The Shapes of Stories

Maybe I’m really, really odd, but I have a tendency to think of stories like one of those curvy line graph thingies. I don’t know what it’s actually called, so here’s a visual aid:

line graph thingy

When you’re starting the story, you’re always faced with a blank grid. Then you get that first sentence to grab your attention. It might be an action-packed opening scene with guns blazing that starts you off with a moment of high tension, then things quickly calm down and give you, the reader, some time to process and learn about the world you’ve been dropped into. But then inevitably, the story (the line) will arc up into another moment of tension then drop down a little bit so you have some process time, then move back up.

Or, it can happen the other way. You might open with a very normal scene that teaches you about the character and the world. But very quickly the tension and the story will arc up as problems appear, then you’ll get small solutions that allow you to process what’s going on, then once again the tension will rise.

Either way, there’s a pattern of building tension and then time to process. And as someone who reads A LOT, you get used to seeing that pattern. It gets to the point where you can sort of anticipate what’s going to happen next. And you can kind of see the shape of the story.

As a writer—and maybe not during the first draft, because at that point, you’re just getting the story onto the paper, but definitely during revisions—you’re going to want to be aware of the shape of your story. You need to make sure that there’s constant movement and flow between your scenes. If you have too many scenes in a row that are super action-packed with the world on the line, your readers won’t have a chance to breathe or process because they will always be stuck at that high level of tension, and that can be a little bit exhausting.

Conversely, if you don’t have enough action or tension, and you spend too many scenes in a row of people just talking or setting up your world-building or figuring out every aspect of a situation, your readers might get bored because there’s nothing pulling them through the story. There’s no reason for them to be sitting on the edge of their seats.

The trick is to balance them so that there’s a constant up and down in the level of tension and the movement of your story. But be careful that it doesn’t turn into a too-perfectly-balanced sine curve [link to image of a perfectly balanced curve thingy]. (Look at me with the maths!) Your book should be more like a rollercoaster. And, like that rollercoaster, you need to make sure that your transition from scene to scene—from fast movement to having a second to breathe—is smooth, because otherwise you might throw your readers right off the tracks.

So, this might sound really strange (because honestly who wants to bring any kind of math at all into writing?), but maybe the next time you feel a little stuck in your revisions, try grabbing a piece of graph paper and plotting out the shape of your story. How much tension is in every scene? Is it a really tense, dramatic moment? Put a dot high on your graph. Is it a moment where there’s more time to breathe and process and learn about the world? Put a dot down lower. Then connect them all and see what your rollercoaster looks like. Is there any place where it’s going flat? Maybe you can figure out a way to add a corkscrew or loop-de-loop there.

And remember, it’s OK if your rollercoaster doesn’t look like anybody else’s. No two stories are ever the same. The important thing is that you take your readers on a fun and exciting ride filled with lots of ups and downs, the kind of ride where the second they get off, they’re going to want more.

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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