Like many aspiring writers I have stories hidden away, lying in musty electronic directories or stuffed in dusty drawers. When inspiration struck they seemed brilliant or revolutionary, but after the last word was written and the new-story smell stared to fade, I realized I was left with a lemon, clanking prose and belching smoky plot as it plodded down the tale’s road. I could see the highway just over there, that high speed journey with compelling twists and beautiful vistas, but unable to reach speed in my clunker I took it to the shop. Edit after edit, the minor repairs were useless. The structure was fundamentally broken, but it was a mystery as to why. So I locked them away and waited for the day when I would find a tool to fix them. At the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers general meeting on July 9th, award-winning SciFi author, Michael Swanwick added one such tool to my writer toolbox.
In Swanwick’s experiences as a teacher and editor, he discovered a common flaw in many broken tales was underdeveloped relationships between characters. To visualize these relationships, he recommended diagramming the story. First represent each character with a labelled dot on the page. Then using only knowledge
revealed to the reader, connect the dots by arrows indicating known relationships between characters. If the main character likes a girl in the story, there would be an arrow from the main character toward the girl. Using this method, the simplest story should be a triangle created with double-sided arrows where the two characters’ connections to the main character pull the main character in a direction different than any of the three characters intended.
After you finish drawing the connections between all the characters in the story, the resulting diagram shouldn’t just be a line or a star that emanates from your main character. Tension is created by these connections pulling all the characters in different directions. A compelling story would be an interconnected network where the pressures of each character have possibly unforeseen influence on characters they are not even directly connected to. What is fiction but an elaborate lie, so it’s no wonder that a compelling story would form a tangled web. At the end of his discussion he cautioned writers to only apply this method after the story is complete because it is a reductive process and may limit unforeseen twists and developments as your story is initially unfolding.
After the workshop I started seeking out articles on developing characters and character relationships. Elizabeth Sims wrote an amazing piece for Writer’s Digest on creating better characters entitled “8 Ways to Write Better Characters.” Reading through there is a ton of amazing information, but the fourth point, “add a hypotenuse,” is exactly what Swanwick was ensuring using his diagramming method. By creating a network of triangular relationships that pull your characters in different directions, you maximize tension and make your story more compelling.
There are sure to be a couple of my clunkers that could be tuned-up using this tool. Time to drag them from there dark hiding spots and start diagramming to see if adding a few hypotenuses will get them running smoothly. I am grateful to both Michael Swanwick and the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers for providing me with a new method to get my drafts humming down the story highway.
Main Image: Story Graph by E.M.A. Timar
Books in Closet by Simson Petrol
Love Triangle by E.M.A. Timar
Connected Story by E.M.A. Timar
Highway at Night by Viktor Hanacek