My New Favorite Storytelling Analogy

A while ago I promised you Shutter Island.   Specifically, a deconstruction.

I’ve read the novel, seen the movie, read the book again, got the t-shirt.   Been there, done that, did it again, loved it even more.

So later this week we’ll launch into this.  I highly recommend you see the movie, and if you have time, also read the novel (I’m deconstructing from the mass market version with Leo’s grimacing mug on the cover, the movie-issue reprint).  Not only is it one of the finest examples of storytelling craftsmanship I’ve ever seen, it’s a great workshop for comparing the book to the movie and understanding the narrative common ground and parallel structures.

Please do this.  I’ve learned so much from this story already, and so will you.

In fact, it was in working on this deconstruction that I stumbled across the Next Great Writing Analogy.

You know how I love these little real-world analogies.   I’ve compared the process of effective storytelling to flying airplanes, playing golf, doing surgery, building a house, even making love.  None of which you can do at a professional level of competence unless you understand the physics, infrastructure and processes involved.

If you wing it, pants it, underestimate it or otherwise blow it, the airplane crashes, the golf is excruciating, the house collapses under its own weight and looks like a barn designed by pre-schoolers, and your lover will leave you.

Three words: foreplay is everything.

Mental models such as these help clarify the principles we, as storytellers, should hold in the highest regard.  Because writing a great novel or screenplay is every bit as hard as these tricky avocations and skills.

Which is why I love this new one. 

Because it creates an easily accessed visual snapshot of the story structure model in way that nearly everyone can relate to.

I’m talking about stairs.

Every scene in your story is a stair.  Leading somewhere.  Connecting to the stair or landing before it, and the stair or landing that follows it.

Picture a stairwell.  The kind you find behind a door marked as such in an office building.  You’ll need four stories (this is why the English language is so hard… here’s a whole new meaning for the word story) in this visualization.  Don’t worry about the building itself or its floors, just picture the stairwell.

Four flights.  Each flight separated by a landing.  And you know what happens on these landings — you make a turn.  You head in a new direction.  And yet, you are still going to the destination for which you originally embarked — the ending. 

The stairs always take you closer to the goal.  To the destination.  They take you higher.  In effect, they move you forward on your journey. 

There are no sidetrips.   One stairwell is not noticeably longer, though you do notice that the angle of incline seems to be getting a bit steeper as you get higher.

Now, in this analogy, imagine that each stair is of a unique different height and shape.  Sure, they’re all roughly the same in terms of design, but when you look closely they are of different colors, and some have beautiful inscriptions and carvings in them.  They are art, as if the builder focused only on that specific step for a period of time, making it the very best and coolest step it can be.  Yet always with function, purpose and context. 

The mission of each stair relates contextually to the journey the stairwell is taking you on, and specifically to getting you on to the very next step that awaits.

Every stair has a purpose.  There are no wasted, frivolous steps on this climb.

Four flights.  Each flight with roughly 8 to 15 individual steps.  Each of a slightly different height.  Some carpeted, some rough.

Now let’s think about the landings. 

With four flights, you’ll encounter three landings.  At each landing you’ll turn in a new direction, though you’ll still be heading upward.  Moving toward the goal. 

You will have benefited from everything you discovered at each stair-step along the way. 

And, you’ve noticed that the stairs in each flight have a unique look and feel to them.  The stairs from the first flight are different than the stairs from the other flights.  These first steps ease you into the journey.  Some may be challenging, some not. 

But they all mean something.  They all prepare you for the next three flights.

When you get to the first landing, everything changes. 

Perhaps in an unexpected way… or not.  But you are definately at a turning point.

Because waiting for you there is new information.  It causes you to turn toward the next flight of stairs, which presents slightly different hues of storytelling steps.  You immediately notice a new context on this flight, and realize that you care about this climb because what you encountered on the first flight caused you to care.  Another eight to fifteen steps are before you, each with its own mission — to take you higher, to get you closer to the next landing.

Chew on this a while.  Each scene is a step in the stairwell.  The three landings are, in order here, the First Plot Point, the Mid-Point (you’re halfway to the destination), and the Second Plot Point.  Each of them sends you in a new direction, each delivers new information, but you’d never get to this point — or understand why you’re there — had you not climbed the flights that preceded it.

You’ll see this at work in Shutter Island. 

You’ll actually see it at work in any decent story, but Shutter sticks it in your writerly face.

I’ll do an overview of Lehane’s second career masterpiece prior to the actual deconstruction, alerting you about what to notice, what to look for, and how he lures us into a world and a belief system that is completely and utterly not what you think it is.

I don’t use the word masterpiece lightly. 

Shutter Island, both the book and the movie, qualifies as such.


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21 Responses to My New Favorite Storytelling Analogy

  1. I love stairs. I don’t know why. Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved stairs, sitting on them, reading on them, rolling slinkies down them. I wasn’t able to really grab hold of Story Structure until right now with this analogy. I understood it on a theoretical level and I could see it happening (or not happening) in stories but I was never able to wrap my mind around the whole concept in one go… until now.

    Thank you for the stairs!

  2. Great analogy! I really like it!
    Recently I started posting interestnig analogies I found on the web on I thought it could be a good idea to create a place where people can share useful analogies.

  3. Steve

    Some of my stairs have chewing gum on them and one is broken clean through to the floor below.

    This is a good analogy especially turning in another direction (180 degrees) to move forward rather than back from where you came from. It’s a switchback for the outdoor enthusiasts.

    This is as good place as any for another music analogy of mine regarding a post from your archives about a technique. You suggest writing a generic scene by scene description of a movie as a model for planning a story. I do this with music all the time. I’ll hear a song that I like and make mental notes on the bass line, rhythm, melody, etc. Then without a piano I’ll write it based on that mental image. What ends up happening is a song that’s got “something” but it’s completely different from the song I heard. After it’s composed and polished, the two would never be comparable as being similar, even though imitation was at the heart of the initial effort.

    Love making at a professional level? Hmm. (place sacasm smiley here).

  4. Steve

    sacasm with an “r.”

  5. Shirls

    Larry that’s a killer analogy and deep. Might it be that those recurring nightmares of getting to the top of a flight of stairs and finding there is nothing there but air have something to do with those failed starts at novels sitting on my hard drive?
    Your stairs analogy is the perfect illustration of story structure and getting the design right before starting to build..

  6. Can’t wait for it, Larry. I’ll buy the movie for this.

    You know, John Hughes’ movies are stumping me. I’ve watched two of his classics “Weird Science” and “Uncle Buck” and his FPPs seem to come at or before the 13 minute mark. For 190 minute movies this falls way below the range where they should be, but alas, his movies are successful.

    Any thoughts on this?

  7. Mary E. Ulrich

    Like the stair analogy.

    So a plotter would have a typical staircase, and a “pantser” would have a staircase more like the ones in Harry Potter–they keep moving at their own whim?

  8. nancy

    Looking forward to Shutter Island. I’ll wait for your suggestions before viewing.

    Thanks for this excellent blog. I love listening to your words as I read.

  9. Debbie Burke

    Larry….You hit this one out of the park. The stairs analogy is perfect. I plan to print out this blog and keep it in front of me as I plan out my next novel.

    Thanks for a brilliant concept.


  10. WOW! This makes so much sense and is so concise. It really does ephasize the structure in such a clear way. This is one I keep in my head and use daily. Thank you.

  11. Larry

    @Shane — might have been a typo (“190 minutes”), but Uncle Buck and Weird Science ran at 94 and 95 minutes, respectively. Hughes was a freaking genius. As far as the plot points… comedies can be tough to spot plot points, and they can be very flexible. Don’t have those DVDs on hand so I can’t check, but I’d bet there’s something that shifts (in addition to the 13 minute twist) at the right place, since Hughes was a real pro as a screenwriter. Check again, look for the hero’s quest and need to change at the 20th to 25th percentile, which is 18 to 23 minutes. I could be wrong… an interesting exercise.

    Also, you can’t buy Shutter Island yet, it’s still in theaters. You may find it bootlegged on the internet, but you’ll need to buy a ticket to see it now. I advise reading the book AND seeing the movie – this is one of those stories that on first glance is intimidatingly complex in terms of analysis and deconstruction, but once you know how it ends and see it (or read it) again, you can see how Lehane pulled it off.

    It’s pure genius, too.

  12. Glad you’re all liking and getting this. I think the real value of it, for me, is that it reminds us that we are as much writing toward the next plot point as we are writing toward the end of the story. The latter is the pitfall of non-structure-driven writers, and pantsers (often the same), which results in a linear story without flowing changes in context and transitioning conflict.

  13. This is a really great analogy! It really helps to illustrate the four parts of a story in a way that anyone can understand (b/c who hasn’t seen stairs?). In fact, it even helped ME to understand it better, and I think I already have a pretty good understanding of it.

    You mention Shutter Island as a great movie for watching story structure unfold. I’d also like to suggest seeing the movie (an oldie) “Twister.” I watched it three times over the weekend because the story structure in it is so good. It perfectly follows all of the four parts and I was even able to pick out the FPP, midpoint and the SPP, which I’ve never been able to do with other movies.

  14. Larry, sorry I meant an hour and a half.

    For me the FPP in Weird Science starts when Kelly LaBrock says “So, what would you little maniacs like to do first.”
    And in Uncle Buck it’s when Uncle Buck meets Tia (his teenaged antagonist) in the kitchen and realizes what he’s up against.

    Am I wrong here?

  15. Re the landings: The analogy of the staircase in an office building really works. When you get to a landing, though, beware of entering the building and wandering around the floor and visiting “Simon Legree Management”. That would be worth 6 months of pantser re-writing.

    The goal is to get to the top landing (perhaps it’s the roof) so you/the reader can see all the glory.

  16. Sandra S. Richardson

    I love the stairs analogy! This makes sense in a way none of the others have. It so clearly shows that one can change direction, even to the extreme of a 180, and yet still be heading toward the goal.

    Sutter Island is no longer in theaters where I am and I haven’t been able to find a release date for the DVD. I’ll see if the library has the book. 🙂

  17. What a great analogy! It really makes sense!
    I’m looking forward to reading the deconstruction of Shutter Island. I just watched that the other day. Now I am inclined to read the book also.

  18. Martha Miller

    Very eager for the deconstruction of “Shutter Island”. I’ve seen it, then read it to try to figure out the structure. I’m waiting for this one with great pleasure!

  19. I admire you guys that saw it made sense right away!
    At first I found this stairs analogy meaningless, a little bit like Larry has nothing to say today & needed some filler.

    I must confess I was wrong – D@mn wrong!

    The whole thing grew on me and as I was going up and down in my own staircase (I literally do a lot of “stair work”, climbing several times the 25 floors of my building as part of my regular workout…), I started to understand:

    one flight, one landing, a twist to the next flight but heaving in the same direction… Each step leading to the next, not one the same…

    I physically had to experience it to understand it.
    Larry, sorry for my lack of faith.

  20. Hey!
    Reader from Problogger here…this is an excellent post! I have been reading all of your posts about shutter island, and am fully enjoying all of them, but this post wraps up everything you’re talking about in a neat little package. It’s not often i comment on blogs (which is strange because i love getting comments on my own blog..) but this moved me to comment. Well written, well thought out, beautifully executed. Nice job. Thanks!

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