Story Building Mastery 1 – Progressive Complexity

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What you’ll get from these articles is not a “how to” on plot development or character development, but rather a wider view on the construction and development of the story as a whole. Having no formal education in creative writing, no doubt some of my terminology may be foreign to creative writing students. Keep in mind, though, I have been a self-student of creative writing for twenty years or more. Maybe my way of approaching things will be refreshing encouragement to the rigorous tenants of traditional writing study. So here comes lesson one. Step into my mind and see how I analyze a story…

Progressive Complexity

Stories are built with progressive complexity. What does that mean? Imagine a pyramid. At the base, you have the most simplistic form of a story. With each layer, the story gets more complex. This progression of complexity continues up the pyramid until the author reaches his/her desired story needs.

Clear as mud? Let’s break it down a little further and show you how this works. Each Layer title will eventually be linked to its full article once written.

Layer 1

The Tri-Core Substructure – A story in its simplest form is Character, Experience, Reaction. Or in other words, he came, he saw, he did. Go read a Fun With Dick and Jane book and you’ll see this basic form at work. That’s our base layer. Each of the three cores of this base layer is a branch from which various authors concentrate most of their story building. There are Character First (internal conflict/story), Meaning First (experiential objective), and Plot First (action/reaction) authors. All three must be dealt with by every author, but some authors put more emphasis on one above the others. They all work together as strands in a chord as the story is built.

Layer 2

Five Act Structure – The next layer is something most every writer is familiar with and may even think is the base layer: the fundamental Five Act Structure. That is Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement. Practically every story ever written contains these two bottom layers.

Layer 3

Story Genre – Genre should be best understood as the designation of the story’s setting, style, and audience. Depending on what type of story the author is writing, the things he does with that story may take different shapes. For example, a fantasy is developed differently than a western.

Layer 4

Story Genotype – This should not be confused with genre, because all the genotypes can exist within any genre. It is the way the stories affect the characters, not merely a reflection of setting, style, and audience. Story genotypes include: coming of age stories, gateway stories, underdog stories, empowerment stories, ect. Genotypes can be mixed and modified, but each story has at least one.

Layer 5

Character Development – Different type of characters often help define the development of the story. But it can even be taken a step further. Certain genres and genotypes can demand a character type. Likewise, a character type can demand a certain story arc.

Layer 6

Five Stage Plot  – This is one I’ve observed personally and used often myself. It is an expanded and modified way of looking at the basic five act structure, but the two should not be confused. The Five Stage Plot gets at the story in such a way as to shape the movement of the characters through the story, rather than simple defining the major benchmarks. Many stories naturally fall into a form like this, even if it doesn’t exist fully in five stages.

Layer 7

The Hero’s Journey – The hero’s journey/monomyth is not only a very strong standard by which to plan a story, but most stories naturally fall into it without much effort. That’s because a proper understanding of the hero’s journey reveals to us that it is merely a reflection of how we go through life. The person who truly understands the Hero’s Journey/monomyth can reasonably predict at least 90% of all story lines.

Layer 8

Micro Stories  – POV characters and story arcs are two ways of creating sub-stories within the larger story. Each of these Micro Stories contain within them their own versions of the bottom layers of story building. They may overlap or borrow ideas and plot devices from each other, but when taken separately you can see the developmental levels of each POV character or story arc. Note: Micro Stories may not contain every developmental layer and they may not always end separately. Often Micro Stories will merge into the whole.

Layer 9

Episodic Reduction  – Similar to Micro Stories, Episodic Reduction reduces each stage of the plot into mini-stories that contain their own set of developmental layers. In other words, each “episode” has a Five Act Structure, smaller plot stages, it’s own genotype, and/or its own genre, as well as its own POV characters and story arcs. All of these are reductions of the story as a whole. A good example of Episodic Reduction at work is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The difference between Micro Stories and Episodic Reduction is that Micro Stories transcend the overall Five Act Structure, whereas Episodic Reduction turns each of the Five Acts into a smaller story with it’s own Five Act Structure.

Layer 10

Advanced Complexities  – From here the author continues to build advanced complexities by playing bait and switch with the reader in regards to the lower complexities and combining elements of multiple genres and genotypes. The author might add or subtract from the hero’s journey, or use a seven or three stage plot instead of a five. The point is, here is where an author spends most of his or her time being creative, unique, or attempting to surprise the reader by going outside the box. In reality, there are so many layers beneath the advanced complexities, layers that are more linear in their understanding, that even the advanced complexities tend to fall into certain categorical rules.

That’s it for the introduction. Every layer you see above will be addressed in detail in later articles. Thanks for reading!

-k

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