Friday, April 20, 2012

How To Look at a Story

Here are some visual aids I came up with to help me envision the overall narrative shape of some of my novels.

First, this is the basic three-act, linear narrative that I used in The Astrologer and Cocke & Bull. The red arrow is the main story. The blue arrows are subplots. The angled yellow arrow is the level of tension/conflict:

Next we have the narrative structure I used in The Last Guest, which shows a linear central story interrupted by a series of disconnected character explorations, mostly in the form of flashbacks, that do little to further the action of the central story:

Lastly is the narrative structure I seem to be using for my work-in-progress, Go Home, Miss America. Essentially, action moves forward to the midpoint of the book when the characters are forced to change course and move toward the end of the book. There are overlapping segments of plot and theme. There are increasing amounts of tension. There are loopings backward in symbolism and character. It's by far the least straightforward structure so far, though perhaps my very first attempt at a novel was even less straightforward. Hmm. "We're going 'round in circles."

Of what use are these charts to you? None whatsoever. They are, in fact, of limited use even to me, the fella what wrote the books in question. But I think anything that helps a writer visualize the overall movement of the narrative is a good thing. Just this morning on the bus, I came up with a reassuring way of thinking about the second half of the book I'm writing. Reassuring ways of thinking are good. Every writer who's deep in the middle of a first draft needs reassurance. I'm at that point in the process where I no longer trust my judgment, and so I must trust my original impulses and ideas about the book. Once, many many months ago, this all seemed like a really good idea for a story. Just because I can't see it now, that doesn't mean it's not there. It always works out in the end, mysteriously enough.

Anyway, I am going to push the idea that this sort of graphing/mapping/charting exercise will be helpful to anyone writing long-form fiction, and will reveal things about the story to the writer that are hard to see otherwise. It also forces you to decide which narrative/story elements you think are most important, though certainly you can make many charts for a single novel. But it's not Schenkerian analysis and there are no rules. Give it a go, kids! It's fun and there's no wrong way to go about it.


  1. Are those blood spatters in your third book?

    This is actually how I often visualize my own books in my head. I rarely get them down, but I often quickly survey what I've written by imagining an arrow of the story being forced through the turning air ducts of my scenes. If the arrow can make it through from one end to another, in my head, that means it holds together.

    Really, are those blood spatters?

  2. By the way, I think both Rooster and The Pagani Project end up matching most closely to The Last Guest. With Everybody! I'm going to try and be much more linear and avoid backward jumps in time whenever possible. Or so I say for now.

  3. If you think of #3 as a train as viewed from above, the fuzzy red areas are actually clouds of confusion through which the protagonists pass. They're not blood. Cocke & Bull should have blood in its chart. Lots.

    I like your "arrow of the story traveling through air ducts." I like it a lot. It's really important for me to be able to form a link from one thing to the next all the way through the story. It goes to my idea about narrative unity. Everything has to connect, to be of a piece, somehow.

    I tend to make a lot of little charts and doodled maps like this all through the first draft. I can't say it helps with the writing, but it helps with the panic. My current chapter-in-progress is coming along well now. The big section coming up will explore my protagonist's ignored guilty conscience. That'll be fun.

    I worry that the second half of this novel is all about mundane experience. Nothing gets blown up.

  4. I've been rereading The Great Gatsby, and there's plenty of exquisite mundanity in that. Same with Mrs. Bridge and To The Lighthouse.

  5. True. Gatsby has that long middle section about the big new car and the awful party after the drive past the optometrist's billboard. The Woolf has a lot of stuff about entertaining and networking for a job and people rubbing each other the wrong way. And Chekhov is all about the small, meaningful moments.

  6. Lately, as I write and plan my books, I think of things more in character roles than plot movements. I tend to plot the action in an outline and chart the characters and their journeys with visual aids. I'm sure it's a huge confusing mess to anyone who would even want to see it. But hey, gets me through the book!

    And I love mundane stuff in novels. I think I did a post about that once on the Lit Lab.

  7. I think of plot as just a way to show character these days. An excuse to have people do things on stage, you know? I don't know if the charts themselves need to tell us anything; I think the process of thinking about the overall story is useful, though.

  8. I think the process is everything. I still use my ice-cream cone method thing a lot, especially for revisions. It's important to get my head in the right spot when it comes to thinking about story.