Saturday, March 1, 2014

What kind of story do you write?

There are many ways to categorize stories. We often do it by genre (popular, romance, science fiction, etc.), length (short story, novelette, novella, novel, etc.), even by audience (children's, young adult, etc.) So one may ask, "What do you mean, 'what kind of story do I write?'"

I am talking about the story writing process. When I was first learning to write, the person teaching me told me there were three kinds of stories: plotted stories, episodic stories, and twist end stories. In this post, I decided to explore these story telling techniques, passing on, not only what I learned way back when I was learning, but what I've discovered since then.

Two terms that I will be throwing about are protagonist and antagonist. Typically, there is only one of each. In each corner, there may also be a cast of pivotal characters. However, the action mostly focuses on the protagonist and antagonist. It is tempting to think of them as the "hero" and "villain" but they need not be. In a romance novel, for instance, the protagonist can be the heroine and the antagonist is actually her love interest.

Plotted Stories

Plotting is a loaded term in story telling. Many people, regardless of which method they use to tell their story, "plot" their story. In other words, they outline the events as they occur in their stories. That means almost every story is "plotted." However, "plotted" is a very specific style of story telling.

Plotted stories have specific crisis points where certain things must happen to drive the story forward and must have a beginning, middle, and end. Yes, this is true for all types of stories. However, these points are absolutely critical to a plotted story. Before the first crisis is the set up. This is the protagonists normal, every day world. One can think of this as the First Act. The first crisis is where everything changes. Suddenly, the protagonist and antagonist are in collision.

As Act Two begins, the protagonist is usually trying to come to grips with what happened and bring him or herself to an "even keel." The second major crisis usually serves to turn the story around and send it off into a new direction. Perhaps the protagonist temporarily gains the upper hand. Perhaps the antagonist changes the game, forcing the protagonist to change directions. One way or another, things are now different. As I learned it back then, the second crisis came in the middle of Act Two. I typically think of it at Act IIa and Act IIb. Some people decided that it was really four acts rather than three. That is really up to the author.

At the end of Act IIb (or Act III if you prefer) comes the third crisis. Putting it in action adventure terms, the antagonist has the protagonist over a barrel and bad things are about to happen. This leads to the Final Act, or resolution. The protagonist does something to disrupt the antagonist’s plans. Then all the threads come together and bring the story to a conclusion.

Let's go over some other characteristics of a plotted story. Typically they only deal with a limited amount of time. Sometimes an author could using the time limit to place extra tension on the plot. The fact of the matter is that the more time goes on; the harder it is to keep a story tightly plotted. If the plot loosens too much, you could end up with an episodic story.

The advantage of using a plotted story is that it keeps the tensions screwed tight, which in turn keeps your audiences attention. It can be used for any length of story successfully. One disadvantage is that it isn't as easy as it sounds. Many a story starts out plotted and ends up episodic. Another danger is that even when the plotting is successfully executed, it could end up being formulaic. Some romance series are notorious for that. They have a series of bullet points that every author must follow, sometimes taking the character's out of the equation. As one friend put it, you can end up with two dimensional characters simply going through the motions. The best formula is a character driven plot with a plot driven story. Characters are always the key.

Episodic Stories

Episodic stories are stories that are only very loosely plotted if at all. In essence, it is more a series of shorter stories or adventures that combine to make a complete story. Back when I was learning, I was taught that episodic stories were weaker than plotted stories. Since those days, I've learned that this supposition is open to debate. Some of the most successful tales out there are very episodic. Some even get made into successful motion pictures.

Successful episodic stories should have good general outline that contains the underlying current of the conflict between protagonist and antagonist. The more like a plotted story it is, the greater its chance of success.

How else do Episodic Stories differ from plotted stories? Usually, the length of time they deal with is much longer, weeks, months, even years, whereas a plotted story usually deals with no more than a week. For instance, an episodic story can take place over a school year, or a lifetime.

In general, episodic stories are more successful as novels and epics, primarily because of the length of time. I've seen a few attempts at short stories, but they degrade into an outline of events. There is no time for details.

Twist End Stories

Twist end stories are different from both plotted stories and episodic stories. That is not to say that they shouldn't be very well planned out for successful execution. In general, the audience is led down a particular path, only to have their expectations stood on their head at the end of the story. These are most successful as short stories since they tend to break down if things go on for too long.

As a forinstance, a person must go to a certain place. They board a train and suddenly find it a struggle to stay on the train. When the train finally reaches its destination, the hero finds they were on the wrong train.

Summing Up

These are three basic ways stories can be told. That isn't to say that a story is all one thing or another. Plotted stories have had twist ends. Episodic stories have an underlying theme. Don't let the categories limit you. They are there to be tools, not masters.


  1. What about literary fiction where there are many stories within one general story. I'm writing a story about an anorexic author and an over-indulgent country singer and the lessons they learn. His is the lesson of the predicates of love, while hers is the noun version of the word. Deep in the story are multiple level of examination of life's trials, dilemma's and experiential moments that shape us. It examines the lives of all the closest people around them, who assist each of them in their pursuit. Each person's life experience influence how those particular person leads and influences others. What kind of story would that be? It is in three novels, the first two are more than 500 pages, while the third will be more like 700. It incorporates gut-wrenching moments, as well as humor in a good mix, because isn't that the human experience? Laughing, crying, living, learning?

  2. First off, thank you for commenting on my blog, Kristina.A very good point.

    Literary fiction seems to exist outside the realms of most genre fiction. It harkens back to the days of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, or Thomas Hardy. Novels cover a life time or even generations. Therefore, they tended to be episodic.

    Not being familiar with your story, It would be difficult to say. The greater the period of time you are covering, the more likely it is to be episodic. For a story like yours, your biggest challenge is going to be how you handle the relationship between the two characters. Is one the protagonist and the other a pivotal character? Are the protagonist and antagonist? Is the antagonist not a person? (Much more difficult.) Is it life in general? (Most difficult of all. Good luck)

    If you are asking about whether or not is literary fiction falls into another category of story telling: possibly, but I don't think so. However, as one of my professors once said, "There are two kinds of people in the world, lumpers and splitters ..." I tend to be a lumper. I think anything else will just be a variation of a theme.

    If you would like to read someone doing something similar, you may want to consider Tomorrow, Mickey Tomorrow by John J. Finucane. His is a story about an fire fighter who is in love with a heroine addict.

    I hope I was at least able to somewhat answer your question.

    Keep the faith and keep writing.