Organic Architecture: Links to the Whole Series

Organic Architecture SpiralI want to thank everyone for reading my Organic Architecture Series! I realize this was a long series with lots of posts. The following are the links to all the different articles. Feel free to bookmark this page for easy reference!

Happy plotting, structuring, and designing, everyone!

Organic Architecture Series:

Classic Design and Arch Plot:

Alternative Plots:

Alternative Structures:

Designing Principle:

Full Bibliography for this Series:

Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. New York: Adams Media, 2011.
Anderson, Tobin. “Theories of Plot and Narrative.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. July 2008.
Bayerl, Katie. “Must We All Be Heroes? Crafting Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction.” Critical Thesis. Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2009.
Bayerl, Katie. “Must We All Be Heroes? Crafting Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction.” Graduate Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montepelier, VT. July 2009.
Bechard, Margaret. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plot.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. Jan 2008.
Berg, Charles Ramirez. “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the ‘Tarantino Effect.’” Film Criticism, Vol. 31, Issue 1-2, 5-57, 22 Sept 2006. Ebsco Host. Web. 6 May 2011.
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narative Craft. 8th Edition. New York: Longman, 2011.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Second Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
Campbell, Patty. “The Sand in the Oyster: Vetting the Verse Novel.” The Horn Book Magazine. Sept.-Oct.2004: 611-616.
Capetta, Amy Rose. “Can’t Fight This Feeling: Figuring out Catharsis and the Right One for Your Story.” Graduate Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montepelier, VT. Jan 2012.
Carver, Renee. “Cumulative Tales Primary Lesson Plan.” Primary School. 9 Mar. 2009. Web. 31 Aug 2012.
Chapman, Harvey. “Not Your Typical Plot Diagram.” Novel Writing Help. 2008-2012. Web. 6 Oct. 2012.
Chea, Stephenson. “What’s the Difference Between Plot and Structure.” Associated Content. 16 Feb. 2010. Web. 7 May 2011.
Doan, Lisa. “Plot Structure: The Same Old Story Since Time Began?” Critical Essay. Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2006.
Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Revised ed. New York: Delta, 2005.
Fletcher, Susan. “Structure as Genesis.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. July 2012.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt Inc., 1927.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
Gulino, Paul. Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Hauge, Michael. Writing Screenplays That Sell. New York: Collins Reference, 2001.
Hawes, Louise. “Desire Is the Cause of All Plot.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. July 2008.
Kalmar, Daphne. “The Short Story Cycle: A Sculptural Aesthetic.” Critical Thesis, Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2009.
Kaufman, Charlie. “Charlie Kaufman: BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture Transcript.” BAFTA Guru. British Academy of Film and Television Arts. 30 Sept. 2011. Web. 18 Aug. 2012.
Larios, Julie. “Once or Twice Upon a Time or Two: Thoughts on Revisionist Fairy Tales.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. Jan 2010.
Layne, Ron and Rick Lewis. “Plot, Theme, the Narrative Arc, and Narrative Patterns.” English and Humanities Department. Sandhill Community College. 11 Sept, 2009. Web. 7 May 2011.
Lefer, Diane. “Breaking the Rules of Story Structure.” Words Overflown by Stars. Ed. David Jauss, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. 62-69.
Marks, Dara. Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc. Ojai: Three Mountain Press, 2007. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: IT Books, 1997.
McManus, Barbara F. Tools for Analyzing Prose Fiction. College of New Rochelle, Oct. 1998. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
Schmidt, Victoria Lynn. Story Structure Architect. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2005.
Sibson, Laura. “Structure Serving Story: A Discussion of Alternating Narrators in Today’s Fiction.” Graduate Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. July 2012.
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005.
Tanaka, Shelley. “Books from Away: Considering Children’s Writers from Around the World.” Faculty Lecture. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. Jan 2010.
Tobias, Ron. Twenty Master Plots: And How to Build Them. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Story- teller. New York: Faber and Faber Inc., 2007.
TV Tropes. Three Act Structure. TV Tropes Foundation, 26 Dec. 2011. Web. 11. Sept. 2012.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.
Williams, Stanley D. The Moral Premise. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006.

The Many Layers of Structure and Design

layers_exampleI’ve spent the last two months talking all about classical design, alternative structures and plots, and designing principles! Hopefully you’ve seen that there are innumerable design possibilities at your fingertips. But as I walked us through this series, I’m sure a few of you read my posts and thought to yourself: Doesn’t that story fit into multiple types of structure? For example, as I explained that The Godfather uses a fairy-tale structure, you might have been thinking: But Ingrid, it also uses the mountain structure!

To which I’d say: You’re right!

Which brings me to my final point in this series: design and structure are layered. You won’t necessarily pick on design concept and be done.

In the film Memento, the designing principle uses a backwards structure to reflect short term memory. But it also has a goal-oriented plot and a mountain structure. Only the major structural beats are flipped.  If the story was told forward, what would be considered the inciting incident becomes the climax when it’s told backwards. Additionally, because the story revisits events of the past, again and again, you could also consider this movie to have a spiral structure.

Helen Frost’s novel Keesha’s House is also layered.  It’s told with eight protagonists as a portrait of a community and each chapter uses a wheel structure to unify the characters through a theme. But the structure of the whole novel still uses a mountain escalation as each chapter introduces new obstacles. It’s also a goal-oriented plot: to find a safe place to live.

Layered Design Slide

Stories are layered. And you may find, like me, that the story you’re trying to tell doesn’t fit easily into a three act structure or the hero’s journey. Or maybe it does. And it’s okay if it does. Just make sure that’s a choice you’ve made because it’s right for your story.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said in a lecture to the British Film Academy that “there’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them.  Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include or what form it must take.”

Only you know how to tell your story and only you know how to design it.

Thanks for reading this series!

Designing Principle #6: Storyteller

DP 6_Storyteller

The final category in my series on designing principles is the storyteller.

Who is your novel’s storyteller?

At the outset, it might not seem like the point-of-view or the narrator you chose to tell your story would have a large impact on its structure, but it does. Imagine if how differently the The Usual Suspects would be if it wasn’t told from the POV of Kevin Spacey’s character sitting in a New York City police station. Or imagine how the design of The Book Thief would be different if it wasn’t narrated by death. Or how the structure of The Hunger Games changes when you move out of the first person narration of Katniss’ mind in the book, to the omniscient eye taken in the movie? The choices of what is put where, and why, changes.

Additionally, consider the design effect of having multiple POV narrators as done in the book Will Grayson, Will Grayson which has two narrators, or Jumped which has three, or Tangled  which has four, or Keesha’s House  which has eight. How does one move from POV to POV? By alternating chapters? By telling the whole story of one and then the whole story of another? Or maybe weighing the POV of one over another?

The storyteller of your book is going to affects it pacing, its linearity, its patterns of repetition, and the breadth of knowledge and experience the storyteller has access to. It has ramifications in all your other design choices and shouldn’t be chosen lightly.

Hopefully, these six categories have helped you to think about how to structure and plot your own novel in a way that is organic, instead of plugging your characters in to a pre-designed template. Have fun exploring all the alternate plots and structures at your fingertips, and remember that using them should come organically from your premise and characters!

I know this has been a long series (thanks for hanging in there with me). I’ve only got a few final notes before wrapping it all up.

Up Next: Structural Layering (because yes, you probably won’t pick one structure and be done!)

Want to know more about designing principles? Try these links:

Designing Principle #4: Community

DP 2_Community

Some stories are not about a single protagonist. Sometimes a group or community becomes the larger focus. Using a community as a designing principle is the fourth category in this series.

Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Struasser explores the complexity of a school shooting and could have been told from POV of the shooter, or a friend of the shooter, or a teacher. Instead Struasser lets an entire community tell this story: friends, parents, teachers, students, etc. In so doing, a portrait of the shooters and the events is constructed by the reader through snippets, interviews, and emails. The structure unveils the fragmentation and chaos of the event itself, and how hard it is to find a single truth of an event or person.

Helen Frost’s verse novel Keesha’s House also creates a portrait of a community, but in a different way. The story follows eight protagonists who become homeless.  Each character has his or her own arc, and is given one poem per chapter with which to tell his or her story. Frost’s creates unity between these eight individual stories with the use of a wheel chapter structure. At the core of each chapter is a theme, for example: “Why I can’t live at home,” and each poem of that chapter touches upon the theme in a way that is specific to each character. This structure unites an entire community of abandoned children.

Is your story about a community or ensemble of people? How might you use this to influence the structure of your story?

Up Next: Designing Principle #5 – Parallel Stories and Myth

Want to know more about designing principles? Try these links:

Designing Principle #3: Time

DP 3_Time

We live our lives in a linear progression and that affects the way we think about narrative, how to live our lives, and what we value.  Structurally and metaphorically time can be an interesting element to design with. Continuing our discussion on designing principles, lets see how the way we use time can become an organic structural framework.

Backward structures, like the film Memento or Pinter’s play Betrayal become causal mysteries. Charles Ramirez Berg notes that they “draw attention to causal connections, like forward moving structures, but … the narrative fuel is the search for the first cause of known effects.” The play Betrayal begins with a couple’s separation, and as we move back in time, we search for the moment that caused the relationship’s end.

But time can also be chopped up and moved around in any way that serves your story best. In The Time Traveler’s Wife the non-linearity reflects both the premise and unveils the importance of memory to our relationships. In the novel One Day, there’s a linear progression, but each chapter skips forward a year, forcing the reader to fill in the time between. In Groundhog Day and Before I Fall, the protagonists must repeat the same day over and over until they get it right.  Even a ticking clock can create a structure; the TV show 24 takes a 24 hour ticking-clock and allots a single episode to each hour.

Does your novel span a day or many years?  How does time affect your characters? Is it about looking back, moving forward, or the gaps between? Can the way you slice and dice time reveal another of level of content in your novel and is appropriate for your novel?

Up Next: Designing Principle #4 – Community

Want to know more about designing principles? Try these links:

Designing Principle #2: Setting and Environment

DP 2_Setting & Environment

My second category in my series on designing principle is using your setting and environment to as inspiration for your story’s design.

It’s interesting that the predominant structure we talk about is a mountain, which is ultimately a metaphor for a certain kind of movement and escalating energy to a story. In my first post on designing principle I mentioned the river as structure for the Heart of Darkness. Huck Finn is another example of river design and it’s worth noting that both novels have a different rhythm than the mountain structure. They meander more, they’re quieter, they reflect the inherent structure that exists in the novel’s setting.

Let’s consider other environments.

For example: Island Structure.

The initial energy is getting to the island, but once you’ve arrived there is an intense spinning in circles like being lost in a labyrinth. There is a desire to leave the island, but the island won’t let you go. It develops its own rules. In Shutter Island, the island becomes a metaphor for insanity. In Jurassic Park man becomes the rat in a maze of his own experiments. New rules and societies come to exist, as in The Beach, Lord of the Flies, and the TV show Lost. The overall energy is an isolated churning with no way out.

Haunted house stories have a similar structure where the house is the island – or prison – with its own rules, like in The Shining, or The House on Haunted Hill, or even Woody Allen’s dramatic film Interiors where the house is an emotional island isolating its characters.

Island Structure slide

What about the Ocean?

It has two levels: the surface and the deep. Diving underwater has a different energy than climbing a mountain; the descent becomes increasingly claustrophobic as you get closer to drowning. Whereas the surface is vast and isolating, you can go in any direction, but you must face the wildness of the waves, and the threat of the deep like in Moby Dick and The Perfect Storm.

Ocean Structure

How about the Forest?

It can be place where you get lost or find magic. In Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death the forest becomes an important design element. The forest is death’s realm and the town is the land of the living. The forest’s edge is line upon which Keturah must dance. Initially Keturah is about to die in the forest, but Death gives her a second chance, allowing her to return home. But she’s given tasks and must come back to the forest and revisit Death, creating touch-points in the structure of the story. The story’s rhythm is this undulation between the pull of death and the desire for life.

Forest Structure Slide

Think about the environment of your book and ask yourself:

  • Does the environment of your book have metaphorical meaning?
  • How do your character’s move within it?
  • Is it a prison, a path, a portal?
  • What natural movement does the environment already provide for your story?

Your story may not be a mountain escalation, but the mountain also provides another good lesson, because you don’t have to be on a mountain to use mountain structure. Look at your environment to see how it might parallel another that you can use an access point to your design.

Up Next: Designing Principle #3 – Time

Designing Principle #1: A Character’s Mental State

Character Mental State

My first category exploring the concept of a designing principle is a character’s mental state.

A lot of novels today are written in the first person and the reader is allowed inside a character’s mind. If you’re writing in first person consider the mental state of your character. Is there a design that could mimic their experience?

In the film Memento the protagonist, Leonard, has short term memory loss. Every ten minutes he forgets what has happened and must reorient himself. Writer/director Christopher Nolan uses the designing principal of telling the story backwards in order to put the viewer in the same mental state as the character. He’s constantly disorienting the viewer and forcing them to put the pieces back together, just as Leonard must do with his own life.

In the novel Liar, the protagonist tells multiple versions of her story, starting out believable and moving to the outlandish. Sometimes she goes back and retells a scene completely differently than before. As a reader it’s hard to know what is true. The story moves forward and then back and then forward again. But what can you expect from a compulsive liar who’s always changing her story?

In Beneath a Meth Moon and How to Tell a True War Story, both protagonists are coming to terms with past trauma. In Meth Moon it’s a struggle with drug addiction, in How to Tell a True War Story it’s post-traumatic stress disorder. Both are told in a fractured narrative with vignettes and a non-linear construction. Both reflect how memory is faulty and vague.

In How to Tell a True War Story the narrative is structured in a spiral, going deeper and deeper into a particular time in the narrators life, repeating events, and  introducing new information at each return to the event. In Beneath a Meth Moon the structure is a wheel, where the story revolves around a central theme: the cause of Laurel’s drug addiction.  Or the narrative could be a fractured collage where the reader has to connect the dots in search of understanding, mimicking the same quest and mental state of the protagonist.

Have you considered your character’s mental state and how their unique struggle through the world might influence your story’s design?

Up Next: Designing Princple #2 – Setting and Environment

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. 

Plot Genres

In my last two posts I covered a variety of alternative plots that deviate from traditional arch plot. In this post I want to address what is known as a plot genre.

You’ve probably stumbled across craft books that told you there are x-number of plot types and the story you are writing probably falls into one of these catagories.  For example Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat offers the following list:

  1. save-the-catMonster in the House
  2. Golden Fleece
  3. Out of the Bottle
  4. Dude with a Problem
  5. Rites of Passage
  6. Buddy Love
  7. Whydunit
  8. The Fool Triumphant
  9. Institutionalized
  10. Superhero

Or maybe you’ve stumbled across Ronald Tobias’ 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, which offers these as plot variations:

  1. 20 Master PlotsComing of Age Plot
  2. Atonement Plot
  3. Love Plot
  4. Forbidden Love Plot
  5. Revenge Plot
  6. Mystery Plot
  7. Adventure Plot
  8. Rescue Plot
  9. Escape Plot
  10. Temptation Plot
  11. You get the picture…

So, why aren’t these alternative plots? Why didn’t I include them in my alternative plot list?

Great question.

This is the difference between what I call a plot type and a plot genre. The list above is a category: romance, mystery, superhero, buddy flick, etc. They all come with conventions and audience expectations. And yes, they sometime even come with what one might call “obligatory scenes” (i.e. a scene you would expect from that genre of story). In my book, however, these are all still variations of the hero’s journey/goal-oriented plot. They don’t push the envelope of plot in a new way. Instead they use the conventions of arch plot to tell this variation of the goal-oriented story. Instead of a quest, it’s the goal to “get the girl” or “seek revenge” or “solve the mystery.” The reason we often hear that there is only “one type of story” is because we often lump everything (including all these genre variations) under the umbrella of a goal-oriented story.

Of course you can take any one of these genres and decide to use an alternative plot! Of course you can! And I’d love to see you do that.

But let’s not get confused. A plot-type is defined by the type of action and it’s cause-and-effect relationships. Whereas a plot-genre is defined by the category of the story-type and the expectations and conventions of that category.


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