From the Reading Chair

Articles by Laurel Cohn

Story Design

Date: 16 May 2024

Theme. Plotlines. Characters. Backstory. Point of view. These elements, all crucial for writers to understand, are often considered separately. The artistry in developing work for publication, however, lies in understanding how these elements interrelate, how they work together to create your story design.

Story Design

Date: 16 May 2024

Theme. Plotlines. Characters. Backstory. Point of view. These elements, all crucial for writers to understand, are often considered separately. The artistry in developing work for publication, however, lies in understanding how these elements interrelate, how they work together to create your story design.

The American designer Charles Eames said, “Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.” Eames may be known for his furniture, but this definition is as appropriate for stories as it is for seating. Yes, you need proficiency in working with the elements, but that’s not enough. Knowing the purpose is fundamental.

Some writers start with a strong idea, but most find it through the drafting process. Along the way you face a multitude of choices about how the events of the story unfold (plot), how the characters might respond to the events (character arc), what to reveal or conceal in terms of backstory, and whose point of view to follow. The more you understand what your story is about, the more clarity you will gain about the choices you have to play with, and the more likely you are to find the best story design.

 

What’s it all about?

What the story is about concerns the theme, the central idea that shapes the work. It is often only once you have completed a draft, or several, that you can deepen your understanding of the theme of the work. Think about how you might respond to the question, ‘I hear you’re writing a book; what are you writing about?’

Do you say what happens in the plot? The story is about a woman who finds out her husband is having an affair with her best friend and who tries to find the right way forward for herself and her family.

Do you describe the characters? The story is about Tania, who cut short a promising career in engineering when she had children in order to devote herself to her family. Now in her mid-forties, she discovers her husband Rick, a successful property developer, is having an affair with her best friend Marie, and her world is turned upside down.

Or do you reference the underlying theme you are exploring? This is a story about betrayal and trust. I’m interested in teasing out how betrayal changes our sense of who we are, and how we learn to trust again when the people we trusted the most betray us.

Clarity around your theme can help determine a range of choices relating to plotting, character arc, backstory and point of view. In turn, your choices may lead you to tweak your understanding of your theme.

For example, I might start my story with a scene in which Tania realises Rick and Marie are having an affair. What that scene looks like, and what happens next, will depend on whether Rick and Marie know that Tania has uncovered their affair. Does Tania confront them? Does she keep it to herself? What she decides to do will depend on who she is, her motivations, her fears and desires. These will help determine her character arc, and are shaped by backstory.

What if, for example, Tania’s father had had a long-term extra-marital affair throughout her childhood. It was an open secret, but her parents stay married. Her mother was desperately unhappy, and frustratingly for Tania, she never did anything about it. How would this impact the way Tania responds to Rick and Marie’s affair? Perhaps she confronts Rick straight away, determined not be like her mother. Or perhaps Tania keeps quiet but plots to reveal secrets she knows will be damaging to Rick and Marie in different ways. She wants them to know what betrayal feels like.

Now I see my underlying theme not so much about learning to trust again but about the impacts of betrayal on our sense of who we are. The plot might need adjusting as I’m no longer tracking what Tania thinks is the best way forward for her family; I’m following the fallout of the decisions Tania makes on all the characters concerned. And whereas I may have started out thinking this was Tania’s story, what if I kept the narrative moving forward but told the story from the points of view of Rick and Marie as well? Deciding the best point of view to employ will depend on what I want the reader to think and feel.

 

A story’s purpose

Story design determines not only the way the story on the page unfolds, but also the relationship between the writer and reader, and between the reader and the characters and events on the page. This is where theme and all the other elements meet purpose.

If, for example, I want to focus on the ways betrayal impacts our sense of self, I might stick with Tania as the single point of view character, taking the reader deep into her experience. If, however, I want to highlight the messiness and complexity of notions of trust I might show the events from the perspectives of each of the main characters, muddying the waters of what any one character might conceive of as right and wrong, fair and unfair. My understanding of the purpose evolves, and the manuscript needs to evolve to deliver that purpose. As you can see, decisions pertaining to one element of story design impact another.

The art of story design lies in how you to keep finessing the elements so that they eventually fall neatly into place to serve your purpose.

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