The Metrology of Story

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Prose has meter, too.

Unit of measure is common to almost everything. In distance, the base unit is a meter. In electricity, an ohm. In sound, the decibel. In weight the pound. What are the units of measure for a story?

Starting from the biggest to the smallest, a novel is:

  • Book – Act – Sequence – Chapter – Sub-Sections – Beat

In a stage play, screenplay, teleplay it is:

  • Play – Act – Sequence – Scene – French Scene – Beat

Play and book are self-explanatory, they are the complete work. Act refers to the beginning, middle, and end.  A sequence are the scenes/chapters that make up an act. Chapters might be broken down into sub-sections, but don’t have to be. A French Scene is a character level issue; when a character comes on and goes off, that is his French Scene.

The beat. This is the base unit of measure for story. It is a binary unit and is composed of a single choice leading to an action. That choice is binary, either action or reaction. There are thousands of beats in a story, and some of them are critical, but all of them should be sharp. Events don’t change on a dime, they change on a decision. A bomb explodes, the character’s beat is reaction. What does she do?

Betrayal is a beat. Reversals are a beat.

A writer takes control of the narrative by taking control of beats. Every beat must be motivated. When a tried-and-true friend turns on you, there’s a reason. For some reason (motivation), the betrayal is at the beat level.

Most writers manage beats intuitively. They don’t think in terms of beats, but they do write in them. To be able to break behavior down to a decision level, you can diagnose problems with simple questions: Why did x do that, and why then?

This is critical to actors because we see blurred beats. A beat has a micro-beginning, middle, and end. Blurring a beat means the actor has begun the next beat before the last beat is complete. You may not always be able to articulate why one actor is better than another, but clear, crisp beats mark a pro, soft muddled beats mark an amateur.

You can’t blur a beat in writing, but you can muddle them. Make sure your beats are properly fueled with motivation.


Questions are always welcome.


Conflict is Essential

Fiction or non-fiction, conflict is essential to a manuscript. Without it, nothing moves forward.

When Star Trek: Next Generation came out, Gene Roddenberry insisted there would be no conflict aboard the Enterprise because by then, humanity will have evolved beyond it (as if). The writers tied themselves in knots trying to obey the command.

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Conflict GOOD!

Motivation is caused by what a character wants. Action is caused when one character’s wants conflict with another character’s wants.

Superman wants Truth, Justice, and The American Way. Luthor wants to rule the world. Conflict.

Batman wants order, Joker wants chaos. Conflict.

Conservatives want less government, Liberals want more. Conflict.

Your character wants something, another character opposes it. Conflict.

Every scene should have some conflict, if only internal conflict. When a story is bogged down, and you feel like you’re going in circles, the likely culprit is you don’t know what your characters want, or you do and haven’t figured out how to put conflict into the story.

A common method is creating partner characters who conflict in manner, method, or outlook, and of course, the opposing force has conflicting goals. Avoid creating characters simply to create conflict; they must have an integral purpose to the story, contributing something to the resolution.

In non-fiction, the author must be at cross-purposes to the status quo and must challenge it. The health food writer wants you to give up tasty foods that are bad for you. You, the reader, don’t want to give up hot fudge sundaes. The writer must oppose that want and re-engineer the reader’s desires.

Non-fiction is, in essence, a polite argument.

In your story, where’s the conflict? Identify it in each scene, and spice it up to quicken the pace.

Anatomy of a Story

My background is in playwrighting and screenwriting, so I tend to adopt liberally from their jargon. For example, the three-act structure serves both mediums very well. Let’s step through the anatomy of a story. I’ll put forth the elements in the traditional pattern, however, different storytelling techniques may arrange them in a different order or splice them up and salt them throughout the Acts.

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Story Anatomy isn’t Gross!

Act 0: Backstory. This is before the story; what has happened to build your characters into who they are at the rise of action? Was the conflict sown before the story? You may never include any of this in the story, but it does have influence.

Act 1: The Beginning. Start as late into the story as you can, pare off as much backstory as possible. Several things happen here:

  • Characters are established, and your main character or ensemble group is introduced.
  • Status Quo is established. What are the characters’ “normal” We have to know what this is to recognize disruption to it.
  • Motivations are established. What do your characters want? “Want” establishes conflict.
  • Establishes the starting point of the hero’s arc.
  • The inciting incident. What gets the action moving? Why can’t the hero simply refuse to participate? This is vitally important. Your hero has to be completely committed with no way out. The inciting incident disrupts the status quo. It segues into…

Act 2: The Middle. Sprinting through the desert at top speed, NEVER in a straight line. A lot can happen here:

  • Welcome Discoveries: Things needed to achieve the goal.
  • Unwelcome Discoveries: Hard things that shape the hero and further the arc of change.
  • Betrayals: What the hero thought was true wasn’t; other characters who fall or betray the hero (partially, permanently, or temporarily, testing the hero’s trust, faith, and commitment).
  • Defeats: In Indiana Jones, Indy fails time and time again. We love him because he keeps going.
  • Reversals: Snatching defeat from the jaws of success.

The bulk of the hero’s arc is created in act two. He/she is changed, and in fact, the change is required to win. Once the pieces are assembled:

Act 3: The End. The hero realizes he’s changed, and the arc is complete. Now the villain/conflict must be defeated/resolved (or the hero realizes during the final battle, or just after). A new status quo emerges or is implied (or a series is set up with a bit of unresolved conflict, making conflict the new normal).

In the first act, we meet the hero. In the second act, we try to kill him. In the third act, proving unkillable, the hero wins.

I cast this as a hero/villain story, but they all are, so if you think this doesn’t apply to you, it does. The choices you make within this structure is what makes your story compelling. Perhaps you want to jump over the cliff to open your story. Fine, at least some flashback or exposition covers the content of Act 1.

Does this fit your story? Why not?

Show Don’t Tell – Except When You Shouldn’t

I just finished a book that took forever to read. It had great characters, a compelling conflict, and clear writing, but the author must have believed in the sage writing advice, “Show Don’t Tell!”

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Except when you should!

Good advice but not always. There are times to tell and there are times to show.

In the referenced novel, the detective would do something, then in a few pages, he described what he had done to his friends, then to his partner, then to… you get the idea. We’d seen the blow-by-blow once, we didn’t need to hear it over and over again. Here, a simple, O’Brian recapped his day, then toasted his friends with a beer. “To life!”  That simple “tell” sentence would have saved pages of dialogue.

Rules of thumb for telling and not telling:

  • Don’t repeat a prior scene in detail. Shorthand it. We’ve seen it, no need to repeat it. If it’s necessary to recap it, be quick about it.
  • Show emotion; show conflict. There are so many better ways to show it than to say, “she was angry.” Paint a picture, don’t talk about feelings and don’t shortchange conflict.
  • Avoid stage direction. There is no need to detail Molly’s walk from the bedroom to the kitchen if nothing happens on the way. “Molly woke up and dug through the refrigerator for eggs.” We know she got dressed, went to the bathroom, walked down the hallway and entered the kitchen. Show the journey if something happens, though.
  • Show things that break the stereotype; tell things that don’t. In Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series, Spencer is boxer turned cop turned private eye. He’s a thug. But when he cooks, the spare-prosed Parker describes in detail the sautéing of onion, peppers, and things I’ve never heard of, because Spencer’s culinary arts breaks him out of thug mode. It’s perfectly ok to say, “Mom cooked an omelet.” Cooking is within the stereotype. You’d show it if she burns things and puts ketchup in the omelet (we all know ketchup only goes on scrambled eggs).
  • If it’s important, show it; if not, tell it. We need to visualize everything that must be assembled to picture the climax. You can tell anything that isn’t. Unless…
  • You know your audience – Tom Clancy is what I call a flipper novelist. He gets into technical detail ad nauseum, so I flip through a lot of pages. My dad, on the other hand, read every word. I’m pretty sure Pop could assemble an atomic bomb on a nuclear submarine in Russian waters if he had to. Clancy writes for the engineer and engineer wannabe. Your audience may want details. Tell away.

And then you have John Grisham, who raises telling to an art form. When you sell a few million books, and you can write your own rules about show and tell (wish-wish!)

Poppers, Crackers, Hisses, and Fizz

I love words. Not just the meaning behind the words, but the taste and feel of words.

Back before it was an illness, prose was referred to as a word salad and to make your salad palatable, you had to include croutons and garnishments. It gives the salad texture and crunch.

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Keepin’ it fresh

Linguists refer to these special words as Plosives, Fricatives, Sibilance, and Affricatives. That’s way too involved for me, so I call them Poppers, Crackers, Hisses, and Fizz.

Words that start or end with these are fun to say and read. Formed with the lips and glottal stops, they are active words.

Poppers and Crackers are the Plosives. Purple, puppies, cake, crack, and especially when several such words are in close proximity. “Sally smacked her husband smartly, making his cheek shine.” “The freaky few who feel forced to comply will fail.”

Hiss refers to sibilance or the “s” sound. Stifle, success, steal…

Fizz belongs to Fricatives and Affricatives, the “f” and “ph” sound. Fellow, follow, freak, and phonics.

While nailing the sound of these is the realm of the actor (go ahead and listen for them, especially with Shakespearean actors (Ian McClellan loves his plosives)), the writer originates them.

Good writing is all about finding the fewest, best words for your prose. Too many garnishes and your prose becomes purple and putrescent. With just the right measure, salt the following kinds of words into your writing:

  • Onomatopoeia – The word sounds like it’s meaning. Snap! Moist. Crack! Bang! Smooth. These are great words that can add texture to your sentences.
  • Crunchy words – Plosive (Poppers and Crackers). You’ll find most of our curse words are crunchy, that’s why they are successfully crude. Typically, these are short words that pop in your mouth.
  • Punch – You can give prose punch by using a short, strong sentence after using several long sentences.
  • Metaphors – Make a sentence vivid with metaphors; “Love is a battlefield” “His thoughts were a knife.” Simile, comparisons that throw in “like” or “as,” is less vivid because it draws the reader away. “Love is like a battlefield” loses immediacy.
  • Stay true to your running theme – At the beginning of this blog, I said, “Word Salad” and then continued to use food-themed words.
  • Adjectives – When you have to modify a word, you are not using the right word. There are thousands upon thousands of words. “Very hungry” is less visual than “starving” “famished” “tummy-growling.”

None of these should be used with a heavy hand or it will hurt your prose.

What are your crunchy words?