5 Images That Show How To Write A Story
These shapes will help you plot your next story
What’s a story look like when stripped to the bone?
Before curtains drop, cameras roll, or ink hits the page.
Writers have filled tomes trying to answer this question, applying a full arsenal of images and metaphors. But when seeking to understand the structure of a story, I believe a picture says a thousand words.
In this post, you’ll find 5 images that show the shapes of stories. I’ve listed them in order of complexity, starting with the most basic and adding new layers as we go.
As you’ll see, narratives share similar appearances, but each visualization highlights some unique element about what a story is, and how to tell one. Let’s start at the beginning:
The Story Line
The story line is one of the most common motifs in fiction. It’s a tidy illustration of the major points of a story. It gives you the raw ingredients (the events in the plot) and draws a line to connect them.
The image makes it easy to track parts of your story, and divide your work into a beginning, middle and end — or act 1, act 2, and act 3 as seen in the photo above.
Sure, it has limits — it only looks at where events occur in time- but it’s a good jumping off point… we’re still in storytelling 101.
The Story Spine
Think of the “story spine” as the inverted story line. It shares its linear shape, but flips it on its head.
Both line and spine look at how events move through time, but the spine pays more attention to casualty — how actions and their consequences tower on top of one another to form a story.
It’s a visual version of Pixar’s story blueprint:
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
I also love the spine as a metaphor. Like a spine, the story provides a backbone which props up other parts of your work — genre, setting, character, theme. Without a sturdy spine (ie story), the whole body falls on its face.
The Story Arc
The Arc adds a much needed second axis. We can not only see how a story moves in time, but also chart the rising and falling tension of a narrative.
The ups and downs on the graph capture the natural rhythm of a story. As the story progresses, it scales up the Y axis until reaching a peak point of tension, or climax, after which it tumbles down to a final resolution.
Simply listing events in time may count as a story, but not one you’d want to listen to. The arc shows us the ebb and flow that makes a story exciting.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Story Map
Kurt Vonnegut’s Story Map offers a more detailed version of the arc. In the map, the Y axis measures a character’s fortune. When all is well, we stay in the upper end of the chart. But when things take a turn for the worst, we dip in the realm of ill fortune.
The map recognizes progress is not linear. The character in our story may have multiple arcs (see “boy meets girl” on the top right). They may plateau on their journey (see “Cinderella” on the bottom left). Or they may simply free fall into the abyss (see Kafka on bottom right).
For a more detailed explanation of the story map, watch the master himself, Kurt Vonnegut, describe it below:
Story Circle: The Hero’s Journey
Not a fan of lines? The story circle may be your image of choice! The story circle is modeled off Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Campbell discovered the Hero’s Journey after studying the myths of different cultures. He found many of them followed the circular structure above.
In the 1970s, famous film-makers like George Lucas popularized Campbell’s idea. It is now a well-known writing troupe for novelists and screenwriters. You can see it in works like The Lion King, Harry Potter, and The Matrix.
In The Hero’s Journey, a character follows a 12 point path in which they exit the ordinary world (ie their everyday circumstances) and enter a realm unknown. From there they cross a series of thresholds to get a special item or piece of knowledge which they take back home with them.
The journey has a circular shape because both the hero and the audience start and end at the same point. However, the events in the story give them a new lens to view their everyday life.
If the talk of thresholds, inner caves, and elixirs in the image confuses you, check out Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon’s version of the circle — it’s a modern update of Campbell’s principles:
However, I encourage aspiring storytellers to study Joseph Campbell. You can see a clip of him describing the Hero’s Journey below: