THE TRI-CORE SUBSTRUCTURE
This week I want to talk about the foundational layer of story building, the Tri-Core Substructure. Shiny, huh? I made that term up myself because neither my publisher nor I could think of a proper pre-existing term.
What is the Tri-Core Substructure? It is the very basic most primitive form of a story: Character, Experience, Reaction. Or in other words, he came, he saw, he did. Each of these three primitive parts of a story can be reduced to the three core parts of which we will be talking about. Character (personal development), Meaning (experiential objective), Plot (action/reaction).
Why is this important? It is important because every author approaches the story with one of these cores as the primary focus. All three cores must exist, but inevitably one will bear more weight than the other two as the layers of the story are built. In turn, each story layer will be somewhat defined by the primary core. For example, when we consider Layer 2, the Five Act Structure, we’ll find that for a “Character First” author the Five Acts are defined by the development of the main character. Likewise, for a “Plot First” author the Five Acts are defined by the movement of the plot. More on the Five Act Structure in the next article.
The Character Core is indicated by the personal/internal development of the characters. It is the change and growth that the character undergoes. It is the internal struggles and triumphs. It puts the reader inside the character’s head and makes the character relatable. In short, it is Character Building and all the nuts and bolts involved. An author who might classify themselves as “Character First” would put more emphasis here than in the other cores. The author may actually build characters first before even thinking about story and plot. I’ll talk more about the Character Core and Character Development in Layers 5 & 7.
The Character Core is the “personality” of the book.
The Meaning Core is indicated by the overarching consequences and growth experiences given to and/or expected of the characters and audience. It is the “moral” of the story or the “take away value,” the “experiential objective.” Some people might argue that this is not a legitimate core or that it is simply subservient to both character and plot. I disagree. Characters give you people to write about. Plot gives them something to do. But Meaning gives both the characters and readers something to learn. Do not neglect this core. Authors who neglect it write forgettable books. Some of the best books written are from a “Meaning First” approach, even if the author didn’t realize they were doing it. Take The Lovely Bones for example. Even my book Winter is “Meaning First.” I’ll talk more about the Meaning Core in Layers 4 & 7.
The Story Core is the “soul” of the book.
The Plot Core is much easier to understand and is indicated by the sequence of events that the characters experience and that help define the Story Core. This is what the characters actually do. There are many books on how to plot your story and about “Plot First” writing. I’ll talk more about the Plot Core in Layers 6 & 7.
The Plot Core is the “mind” of the book.
Recognizing the Primary Core
So how do you recognize the primary core of a book? There is a simple test. Ask yourself, What is it about in one sentence? If you answer by describing characters, it is “Character First.” The same goes for the other two. Let’s look at some examples.
- Twilight – It’s about a shy girl who falls in love with a vampire. That statement is about characters, so Twilight is “Character First.”
- The Lovely Bones – It’s about a family learning to be happy again after a tragic loss. That statement is not about characters or plot. It is about the story core…the take-away. It is Meaning First.
- The Lord of the Rings – It is about a hobbit who has to go on a journey to destroy the ring of Sauron. That statement is about the sequence of events in the book. It is “Plot First.”
Taking It to the Paragraph Level
Let’s bring this down briefly into the actual writing construction. As you write narrative, you should always be thinking about these three cores. A good paragraph will cover them all, instead of focusing on just one. Think in terms of my original description way back at the top of the article: Character, Experience, Reaction. Or he came, he saw, he did. Together they create believable movement in the paragraph. You’re not limited to how exactly you do this, but let me give you an example.
Start your first sentence with something about the Character. Describe the character entering the scene or the character’s relation to the scene. Focus on who they are and why they are there. “He came.” Next, the character must Experience the scene. Describe what they see, what they deduce, and what they learn. “He saw.” Finally, the character must have a Reaction to the scene. Describe the response, mentally or physically, to what they have experienced. Move the plot forward one step. “He did.” You don’t necessarily have to do them in this order, but it’s good to try to include all three cores at the micro level of your writing…even as far as putting them all in each sentence, if you’re creative enough. What you don’t want to do is give an entire paragraph or block of narrative that emphasizes one core only.
As I said near the beginning, all three cores have to be dealt with. An author cannot leave one out or the foundation falls apart. But authors typically put one in the middle to bear most of the weight. That is where the author is strongest. At the paragraph level, an author may spend more time giving the reader descriptions from their strongest core. Learn where YOU are strongest, so that you’ll know which two cores you need to work on most. Learn to recognize the primary core in a book you are reading, so that you can study how the author make transitions and how the author brings in the other cores effectively. Seek out books with the primary cores you are weakest in to help strengthen your own writing. Chances are, you tend to gravitate to those books that are written with the same primary core that you yourself are strongest.
For more tips on becoming a master of story building, click HERE.