In the course of my editorial work for others—and my own longform book projects—I’ve been compelled to think more deeply about the outlining of fiction and non-fiction writing. Specifically, I’ve started to assemble and investigate multiple models of the writing process that, taken collectively, can give me a multi-faceted perspective on the thing I, or someone else, choose to write about. Today, I want to share two of my favourite models to date.
I stole this from Kurt Vonnegut. Essentially, every narrative has a positive and negative value, and the story is the tale of the transition(s) between the two. Here are some examples:
Simple and intuitive. Of course, there are more advanced variants on this simple rendition of a story’s arc. The Freytag triangle:
The double Freytag triangle and the Freytag staircase from Venkatesh Rao’s Tempo (images from my own copy):
There’s also a more comprehensive graph-like structure which has been developed by Shawn Coyne. It is called the Story Grid—more info here. Again, photos from my own copy of the book of the same name.
As you can see, Coyne’s Story Grid framework offers a rich collection of conceptual tools to create and evaluate both fiction and non-fiction narrative arcs.
Of course, there are numerous other ways to graph a story, but what I find most interesting is that they reveal the complexity of all the stories we love. Let’s revert to Vonnegut’s simple graphs with time (the story’s progression) on the x-axis and a positive and negative value on the y-axis. But instead of an arbitrary shape, let us yoke it to a real-world event: World War II.
A simplistic overview: In 1939, Britain and France declare war on Germany in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland. In 1940, the German Blitzkrieg sweeps through France and forces British forces to flee across the Channel at Dunkirk. In 1941, the Germans turn their attention to the Soviets and make a sizeable leap eastwards to Stalin’s Moscow. In 1942, German progress eastward stalls and the US is welcomed into the war against the Axis forces. In 1943, the Germans lose ground in Russia, North Africa, and see their Italian allies defeated. In 1944, the D-Day invasion is launched and the Allies make their way towards Germany. In 1945, the Allied forces and the Soviets cut through to Berlin and Hitler commits suicide, ending the war. Now, if we use that timeline and choose the fortunes of Nazi Germany as the primary value, we get the following story graph:
A basic rise and fall. But what if we chart the contrasting fortunes of the Allied forces, as well as the personal fortunes of two opposing figureheads, Hitler and Churchill:
Now, that to me is beginning to look like a good, rich, layered story.
At this point, you may be wondering, “So what?” For an answer, consider the following story graph:
Reality is a crazy, impenetrable, indecipherable collection of infinite lines on a graph. And the way we distill stories from reality is not by starting with a blank chart and making additions, but by removing every line that doesn’t matter and choosing to omit focus on particular data points that make up those lines that remain. Thus, storytelling really is a subtractive art.
Aha. There is a part two remember. Above, I detailed the concept of story graphs. Unfortunately, story graphs are inclined quite heavily to fiction, and sometimes non-fiction. So for pieces of prose which are less about the story and more about the ideas, we need a different model to experiment with. Enter Paul Graham:
“But what you tell him doesn’t matter, so long as it’s interesting. I’m sometimes accused of meandering. In defend-a-position writing that would be a flaw. There you’re not concerned with truth. You already know where you’re going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But that’s not what you’re trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.
The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn’t do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.
The river’s algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting. One can’t have quite as little foresight as a river. I always know generally what I want to write about. But not the specific conclusions I want to reach; from paragraph to paragraph I let the ideas take their course.
This doesn’t always work. Sometimes, like a river, one runs up against a wall. Then I do the same thing the river does: backtrack. At one point in this essay I found that after following a certain thread I ran out of ideas. I had to go back seven paragraphs and start over in another direction.”
Yes, Paul Graham is talking about the essay. But the idea of following the river of thought applies equally to all idea-instead-of-story-centric writing. To understand why, answer me this: “What does a river flow through?”
To further expand on this, consider that a traditional piece of non-fiction can be represented as follows:
The progression is linear and straightforward. But in reality, each conceptual building block of a piece of prose must be tied together via the use of language. In common parlance, it must flow—like a river.
Further as I mentioned above, the river must flow through some sort of territory. And that territory is made up of associated ideas and neighbouring conceptual disciplines. From a bird’s eye perspective:
In a method similar to the story graphs above, writing about abstract concepts is subtractive. One has to understand the map and choose the path upon which the reader will walk. Which brings me to the final point. A point about terms.
Don’t mistake the map for the territory used to be a strategic maxim. Now, it is on the brink of becoming a proverb. Most who hear it understand—implicitly or explicitly—the sentiment it captures. But it has particular importance when we think of writing, because as a writer you must have explored—or be in the process of exploring—the territory in order to create your map.
A writer is, in this sense, both an explorer and a cartographer. He walks the world in order to recreate it.