Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

StoryMaps — Visualizing the Hidden Structure of Stories

This is a series of posts I did on the underlying structure of novels. It’s an interesting visual tool. I’m not going to suggest that any tool like this is the best, but thinking about stories in structural ways has made me a better writer.

The Hunter, Part 1

So I have just fallen in love with Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptations of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s Parker novels. If you are unfamiliar with any of those names, you will love every moment you spend finding out about them. I promise. Genius all the way ’round.

I found this great interview with Darwyn Cooke about adapting the stories. In it he talks about visualizing the story. This is particularly interesting to me because not only is he a brilliant illustrator, but he’s a great graphic designer. So he compresses a lot of the story into the awesome and stylish informational graphics. You don’t need to list everywhere a character drove and everything he did, when you can draw an annotated map.

I have now read 20+ of the Parker novels. He didn’t do it in every novel, but Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s perspective switches are tremendous.

Annnnway, in the interview he remarked about the discipline with which Westlake structured his stories. He switches perspective or jumps time every 7 chapters or so. And evidently he did it in ALL of his books. I had to go check it out for myself. So I mapped out the first Parker Novel, the Hunter, Like this:

It’s 64,000 words and it has 4 parts. The average chapter length is about 2,000 words and a graph of the chapter lengths is in the upper right hand corner. I’ve also indicated the major action that each of the parts is devoted to.

This kind of stuff is fascinating to me. I believe that the discipline of a form is one of the things that can help a creator make something great. All hour-long episodes of television, no matter what the content of the show, are all structured basically the same way. (either four or five acts, depending on how you slice it.) Think of it like this Tease (Act I) – Commercial – Act I – Commercial – Act III – Commercial – Act IV – Commercial – Close (Act V).

I can’t imagine what a similar diagram of Game of Thrones might look like, but if I ever write any epic fantasy, I’ll probably make one. XKCD made this interesting chart of movie narratives  but it’s pretty useless for my purposes. Where the characters were isn’t quite as important as how the story is parsed out. That’s what makes the plot-magic go.

Anybody else out there have a way to visualize the structure of a story?

The Hunter, Part II

More information and more elegance. Not quite there yet. The addition of the major beats of the story definitely help.

The Hobbit

 Story Map of the Hobbit

I’m going a little infographic crazy this weekend, but I think I’m on to something. It’s really hard to pay attention to the structure of a story while you are reading it. Especially if the story is any good. The whole point is for the reader to be seduced into the flow of the narrative. At any moment, if the reader is thinking “What nice way to handle that exposition” the illusion is shattered and the work falls flat.

However, if you are trying to learn how stories are made, that’s exactly the kind of thing you have to pay attention to. The most important and least obvious choices are about pacing and timing — Where a story starts, how it jumps around with point-of-view and flashbacks, what the story includes and what it leaves out.  I know of no good source for this kind of information, so I’m making one.

I’m not much of a designer, but I’m trying to find a form with which to map stories. I’m sure that each one will have to be a little different (stories can differ wildly in structure).

Game of Thrones

click for pdf

This thing is a beast of a book. Really quite amazing. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading all of these, but I can’t say they are my favorite novels ever. Without question they are unlike anything else I’ve ever read. You can argue that War and Peace has a greater sweep in a single book, but since this story is five books already and is projected to go to for two more, it is easily among the longest, most complicated works of fiction ever written. The man’s endurance is incredible. To say nothing of his imagination.

I have no interest in making a companion guide, or plotting out the whole series in bullet points. But what I am interested is in his technique. How he achieves and sustains such long books. And generates such interest. Great characters are a kind of magic. But structure isn’t. So here, hopefully made easier to see, is some of the structure of the first book in the series, Game of Thrones.

There is also a breakdown of POV characters by series character in the Wikipedia Entry. I’ve also made a PDF version of the Game of Thrones Storymap in case you want better resolution for reading the fine print.

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