It’s Stories All the Way Down

When I started writing, I didn’t have a clue about structure.

I mean, to be fair, I didn’t a clue about anything else either, but at least there were things I knew that I didn’t have a clue about. So I read lots of books that had advice on things like avoiding adverbs, and using active verbs wherever possible, and generally focused on honing my style.

But structure was a dark area of the map for me. On some instinctive level I understood that there were certain things that a story needed to have, but I couldn’t quantify it, couldn’t look at what I was writing and say whether it had those ingredients or not.

And then, a little over a year ago, I stumbled on Kristen Lamb’s blog. Kristen Lamb did two things for me.

First, she got me blogging. Yes, that’s right. This is all her fault. I was just an innocent bystander and one day, Kristen comes up and she says, “Wanna try some blog? First one’s free.” And the rest is a story of dark alleyways and illicit WiFi connections.

Second, she got me thinking about this little thing called “structure.” Kristen would throw out these concepts like conflict lock, and Big Boss Troublemaker (this was especially confusing for me, since I’ve been calling my wife the Big Boss Troublemaker for going on two years now) and it all seemed seriously overwhelming.

But recently I discovered something for myself that made all that confusion melt away. What I discovered was this: when we think about writing a novel we think of telling a very long story with a beginning a middle and an end. We see the big picture. That’s the easy part.

But I think it’s the little picture that trips us up. Scene by scene we struggle to keep the tension up, and the stakes high. We know there’s a better way, but we can’t quite see it, and maybe we’re confused by talk of scenes and sequels,  conflict lock, and BBT’s.

But the truth is far simpler than we imagine. The truth is that stories are made out of other stories.

In a way, it’s like one of those pictures where smaller pictures are arranged together to form a single larger picture. Each scene should tell it’s own story.

And what is a story? It’s a construction in which entity “a” wants thing “b” but is hindered by thing “c”.

Plug whatever you want into those slots. If a = boy, b = girl and c = whatever, then you’ve got a romance on your hands. If a = con man, b = a million dollars and c = a bank vault, then you’ve got a heist story going on.

And every major scene in your book needs to have this a-b-c construction. You should be able to pick any single scene out and let it it be the cheese that stands alone.

It may be missing details from earlier in the plot, and it should lead into something that keeps the reader going forward, but it should still be able to stand on its own.

So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with trying to find the problem in your plot, or pushing through the mushy middle, try taking a different approach. Look at your scene and ask yourself, “How well does this work by itself? If this scene were a short story, would I enjoy it?”

If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to monkey about with those a-b-c mechanics. Because no matter how it looks, every big story is really made up of a bunch of little stories. Make sure every one of them counts.


9 responses to “It’s Stories All the Way Down

  1. Conflict lock? Geez, that’s one of the problems with writing advice. Everybody has a bunch of new terms to confuse you and up the learning curve just a bit more. Can we say “jargon overload?”

  2. Excellent visual!! Thanks for sharing your epiphany 🙂

  3. As i was reading your other blog entries I was thinking to myself “how do people start writing fiction/novels?” and “if I want to I wouldn’t know where to start”. This is really interesting, and i’ve heard this type of advice before but didn’t grasp it as well as I just did. Thanks!

  4. theubiquitousuterus

    Great advice about compartmentalizing sections that way. It’s really helping me to look at the sections of my book differently, and try to write them with a different goal in mind. Also, I’ve always thought “the cheese stands alone,” was a pithy phrase. 🙂

  5. Thanks for this post! It applies to all kinds of writing 🙂

  6. Great post! I had a writing tutor who said a similar thing about sentences- every sentence is a miniature story.

  7. What a fantastic way to think of the flow of a novel. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it in such terms, even though when I think back, it’s pretty much the way I approached each new scene – as its own story within a story. But this is simply a great thing to keep in mind while writing!

  8. I like your simplification. Life is better if it’s simpler. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Happy (Fictional) Birthday, Jacquel Rassenworth! | The Write Stuff

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