Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was ways to divide up a story.
We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?
What Did We Read?
I continued to read Dune to my oldest son at bedtime. I also finished The Unwritten, reading volumes 8-12. I really enjoyed this series, and I think I’d rate it as my second-favorite comic run of all time, after The Sandman. I need to process and unpack, but I’ll definitely have a post about it at some point.
Freya is nearly done with the Harry Potter series, currently reading the last book. She continues to read The One and Only Bob at school, and the Wildwood trilogy (now on book two) with my wife at bedtime.
What Did We Write?
I finished off Razor Mountain chapter 9. I’m also working on getting back in the habit of writing short stories and submitting them for publication. I sent out a story I’ve been holding on to for a while, called “Dr. Clipboard’s Miracle Wonder Drug.” I’ll be working on a new story next week.
Freya continues her epic, “Amber and Floria.” The two sisters are headed to the jungle to look for their lost parents! I’m pretty excited to read this one when it’s done.
This week’s topic was about different ways to divide a story into parts.
A “beat” is the smallest unit of story. Each beat moves the story, although this can be forward progress or backward progress from the viewpoint of a given character.
Some example story beats:
- A character learns something
- The reader learns something
- A character makes progress toward a goal
- A character achieves a goal
- A new impediment blocks a character from their goal
- A character fails at achieving their goal, or their goal becomes impossible
- A character gains a new goal
It’s also worth noting that some books are less plot-heavy and character-heavy and are more interested in playing with language. Beats in these stories might be a little bit more abstract, like:
- Make the reader feel something
- Make the text challenging for the reader
(It might sound absurd to make the reading difficult for your reader, but books like House of Leaves do exactly that with the unusual formatting of the text, and books like Finnegan’s Wake use ordinary text, but obfuscate the meaning and structure. Some readers want a puzzle or a challenge or an extremely high level of density.)
A scene is usually just a series of beats that happen in the same place, same linear time, and often with the same set of characters. Scenes are often separated by a simple line break or some little visual motif.
Occasionally, you can have more mixed up scenes, where two things happening at once or the story skips around in a non-linear way. This is a little more common in audio-visual media like TV and movies, where tricks like split-screen, voice-over, and cuts between locations make things a little easier to follow.
One of my favorite comic issues growing up was a fantastic example of this kind of “split screen” storytelling. It’s the 1996 Issue 102 of Wolverine, and it stars the title character shortly after he’s suffered severe trauma that’s left him in a state like a feral animal. There are no spoken words in this issue. The visuals of the comic follow Wolverine as he prowls around New York. The text is a story told by an unseen character, about things that happened to her as a child. Both of the stories, text and visual, are about violence, mercy, and redemption. These themes are pertinent at the end of the story, when it’s revealed that the storyteller is Elektra, another superhero, and she’s come to help Wolverine overcome his affliction and essentially become human again.
Pretty much all stories are built out of the building blocks of beats and scenes. Once you zoom out into bigger structures than that, you have some choices. Some of these affect the structure and layout of your story, and some of them are more mental exercises of how you want to think of your story.
Some books have only one scene after another, with no larger delineations of structure. These books have a steady, continuous flow. Dune is an example of a book with scenes, but no chapters, and three “parts” that split the book into much larger sections. That said, the majority of books have chapters.
Chapters are the most common way to create a collection of scenes. A chapter may only have one scene, or multiple scenes. Chapters break the story into chunks in a very visible way. This gives them two properties:
- Scenes within a chapter have an implied connection.
- Chapter breaks imply a separation between scenes.
The implied separations can be just as important the implied connections. They provide what is probably the cleanest way to tell the reader that there is a break in time or space here.
A chapter can be:
- A super-scene that collects related scenes together (time, place, characters)
- A way to form a relationship between scenes that might otherwise seem separate
- A thematic grouping of scenes
- A clean way to denote separation of time and place between scenes
Parts, Books, and Bigger Structures
Some stories have even larger groupings, often called Parts or Books. These seem especially prevalent in fantasy, possibly because they’re the modern continuation of mythological and epic forms that are often split into similar parts.
These parts can be treated like super-chapters, collecting larger groups of scenes. They can also imply larger separations of time and place.
The split between books or parts will often want to follow your story’s multi-act structure and major events. The biggest, most important parts of the story tend to happen around the end of one act and the start of another, and these can be natural places to break. That said, books or parts don’t have to follow the story arc or act structure. For example, in Lord of the Rings, the last two books each have two parts that cover the exact same span of time from the point of view of two different groups of characters.
We decided last week to alternate between story class and extra writing time, so next week will probably just be another brief read/write report.