Storytelling: Of Geniuses and Maps

By Kai-Arne Zimny

What makes a piece of fic­tion suc­cess­ful, apart from a good por­tion of luck? Well, some writ­ers deem the craft of ‘plot­ting’ essen­tial for cre­at­ing fic­tion that goes some­where, while oth­ers pre­fer to write from the seat of their pants and are like­ly to dread the prospect of their art being any­thing less than inspi­ra­tion, tal­ent, and vision.

Let me intro­duce you to two writ­ing guides that might offer some per­spec­tive on the ini­tial ques­tion. First, let’s vis­it some­one who claims that both ‘pantsers’ and plot­ters are on the wrong track because …

Image cred­it: Ten Speed Press

It’s all about STORY. What sounds like a no-brain­er is lit­er­al­ly the oppo­site accord­ing to Lisa Cron, author of Sto­ry Genius: How to Use Brain Sci­ence to Go Beyond Out­lin­ing and Write a Riv­et­ing Nov­el (Before You Waste Three Years Writ­ing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). Cron’s approach rests on a set of premis­es: Plot is not sto­ry; every piece of fic­tion is char­ac­ter-ori­ent­ed; and our insa­tiable crav­ing for sto­ries is deeply root­ed in our human psyche.

Cron used her long expe­ri­ence as a writ­ing instruc­tor to craft this man­u­al, which she calls “100% pre­scrip­tive.” And this is where the title words “brain sci­ence” come into play. Cron claims that we’re all “wired for sto­ry” (which, by the way, is the title of a more con­cep­tu­al book she pre­vi­ous­ly wrote). For her, adher­ing to a cer­tain sto­ry struc­ture is also the key to cre­at­ing nov­els peo­ple love to read. It is, there­fore, not the inabil­i­ty to write but the inabil­i­ty to tell sto­ry that makes many authors fail.

One should not be mis­led by the title and expect a focus on brain sci­ence. The neur­al aspect is lit­tle more than a foun­da­tion for Cron’s premise and maybe quite lit­er­al­ly the hook to make read­ers grab a copy. That’s quite ok with me, though. My biggest point of con­tention are the rep­e­ti­tions that might make some read­ers skip entire sec­tions of the book. How­ev­er, oth­ers might wel­come Cron’s fer­vor when con­vey­ing what she deems to be the most cru­cial points. At any rate, the book is not your typ­i­cal plot guide, but forces you to be adamant, to get to the heart of the sto­ry, scenes, and characters.

Cron’s book is a very prac­ti­cal guide, and writ­ers work­ing on a project can use it as a step-by-step and scene-by-scene com­pan­ion while craft­ing their sto­ry and its com­pelling char­ac­ters. Thus, it might give per­sis­tent plot­ters – who up till now felt that some­thing was miss­ing – a valu­able new per­spec­tive and offer rad­i­cal pantsers a way out of the occa­sion­al feel­ing of sail­ing the sev­en seas with­out a compass.

Image cred­it: Kai-Arne Zimny

When it comes to the realm of screen­writ­ing, how­ev­er, pantsers are a rare breed. Unless a screen­play is high­ly exper­i­men­tal, it sticks to a tight struc­ture with dif­fer­ent acts visu­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed from each oth­er. Daniel Calvisi, screen­writer, screen­writ­ing teacher, and for­mer sto­ry con­sul­tant of major Hol­ly­wood stu­dios, demon­strates the art of weav­ing com­pelling sto­ries into that for­mat in his book, Sto­ry Maps: TV Dra­ma – The Struc­ture of the One-Hour Tele­vi­sion Pilot.

On only 115 pages, Calvisi con­veys the basic struc­ture of a tele­vi­sion or web TV episode. And yes, the book feels like a text­book you might read while attend­ing a tele­vi­sion screen­writ­ing class, yet it goes the extra mile by con­stant­ly show­ing us how a sto­ry breathes life into these seem­ing­ly rigid frame­works. The sec­ond half of Sto­ry Maps con­sists of case stud­ies: Calvisi picks apart pilot scripts of eight well-known TV shows and decodes their sto­ry maps in excru­ci­at­ing but insight­ful detail.

Much like Cron’s work, Calvisi’s Sto­ry Maps can be used as a work­book and guide. Both books are pleas­ant reads and not just for­mu­la­ic col­lec­tions of charts, notes, and key words. I would high­ly rec­om­mend Calvisi’s very spe­cif­ic Sto­ry Maps to peo­ple inter­est­ed in screen­writ­ing and Cron’s more broad­ly con­cep­tu­al­ized Sto­ry Genius to any­one inter­est­ed in sto­ry­telling and cre­ative writ­ing in general.

Remem­ber: We’re all wired for story.

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