Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Story Shapes

There's a particular poster I've seen on classroom walls around the world. It's not always exactly the same, but it shows the same thing: the shape of a story.

Usually, the poster shows some kind of roller-coaster. And that roller-coaster always follows the same shape. It looks a bit like this:

This is a terrible shape for a story.

I said this at a lovely school I visited recently and once I explained why, within a few minutes the teachers removed the poster. Impressive. If you have a poster in your classroom with this story shape on it, I encourage you to take it down too.

If you specifically wanted a story to be boring, this shape is second only to the completely flat line.

First, it's got a long, dull beginning. Look at it. The start of the story is completely flat. (In this particular example, it drags on for almost half the story.) Even if you think the first thing in a story should be 'set-up' (which is not true), that 'set-up' doesn't have to be a flat line. In fact it should be anything but a flat line.

This story shape does have a  climax. That's good. It comes about 60-70% of the way through. But what happens after that? Boredom. After the reader has slogged through the first 40%, which was a flat line, there's a brief period of interest and rising intensity, but the final third of the book is one long anticlimax. It's the deflating of a balloon. It's flaccid. By the end of the story you'll be lucky if the reader remembers the interesting bit.

Also, and perhaps I'm nitpicking here, in this particular illustration (and there are different versions of the same shape) the climax itself is a little flat. It's not a peak, it's a plateau. I prefer a sharp climax. A definite point of focus - perhaps even a twist.

I have a challenge for you: find me a single successful story that follows that roller-coaster shape. A book or film or short story or poem or cartoon or ANYTHING.

It's a terrible shape.

Compare it to this story shape:

It wouldn't make a very good roller-coaster, but it's a much better story.

Now, I know it's unreasonable to expect primary school kids to be writing 3 act stories, but why not introduce them to the idea that openings to stories should be exciting? Why not talk about leaving your readers on a high instead of a long, dull trailing-away?

The three-act story shape is very similar to the structure I start with when I'm planning my books. I want to grab you on the first page. On the last page, I want to leave you gasping for more, totally gripped. In the middle, I'll plan ups and downs, ebb and flow, so that each peak is more intense than the last and each revelation spins you into the next act with a new momentum.

That's the plan.

Surely there's a way to introduce THAT idea to kids, rather than a story shape that seems designed to be boring.

If you're a teacher and you're used to the idea that stories begin with a passage of 'set-up', go and look at a real story. That's not how they start. There's mystery or intrigue or humour or a puzzle or SOMETHING. And they ALWAYS start with CONFLICT. You can fill in back story later. You can develop the world as you tell the story.

So please remove your roller-coasters from your classroom walls.

An aside:
Even a very basic diagonal line from bottom left to top right would make a more interesting story than the roller-coaster. It would make a story where every page is more exciting than the previous one. Every line builds the story to a peak of interest, intensity and exciting. Tension mounts. If you're writing a short story, that's a good story shape. Perhaps it wouldn't work if you tried to sustain it over a whole novel, but for a classroom wall it might be better.

That's the Bolero of story shapes. (Or, if you prefer, You'll Never Walk Alone.) Constant build-up. Go out on a high.

Like THIS.



Anonymous said...

I noticed this particular error - printed in every language textbook I have come across so far - as well and had a quite hot argument with a teacher of mine who used it to describe the level of suspense in Romeo and Juliet. In most good stories the fifth act is where the reader should be biting nails: is there going to be a solution? How will the author get those poor protagonists out of all the problems he wrote them into? So, I absolutely agree and thankyouverymuch for the great post!

Anonymous said...

I'm using this blog post in tomorrow's literature lesson to discuss narrative.

Joe Craig said...

Wow. I'm honoured. Let me know how it goes and what the students say.