February 05, 2018

Beating the Story: Narrative Mapping in Practice

Beating the Story is my new book of practical storytelling techniques, now on pre-order from its publisher, Gameplaywright. It provides a system allowing you to, as its subtitle says, map, understand, and elevate any narrative. This approach breaks moments down into key types, the most important being dramatic beats of personal interaction and procedural beats in which characters overcome external obstacles. It lets you mark the flow of information with other beat types: pipe, question, and reveal. The system also encourages you to note the presence of oddball flourish beats, like strong spices, register most satisfyingly when used sparingly: commentary, bringdown, gratification, and anticipation.

(You may be familiar with these concepts from Hamlet’s Hit Points, which gears itself to the needs of roleplaying GMs and designers.)

Thanks to convenient timing, I happen to be working on a novel that I developed using the system shown in Beating the Story just as we are making the book available for pre-orders. This gives me the chance to discuss the translation of its tools and principles to an actual writing process.

The novel, called The Missing and the Lost, is part of the initial release of books for Pelgrane Press’ The Yellow King Roleplaying Game. We crowdfunded the project through a Kickstarter last summer and remain on track for our December 2018 release date. The novel features a character who first appeared in a short story in my original fiction collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign.

The first draft isn’t done yet, so it’s way too early to be giving away anything that might be construed as a spoiler. For both the examples given here and the above sample illustration, I’m either changing details or talking about them vaguely.

I’m now two-thirds of the way through the initial draft, give or take. At present the story map, as created on storybeats.io, consists of 159 beats. Twelve of them appear in the illustration here.

It also allows you to test the power and appropriateness of your shifts between scenes with transition icons, each with its own impact on pacing.

For this project I’ve been using the beat map as my only outline. This choice has given me the structure required for a genre novel in which several parallel threads eventually converge, and the flexibility to easily improve the interweaving while I write.

The graphic presentation, abetted by the ease of moving elements around with the storybeats.io tool, has enabled me to keep the various threads of the multi-threaded storyline active over the course of the narrative.

The map excerpt here shows the novel’s opening. The icons tell me that I’m hitting my desired mix of emotional and problem-solving moments.

This first-person novel follows a single viewpoint character throughout. The domino effect of scenes tumbling out of one another has yet to kick in, so the smaller transition icons you see are all Continuations—shifts featuring the same character but not in an Scene A causes Scene B sort of way. Later on Outgrowth transitions come to dominate.

During the draft process I’ve been revising the beat map continually. The writing of a scene may suggest more moments that rise toward hope or drop toward fear and ought to be included on the updated map. As characters flesh out on the page and become richer, I’ve discovered the need for additional dramatic moments in which they address obvious conflicts arising from my execution of particular sequences.

In a couple of instances I’ve spotted ways to stoke momentum by making previously disconnected scenes flow directly into one another, as marked by Continuation transitions.

In one instance the beat map allowed me to spot an opportunity to excitingly connect two previously disparate scenes by having a character in scene A provide a reason for the protagonist to initiate scene B with another supporting character.

Checking the overall narrative line with the web app, I can see that it fits the pattern of most satisfying narratives—a modulated but gradually downward line.

Overall the beat map process encourages you to think about key moments, their purpose in the story, the impact you intend them to have, and how they can best be threaded together.

Preorder Beating the Story today, get it in electronic form immediately, check it out, and then head over to storybeats.io to turn practical theory into creative action.