Got a Designing Principle?

I’m my previous posts I’ve given you a pandora’s box of alternative plots (Alt. Plots Part 1 and Alt. Plots Part 2) as well as alternative structures (Alt. Structures Part 1 and Alt. Structures Part 2). And we ought to take classic designthe hero’s journey, and three act structure and throw them in that box as well.

But how do we use these?

How do we incorporate them into our writing process in a way that is organic? How do we make sure they come naturally from the story itself without becoming a dead-in-the-water template?

John Truby suggests that the best way to do this not through an external structure, but to look inside the work for an inherent designing principal.  Truby is a little abstract in his definition of a designing principal, so here’s my cobbled-together version from what he says in the Anatomy of Story:

Designing Princlple

Does that sound like a bunch of writerly-MFA-mumbo jumbo? Let me give you some examples to help us understand the concept.

In the film The Godfather, the premise is: The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather. The idea of a designing principal is to find something that derives from that premise and those characters which adds a new layer of meaning, giving the story its originality, and acts as a guide for the writing process.

Designing Principal: The GodfatherAccording to Truby, the designing principal of The Godfather is:  “Use the classic fairy tale strategy of showing how the youngest of three sons becomes the new ‘king.’” With this underlying design the story is no longer generically about the mafia or revenge. Through the use of a fairy tale trope the story becomes elevated to one of legend. The fairy tale offers the writer a basic scaffolding for plot structure and there’s opportunity for thematic comparisons between the original story and its re-telling.

Another example is the use of a traveling metaphor such as a river.  In Heart of Darkness, the protagonist, Marlow, is taking a boat ride up the river and progressing deeper and deeper into the jungle. The river is a designing principle for both structure and metaphor, moving the story into “three different locations simultaneously: to the truth about a mysterious and apparently immoral man” who Marlow is going up the river to find, providing plot structure for the external story. “To the truth about the storyteller himself;” a metaphor for the internal emotional story as the protagonist goes deeper into his own psyche.  And it moves us “backward in civilization to the barbaric moral heart of darkness in all humans,” the novel’s underlying theme. The traveling metaphor contains the external story, the internal story, and the theme. No wonder this book is a classic.

Heart of DarknessThere is no one way to create a designing principal, there are hundreds of them, and the one that is right for your story only you can find. But I’ve noticed certain “categories” if you will, certain patterns that designing principals sometimes fall under. The execution of each is unique to the themes and characters of each book, but I want to present the list I’ve generated thus far, as a jumping off point. My goal is to further illustrate this concept and to help you think about what might be the designing principal of your book.

I have six categories that I will discuss in my next posts:

1. A Character’s Mental State

2. Setting and Environment

3. Time

3. Community

4. Fairy Tales, Myth and Parallel Stories

6. Storyteller

Read more about John Truby’s concept of a designing principal on pages 25-29 of The Anatomy of Story. 

Organic Architecture Blog Series

Organic Architecture SpiralSome of you may know that I am obsessed with story structure. If you didn’t know this, please check out my WIP novel structure chart or my collection of story structure diagrams.

It’s no big surprise that I did my VCFA graduate lecture on structure and story design. I love this topic. Thus, I’ve broken down the meat of my lecture into several posts that I will be sharing this month. Thus, I introduce the June blog series: Organic Architecture!

Recently I talked about the difference between literary talent and story talent, and this series is all about developing the story-talent side of a writer’s repertoire. Often we think there is only one way to structure and design a story. Yes, I’m talking about the influence of three-act structure, the hero’s journey, and Aristotle. Well, it turns out these ideas are not the only possibilities, and are actually pretty limiting!

And man, do I get excited when I read quotes like this:

Three act structure and Aristotilean terms (i.e. rising action, climax, denouement) “are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless … they have no practical value for storytellers … [They are] surprisingly narrow … extremely theoretical and difficult to put into practice … Three act structure is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong. ” – John Truby (The Anatomy of Story).

trubyDid John Truby just blow your mind?

He blew my mind when I read that quote. So, I set out to see what other options are available for structure and story design. This blog series will give an overview of what I learned on that journey. It will start with three-act structure and the hero’s journey (so we’re all on the same page), and then push to explore the limitations of that structure, and the other options available!

Here’s the blurb for my lecture:

Organic Architecture: Structure, Screenwriting, and Story Design

Thanks to American film, you may think that the only way to plot and structure your story is with three acts and a hero’s journey. But do you ever feel limited by this recipe? What if your novel doesn’t even fit into this template? From the point of view of a screenwriter-turned-novelist, this lecture will explore the limitations of classic design, then push into the wild-and-woolly territory of alternative plots and structures. What if you could develop a story design that is unique to your novel, and arises organically from its premise, characters, setting, and themes? Unchain yourself from formulaic storytelling and see how many options are really at your fingertips! Familiarity with the film Toy Story is suggested. Core Topics: Plot/Structure, Writing Process, Character, Theme.

Please stay tuned for this exciting blog series which will cover:

  • Arch Plot and Classic Design
  • The Limitations of Classic Design
  • Alternative Plot Types
  • Alternative Story Structures
  • Designing Principals
  • Finding Your Stories Organic Architecture