On the structure of stories

Today I was reading John McPhee’s book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. The book, which is brilliant, by the way, talks, among other things, about how to structure a story. At one point, McPhee discusses one of his writings, a New Yorker piece (or was it a book?) about Alaska. Using parts of his writing to explain how he chooses among various structures for his stories, he says “readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones”. It strikes me as true. Even though I’ve read many books about the craft of writing, ranging from how to tell a story on to how to best use punctuation, I can hardly remember a moment when I’ve stopped reading a book or watching a movie to think about the structure of what my brain was consuming. To think about arc, character, verb tenses or periods.

So if reading was not a good way to learn with the masters (or anti-masters), I decided to try writing, putting what I was reading to practice to see if I could really understand the subject deeply. To me, getting new stuff “in my veins” (as I like to describe my state of knowing something thoroughly) always involves trying it out myself, playing with it, and trying to recreate the stuff in my head, in my words, and in a mental model of sorts. An abstraction.

Here’s what I did.

My study, as I’m calling what I went through, started with trying to figure out what are the variables that can be changed when telling a story of something that I’ve lived (or that I haven’t, for that matter. It works both for fiction and non-fiction). These are what I found:

As I wrapped my head around these variables, I figured out what could be different exercises where I’d vary some of the variables but not others, and see how the final product changed. The possibilities I came up with were:

Wow. A lot of stuff.

Then I headed to the actual exercises, which can be seen below. The “facts" I used as inspiration is a simple, or the story I wanted to tell, was the fictional account of a YC dinner, that happens in Mountain View, the preceding group office-hours meeting, and the bus rides to and from YC. Here we go:

Telling a story linearly, in the present tense

“I am waiting for the bus at the civic center. The bus arrives. I board the bus. An hour later, I arrive at YC. Group office-hours starts. We discuss our startups. It ends with a cheer. We walk back towards the main building. Dinner starts. I chat with two batch-mates until dinner ends. I board the bus and head back to San Francisco.”

Telling a story linearly, in the past tense

“I waited for the bus at the civic center. The bus arrived. I boarded the bus. An hour later, I arrived at YC. Group office-hours started, and we discussed our startups. It ended with a cheer. We walked back towards the main building. Dinner started. I chatted with two batch-mates, until the dinner ended. I boarded the bus and headed back to San Francisco.”

Telling a story non-linearly, in the past tense

“Dinner started. Everybody was hungry and plates got quickly filled. The loud roam from all the conversation going on was quickly subdued by munching and eating. I quickly finished eating and started chatting with two batch-mates until it ended about two hours later. Then I boarded the bus and headed back to San Francisco.

That day, my journey started in San Francisco. I left the office early for the civic center, where I waited for the bus for fifteen minutes. The bus arrived. I boarded the bus. An hour later, I arrived at YC. Soon thereafter, group office-hours started, and we discussed our startups. It ended with a cheer. We walked back towards the main building. Dinner was being served.”

Telling a story non-linearly, mixing past and present tenses

“Dinner was served. Everybody was hungry and plates got quickly filled. The loud roam from all the conversation going on is quickly subdued by munching and eating. I quickly finish my plate and start chatting with two batch-mates. We talk for two hours. Then it all ends. I board the bus and head back to San Francisco.

Earlier that day, my YC journey started at two o’clock in the afternoon. I left the office early for the civic center, where I waited for the bus for fifteen minutes. The bus arrived. I boarded the bus. An hour later, I arrived at YC. Soon thereafter, group office-hours started, and we discussed our startups. It ended with a cheer. We walked back towards the main building. Dinner was being served.”

Telling a story linearly, using dialogue and narrative

“I waited for the bus at the civic center. “Is the driver here yet?”, I ask a batch-mate when I arrived at the usual pick-up spot. “Not yet”, she answers. Soon thereafter, the bus arrived. I boarded the bus. An hour later, we arrived at YC, eager as always. Group office-hours started, and we discussed our startups. “Kiko, how’s progress been in the last two weeks?” “Great”, I answer, “we grew 10% in MRR, and our blog posts are working as lead magnets.” It ended with a cheer. We walked back towards the main building. Dinner started. I chatted with two batch-mates until the dinner ended. I boarded the bus and headed back to San Francisco.“

Telling a story linearly, using dialogue, narrative and descriptive appendixes

"I waited for the bus at the civic center. “Is the driver here yet?”, I ask a batch-mate when I arrived at the usual pick-up spot. “Not yet”, she answers. Soon thereafter, the bus arrived. I boarded the bus. An hour later, we arrived at YC, eager as always. Group office-hours started, and we discussed our startups. Group office hours are the backbone of the YC program. We meet with our partners and a handful of other startups’ founders every other week. The meeting is usually structured around us updating each other on our key demo day metrics, after a brief intro from the partners. We sit in a circle and tell our story one after the other until the conversations arrive where it started. Some updates are given, and we wrap up. “Kiko, how’s progress been in the last two weeks?” “Great”, I answer, “we grew 10% in MRR, and our blog posts are working as lead magnets.” It ended with a cheer. We walked back towards the main building. Dinner started. I chatted with two batch-mates until the dinner ended. I boarded the bus and headed back to San Francisco.“

Telling a story non-linearly, using dialogue, narrative and descriptive appendixes, and using only the past tense

"Dinner was served. Everybody was hungry and plates got quickly filled. The loud roam from all the conversation going on was quickly subdued by munching and eating. I quickly finished my plate and started chatting with two batch-mates. We talked for two hours. Then it all ended. I boarded the bus and headed back to San Francisco.

Earlier that day, my YC journey started at two o’clock in the afternoon. I left the office early for the civic center, where I waited for the bus for fifteen minutes. The bus arrived. I boarded the bus. An hour later, I arrived at YC. Soon thereafter, group office-hours started, and we discussed our startups. Group office hours are the backbone of the YC program. We meet with our partners and a handful of other startups’ founders every other week. The meeting is usually structured around us updating each other on our key demo day metrics, after a brief intro from the partners. We sit in a circle, and tell our story one after the other until the conversations arrive where it started. Some updates are given, and we wrap up. “Kiko, how’s progress been in the last two weeks?” “Great”, I answer, “we grew 10% in MRR, and our blog posts are working as lead magnets.” It ended with a cheer. It ended with a cheer. We walked back towards the main building. Dinner was being served.“

Telling a story non-linearly, using dialogue, narrative, and descriptive appendixes, and mixing present and past tenses

"Dinner’s served. Everybody is hungry and plates get quickly filled. The loud roam from all the conversation going on is quickly subdued by munching and eating. I quickly finish my plate and start chatting with two batch-mates. We talk for two hours. Then it all ends. I board the bus and head back to San Francisco.

Earlier that day, my YC journey started at two o’clock in the afternoon. I left the office early for the civic center, where I waited for the bus for fifteen minutes. The bus arrived. I boarded the bus. An hour later, I arrived at YC. Soon thereafter, group office-hours started, and we discussed our startups. Group office hours are the backbone of the YC program. We meet with our partners and a handful of other startups’ founders every other week. The meeting is usually structured around us updating each other on our key demo day metrics, after a brief intro from the partners. We sit in a circle, and tell our story one after the other until the conversations arrive where it started. Some updates are given, and we wrap up. “Kiko, how’s progress been in the last two weeks?” “Great”, I answer, “we grew 10% in MRR, and our blog posts are working as lead magnets.” It ended with a cheer. It ended with a cheer. We walked back towards the main building. Dinner was being served.“

I had never done such exercises before, but they’re something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve thought on and off about how great artists seem to practice their craft, play with it, before doing their masterpieces. Like Da Vinci, who studies human forms from all possible angles and lightings, on an array of different canvases, pens, and paints. It all reminds me of some book I’ve read in the past about how we become good at something. Not sure if it’s the ten thousand hours of practice one, but I vaguely remember something about how people that dominate certain subjects use the creation of their own mental models to do so. It seemed like that was what I was doing.

Not sure. WDYT?

 
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