essential storytelling elements:
    • 1. Inciting Incident
    • 2. Progressive Complication
    • 3. Crisis
    • 4. Climax
    • 5. Resolution
    • Note: You’ll notice in the outline below that each scene is 2.5% of the novel, so each of the five elements should be around 0.5% of the novel (which leaves 0.1% for each beat, the smallest unit of a story) The outline that follows is for my particular plot progression, but you can modify it for major shifts in your own story. Maybe you don’t have a villain; maybe your story is largely about one character’s internal struggle. Just add the major bits and try to trace the general positives and negatives by assigning numeric values to them to help you see the shape you’re developing.
  7. Write your novel element by element, scene by scene. Speedwriting tip: Write the Middle Build to the Ending Payoff first then go back and write your Beginning Hook. The advantage of this method is that you’ll know exactly how much backstory to have in your Beginning Hook to make the story work, and thus you will avoid the dreaded backstory information dump.
  8. Revise and edit your novel – see The Nuts and Bolts of Prose toward the end of this post

ACT I: BEGINNING HOOK (25%)

Sequence 1: Setting up the Story (12.5%)

  • Block 1: Old World Action (5%)
    • Scene 1: Protagonist Unchanged (2.5%)
    • Scene 2: Theme Stated (2.5%)
  • Block 2: Link Event (5%)
    • Scene 3: Link Event (2.5%)
    • Scene 4: Goal (2.5%)
  • Block 3: Catalyst (2.5%)
    • Scene 5: Change or ‘die’ (2.5%)

Sequence 2: Opening the Door (12.5%)

  • Block 3: Catalyst (2.5%)
    • Scene 6: Call to Adventure (2.5%)
  • Block 4: Debate (5%)
    • Scene 7: Refusal of the Call (2.5%)
    • Scene 8: Debate (2.5%)
  • Block 5: Decision (5%)
    • Scene 9: Outside Push (2.5%)
    • Scene 10: Decision (2.5%)

ACT II: MIDDLE BUILD A (25%)

Sequence 3: Entering a New World (12.5%)

  • Block 6: New World (5%)
    • Scene 11: New World Failure (2.5%)
    • Scene 12: B-Story/Theme and/or Reasons to Carry On (2.5%)
  • Block 7: Allies and Enemies (5%)
    • Scene 13: Fun and games/allies and enemies (2.5%)
    • Scene 14: More intense fun and games/allies and enemies (2.5%)
  • Block 8: Fun and Games (2.5%)
    • Scene 15: Even more intense fun and games/allies and enemies (2.5%)

Sequence 4: Positive Rising Action – Achieving the False Victory (12.5%)

  • Block 8: Fun and Games (2.5%)
    • Scene 16: Pinch Point 1, a display of the antagonist’s strength (2.5%)
  • Block 9: Antagonist’s World (5%)
    • Scene 17: More intense fun and games/allies and enemies (2.5%)
    • Scene 18: Fun and games/allies and enemies (2.5%)
    • Note: reader should have a taste of the antagonist’s world/goal from an unfiltered perspective in one of these scenes
  • Block 10: Midpoint ‘Success’/False Victory (5%)
    • Scene 19: Most intense fun and games/allies and enemies (2.5%)
    • Scene 20: The protagonist gets what he wants/thinks he or she needs (2.5%)

ACT II: MIDDLE BUILD B (25%)

Sequence 5: Negative Rising Action – Things Fall Apart (12.5%)

  • Block 11: Reversal/Failure (5%)
    • Scene 21: Reversal/Failure – it turns out that the protagonist’s goal was irrelevant to the actual problem, which makes this the Midpoint Twist (2.5%)
    • Scene 22: Antagonist closes in (2.5%)
  • Block 12: Things Fall Apart (5%)
    • Scene 23: Antagonist closes in faster (2.5%)
    • Scene 24: Antagonist gains more ground (2.5%) 
  • Block 13: All is Lost (2.5%)
    • Scene 25: Pinch Point 2, another display of the antagonist’s strength that is significantly more intense than Pinch Point 1 (2.5%)

Sequence 6: Suffering the False Defeat (12.5%)

  • Block 13: All is Lost (2.5%)
    • Scene 26: Protagonist has a minor ‘all is lost’ moment where he doubts his ability to persevere (2.5%)
  • Block 14: The Dark Debate (5%)
    • Scene 27: The protagonist faces death and seemingly loses everything (2.5%)
    • Scene 28: The protagonist contemplates surrender (2.5%)
  • Block 15: New Hope (5%)
    • Scene 29: Outside Push – protagonist finds a reason or reasons to carry on (2.5%)
    • Scene 30: The protagonist implements the first of a series of actions to overcome the antagonist or antagonistic force in the story (2.5%)

ACT III: ENDING PAYOFF (25%)

Sequence 7: The False Solution (12.5%)

  • Block 16: Rally the Troops (5%)
    • Scene 31: Rallying the Troops – the protagonist solicits his or her allies for help with the new plan (2.5%)
    • Scene 32: Gathering supplies – the protagonist and his or her allies prepare for a showdown (2.5%)
  • Block 17: Storm the Castle (5%)
    • Scene 33: The protagonist and his or her allies implement the first stage of their plan (2.5%)
    • Scene 34: They move on to the second stage of the plan (2.5%)
  • Block 18: Team Battle (2.5%)
    • Scene 35: This is the first midpoint of Act III; the protagonist achieves a success but is separated from his allies or some essential resource (2.5%)

Sequence 8: The True Resolution (12.5%)

  • Block 18: Team Battle (2.5%)
    • Scene 36: Here the protagonist’s plan of attack comes to fruition, but there’s another twist – a twist that leads to the final crisis and impending climax (2.5%)
  • Block 19: Protagonist versus Antagonist (5%)
    • Scene 37: This is the protagonist’s final ‘all is lost’ moment; here the protagonist must perform a ‘rescue from within’ given that they are separated from their allies/resources (2.5%)
    • Scene 38: The protagonist performs one last leap of faith, and he or she enjoys victory or suffers defeat (2.5%)
  • Block 20: Conclusion (5%)
    • Scene 39: This part shows the immediate effects of the protagonist’s victory or defeat (2.5%)
    • Scene 40: These are the last moments of the story that shows the protagonist changed and a newly changed world (2.5%)

NOTE: This outline is a general guide. Your story may have more or fewer scenes,  depending on the kind of story you’re writing, your dominant genre, and your subplots.

In my own practice, I start with Smitley’s outline (prewriting) then do Coyne’s Story Grid (postwriting). I personally find it easier to work from the macrostructure (forest) to the microstructure (trees). However, you may be a tree-oriented individual. If that’s the case, try making your story grid right off the bat. If you’ve got a finished manuscript, you can use it to chart your course and see what parts would benefit from restructuring.

The Nuts and Bolts of Prose

Regardless of how you structure your story, nothing will save a story that’s written poorly. Stories rife with spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors irritate readers. Recently, I received a GoodReads email about a book giveaway. I went and read the book description and decided I didn’t want the book, not even for free. Why? Well, I could see from the description that the author doesn’t have the foggiest idea of grammar and punctuation. As a reader, I really can’t be bothered sifting through swathes of muddled, misspelled, and poorly punctuated prose – ain’t nobody got time for that.

In a similar vein, I downloaded a #FridayFreebie from Twitter with a very interesting premise; I didn’t make it through the first chapter. I didn’t make it through the first chapter because of passive constructs, like prepositional phrase strings. The pace lagged too much for me to care about the interesting premise.

Resources for Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation

SpellingRun spell check and familiarize yourself with commonly confused words. Ideally, give your manuscript some time to rest before you edit it and have someone else to check it too. When I revise my work, I tend to start at the end then work my way backward (sentence by sentence) to catch more errors. I find it breaks the cognitive habit I formed while writing the piece from start to finish. Reversing the order breaks the pattern, and I find more errors.

Grammar and Punctuation: The most important thing to remember is that English speakers prefer sentences organized with a subject-verb-object pattern. The Purdue OWL offers a number of useful resources: Conquering the Comma, Sentence Clarity, and The Paramedic Method. A great resource for learning to write more concisely is Richard Lanham’s Longman Guide to Revising Prose: A Quick and Easy Method for Turning Good Writing into Great Writing; it contains the entire Paramedic Method theory and practice, which outlines a simple method for eliminating pesky prepositional phrase strings. (In fact, I force my students to revise several of their papers using this method. It works.) His follow-up work, Style: An Anti-Textbook, is equally insightful. Style is the difference between correct prose and powerful prose. Style lets you pace your sentences to reflect your action.

Full Disclosure: I am an Amazon Services LLC Affiliate, which means that I earn fees if you purchase any of the books using the links provided in this article. I did not, however, receive any of these books for free; I purchased them and use them in my own practice.

References

1LeFrance, Adrienne. “The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an AI.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 12 Jul. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/07/the-six-main-arcs-in-storytelling-identified-by-a-computer/490733/>

2Reagan, Andrew J. et. al. “The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes.” EPJ Data Science 5.31 (2016): 1-12. <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1140/epjds/s13688-016-0093-1>

3Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2015. eBook.

4Smitley, Adron J. Punching Babies: a How-to Guide. Black Thunder Books, 2014. eBook.

Further Reading

Alderson, Martha and Jordan Rosenfeld.Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion, and Theme. Blue Ash: Writer’s Digest Books, 2015. Print. Alderson and Rosenfeld outline the different types of scenes and how to leverage them for particular actions, emotions, and themes.

Bell, James Scott. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills: Compendium Press, 2014. eBook. The title of this one says it all. Bell offers prudent advice for realistic, compelling dialogue.

Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2015. eBook. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand good story structure. Again, the information in this book is available on Shawn’s website too.

Cron, Lisa. Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). New York: Ten Speed Press, 2016. Print. This book provides an alternative step-by-step method to the pantsing and plotting methods. She highlights the essential features every story must have to manufacture a positive reading experience. Her work is rooted in research, and she provides references in the endnotes to the book.

___________.Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2012. Print. Lisa Cron uses cognitive science to explain how best to hook readers and keep them transfixed throughout the story. As with the other work of Cron’s, she painstakingly researched this and provides her sources at the end of the book.

Fox, Chris. 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter (Volume 1). Chris Fox, 2015. eBook. Chris Fox provides writing exercises and sagely advice for strengthing your writing muscles and increasing your output.

Goins, Jeff. You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One). Tribe Press, 2012. Print. Goins’ book offers motivation for new writers, and he lays out some prudent steps for starting to build a bibliography and audience.

Lakin, C. S. Crank It Out!: The Surefire Way to Become a Super-Productive Writer (The Writer’s Toolbox Series). Morgan Hill: Ubiquitous Press, 2017. Lakin outlines how to become your most productive self and attends to how all activities influence energy level and resultant productivity.

Smitley, Adron J. Punching Babies: a How-to Guide. Black Thunder Books, 2014. eBook. This book offers a readily-accessible and implementable structure for outlining a commercial novel.

Weiland, K. M. Structuring Your Novel Box Set: How to Write Solid Stories That Sell (Helping Writers Become Authors). Pen for a Sword Publishing, 2011. eBook. Weiland’s work offers a number of exercises to improve premises, complications, and story structure.

_______________. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure (Helping Writers Become Authors) (Volume 7). Pen for a Sword Publishing, 2016. Print. Weiland dives deep into story beats to teach best practices for uniting realistic, compelling character arcs with themes and plot arcs.

Zuckerman, Albert. Writing the Blockbuster Novel. New York: A Forge Book, 1994. Print. This timeless classic catalogs the features common to blockbuster novels. 

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38 thoughts on “How to Master Your Craft and Write Wonderful Books

  1. GD Deckard says:

    WoW Kris! I intended to read & comment but now I see I need to re-read before commenting. You’ve just re-arranged my morning. Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. How would you plot Metamorphosis (Kafka), Malone Dies (Beckett), or a Clean Well- Lit Place (Hemingway)? These stories are flatlined pessimistic. No rises.

    And incidently, without wanting to appear pedantic, is a “pantser” a “panzer?” (First paragraph.)

    Finally, thanks for your entry and Vonnegut at his funniest.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Not all shapes have rises; Tragedies are falls (or the inverse of ‘Rags to Riches’ rises) as per the second figure in the Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories’ infographic. Vonnegut did analyze Kafka too, and Austin Kleon summarizes this analysis as follows: “Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis,’ in which an already hopelessly unhappy man turns into a cockroach, looks like this: [Fall curve]”. (Vonnegut cited in http://austinkleon.com/2005/12/17/graph-a-story-with-mr-vonnegut/)

      Unfortunately, the comment box does not accommodate pictures, but the curve is illustrated in the aforementioned source. Again, the emotional arc relates to the reader’s experience rather than mere plot or character arcs.

      Despite Vonnegut’s analysis, I would argue that there is a very slight rise at the end as the family escapes their tiny apartment for the first time in months. Likewise, and in spite of Grete’s worsening pallor, I felt rather hopeful that maybe – just maybe – their new dreams and good intentions might come to fruition.

      Thanks for highlighting the nomenclature confusion: a pantser refers to a writer who writes by the seat of their pants. (As opposed to a plotter who plans everything out.)

      I sincerely appreciate your comments. I’m going to edit the article to qualify these terms in case there are others unfamiliar with them. It’s something I totally took for granted – my apologies.

      Liked by 3 people

      • atthysgage says:

        I agree about Kafka. There is a glimmer of hope at the end. It’s a pretty dismal hope, because it’s predicated on Gregor dying. There’s no way the family can move forward until Gregor dies, and Gregor knows that. There’s a sense in which he wills himself to die in order to help them. The fact that the family kicks our the boarders is also a hopeful sign.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I have read quickly, and will have to reread more carefully. So, without having thought too much about it yet, I ask:

    Is it possible to boil it down to: something must happen, and someone must react to it, causing a result that someone again reacts to?

    I cannot get myself to believe that there is a ‘most popular’ strategy. I have to believe all depends on the content of the story and the style in which it is delivered. Ups and downs are certainly involved. But a balanced, choreographed plot? This is certainly a far cry from the way I operate.

    I construct situations, give my characters plenty of time to sink into my muck, and then I help or hinder their attempts to claw their way out, as the spirit moves me. (According to my idea of what would be the most fun.)

    A few steps ahead of me is as far as I see in the fog of story. I do have long-range goals, and little certainty as to how to achieve them. My story is a roulette wheel. Round and round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows. Including me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s not about plot but about emotional arcs, emotional arcs as readers experience them. The study parses sections of each work linguistically to determine the tone, an approach that has little to do with plot. There are many ways to do this. You can have stories where nothing happens, but they are still emotionally wrenching. The rises and falls have more to do with that.

      The emotional arcs are, however, about how plot and character arcs, along with the language used to convey them, work together to produce emotional ups and downs for the reader.

      One of the approaches Shawn uses to explain the 5 essentials is the good ol’ banana knock-knock joke. In the case of this joke, it acts as a beat (the smallest unit of story):
      “Knock, knock.” [<– inciting incident]
      "Who's there?"
      "Banana."
      "Banana who?"
      "Banana." [<– at this point, the person replying starts to get frustrated, so a complication arises.]
      "Banana WHO?" [<– more frustration, more complication.]
      "Banana."
      "Banana WHO?!" [<– now the respondent is really frustrated, so there's a crisis of sorts (peak of frustration).]
      "Orange." [<– now the respondent is confused, a shift that brings this conflict to a head or climax."]
      "Orange who?" [<– respondent chooses to respond after the previous shenanigans.]
      "Orange you glad I didn't say banana?!" [<– the resolution.]

      Arguably nothing really happens, but there are change and emotional movement nonetheless. One of the things I find interesting about this is that it makes the case for why so many people hate information dumps in story – it doesn't do anything. There's no movement.

      Mimi, you're a pantser. Even so, this method can help you check your manuscript when you hit the revision stage. That is, check for places where movement is happening and revise instances where it stalls a bit. That's what these structures are about. Again, it's not necessarily the plot that needs work; it could be dialogue, description, or background information.

      The particular outline from Smitley is what works for my type of story, but it's tracing the 5 elements that really matters for whichever focal point. We could have a story about Jack's pancreas (yes, Palaniuk), and it could still have the emotional movement that stirring stories have.

      Liked by 2 people

        • mimispeike says:

          Also, the feels-real conflict feels real because it is real. I have dealt with many of these issues in my own life. I am writing from experience. That I transfer worries and sorrows and obsessions onto a cat does not dilute the truth of them. My husband says, You are writing your autobiography here.

          Liked by 2 people

          • There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s the power of emotion. We have ups and downs, our stories need them too.

            Incidentally, I had an orphaned rescue kitten (3 days old); she needed to be fed every two hours to keep her alive. They didn’t think she’d make it, but she did – hypothermia and all. She was my furry daughter (rest in peace); I loved her like I love my son. We had 13 glorious years together.

            Cats do have sorrows and obsessions, so I don’t think it’s weird at all. What’s wrong with filtering an autobiography through a cat? I find it extremely creative and moving.

            Spike, my cat, got pregnant when she was eight months old (before we had a chance to spay her) and had two kittens. They both died within hours. One of them only had three legs and the other was a micro-kitten (1/2 the size of a normal newborn). After that happened, she would wander around the house with black socks in her mouth, all while mewing incessantly. Both of her kittens were black, which is to suggest that animals have feelings, obsessions, and sorrows too. Even with her kitty dementia, she kept carrying socks around in her mouth.

            I’m looking forward to reading Sly – it’s the proverbial carrot after I finish grading. I’m up to Chapter 7.

            Liked by 4 people

  4. GD Deckard says:

    What a wonderful presentation of valuable analytical tools. Writers can benefit by knowing how successful stories were constructed. Think Michelangelo dissecting corpses. That had to help him create David.

    Thank you, Kris! We appreciate your experience and teaching skills.

    Liked by 1 person

      • mimispeike says:

        There is much here that we need to process, if not to take to heart. I don’t think any great word artist wrote with an eye to commercial appeal. But it’s good, when you reject advice, to be able to articulate why you reject it.

        I will have more to say on this after I reread, follow the links, and think it through.

        I am gratified to hear from my brother, who has been reluctant to read Sy, on the basis of not being a reader, despite him a Harvard grad majoring in Physics, that his conglomerate household is taking a trip to Scotland in June and he intends to read my novella then. I have made up my mind that no relative who hasn’t found time to read, even if it’s only a single chapter, a single chapter will do, will find themselves in my will.

        Even if Sly makes no money, I have a very decent 401K and assorted other holdings.

        Liked by 3 people

        • We all have our priorities and approaches. Many authors have self-similar patterns in their work, even if they don’t consciously make it that way. Whether they’re literary or commercial, there are patterns and patterns within patterns in many great books, including ones that precede this narratological theory.

          Now that I know it exists, I feel that I have to attend to it in my work. That’s not to say that you do; you may be one of those who has it drive through your work without even trying. Personally, I’m by no means a plotter or a pantser. I work in sections and revisit my outline when things inevitably change. Sometimes something doesn’t feel right about what my character is about to do, so then I need to take a step back and go through a what if or four to move things where they need to go.

          I can’t impose a structure on it from the start, but I do check it as I go. I want to make something beautiful, and my understanding of art is symmetry. To borrow from Roland Barthes, “the birth of a reader demands the death of the author.” I’m sure there will be much I didn’t intend in my work – so much the better. I do hope, however, that there’s beauty in it.

          My book may flop, but I’m writing it with an older, future version of my son in mind. The sole purpose of it is to write a story that ponders issues I consider important as much as it amuses. We’ll see what people think about it when it’s done.

          I may squander money better spent on college for my son, but this is something I have to do. Screw the money. What worried me was how the money I invested in it would affect my marriage if there’s no ROI – not profit, just breaking even. Dale is fine with that and understands why I need to do it, so it’s all good. I treasure my family above all else; they have to be okay with what I’m doing, and they are.

          I’m well aware of how unlikely it is to sell more than 250 copies, but I’m sure as hell going to shoot for the moon simply because I can, and why not? I think we all should. At the end of the day, I just hope readers have a good experience and learn a thing or two along the way.

          I’m at the end now and looking forward to curling up with Sly and a nice Pinot after the finals craziness is over… It’s been a hard, hard term.

          Liked by 4 people

  5. I’ve just read all that and like everyone else, I’ll have to read it again (or probably in my case 5 more times). “Now that I know it exists, I feel that I have to attend to it in my work.” Aye, there’s the rub! I’ve been happily plotting, with a bit of pantsing, but now I feel I need to revise my calculus. Or should I just analyse what I’ve already written and hope for the best? Actually, I have many different ideas on the go – this will be valuable for some, but for others I know I want to go my own way, the consequences be damned. Either way, thanks for a fascinating insight, and enough food for thought to keep me full for the whole week to come.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Too true. I know I’ve gone my own way with it. We each have a different practice, so our application of this (or lack thereof) will be different too. I just hope it proves to be of some use. Happy weekend, Curtis!

      Liked by 2 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      The thing is, all writers do things a little differently, according to their own creativity. Me, I find that new information I like takes a while to process. In the end, the still small voice of reason wins out, but it takes awhile to adapt what I’ve learned to my own writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is the kind of thing a writer must learn, then forget during the writing process. As Vonnegut stated: this is computer analysis of story arc, not a means of channeling subconscious inspiration. A too-self-conscious, by-the-numbers application of the methodology explicated here could result (in ham-fisted, rank amateur hands) in nothing more than the manufacture of skeletally sound but intellectually shallow and emotionally empty story beats. (“A sight full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”)

    I very much appreciated this blog post, however. It is a fascinating and hyper-detailed analysis of the various ways a story’s conflict(s) might be graphed out onto plotting paper. Perhaps the most important lesson a writer might learn from this is: If your story has no arc–if it is, in fact, a straight line running diagonally from either low-to-high or high-to-low–you might very well have a problem sustaining reader interest due to the lack of emotional “gear-shifts” or sudden plot reversals of protagonist fortune.

    PS. Great to see you contributing, Kris! I missed your feedback and learned commentary on my blog posts; I hope you’ll speak up and comment when next I post in this wise. (Or work backward a couple of weeks and comment on some of my earlier posted topics. Cheers!)

    Liked by 3 people

    • You are so right – I look at it partially as a planning tool (e.g., keep an eye out that things aren’t stagnating in each scene) and partially as a diagnostic (e.g., post-writing tool). I’ve tried plotting, but I can never ‘stick to the plan’ because characters and their motivations become more complicated as I write. I think I know them when I start, but I get to know them even better as the story unfolds. When I find myself in a position where what they want to do doesn’t agree with the plan, I take a break and replot. I’d rather revisit the plan than sacrifice my character’s core being. I plan to go back and read through the posts on here once the end-of-term craziness is over. It’ll be nice to be able to read for fun instead of work. Skol!

      Liked by 1 person

      • mimispeike says:

        All three of you have got it right. Carl gives up valuable analysis, Curtis says, I know I want to go my own way, the consequences be damned. I agree with that, anything not my own way causes me to lose heart. Losing heart, I may never finish this monster.

        Kris says, I can never ‘stick to the plan’ because characters and their motivations become more complicated as I write. Kris, you’ve nailed that one.

        I am in the dumps at the moment. My latest revise of a certain chapter has suddenly gotten way more complicated. Seriously, I’m asking myself, am I mad? I am questioning my sanity tonight.

        Well, I’ve had a glass of wine. I feel better. A second glass may restore me to my normal what the hell mindset. But I am definitely having a crisis of confidence right now. If I’m on the Titanic, at least may the Dom Peringnon hold out until I run out of air in my air pocket.

        Liked by 2 people

        • No, you’re not insane. Sometimes I have to sleep on it to figure out how to reconcile where I need to go with my characters’ ambitions. My theory is that my brain works on the problem while I sleep, preferably with a cat purring at my feet. You will finish it – sentence by sentence, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Give your brain a little time, you’ve solved bigger problems than this before and you will again.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I seriously mean it; it works with non-writing stuff too. When I got stuck on the odd classical algebra problem in uni, I’d nap for twenty minutes then work the problem again. After my nap, the answer would be so stupidly obvious. I felt like a dumbass, but it worked every time.

            Liked by 2 people

          • mimispeike says:

            You know, I write new material at night, and I wake up in terror, afraid to see what I’ve done the night before.

            After going over a few new pages again and again, I usually get to a point where I am pleased with them. But the pain in the process is terrible. We writers are nothing if not brave. We face down dragons every day.

            Liked by 2 people

            • mimispeike says:

              I kind of feel like throwing up right now, but I’ve felt like throwing up for three days. It may be due to my husband’s odd chicken soup, that we’ve finally put out for the raccoons. Poor raccoons.

              Liked by 2 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    Kris, we’re running out of room, so I’m back to an original reply. Oh, we are so glad to have your input. I feel better already.

    I will now summon my nerve and go see what I wrote this afternoon.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Whoops! I use a tablet, so I often forget that. It’ll work itself out. If it’s any consolation, I wake up in the middle of the night too. I keep a notebook and tablet on my nightstand so that I can jot down changes and ideas then go back to sleep. I have my file in the cloud, so I can edit it on the tablet such that it I don’t have to copy the files to my computer anymore. I used to get out of bed, but then I’d be awake until morning and exhausted all day.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Pingback: 7 Ways to Increase Your Chances of Self-Publishing Success | writers co-op

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