Wednesday, September 12, 2018
WRITER 2 WRITER: THE SHAPE OF A STORY
If you were to describe how a story works, you might say that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and for the most part you’d be right. The majority of stories (novels, plays, movies, TV shows, etc.) are told linearly. That is to say events in the story are arranged in a straight line. One event follows another, until the climax and resolution are finally revealed, and then—The End.
But not all stories follow a traditional, linear arc. What about those that are formed by other shapes? If you are a writer trying figure out the best way to tell your story, consider taking it in an entirely new direction.
At first glance, The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins appear to be linear stories. Right? Well, yes and no. The events themselves are told sequentially, and each book in the trilogy picks up where the previous one leaves off, but consider where the story begins. In chapter one of The Hunger Games (book I), Katniss Everdeen is in her home town, District 12, anticipating the annual competition that will claim twenty-three young lives. Now, where does the series end? At the close of Mockingjay, Katniss is back in District 12, the games and the tyranny of the Capitol destroyed.
Stories that end where they begin (or begin where they end) are circular. Another example of a circular arc is Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane which opens with the narrator returning to the town of his childhood and recollecting a series of bizarre incidents, eventually bringing him full circle.
A spiral arc winds a story around itself, moving between past and present as the story unfolds. In Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Clay Jensen receives a collection of cassette tapes recorded by a girl who committed suicide. The story jumps back and forth between Clay’s life today and Hannah’s life pre-suicide. Additionally, a spiral is also circular. So, Asher’s book, like The Hunger Games, ends where it begins when Clay passes the cassettes to the next person fated to listen to them.
Similarly, Forgotten by Cat Patrick is the story of London Lane who wakes up every day with her memory of the previous day erased. She only remembers forward, “recalling” events in her future. The story constantly skips ahead while London tries to get through each day by piecing together the remnants of her future.
Like a linear story that moves sequentially through events, a backward story also follows a straight line—only in reverse. In Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls, Nicolette Farrell attempts to unravel the mystery behind her friend Corinne’s disappearance ten years earlier. But what is so intriguing about this story is that each chapter takes place before the one preceding it. The story is told from end to beginning.
Another way to utilize a backward or reverse story arc is to nest one story within another story. When the novel opens, the bulk of the story has already occurred in the past but is narrated by a character existing in the present. Some examples of nested stories include Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.
Want to break out of your comfort zone and write a story that challenges the norms? Now that you have a few alternative story shapes at your fingertips, try telling your tale in a circular, spiral, or backwards direction. Better yet, design your own blueprint and be the architect of your story.