Lately I've really been enjoying the videos of a writer and vlogger called Rachael Stephen. Her plotting methods are so methodical and meticulous, and so different to mine, that I find them fascinating. They offer all kinds of new insights into how to visualise all the moving parts of a story. My favourite recent video of hers is this:
In which she posits that it's very important for a writer to know - and be able to articulate! - their underlying theme in any work, because if you don't KNOW what you're trying to say then you can easily end up saying something else entirely.
Now a lot of Rachael's plotting stuff boggles my mind, but this felt super right and comfy to me straight away. Theme is vital to my writing process. I need spend a lot of time figuring this out before I can get anywhere with my plot. In fact, I always feel that the plot (a series of events logically following on from each other, involving my main character or characters) is basically there to give me an opportunity to illustrate my theme. That's the point of the thing.
The more I thought about that, the more I realised that this is incredibly similar to something I say to my students here at York St. John ALL. THE. DAMN. TIME.
Students come to me with all kinds of problems, and nearly always this leads to me asking them: "What are you trying to say here? What is your point? What is the message that you want your reader to take away from your work?"
As a result of this, last year I came up with this theory that the ideal structure of an essay - and an essay section, and even a paragraph within an essay - is an upside down triangle.
At the beginning, the widest part of the upside down triangle, you state your thesis, your theme - or in a small unit of writing, like a paragraph, offer a topic sentence that states what you are about to discuss. This is quite open and general. Then you move slowly through a process of providing evidence which gives more background, illustrating your thesis, getting more and more specific all the time until you reach the point of that triangle: the point of the work itself, or of the paragraph.
This is where you offer your unique interpretation or analysis of the evidence you have provided and show how it all leads back to your point, thesis or message.
That's key. Everything must always be relevant to your point. Everything must always be driving down towards the ultimate meaning of the piece of writing, proving your thesis, convincing your reader of that message. If it doesn't do this? It shouldn't be in the essay.
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I show a variation of this diagram to my students and we highlight the different parts of the triangle - I, D, E and A - different colours, then seek out each of the different parts in each paragraph of their essay. Once we start highlighting the work itself, it immediately becomes clear if they've got a flowing argument that runs smoothly from identifying their thesis/point, to adding detail, definition and background, to illustrating with evidence, references and quites, to analysing the significance of everything they've said to their overall thesis. Often a great argument is weakened because they hid their A in the middle, or failed to offer any I, or didn't back up the I and A with enough D and E.
After watching Rachel's video I realised that when writing fiction, you need to turn this triangle upside down.
Instead of starting out with a general statement, you begin with the specific - moving through the personal outwards to the universal. The pointy bit of the triangle is where you hook the reader on the very personal, specific stakes of your story's theme, by showing main character in their beginning - unfulfilled - state.
Then you launch into action, using specific events that affect the main character as evidence of what can happen if they don't change, don't learn the thesis.
Then you broaden the scope of the story, extrapolating outward, propelling the plot onwards with ripple effects caused by the character's attempts to learn and change on their world, the people they know, their environment.
Finally - maybe in the final, resolving scene, or maybe in the very last line - you attempt to turn that mirror back on the reader to show how this individual journey that you have depicted actually applies to them and to their real world, too. This is that stunning final image or thought that leave the reader thoughtful and wondering as they close the book.
What do you think of the IDEA triangle, muffins? Useful? Sound off in the comments :)