I’ve been doing a lot of writing. And not the fun part, where you get to put the first draft down and watch the characters interact, and build the world, and see the story come to life. The other kind, where you agonize over those character interactions one at a time. Were you rewrite a scene again and again until finally, mostly through random chance, it gets to the best that it’s probably going to be and you call it good enough and move on. And finally, when you think everything is done and ready, you realize that the whole thing needs to be tightened up, so you go back with a knife and a careful eye. As you can tell, this gets to me. It’s work, and it’s necessary, and I truly think that my story will be better for it. But it also means I need a little bit of a break from writing. Which means that I turned to one of my favorite pastimes; reading.
I’ve read a lot of books in the past few months, more than I have in quite a while. I spent some time in Dallas and went a little overboard at the used bookstore, returning with the entirety of the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny. I had finally heard enough suggestions from enough people, and I picked up Gideon the Ninth and Red Rising. That and three or four anthologies of short stories, and I’m afraid I’m not going to be allowed to buy any more books for the rest of the year. But that’s okay, because I love the stories. And honestly, I’ve learned something already.
When I initially started reading Red Rising, I moved through it pretty quickly. It had a lot of recommendations, but I wasn’t entirely sold on the concept, and the further into it I got the more I realized that it was mostly Hunger Games with a Roman theme. Not terribly exciting, but solidly written and with some compelling characters so I stuck with it. The second book, Golden Sun, I purchased with no small amount of apprehension. I was worried it was going to be another reference to the heart of an evil society and so on and so forth. Well, to some extent it is, but it really drew me in. Despite my betrayal fatigue by the end of it, the writing was well done and the plotting good enough to keep me turning pages and asking what happens next.
Another series that I have started is Gideon the Ninth. The sentence on the front cover pretty well sums it up, lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space. I thought, well, what the hell, this could be fun and I can always put it down and go on to something else. And to be fair, it is exactly what that cover sentence describes, but again it was well plotted the characters were compelling, and it made me ask what happens next. But both this series and Red Rising have something in common.
I noticed that the shape of the overall story, the one outside of just the one novel, is similar. And when I started looking for that pattern in other books that are highly successful, like Harry Potter, or even my beloved Hyperion cantos, I found it. All of these stories are shaped like a spiral. The beginning starts small and intimate, looking at a few characters and building their relationships with each other. They don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to explain every little bit about the world and the universe that the author has created, but rather focus on establishing those characters as human and worthy of human connection. From there, the story begins to spiral out. More characters, more plots, more revelations about a larger tapestry in which the story weaves.
The anthology books that I’m reading are interesting as well. Even in the short story form, that spiral is evident. Obviously, it’s a much smaller and tighter spiral that ends a lot sooner than something in the novel length, but perhaps this is a truth in good stories and storytelling. Perhaps good stories start out small tight, and intimate, and only then begin to spiral out into broader and broader strokes.
And as the stories progress and move towards the ending, it will be interesting to see where this metaphor breaks down. Do stories spiral back in closer and tighter until all of the arms meet in a single point of conclusion? Or do the arms of the spiral simply burn off one by one until only the main thread of the story remains? I’m going to call this the Marvel vs Game of Thrones dichotomy until I can think up something more witty and succinct.
I’m excited to see where this observation, or perhaps revelation, and storytelling takes me. I’d love to hear in the comments if you think this makes sense or is useful to you, and as always, go tell amazing stories!
Cool observation! I enjoyed reading it
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Thanks Amira! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I know the “shape of a story” is relatively well known, but I love how recent storytelling tries to tie those well-known shapes into knots without completely losing the audience. Story gymnastics!