Models of Storytelling

This month, I was honored to speak to the Sarasota Fiction Writers group. My topic was “Five Ways to Show Backstory without Losing Dramatic Momentum.” The talk was partly based on a guest post I did earlier this year for Anita Rogers’ Indie Spotlight.  In that post, I described three techniques for conveying backstory in scenes.

For the Sarasota talk, I expanded the topic, and we discussed examples from some well-known writers. I’ll be blogging about each of the Five Ways in upcoming posts.

To set the stage, this post discusses models of storytelling and dramatic structure in fiction. As in a previous post,  I’ll be drawing partly on what I’ve learned from a wonderful book called Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. Here’s a picture of me at the meeting holding the book:

A Model is a Map

There are lots of good books on the craft of writing, and many of them use frameworks or models. I view these models as analogous to maps. A Map is an abstraction, a picture that helps us find our way. But you want to be careful not to confuse the map with the territory.

Your story is the territory. It will always be richer and more complex than any map. Also, no model perfectly fits every story.

So, if you’re a writer, you don’t want to get so worried about adhering to a particular model—no matter how good—that you lose the creative energy of writing your story. This is especially true when writing the first draft. Basically, I find models most useful during the revision stage; they help me figure out where the story might be losing effectiveness. And this lines up well with the approach recommended by Jerry Cleaver in Immediate Fiction.

The Five Elements of Storytelling

In his model, Cleaver breaks down the craft of story into five essential elements. Pictorially, it looks like this:

Five Elements of Storytelling, adapted from Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

The first 3 elements are a model of drama. They apply to every scene and to the story as a whole.

  1. Conflict. We all know that drama is created by conflict. Conflict, Cleaver says, arises from a character wanting something and facing an obstacle to that want. For the story to engage a reader, the want must be very strong and the obstacle very tough to overcome.
  2. Action. Faced with an obstacle, the character takes action to try to resolve it. In fiction, this action can be physical activity, talking to other characters, or even just thinking about how to resolve the problem.
  3. Resolution. The action leads to a resolution, either success or failure, victory or defeat. Again, this applies to each scene and to the story as a whole.
  4. Emotion. As pictured, the three-stage dramatic structre rests on a fourth essential, which Cleaver calls “the active ingredient.” The story has to engage the reader on an emotional level. Fiction does this by conveying the strong emotions of the characters. The characters must care deeply about what they’re facing, and the reader must feel it with them.
  5. Showing. All of this is wrapped up in showing. Showing is the essential technique for presenting the story. Showing means that we present the conflicts, actions, resolutions, and emotions with immediacy, as they are happening to the characters.

Scene and Sequel Model

This second model derives, I believe, from theories of screenwriting, although I see it discussed often in terms of fiction as well. As pictured, a story consists of scenes and sequels, with the intensity rising over time.

Scene and Sequel model, adapted from various sources

In this model:

Scenes can be understood as consisting of the five elements discussed in the first model.

Sequels are pieces of narrative that connect scenes. A sequel shows the characters’ response to the previous scene and then sets up the scene that follows. As shown in the picture, not every scene needs to have a sequel. Sometimes one scene immediately follows another.

Conveying the Backstory

Based on these models (and on lots of other expert opinion) fiction works best when it engages readers with immediate presentation of characters’ conflicts, actions, and emotions. This takes place mainly in dramatic scenes. Fiction can also make use of narrative sequels used to connect scenes.

But a story inevitably contains a lot of information the reader needs to understand in order to understand what’s going on in the scenes and sequels. This data includes descriptions of settings and past events, and of characters’ backgrounds, psychology, and motivations. In science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, it also includes information about the world and how it differs from the current “real” world.

For convenience, I call all of this information the backstory.

How does fiction convey the backstory without losing the immediacy of engagement or dramatic momentum? Skillful writers use a number of techniques, which I will explore in upcoming posts.

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