The shape of the tale: an experiment in storytelling

by Randall Snare

Outlines make a liar out of me. I used to hate them; now I just begrudge them. When I wrote fiction, the outline killed my plot; I would race from one section to another. It turned writing into a to do list. Now that I mostly write non fiction, an outline is essential. Despite its necessity, though, it rarely provides the structure it purports. It mocks you from above, as you wade waist deep in sentences.



What happens between those two poles of writing: defining a structure and filling it with words? Why, between intentions and finished product, does the organisation, even the content itself, change? I don’t know. So let’s experiment.

It’s alive! The writing experiment

So, just short of live publishing my Google doc, I’ve attempted a “live writing” scenario (minus the excruciating pain of actual writing). I’ve made an outline for this article, which I’ve published. It will probably embarrass me. We’ll see by the end how much that outline has shifted, and why.

Maybe we can define the difference, make a formula, never struggle through false structures again. Or maybe the difference is a crucial stage of discovery, of moving from one idea to another, then back again.

The outline, i.e. good intentions

The outline of the story structure I imagined

Drawing ideas

Stories have shapes. Ask John McPhee. Or rather, look at his diagrams. He wrote a series of pieces about writing for the New Yorker. One of them was, like this article, about structure. He begins his story on his back, as if at a psychotherapist’s office. It’s not a far off metaphor, as he dedicates much of the article to his emotional struggles with writing - to put his ideas in the right order. But while he talked about the order of his pieces, the pictures he drew of them told a different story.

He drew one story as a waterfall, where ideas flowed from the one that came from above.

writing waterfall structure

From "The Writing Life: Structure" in the Jan 14th, 2013 issue of the New Yorker

He drew another as a train track, one idea linked to only the preceding and following ones.

writing linear structure

From the same article, describing a different piece

While both may be ‘linear’, they are certainly not the same. And here’s another, this one defined as flashback, while the drawing provides more detail than ‘flashback’ ever could.

From yet the same article, describing a flashback structure

Shape is more than order. It’s three-dimensional, while an outline only provides two. If we drew our story instead of described it, we could get closer to what we were trying to say, and how we’re going to say it.


But how should we build a three dimensional outline? Building blocks, aka content chunks, aka content blobs, etc etc. Each of John McPhee’s drawings is made from an individual idea. In fact, that was a crucial part of how he wrote:

When I was through studying, separating, defining and coding the whole body of notes, I had 36 3×5 cards, each with 2 or 3 code words representing a component of the story.

Step one, destruction; step two, construction. The problem with the outline is not its existence, but creating it too early. That was my mistake, born from impatience. Until I parsed my information, I couldn’t tell how to shape something with the pieces. Grand ideas fell apart in the reality of the topics, my point of view, and my understanding as I wrote.

But I don’t feel too bad. Most writers go through this, even Ivan Shaw. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1953, he explains how he gave up his central plotline of a novel called The Young Lions, even though he loved it:

Well, I started off with a very grandiose idea indeed, one that eventually proved not to be feasible and I had to give it up. I had three main stories, all based on character. . . . To link these three I introduced a fourth character, a bullet. I wanted to show it as lead in the ground, the miners that got it out, the engineers, the smelters, the sorters, the packagers, then the long chain of supply in the army that put the bullet finally in [a character’s] cartridge belt. But I gave up the idea, even though it was the thing that gave me the impetus for the entire book.

And that’s why I don’t feel bad. While false outlines prove you wrong, they also allow you to create the story in the first place.

The shape of this story

I’m pretty far from where I’ve started.

The story I've ended up with

Besides the elimination of most of the topics I thought I wanted to cover, the shape itself changed.

The shape of my story

So what happened? The whole idea about a story’s shape rose out of the outline (like those 90s magic eye paintings). I realised that while all stories have a structure that fits into certain categories, they all have unique shapes. And that took my fancy. I decided that publishing and technology had no place in this story. But I have enough chunks about it to create another one all about it (teaser). And it was my desire, perhaps, to write something simple, which is more about me than about the story itself. So what happened? Exploration, understanding, timing and point of view.

We don’t have a simple answer. But why would we want one?

Image from bzhn


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