stories have shapes


book reader

We’re often told that STORY has a two-dimensional shape — a common rise (gentle or swift) of a hill, or a scalene triangle. But 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.

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.

The Peaks And Valleys Of Jagged Mountain
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 Roller Coaster
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.

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

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…

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