The Shape of a Story

Several years ago, I wrote a story called “Reading the Shape of the Wind.” In it I described the different ways breeze fills across the water, as well as the best strategies for winning races in each condition.

Recently, it’s occurred to me that there’s a shape to each story I write as well. Perhaps that’s because stories—like wind—have different causes. The heat of rising anger might cause a summer seabreeze of a tale. The pressure differential between two characters might bring on a gradient wind, the humidity level a sure indication of its direction: cool and dry—from the north; warm and damp—from the south.tornado

The geographical location of a story affects its shape as well, just as the wind’s character is determined by latitude and location.

One of the wind shapes I wrote about also applies to story-writing: helicopter puffs. Though not always caused by the beating rotors of photographers zooming in for the money shot, the literary equivalent would be a series of sudden bursts of detail that land on the surface of the story, just in time for the main character to react. The best of these provide just enough information to keep the reader turning the page, while also spicing up a story line that otherwise would be too linear or predictable.

Then there’s the circle, a shape that has no significance for sailboat racing but definitely factors into story-writing. The best stories come back to the same place—or almost the same place—to find the characters changed by what has occurred. Like a tornado, that circular shape stirs up everything nearby, rearranging and maybe damaging people and property in the process.

My stories are not as loud or as violent as tornadoes, but they usually come back to where they started. Oliver’s journeys back in time would not be complete without a return to his own century. Only by seeing him back in his own environment do we realize how much his adventure has changed what’s important to him.

I’m currently working on something new, and though I know the geographical location I can’t yet identify the story’s shape. It’s probably closer to a seabreeze or a gradient wind than a tornado, and the humidity levels are high. Before it’s finished I’ll make sure to drop in some helicopter puff-details, just to keep you all guessing.

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