In the 14 months since the launch of this blog, many readers have discovered the presence and the power of a pervasive, omnipresent storytelling model. A structural standard and commercial expectation.
I prefer to think of them as a set of literary physics that – like gravity in athletics, rhythm in music and communications in relationships – govern everything. Stuff you can harness to reach for greatness, or fight off to remain mediocre.
Violate those principles and you put your storytelling self in great jeopardy. As serious as, say, jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.
In either case, about one in 10,000 survive that decision. And the one that does simply got lucky.
Some have rejoiced in this discovery.
Others had suspected its presence but hadn’t been able to wrap their heads around it, to see it.
Still others began nodding right away, recognizing these principles from other models and approaches they’ve encountered at workshops and in books, happy to see it explained in a more accessible way.
And a few, then and now, think it’s rubbish. Something that applies to movies and not novels. That it’s formulaic and therefore not literary.
Everywhere along that continuum is the on-going desire for proof.
Sure, the four-part structure works in genre fiction, the more plot-driven the story, the more obvious it is.
But what about something more literary? Something completely character-driven? A story that’s more about theme and heart than anything else?
I’ve said all along that the principles – not just structure, but the other five essential core competencies – are as applicable and necessary to those types of stories as they are in the most blatantly commercial and unapologetically plot-driven of contemporary stories.
And then, along comes a book and a movie that shows this to be true.
If you’re a writer who lives near a television, a bookstore or an internet connection, then you’ve heard about it. Chances are high that you’ve actually read it, and if you went out of the house this weekend, maybe you even saw the highly anticipated film.
It’s called Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. And guess what… it’s not even a novel. It’s a memoir, published in 2006.
Which happily addresses the oft-asked question as to whether the principles apply to memoirs as much as they do fiction.
Yes, if you want your memoir to find a publisher and a whole bunch of readers. The author wasn’t famous – usually the primary factor in the publication of a memoir – but she is now.
Precisely because of how she wrote her book.
I’m not here today to review the book or the movie. You don’t need me to add to that resounding chorus of approval.
No, I’m here today to point something out about Eat Pray Love. A story as character-driven, plot-vague and literary as they get.
It’s a model of four-part storytelling.
If you’re still looking for clarity about the four parts of a story and the milestones that separate them, read this book. Or see the movie, which is one of those rare films that makes even the most cynical of readers admit that nothing was lost in the adaptation.
Three of the four parts are in the title. After a set-up (Part 1), the segments are Eat (Part 2), Pray (Part 3) and love.
The milestones? The heroine moves from her home (the set-up) after realizing she is unhappy and unfulfilled and moves to Italy to eat (Part 2), then to India to pray (Part 3) and then to Bali to find love (Part 4).
Every time she packs her suitcase you are looking a plot point and/or a mid-point straight in the eyes.
Someone recently asked me how we know what our first plot point should be.
Eat Pray Love illustrates the most basic essence of the answer to that question. It is this: the writer needs to understand, at the most fundamental level, what the story is about in terms of story exposition. Even in character-driven, theme-intensive stories like Eat Pray Love.
The FPP comes from that.
Eat Pray Love is about a woman who chucks her unfulfilling life and moves to some romantic place to search for herself. What’s the FPP? When she chucks her unfulfilling life and begins to search for herself.
What’s the conflict (because you know that the FPP needs to show both conflict and stakes)? She’s not sure she’s over the love affair she left behind. Or the marriage she walked away from to enter into it. She knows she can’t move forward until she knows. She’s a mess, and she knows it. She has to understand why before she can move forward with her life. She has to find herself while escaped herself.
Everything prior to the FPP is her realizing this. The moment she actually embarks on the journey is the First Plot Point.
Is your story about a plane crash? Then the FPP is when the plane goes down.
Is your story about a broken heart? Then your FPP is when one lover dumps the other.
If your story a whodunnit? Then your FPP is the first big clue.
What is your story about?
Eight times out of ten, your FPP is the beginning of that journey. Everything prior to that moment is a set-up for it.
In one out of ten stories the journey begins earlier (either the hook or a mid-set-up inciting incident), and the FPP then becomes an unexpected complication to it.
Either way, the FPP is driven by plot exposition, which is almost always the vehicle for character and theme. In Eat Pray Love, the vehicle was her search – not merely a random sequence of episodic events – and the theme was what she found along the way.
I encourage you to review the many posts here on Storyfix that introduce, define and expound on these structural principles, and then test them – or better put, see them in action – in Eat Pray Love.
Not only is it a clinic in theory and structure, it’s a call to write stories from the heart. Stories that speak a universal language and reflect the collective human experience.
Thrillers and romances come and go. But stories like Eat Pray Love become iconic and timeless.
Not only is it a triumph of the human spirit, it is a triumph of storytelling as something worth pursuing.