Thursday 5 July 2012

The Five Bricks of Story and Life

by Maureen Lynas


Orrible Enrietta

I'm always on the look out for patterns and structures when I'm analysing books and characters and this week was a breakthrough week for me. My last blog was on the Seven Steps of Structure and I thought the last three steps Reveal, Reflect and React needed a bit more analysis. So I got out the highlighters and put Horrid Henry (and his new friend Enrietta) back under the microscope.

Eureka! No 1

I thought I'd spotted the 3R's as a repeating pattern throughout the work, and not just after the EVENT as previously indicated.

I'll show you what I mean but I'll use Orrible Enrietta to give an example instead of Horrible Henry in case I'm sued.

Orrible Enrietta sneaked back into the kitchen for the chocolate.
'Chocolate is for kids. Grown ups should eat carrots and soggy cabbage. It's my human right to eat that chocolate. So I will!'
Orrible Enrietta stuffed the chocolate in her mouth.

But something didn't seem quite right. Some sentences, paragraphs didn't fit the pattern – what were they doing, if they weren't revealing, reflecting, or reacting.

So I decided to check my research and went back to James Scott Bell's Revision and Self-Editing but when I looked in the book the three R's were not there! Even though that's where I was convinced I'd discovered them. What was there was –

Action Scenes – Objective, Obstacle, Outcome.
Reaction Scenes – Emotion, Analysis, Decision.

Interesting! And now I was having…

Eureka! No 2! I had discovered The 5 Bricks of The Scene.

If this is a good old secret known to many then that’s brilliant. But it’s new news to me.

The Bricks of The Scene is what story structure is built from.

Something is revealed
There is an emotional response.
There is reflection/discussion
There is a decision
There is action

For example

Orrible Enrietta was watching Zombie's Rule, OK.
'It's your turn to wash the dishes,' said Mum.
'No! Not fair!'
'I did it last year! Why can't we use paper plates. Why do we have to use stinky proper plates like rich people? I'm too young. I'm too clumsy!' 
That'll get her, thought Orrible Enrietta. Mum won't want her precious plates smashed.
But mum was one step ahead of her. 'Any breakages come out of your pocket money.'
I'll think of something, thought Enrietta stomping into the kitchen. What would a genius do?
Aha!  I'll wash them all right. But I won't clean them.
Orrible Enrietta turned the cold water on. She rinsed the spaghetti off each plate and into the sink. Then stacked each plate on the draining board. I'll leave the tap on, she thought. It'll wash the spaghetti away. Then I won’t have to wash the sink either. I am sooooooo brilliant!
'Done Mum,' she shouted. She dashed back into the living room just as the Zombies chanted, 'Blood, blood, brains and blood. You should run, oh yes, you should.'

That seems a lot better. But I hear you cry (those of you who don’t want to follow rules or patterns)
Are there rules to break?
Yes! It doesn't have to be as prescriptive as it sounds. But rule and patterns are there for a reason, if you apply these bricks to any event, they will be there e.g. I want toast. There’s no butter. Damn it! Shall I go to the shops or have cereal? I’ll have cereal. I eat cereal. They really are the bricks of life not just story.

The reveal and emotion bricks can be alternated to escalate the emotional reaction to the reveal.
Here’s a different scenario.

Mum interrupted Zombies Rule, OK. 'Mrs Knowitall is coming for tea,' she said.
Noooooo, thought Orrible Enrietta.
'She's bringing Nigel Knowitall for you to play with.'
Nooooooooooooo, thought Orrible Enrietta.
'And the baby.'

Not the BABY! Anything but the BABY!'
I hate the baby!
The emotion and reflection/discussion bricks can be alternated to escalate the panic of the situation.
I need an incredibly clever plan that only I can think of.
Aaargh! I can't think of one!
I'll hide. Under the bed.
Grrr. Mum always looks there first.
'Blood, blood, brains and blood,' chanted the zombies on TV.
If only I was a zombie, thought Enrietta. No one would ever come to the house if I was a zombie.
That's it! I'll be a zombie!
Once the decision is made there can be no more reflection/discussion.
'Blood, blood, brains and blood,' chanted Enrietta. She shuffled towards the door, her arms stretched out in front. 'I need flour and jam and mud.'

What can be missed out?
I'm very interested in 'the gap'. The gap we leave for the reader to fill. This is probably the basis of 'show not tell' (will think more deeply on this, that could be a giant blog post). But for now this is what I think happens. We invite the reader to infer something because we have missed something out. We give them a role to play in the story and they fill the gap with their own life experiences and knowledge. I also think this is where subjectivity comes in to play. People like books that allow them to fill the gap easily. They relate to the gap you leave.

So what can we leave out? The reveal? The emotion? The reflection/discussion? The decision? The action? Are Reveal and Reaction essential? Does leaving out emote or reflect provide the gap for the reader? Let's have a go. Let's go back to the washing up scene-

I'll leave the tap on, she thought. It'll wash the spaghetti away. Then I won’t have to wash the sink either. I am sooooooo brilliant!
'Done Mum,' she shouted. She dashed back into the living room just as the Zombies chanted, 'Blood, blood, brains and blood. You should run, oh yes, you should.'

Don't Reveal
the sink has overflowed.

'Enrietta!' cried Mum, storming into the living room.
Her slippers left soggy footprints on the floor.
'You are in soooo much trouble.'

The missing reveal from the text is implied by Mum's emotional reaction. We as adults would be able to fill the gap. But could children? Young children don't have the skill to infer so the gap may be filled by an illustration. Which is why it's essential to discuss the text and illustrations with them: to make sure they have the whole picture.

So, what's on each brick?

In no particular order
Who’s there.
The setting.
The obstacle.
The objective.
The tone.

But it should be right for your character type. Horrible Henry would be unlikely to do sadness. His main emotions are frustration and joy.

The situation.
The emotion.
The problem.
The consequences.

The protagonist must make a decision that will carry the story forward. He/she can have the decision made for them depending on the story (a bomb goes off so they must move on, the decision is out of his/her hands) but if all decisions are made for them then it isn’t really the protagonists story is it?

The action should be based on the decision and should move the story along. We're not talking action as in – she waved her hand at Mum. We're talking – so I plastered my face with flour and dribbled on jam for the scars and lay in wait for the BABY.

The story layers seem to be
The finished structure (Hero’s Journey, Romantic Comedy etc) is created using –
The 7 steps of pacing and plotting (name, preview, contrast, EVENT, reveal, reflect, react)
Which are built with –
The 5 bricks of The Scene (Reveal, emote, reflect/discuss, decide, act)
And I’m wishing I’d called the 7 steps something else! That fits the analogy of a building. The 7 girders?

And then, I hear you cry over the internet, ‘What about the cement? What's glueing it all together?

Well, that would be the...


Happy writing

Maureen Lynas blogs intermittently on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas
She is the author of
The Action Words Reading Scheme
Florence and the Meanies
The Funeverse poetry site.


  1. Thanks for this, absolutely fascinating. Am going to have another play with this now.

    1. It's great fun seeing the patterns in your own drafts, Vanessa. Glad you found it fascinating!

  2. I think it's great fun to apply these 'rules' to books that have been written. But it's still best to just get on and write, otherwise you can get so bound up in the 'how to' that your writing gets, well, constipated!

    I wrote a 366 word story which was published in an anthology. A creative writing tutor managed to find the 12 steps of the hero's journey in it! But I hadn't thought of that when I wrote it. I think that, once you've seen the rules and got your 'aha' moment, you need forget all about the rules and trust yourself!

    1. I apply such (invaluable) rules after the first draft, when I discover a scene that is sloppy but can't initially see why. They also help me overcome that terrible moment of staring at the screen with no idea how to start (often a Monday.)
      Thanks for another great post, Maureen. Looking forward to your take on show, not tell.

    2. Thanks for your comments Jackie and Rowena. I was applying this to a re-draft but think it will become so embedded in my head that it'll become something I automatically do as I write first drafts in the future, like Jackie and her short story. I think in the past when I re-drafted I re-drafted with a lack of knowledge and couldn't see why things were going wrong. Hopefully this won't be the case now.

  3. I was going to say something intelligent, but then I started imagining myself as a large rock troll trying to use a keyboard.

  4. Orrible Enrietta actually seems like an interesting story! I don't read a lot of children's books anymore (since I've moved on to YA), but I'm interested in what other directions the scenes you describe might go in.

    1. So am I! I only made her up for the blog. But, she may have legs, although there's no evidence of that in the pictures.

  5. This is great, I have just quickly done a practise run with one of my manuscripts and it really helped. I managed to answer a lot of of tricky problems and find a conclusion! Many thanks for sharing this, it was so useful.

  6. Thanks for sharing Maureen, This is really valuable stuff. It's one thing writing the story ... editing it is another – really good way to look at you scenes objectively and think about how they work for the reader.

    You should write a writing self help book. Maureen's Writing Pearls of Wisdom (Volume One).

    Kate x

    1. Don't think that hasn't occurred to me, Kate. It would probably be the silliest 'how to' book ever written. But first - that book deal.

  7. Fantastic analysis, Maureen - now I'm going to read it a few more times! You should write a book!

  8. I really enjoyed the light-hearted approach to your analysis. There are perhaps other patterns possible - but you seem to have a go-er here.
    Thanks for the post

  9. This is brilliant Maureen! You do these so well and they're SO helpful.
    You definite definite should collate these how to posts together into a book.


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