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I’ve recently started plotting out the first of many stories I have kicking around in my brain that I’d like to publish. It’s a fairly short one, and I have written stories before, but I’ve never tried to finish & publish an original work. So I’m doing it a bit slow and methodical, trying to make sure I get it right.

Per some basic writing tips, I’ve written an outline of the piece, then estimated & graphed the tension for each scene. It turns out, the graph is kind of shaped like a lopsided u. There’s a lot of tension in the opening sequence, less tension in the middle, and the most tension at the end. I’m guessing this is partly due to my fondness for medias res, which is how the story starts, and partly because it’s such a short story that there’s not a lot of opportunity for differentiation in tension between the 14 scenes I have. However, I would like feedback on:

  1. Whether that graph shape sounds problematic
  2. What I can look out for while writing/developing so that it doesn’t become a problem

I would hate to get into writing this thing only to realize I have a real structural problem and have to go back to the outline to sort things out.

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  • I don't know that a short story needs to be so rigid, but that's only an opinion.
    – DWKraus
    Feb 16 at 21:48
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    I answered your first question. I don't understand the second one. If it is separate from the first, please ask it as a separate question (and add a bit of an explanation).
    – Ben
    Feb 16 at 22:04
  • @Ben I agree that the second question is its own separate question, but your answer did help me worry less about it. If I think I'm struggling with it I'll make another question post like you suggest. Feb 17 at 3:33
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    I don't think there's any way to judge the structural make-up of your tension curve. While you could cook up the curve and fit a plot to it afterward, in most cases, the curve follows the plot. Nothing you can do about that (aside from hearing reader feedback). What you can do is squeeze as much tension as you can out of what you have. Reorder words and sentences so that key information comes last, and take more time with description and build-up for your most impactful scenes. Feb 21 at 8:02
  • Broadly, it is a problem if you need to ask. Which tips told you estimating or graphing the tension for each scene might be useful, or how you might go about that? Might 'I have written stories before, but I’ve never tried to finish…' matter here? Mar 2 at 22:24

2 Answers 2

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In a linguistic text analysis of over 500 New York Times bestselling contemporary novels and close to 5000 non-bestsellers, Matthew Jockers and Jodie Archer (2016) identified the following seven plot shapes of bestselling fiction, where each line represents the changing emotional response of the protagonist:

photo of pencil drawing of plot shapes

Not well drawn, but I hope you get the idea. Note how nos. 2, 4 and 6 are the inverses of nos. 1, 3 and 5, respectively. The inverse of no. 7 isn't found in any novels, according to this analysis.

In a different analysis, Steven Brown and Carmen Tu (2021) found four plot shapes in 1737 novels and plays, where each "waveform" represents a change in the protagonist's emotional state:

diagram of the four waveforms of a plot

An analysis of 470 folk tales by the same authors (Brown & Tu, 2021), additionally found a fifth "waveform", /, that is, a linear rise without falls.

A u-shaped plotline (no. 7 in the first analysis and "man in the hole" in the second) is one of the common progressions. Don't worry about it.

As for how to tell whether the tension progression in your short story is a problem before you write it, there are two ways that I can think of:

  1. Does your story arouse emotions (befitting your story) in you while you plot it?
  2. Get feedback from others (who are part of your target audience, i.e. they like the kind of story you are writing) by narrating the summary of your story to them.

Sources

Archer, J., & Jockers, M. L. (2016). The bestseller code: Anatomy of the blockbuster novel. St. Martin's Press.

Brown, S., & Tu, C. (2020). The shapes of stories: A "resonator" model of plot structure. Frontiers of Narrative Studies, 6(2), 259-288.

Note

I'm assuming here that the general plot shapes in short stories are similar to those found in novels, plays and folk tales, which you may or may not agree with.

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    This is interesting information, but I'm talking about tension, not emotional polarity. It could also be described as conflict or stakes. For example, my opening scene at the moment involves one of my characters falling from a fair height. The tension goes up when they start falling but is released when they hit the ground, because although it's a worse situation in that they're seriously injured, there's lower stakes; the answer to "what's going to happen" has been resolved. Not quite the same as positive or negative mood. Feb 17 at 0:12
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    @AutopsyBlue The idea behind the analyses is that changes in the protagonist's emotional state best reflect both the rising and falling suspense the reader will experience as well as the changes in stakes and conflict the protagonist goes through. Taking your example, there is a change in the protagonists state from fear to pain that reflects a change in suspense (what will happen? - it has happened), stakes (will he survive the fall? - how will he survive the injuries?), conflict (still struggling - the fight is over). That is, you catch those changes through a change in emotinal state.
    – Ben
    Feb 17 at 7:47
  • @AutopsyBlue Tension is an emotional state: the reader experiences inner tension in reaction to a buildup of suspense, and relaxation when the suspense is released. But the reader not only experiences pure tension, this is also accompanied by other emotions, depending on what the story is about: infatuation in a love story, fear and disgust in a horror story, and so on. Tension is emotion and changes in tension are changes in emotion. And since writers write those emotions into their stories ("She felt apprehensive." - "She was glad."), you can measure tension through emotion-related words.
    – Ben
    Feb 17 at 7:58
  • I agree that tension's an emotion; I think that's pretty obviously true. I don't agree that emotional polarity is analogous because releases of tension are not always positive. You can measure tension in similar ways to the analysis provided above, but what you posted is not actually measuring what I'm asking. Methodology may be the same but the data is different. Feb 19 at 20:52
  • @AutopsyBlue How then would you measure tension? If you don't know how, then your question cannot be answered.
    – Ben
    Feb 20 at 5:39
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Try reading On Writing, by Stephen King.

Since King wrote hundreds of pages in hope of helping people in your position, I'll repeat only the part he emphasises most: read more and write more and then again, read more and write more…

Meanwhile if you think graphing tension useful, why not watch Dead Poets' Society?

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  • Thanks for repeating your condescending comment on my post that was already flagged and removed as an answer, but it's still the same crock even when you pretend it's new. You are not being helpful and you are not interested in being helpful. Go away. Mar 31 at 0:59

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