Monday, 29 April 2013

The flow of a story

Things have moved on a lot since I last blogged about the structural work I was doing on my novel. I've broken the previous draft into pieces and spent time reassembling them like a jigsaw. The current table is now much more colourful and information packed, with extra columns for the day of the week, rows for transitions between sections, and different colours to show where scenes are set. It's almost at the point when I can assemble all my notes and previous drafts into the order governed by the master plan table and start rewriting. Of course, first I'll strip out all formatting using notepad.exe. Since things have built up over the years from different versions of Word and different style sets the underlying formatting is probably a mess. Best to nuke it. Believe me, it is quicker to go through with a consistent style adding occasional italics back in than it is to try and format an e-book from a Word.doc that is a complete mess of hidden codes. I've been there and it wasn't pretty,

I've always been interested in Kurt Vonnegut's mapping of stories as graphs. There's a lovely graphic explaining it here, or just watch the video below. I'll wait while you do that.

I love his presentation style!

I decided to play around with this to analyse the structure of my current novel plan. First I numbered each scene. Then for the main character I assigned a number between +3 and -3. +3 would mean a huge increase in their success or happiness; +1 a slight increase; -2 a fairly hefty decrease. Easy enough, and you just have to accept that it's not accurate, just a guideline. Then I did the same for the second character.

Next I created a graph in Word with a number of data entries equalling the number of scenes. Starting with a zero score I then just modified it by the numbers in the scenes. So if character Y starts at zero and the first scene is -1 to happiness/success, then the data entry for the graph is -1. If their next scene is also -1 happiness, the next entry now equals -2. Overall they're getting worse. Maybe in the next scene someone buys a copy of their novel and their happiness at the end is +3. The third point on the graph would be +1 (i.e. -2 + 3). Overall they're now a bit happier. Then just let Word generate the graph! This is what I found.

X axis = time; Y axis = happiness/success

I can see a few areas where I got the numbers wrong and, on looking at the whole, it isn't quite right. Still, it is really revealing to me. Sam's plot is classic 'Man in Hole' (even though Sam is really Samantha). Things go wrong, then they improve, and they're hopefully better off for the experience. What's interesting is the arc taken by the other main character, Mark. It has elements of Boy Meets Girl, which fits, though the 'lose girl and regain girl' bit at the end is very truncated compared to the normal pattern, because the story isn't just about that - it is a general battle to improve his life which starts to collapse towards the end. So the graphs reveal mostly what I expected, but with a bigger divergence in the middle - as one character finds their life improving because of their actions, the other finds their life getting worse. A dissonance that needs to be resolved in order to make the story satisfying, which is precisely what happens at the end of the novel.

Have you ever tried this process on either your own works or someone else's? Do you agree with Vonnegut?


  1. Loved the video. And I didn't know Word did charts?

  2. I'm not sure about earlier versions of Word but I used Word 2010. When I choose to insert a chart it opens Excel with some demo data, you just replace it with your real data, then the chart pops into the Word document. You can edit it later. Obviously you could just have used Excel, but since I'm a wordsmith and not a number cruncher I favour Word over Excel.