Monday, May 20, 2013

The Shape of a Story

This year has been the year of revision, so in between drafts I’ve been trying to stay on top of the towering pile of books next to my bed (and mostly failing, but that’s not the point). I’ve just read a few books that sent me pondering on the most effective shape of a story.

The shape of a story is basically a picture of the tension. If you gave tension a numerical rating, 1 being low and 10 being high, and then made a graph of the tension within the story at key plot points, you should get a gradually increasing curve.

Ahem…my inner math geek took over in the previous paragraph. Sorry about that. :) I can’t promise it won’t happen again, so I’m going to just apologize for any future hijacking.

Moving on…

On a very high level, your story should look like Freytag’s Pyramid:

But if we look closer at the rising tension, there should be moments where it’s even. Depending on the story, it could even decrease. As the story progresses, the lulls in tension should get fewer—this generally makes it more difficult for the reader to put the book down, because he/she wants to know how everything will be resolved. Basically, it should look like this:

If you start the story with too little tension, you won’t hook your reader at all. If you start the story out with too much tension, it runs the risk of either confusing the reader, or making him feel exhausted from too much going on. If you start your story with lots of tension, but then don’t increase it as you go, then the reader will either stop reading, or will get to the end and feel the story was anticlimactic.

So, generally, the story needs to start at the moment change takes place in the main character’s life. But the main character doesn’t need to be thrown into a heart-pounding action scene in order to create a sufficient hook. Sometimes that can turn the reader off. Instead, you want to introduce questions that intrigue the reader. Then you can introduce a bit more, then a bit more, and keep going until you reach the resolution.

This will give you satisfied readers who demand more of your books. :)


Unknown said...

Great post. This is why I like to plot out my novel on note cards. I can visually see where the highest levels of tension are and move them until they are in the best spot.

Anna Staniszewski said...

I love charting things out. I've found that when I'm working on a picture book, the tension/time chart is particularly useful.

Catherine Stine said...

Good post--I usually draw the plotline with three escalating peaks and valleys, as stories often have three points where the action rises and the character "walks into his fate".

Anonymous said...

Very helpful post, thank you!