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
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 Hedonometer. The 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:
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:
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:
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:
- 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.
- ‘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.
- ‘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.
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:
- What’s the Genre?
- What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that Genre?
- What’s the point of view?
- What are the protagonist’s objects of desire?
- What’s the controlling idea/theme?
- 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:
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”:
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
- 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|
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:
- Inciting Incident
- Progressive Complication
- Active Turning Point
- Revelatory Turning Point
- The Best Bad Choice
- Irreconcilable Goods
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:
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:”
- 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.
- Write one descriptive sentence for each of the three acts.
- 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.
- Add a descriptive sentence for each of the 20 blocks.
- Add a descriptive sentence for each of the 40 scenes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Spelling: Run 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.
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.
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.