The Building Blocks of Story

Ciao, SEers. I’m currently wrapping up edits on a full five-book series. It’s hard to revise all day, every day—especially when it’s your own work instead of a client’s—so sometimes, creative breaks are necessary. They actually serve two purposes.

  1. They let your analytical brain take a rest, so you’re less likely to make editing mistakes due to mental fatigue.
  2. They give you fodder for your next work.

And, let’s face it. If you’re a writer, you’re probably not a one-and-done artist. You’ve got a lot of stories to tell. There are no shortcuts. If you want to write multiple books, you have to write multiple books. So, while you’re doing the post-work on your soon-to-be-released masterpiece, you might as well also be thinking about your next one.

I’ve got a pretty cool concept for my next series. It’s combining two genres I love plus lore that I adore. (Sorry for the rhyme; I promise, there is no poetry planned for my next work.) But that got me thinking about left-brain and right-brain writing tasks. The table below shows (in the most general terms possible) where story crafting takes place.

What is that XXX you ask? Well, I noticed as my brain has been dividing its time between creative and analytical endeavors, there’s a part of writing that uses both. In different ways, but both.

That’s the actual writing.

Most people will tell you creative writing is a right-brain activity. After all, it says “creative” right in the name. But there is also a meticulous, analytical component. And I’m not just talking about sentence structure and grammar, though those things are also left-brain. (We forget that because crafting sentences is something we’ve been doing since we were infants, but there are formulas we follow to convey our messages coherently.) I mean the structure of the story itself.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser, plantser, or planner. If you’re writing a strong story, you’re following a prescribed structure. You just might not realize it because story craft comes naturally to you.

A series is a compilation of novels. A novel is comprised of chapters. Chapters are made up of scenes.

What, exactly, is a scene?

A scene is a discrete unit of your text that reveals necessary information to advance your story. That’s it. There are probably as many definitions of “scene” as there are writers who write them, but in a nutshell, that’s what a scene is.

  • It’s self-contained, with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • It could advance the plot.
  • It could propel a character’s story arc.
  • It could reveal necessary information.
  • Its size makes the information easier for a reader to take in and retain.

Let’s face it, scenes usually combine two or more of the above points. If they didn’t, we’d have chunks of text in stories that read more like dossiers or travelogues than fiction.

Dwight Swain wrote a book called Techniques of the Selling Writer in which he explained this process in great detail. According to Swain, every scene in your book should alternate between scenes and sequels. (Before you think I made a mistake, let me explain about the use of “scene” here. It is correct. His information is incredibly useful, but his terminology is unfortunate if not downright mindboggling.)

Scenes are the “proactive” units of a story. They introduce and advance goals, conflicts, and disasters.

Sequels are the “reactive” units of a story. They include reactions, dilemmas, and decisions.

Swain posits these units should always follow each other. If one of your scenes is a scene (yes, I know that sounds weird), the next has to be a sequel. It not only helps with pacing, it’s simply logical. If you state a goal, you need to reach for it. If you encounter a conflict, you need to (try to) resolve it. If you endure a disaster, you have to start to recover. The converse is also true. If you’ve reacted to something, you need new actions or the story stalls. If you encounter a dilemma, you need to try to solve it. If you’ve made a decision, you need to put it into effect.

In other words, after you act, you react. And after you react, you have to take action again.

I’d love to know if you think your writing follows this formula (whether innately or purposely). Do you think your craft is all creative, all formulaic, or a combination of both? Where does your process fit on the scale? Let’s talk about it below.

Staci Troilo Bio

72 thoughts on “The Building Blocks of Story

  1. Pingback: The Building Blocks of Story: Sequels | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: A glorious writing day | Entertaining Stories

  3. Pingback: The Building Blocks of Story: Scenes | Story Empire

    • It’s funny, the things we do without thinking about them. Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a formula to crafting a story, and we all follow it to some degree in some manner. We may only loosely follow it, and it may be completely subconsciously, but I think we all do it. I know this—the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to write. I do better when I let it come naturally. Like breathing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:

    Lots of substance to this post from Staci Troilo on Story Empire. I agree that writing vis a whole brain activity. Interesting that we understand the structure before writing. Those occur fast in speech – think it, say it – but more slowly with writing. I guess that’s the lag from constructing words creatively.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, I’m even later to the party than Marcia! You already know I’m a planster (thanks for including that term). I haven’t thought about using a formula in writing but I guess I do. Because I write mystery and suspense, I like to end each chapter with a cliffhanger – something that will keep readers coming back for more. Scenes can have mini clifhangers as long as they aren’t overdone. One of my all-time favorite authors, Mary Higgins-Clark, once said she liked to leave breadcrumbs. Little bits of information that keep readers guessing. If you think about it, writing this way is using a formula. Great post today!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I love cliffhanger scene endings. I try to do that in every genre I write it. “Breadcrumbs” are another great technique. At work lately, we’ve been talking a lot about mystery boxes. Similar concept. Offer a clue, breadcrumb, unanswered question, mystery box. Give the reader time to try to figure it out. By the time you give the reader closure on that topic, you’ve presented them with more questions, always propelling the plot forward.

      And of course I’d include plantsers. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I found your thoughts interesting, Staci, and it is good to know the workings of things which one might do naturally, and hopefully get it right, when setting a scene and following through with a sequel. I’d like to remember these points and have a look at them again, reblogging it. I think this is such useful information. Thanks Staci.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There was a show I used to watch now and again on the Discovery Channel or the Science Channel or one of those learning-type channels. It was called Brain something. (How ironic that I can’t remember the name of a show that deals with the mind.) Anyway, it talked about left-brain/right-brain differences, gender differences, age differences, and many other things. They did a lot of experiments to prove their points. It was fascinating. One of the things that struck me, though, was the stuff they did with language. We follow so many rules when we speak or write, particularly in the US, which we cobbled together words from many different languages. It seems every spelling rule has thirty exceptions, and our sentence structures can get out of hand quickly. But we do it all without thought. (Look at the order of adjectives; we never think about that, but we know innately if they are in the correct order [opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose] or not.) That’s why I’m convinced storytellers use both halves of our brains as we write. We may be conjuring worlds from thin air, but there’s still a formula to what we do and how we do it.

      Okay, I’m going to stop rambling now before I write a term paper on the subject. Thanks for weighing in!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I hadn’t analysed the art of writing like this before but it does make a lot of sense. The action/reaction cycle is crucial! When an idea for a book nags, I jot down the plot ideas as they come to me. Once the characters come into their own I then find I have to adjust the plot to allow for their development and idiosyncrasies.The one drives the other and vice versa. Looking forward to hearing more – and good look with the revisions!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also adjust my plots as I get to know my characters better. I love that you do the same. Character-driven fiction (to me) is always more interesting than plot-centric fiction. Action is great, but the people driving the action? They hook me. Thanks, Trish.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Are you a right-brain kinda person or a left-brained one? Do you know that you use both for different tasks while writing? Staci Troilo has a very interesting post today on Story Empire. I highly recommend checking it out. It’s really got me thinking! Please consider passing it along so others can check it out, too, thanks, and thanks to Staci for such a cool topic! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Sorry I’m late to the party, Staci. Been a hectic day. But I’m glad I got here. Wow. I’ve never been very analytical about my writing. I just “blundered along ignorant” as someone once said to me, and didn’t think about whether I was or wasn’t using this kind of stuff. Because I’ve been a prolific reader for over 70 years, I have a feel for how I like a book to progress, and I think I’ve just been sort of winging it in that direction. I am trying to learn more about various approaches and techniques, some of which I’ve already jettisoned as not my thing (outlining) and some which I quite like (character sheets, timelines). I’ve never thought about the way my mind was working or which half I was using, but I’m sure thinking about it now. This has me very intrigued, and it’s another great SE post I plan to refer back to often as I continue to learn more about this craft of ours. Thanks for this one! Sharing!! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      • Aw, that’s very nice, Staci. I’m so happy to finally be telling my stories, and I’m just glad that there are some folks out there who seem to enjoy them. But I do want to grow as a writer during the process, so I’m always interested in what you and others have to say on the process, itself. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I read that book a long time ago, and I like the scene/sequel idea. I actually liked Jack Bickham’s book better. It was easier for me to digest. I kind of think (but this is off the top of my head) that one of the reasons I like to do plot points is because they do the left brain stuff, getting the plot organized, so that when I sit down to write, I can use my right brain more–to bring the characters, settings, and events to life. At least, it feels that way.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I love exploring right brain/left brain activity and the creative/analytical process. I definitely follow a formula that uses both. I think my creative right brain splashes a mess on the page, then my analytical left brain comes back and cleans it up. I’m fascinated by the workings of the mind and it plays into creating and learning. You also gave me a lot to think about regarding act and react. I’ve never examined my scenes that way, but I can definitely see the pattern.As you said, there are things we just do without even thinking about them or realizing we’re doing them. Instinctive learned behavior patterns.

    An excellent and thought-provoking post today, Staci!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m delighted you found this post useful. We all come at the craft from different directions and work with different methods. I used to be a professor, and my goal was to approach the material from several different viewpoints in hopes of reaching as many students as possible. I figured everyone had to click with one of the ways. Or maybe they’d teach me their processes and I’d learn something new. I’ve transferred my teaching philosophy to my posts here. I love having discussions with other writers about their methods, mine, and that of others in the industry. Nothing like a thoughtful exchange of ideas!

      Liked by 2 people

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