Plotting: Conflict, Complication, Curiosity, and Connection

What’s the conflict, where’s the conflict? These questions often arise in creative writing, and sometimes I find them tiresome. Perhaps it’s because they can sound a bit nagging or whiny, and I am an irritable and impatient type who runs to resentment easily.

But really it’s because conflict is not always the obvious or the primary driver of stories for me. Certain types of story do not rely on conflict, even if it’s somewhere in the story. 

Many films and plays are all about conflict. Perhaps it’s in the nature of the experience, something to do with the way audiences engage with a performance or a spectacle on screen or stage; their expressive nature so often draws us with some sort of verbal or physical sparring, some visible tension or conflict, particularly in their most popular forms: battling wits between the leads in a Shakespearean comedy or a rom com; a murder mystery or a courtroom drama; the inner turmoil of a guts-spilling Tennessee Williams monologue or a ballad in a musical; a car chase or the combat between fighter aircraft in outer space; even an ecological threat, whether it’s the ancient tale of Noah’s ark or a cli-fi disaster movie.

Such vividly portrayed antagonisms – interpersonal, internal, societal, or environmental – connect with audience powerfully and immediately. It’s not surprising that many of the theories of narrative structure that have grown out of writing for cinema and theatre put conflict at the heart of stories too.

By contrast, it occurs to me that novels are usually consumed in private and as individual reading (or listening) experiences, and as such can invite a more reflective approach in their subject matter. Reading by its nature tends to be a more meditative and less public act.

I am not saying that novels lack conflict, of course. Many novels are entirely based in conflict, and even if you are writing a less conflict-oriented story it really does help to grasp the fundamentals of narrative structure that are based in tracing the turning points, and complications, and climaxes that are often focused around a central conflict. They’re particularly useful when planning and shaping a story, though I always stress that this is stuff you know deeply and practise lightly. It can help to analyse the structure of novels that inspire you.

Any theory can, though, start to feel formulaic, or even constraining. And it’s particularly this emphasis on conflict that I often find myself resisting. Stories predicated on conflict favour, it could be argued, quite a … violent? and phallocratic? way of looking at/presenting the world. Even some of the guidebooks about this way of telling a story can get awfully mansplainy  🙀🙀🙀

Instead, I often think about the idea of CHANGE, prompted by something Ursula Le Guin says in her wonderful book Steering the Craft. Regulars at my classes might be able to recite this by heart now, as I read it out every time:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

So: what’s changing? What’s being found, lost, borne, discovered in our stories?

I’m currently reading the recently published Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. A lot of great stuff here, and I’m only a few chapters in. Something that’s registered so far is its reference to the ‘psychology of curiosity’:

Information gaps create gnawing levels of curiosity in the readers of Agatha Christie and the viewers of Prime Suspect, stories in which they’re (1) posed a puzzle; (2) exposed to a sequence of events with an anticipated but unknown resolution; (3) surprised by red herrings; and (4) tantalised by the fact that someone knows whodunnit, and how, but we don’t.

So: I’m also thinking about ways in which curiosity might be used to guide the telling of stories.

And then imagine my surprise the other day when I was prepping for Saturday’s masterclass on revising and self-editing that I discover there is a whole other narrative structure I had never heard of: the Japanese four-act structure called kishōtenketsu. Where have I been, hiding under a neocolonialist mansplained rock of three-act structure?!

Kishōtenketsu a way of looking at form that is found in examples from classical Chinese poetry as well as manga comics. Its four acts (or frames in comics) use:

  • Set-up
  • Development, or expansion
  • Twist, or complication
  • Resolution, or conclusion

It’s discussed in more detailed in links below, but the idea of the twist really catches my attention here.

I do think the form of kishōtenketsu needs adapting, mind. Just as we don’t need to rely on three or five acts, we don’t have to be limited to four. But thinking about the ingredients of four-act structure, particularly how we look for twists, frees up how we consider the potential of the fluid forms of prose fiction: from flash fiction by Lydia Davis to the 10,000 words of Brokeback Mountain to the 300,000 words of The Goldfinch, which is a novel that uses many shifts and twists to keep the pages turning.

So: instead of the turning points of the conflict-focused three-act structure (triggering moment, rising action, climax, resolution), these other ideas lead me to thinking of different shaping principles: twists, information gaps, surprises, unexpected changes, the spark that’s created by a reversal of fortune (or a turn in a sonnet), juxtapositions, the jump cut, frames, contrasts, dislocation, alignments, questions that prick my curiosity, expanding horizons, cause and effect. There are many subtle energies and forms that are not so emphatically about conflict but are about other ways of relating and integrating experience. Cause and effect (consequence) is particularly important: something happens (a twist), how do characters react?

Here are a few examples from my own (emerging) thinking.

There are certainly conflicts within Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but much of the page-turning energy arises for me from the twists of its reversals in fortune and sudden shifts in setting. No spoilers, but people who’ve read the book will remember one very explosive moment as well as one very marked move to a (brilliantly realised) fresh location, and then later on there is also a really great twist I really should have seen coming, but didn’t. How characters react to those changes is perhaps more important than defining any particular antagonism; though conflicts are certainly there in The Goldfinch, this is ultimately a book about loss and love and finding your way in the world, and they are what’s most important, particularly in the rising swell of emotion that define the ‘shock and aura’ of its final pages. The resolution of that book isn’t about conflict, or about one person defeating another. It’s about a surprise, and it’s about a character finding something – literally, and also more deeply within, and along the way the reader is rewarded with many moments that are not so much about conflict but about connection and empathy.

Other examples.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. That Olive is quite a combative character! So there are plenty of conflicts here. But consider the juxtapositions, the contrasts, the different frameworks of narrative that overlap and interlock yet too at times go out on their own, with their own surprises.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It starts with a conflict, and it’s one whose resolution drives the story – but too there is much more going on. Some of the sections of this book that I enjoyed the most involved characters going off into their own storylines, and involved things none of the other characters knew about.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen likewise has plenty of conflicts between its characters, but for me much of its powerful charge arises from changes in POV, shifts in register, and what we gain from surprises and contrasts and misunderstandings and realignments we encounter in the storytelling and characterisation (and we meet some really distinctive characters here). This is more nuanced than what might simply be understood as conflict.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. A great leap that happens at a certain point in the story is all about the twist that’s delivered, and it’s certainly a twist that draws on the energy of conflicts between characters caught up in the ‘wretched scheme’ of a dastardly conspiracy that’s the fodder of classic Victorian melodramas. But it’s a radical retelling here, and a significant shift in POV and a serious re-examination of characters delivers much of the reward in the reading too. Fingersmith is all about the twists.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It certainly has conflicts, but it’s hard to apply the conventional dramatic arc to this novel, and we derive much of our pleasure from the way in which its Russian Doll form jumps us from one frame of narrative to another.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr. A novel I very much enjoyed recently, and again one with plenty of conflicts at its core, though Damian has said that ‘conflict is the setting but not the engine’ of his book: ‘I think in some ways time is what drives this book and seeing how different histories and truths compete over time and how the characters change as those forces act on them and they resist/are crushed by them’. Something I particularly admired is the way in which it is constructed, like Cloud Atlas, of self-contained frames of narrative that are not immediately obvious in their connections. Our curiosity is guided as to how these stories are joined together.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Another book in sections (three of them), and though each has its own conflicts the greater part of the narrative drive here lies in figuring out how these stories are joined together. Connection is a more important shaping principle than conflict, I’d dare to say.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. That Truman Capote certainly was a bundle of antagonisms! Social, interpersonal, and especially internal. But much of the pleasure of this magnificent novel is that it’s not laboriously constructed around the central conflict of Truman spilling the tea on his Swans in his final book, but it frees itself in terms of both form and content to explore a whole life and times, digressing into whole separate strands of storyline for secondary characters. It’s a bold, ambitious novel – and its boldness comes from daring to be unconventional.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Swan Song brought this to mind for me – again, the conflict of real lives reimagined (Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky), but again much of the payoff comes from formally playing with the way that stories are told, and leaving gaps in the account – lacunae.

David Copperfield is a coming-of-age story with plenty of twists and turns and reversals of fortune. And coincidences! Imagine having tea at the house of your nemesis and lo and behold your own landlord walks by and a friendship is resumed. We are told to avoid coincidences in our stories, but Dickens gets away with it! Have a go for yourself, even if you really do have to be crafty. But too I have myself experienced remarkable coincidences. I once sat down on a ferry between North and South Island in New Zealand, and was enjoying the view, when I looked across the deck and saw Celia who used to sit in the next office to me when I first started working in publishing in London! Another time, when I lived in the US, I ran into Bernie from the art department (from that same office in London) while hiking the trail to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez is a strange and meditative book about a writer who loses a friend and gains a dog. It does have conflicts, and a plot, and I am sure we can find the conflicts and tensions of three-act structure here if we seek them out. But the emphasis is definitely on the internal musings of how the central character processes change; it’s a nuanced self-exploration, and to my mind lacks an obvious conflict as its central drama.

But how do we shape all of these twists and curiosities and nuances into a coherent form? (Which begs the question, in fact, of how coherent do we need to be?).

In fact, after questioning theories from film, I feel that one of the most flexible ways of thinking about story structure comes from the Pixar Story Spine:

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. And ever since that day ___.

Perhaps we can say that twists are what happens at One day ___. And a long novel such as The Goldfinch or David Copperfield has lots of One days? Conventional three-act structure reduces this to a single inciting incident or trigger, but such works amount to a long sequence of causes and effects.

I am not saying that we should write stories without conflict. We do need – and want – tension in our writing and our reading. Conflicts are fun, whether played out in the bitchy undermining that goes on in the juicy narration of a novel such as Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller, or in the more obvious thrills and spills of a battle in a fantasy novel that results in the victorious outcome we desire. The clash of sword and shield provides the basic matter of many tales.

Hold up a minute, though: mentioning battles in fantasy novels makes me think about Game of Thrones, and I am wondering if many of the negative reactions to its tv resolution arose because we have grown used to storytelling that favours outright victors and clear-cut conquests. In Plot Without Conflict, Randy Finch in fact uses kishōtenketsu as a specific way of looking at the story of Game of Thrones. Many characters were most certainly defeated at the end, and many others lost their heads along the way, but the twist at the end saw unlikely characters achieving outcomes that had been speculated upon only in the distant fan-flamed corners of the interwebs. Game of Thrones, it turns out, is not a story with the arc of a conventional hero’s journey.

It’s not really a matter of thinking about plots without conflict. It’s more that conflict doesn’t have to be the primary emphasis, or the HEART of the story. The gender-bias of male-oriented hero narratives – all swords and cock, and not much internal action – is perhaps not the ideal way of thinking about those stories of finding or losing that Ursula Le Guin mentions above.

And perhaps in general we need a less adversarial mode of not only writing, but also looking at the world?

Consider, for example, those essays written in high school or freshman composition classes, where we are tasked on ‘arguing’ for or against a proposition: prove yourself right, which often means proving someone else wrong. (Sound familiar? I wouldn’t know, I’m not reading the news right now.)

Does the conditioning of years after years of writing argumentative essays and creating conflict-driven stories and taking part in debating society result in the squabbling chamber of the Houses of Parliament, and the rise of alt-right and -left trolls, and antagonistic figures such as Donald Trump? Does everything always have to be defined so much by confrontation and conquest? We don’t have to be creationists to think that the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest is not necessarily the way we have to structure our societies, sorry, our stories.

Hello, my name is Andrew, and if I win Miss World my wish is for an end to all wars. [Cue: Imagine all the people, Living life in peace …]

Perhaps this is taking things a bit far, though perhaps it is not. The way in which we rely on conflict in our storytelling is worth serious thought. There are alternatives that emphasise and embody other ways of integrating change and complication in the world: inviting curiosity, emphasising connection.

As the man said: Only connect.


Further reading and writing
I’ve added a writing experiment that plays with these ideas as an exercise in drafting and revision: Only Connect.

And further discussion and amplification of ideas can be found in the links below, along with another one on the fragmented novel, a form we discussed in my recent class Density and Speed: Crafting Space and Time in Writing.

Still Eating Oranges, The Significance of Plot Without Conflict

* Kate Krake, The Four-Act Narrative, or the Plot Without Conflict

* Mythic Scribes – also includes further links to pieces on differences between Japanese and Western styles of arguing/conflict and structure in Japanese horror stories

* T. B. McKenzie, Kishōtenketsu

* Eamonn Griffin, Kishōtenketsu for Beginners

* Nicole W. Lee, On Kishōtenketsu – includes analysis of Chinese poetry

* Taiyo Nakashima, Japan’s Most Popular Manga

* Ted Gioia, The Rise of the Fragmented Novel

* Also, let’s not forget a book is not a film. I recently read a very well-reviewed book on novel writing that has a lot of good content, but a large proportion of its examples are taken from film. I mean: its chapter on dialogue quotes at length from four different texts, AND THEY ARE ALL FILMS. Which would be fine if the book was called Writing A Screenplay, but it isn’t. Novels have options beyond direct speech: indirect or reported speech, summary, dialogue tags, and ways of rendering action and gestures too that can only be achieved in prose. Anyone writing a novel needs to understand those ways in which characters’ speech is rendered too. (If you want a really and truly excellent guide to writing dialogue in prose, check out the chapter on characterisation in the new/tenth edition of Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, finally available in an affordable edition on these shores.)

And again: a book is not a film, or a play for that matter. A film is something intended for consumption within a block of two hours while you sit in a dark room with strangers, or in front of your telly with your loved ones, or on your iPad by yourself. A play is something that is watched in a hushed room or (further back in time) an outdoor amphitheatre, again over the course of a couple of hours (or a bit more maybe). A book however can be picked up and put down over the course of many days, and in any context (in bed, on the train, on the beach); the duration of that reading experience will be several hours even for a fast reader. Theories developed for one medium need serious adaptation for a differently consumed form.

Also, showing-not-telling is something of a Western bias, a colonial relic even. Which is fine, if you want to be a colonial relic, I guess.

Also, however many time people try to explain beats to me I. Just. Don’t. Get. Them. (My beats are Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman and Bobbie Louise Hawkins.)

I think the problem I have with beats and some of these other structures is probably that they can feel to me like externally conceived structures imposed upon narrative matter. They are not arising in that intuitive way that I recently heard Anna Burns describe how she wrote Milkman.

And, once again: I do observe that a book is not a film, or a play for that matter. Beats are used in writing for screen and stage, and films and plays are creations that manifest primarily as external expressions of action: performances that rely on spectacle and a choreographed management of time and space.

So: narrative theories based on screen- and scriptwriting have other limits beyond their emphasis on conflict. There are many theories on structure in film, in fact, and I find myself drawn more to the idea of the sequence . But I do note that three- or five-act structures are the ones I come across most in discussions in fiction writing.


A Book Is Not A Film


Texts on story structure are often recommended to writers with books in development: The Writer’s Journey, The Story Grid, Into The Woods, Story. They have many useful insights on how we can shape our content (e.g., inciting incident; events of mounting tension; a resolution delivering a payoff), but it can be frustrating that so many of their reference points come from the screen rather than the page. Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, Rocky, Eastenders. It’s only to be expected, I suppose – so many seminars on story are designed for screenwriters, after all.

But storytelling on screen is a very different undertaking from storytelling in book form.

First thing that comes to mind: the rollerskate dance in Heaven’s Gate. Now, I know that movie gets a bad rap (mostly, it seems, because of its production costs spiralling out of control – and I also know that some viewers have a problem with the likelihood of a roller disco in the Wild West, to which I say: this is fiction, and I’m not sure they danced ‘The Blue Danube’ at Harvard commencement ceremonies quite like a Hollywood musical either, but do we really care?!). But: this rollerskating scene took my breath away when I first saw it. The pacing, the buildup, the music, the acting, the energy of all those bodies circling around on roller skates. It’s a SPECTACLE. It assaults all our senses, like good scenes in movies often do. (Other highlights in this trailer.)

Films are visual storytelling. Books can’t complete with that. It might take several pages to fill in every last detail of a richly rendered scene that a film can impress on viewers in an instant, and thereafter develop through well-paced action, carrying us along into represented realities. Films work on several senses at once: sights, sounds, movement through time.

Many manuscripts of novels are written as if they are films: they’re all foreground action, with maybe a sweeping backdrop every now and then. And though action is important, and should even dominate most of many stories, it rarely needs to be the entirety of a piece of novel or short story. (I have another perspective on this, and particularly on the idea of the narrator, in a different post: Tell Me A Story.)

Books can’t prompt so many senses all at once, like a film. They just have words. Which sounds blindingly obvious, until I think about those manuscripts of novels that are all foreground action (‘overwrought Dr Who‘, I sometimes call it).

So: what can storytelling in words rather than visual storytelling achieve? Take the following paragraph from the second page of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris:

Starling came from people who do not ask for favors or press for friendship, but she was puzzled and regretful at Crawford’s behavior. Now, in his presence, she liked him again, she was sorry to note.

I read that last night and asked myself: Why did that paragraph give me pause? What is it about that paragraph that can only be done in a book?

It comes after a page of description and dialogue, scene-setting stuff with a visual and auditory quality, where we are introduced to Clarice Starling at the Behavioral Science section of the FBI Academy; she has grass in her hair and grass stains on her windbreaker, and her hands smell of gunsmoke (fantastic word), and she has just been summoned to a meeting with a senior colleague she thought was ignoring her. All these aspects of narrative content. Then this opening is punctuated by the paragraph I quote above, which is what might be called editorialising, or commentary, and is, I guess, a form of telling in its flat-out assessment of someone’s personal characteristics. It’s not wildly specific or concrete (as we are often told to make writing), either.

But I like it. I like how a narrator steps in here with this pithy quality of omniscient observation, telling us where Starling came from; then we slip into her mind, but still observing her from the outside too. We can have both things at once, be inside and out, and enjoy weird and undefinable other things as well. Explanations, descriptions, a bit of an ironic edge, control of narrative focus and psychic distance. A voice, a style. Personality emerges in the writing as a strong narrator takes charge and speaks directly to the reader. It could, for some, feel excessive or unnecessary, but this is the gnarly little paragraph that hooked me.

In film, I imagine that something of these ideas could be suggested through mannerism in performance, and Jodie Foster of course made this part all her own. But a film is not going to give us that style of confident, worldly-wise know-all narrating that holds us tight in the way only a good book can, and voiceovers can seem clunky. (A good film does other things that a book cannot, like make you scream out loud in an auditorium full of 400 cinema goers. But let’s not go there.)

Another example from further in:

For a few seconds she had felt an alien consciousness loose in her head, slapping things off the shelves like a bear in a camper.

What a great little image. Lurid, a bit random perhaps – but surely that’s the point. Again, some of this – what is it? confusion? frustration? – could be conveyed on film through performance (Jodie grimaces), but there is something quite delicious in those turns of phrase and picture. A literal rendition of that on film would seem surreal, even comic. The great thing about prose is that we don’t have to pin things down literally. We can conjure up such an image, let it do its work, then zoom along.

A few tangents.

Something important about storytelling in words is that it is suggestive: the imagination is given free rein, and doing some of the work is part of the engagement of reading. Mood can be more important than explanation. Mood is important in film too, but so often it’s achieved through visual or sound effects: light, colour, music, animation.

In a film, the writer’s vision gets joined to those of the director, actors, camera technicians, lighting artists, musicians, the wig mistress, and all those other people whose names are listed in the credits. A book may offer a kind word or two in the acknowledgements for editors, agents, designers, readers, book doctors who gave input along the way. But it’s the author’s name and the author’s name alone that goes on the cover.

Plus film can become quite literal; if you’re a big fan of Jodie Foster’s earlier film Freaky Friday, for example, it might take a little time to shake off that association and immerse yourself into Starling’s world. World War Z might be set in Philadelphia, but what happens when you know Glasgow well enough to spot locations where it was shot?

Another tangent: reading is quite solitary, while watching a film is a collective event (unless you’re hermetically sealed into your iPad). Reading can be contemplative, even an act of communion: ‘the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings’. When we are writing stories to be read (rather than watched), how are we sharing and exchanging intimacies? Even a pageturning thriller such as Silence of the Lambs enjoys an entrancing quality of intimacy that spurs us on and turns the pages.

I’m inclined to think that storytelling is at heart quite instinctive, so maybe we do best by fostering the conditions in which that instinct soars and flourishes, and where mood and intimacy can be cultivated. In which case, maybe it’s more important to start with some of the other aspects of craft, rather than top-down theories of structure. How does story emerge from, say, voice, or character? As with: Edna O’Brien, my new goddess and inspiration. I just finished her Country Girl. It’s memoir, so it’s still story-as-words (though this book has a few photos too).

And such words! Such a voice, such lyricism. Flick to any page.

I would go out to the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of her my mother. Everything about her intrigued me: her body, her being, her pink corset, her fads and the obsessions to which she was prone. One was about a little silver spoon …

The maw of her mother! What a leap! But we follow her. (And the following tale of the spoon sticks in the mind too.) Again, I see that blending of inner and outer worlds that is something only a book can do. And again, we have a direct mode of address.

And descriptions such as:

Our house was full of prayer books and religious treasuries with soft, dimpled leather covers and gold edging to the pages that glittered when the sun broke through the tiny windows in the pantry where they were stacked. There were ribbons of various colours, so that one could open a page at random and read the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgins, prayers to Saint Peter of Antioch, Saint Bernadine of Siena, Saint Aelrod, Saint Cloud, Saint Columba and Saints Colman of Cloyne, of Dromore, of Kilmacduagh and, most wrenchingly of all, the prayers specially addressed to the stigmata of Saint Francis, that he may crucify the flesh from its vices.

Such rhythms, such allusions, such punctuation, such poetry. Such gory imagery, such choice words. Such voice. This is what we call style.

Later we are told ‘Dublin was full of stories, some funny and spry and sometimes gruesome’. (Spry: what a great word!) Edna lets the stories just tell themselves.

So how does that help us? What happens if we don’t feel like born storytellers?! (Which does beg a question …) Well, I bet that Edna had to work at this, however natural her command of language seems, and in fact she tells us she did work at this from an early age.  Writing became an instinct for her. Even if we don’t have fields to write in, we can also make writing instinctive through regular practice.

Beyond that, I imagine that Edna’s preoccupation might not have been with calculating the right character arc, but with establishing the right feeling in the writing (she talked a lot about language and feeling in writing when I saw her read last week). This reminds me of my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who in her teaching doesn’t really favour the idea of plot; she is also all about feeling – one of the classes she teaches is in fact called The Feeling Tone.

I’m also thinking of Stephen King in On Writing, where he states how he distrusts plot, because our lives are largely plotless, and because he believes ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible’. He says stories are found things, and compares writing to fossil-hunting, making an analogy with digging for dinosaur bones. Writing is a process of excavation, getting intimate with your characters and situations, finding the best way to express what needs to be said, and actually working out what needs to be said in the first place: finding your way intuitively into and through your content, communing with your own words and ideas and getting them down on the page.

I really don’t know how a screenplay is written, but I don’t think we need an all-encompassing story structure as a starting point for writing a novel. Such a theoretical system might even get in the way of other things a novel needs (voice, mood, intimacy). Sometimes the finished work ends up feeling like writing-by-numbers.

A grasp of structure will most certainly be very useful for any writer at some point. Some people do like to plan out stories before writing them. And if the Master (Stephen King) says that plot is ‘the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice’, that last resort of a good writer comes in handy once you have finished a first draft, and are ready to extract the right slant or emphasis from your content. This sort of knowledge can be invaluable, though maybe it’s knowledge we understand deeply, but practise lightly.

And in fact the best texts on structure for novelists don’t ardently promote watertight narrative theories, but are open and non-prescriptive in their approaches. One helpful book that uses a lot of examples from prose fiction (and also film) is 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. I also like The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: its use of archetypes for characters and its steps in a story are easily grasped. The Story Grid is an enthusiastic analysis of various story types as well as ingredients of a story informed by Shawn Coyne’s own experience as an editor at a major New York publishing house; you do have to familiarise yourself with some technical terms, but he introduces them in a practical manner. He carries out a close reading of the book of Silence of the Lambs, among other things, and he does use a lot of references to films too – but these really seem to go with the territory, and I can’t speak, as I so often use The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars when I am talking story (yes, my points of reference in film are ancient too).

I might have to read Edna’s memoir against The Story Grid – I can think of a few inciting incidents that move her book along. And setting that analysis of narrative in the context of a memoir makes me think how so much in our everyday lives can also be defined in this way. Isn’t therapy a form of story structure?

There are other useful books on story structure – these are just the ones I find myself recommending most for their ease and common sense. But do remember that advice on visual storytelling might need adapting if you’re writing a book.

If you want to write a film: write a screenplay.

And if you want to write a book: know what a book can do that other forms cannot. In your own reading, look out for those tics of style, those gnarly little paragraphs where intruding narrators hook readers in. Then go away and write some of your own.