Skip to main content

Graph your Story

Lesson 13 from: Write Your Book: Start Strong and Get It Done

Jennie Nash

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2200+ more >

Lesson Info

13. Graph your Story

Lesson Info

Graph your Story

Once you have a starting and ending point and a sense of your timeline, you can actually graph your story. And it's a fantastic way to see the shape and structure of it. So we start with the starting and end points, and then we fill in the middle. Because I said before stories are about change, but they're a function of change over time. So that's really important. It's something changes over time. And we want to know what that time frame is, and we want to know what that change is. This is just a really basic way to do this. And I learned this from a video on YouTube of the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. You guys can look it up if you just put in YouTube, Kurt Vonnegut, story graphs, it will come up. It's amazing, he does all these graphs of Kafka's Metamorphosis and the Bible, it's just incredible. And it's just a powerful thing to think about. So here's the, I used Disney movies, because everybody loves Disney movies. So here's a graph of the movie Frozen. So what Vonnegut does is he makes...

the grid is good fortune, ill fortune, beginning, end. It's just a super, you know, time function. And in this story we see the two sisters Elsa and Anna and they love each other and everything's so great, and then the magic of one goes totally awry and she gets locked up and the world becomes totally frozen and everything's horrible. Until you know, the sisters come together and prove they love each other and then all is well. So like, the most basic function, curve function of your story you can put on a graph. And this is just so powerfully important, because now we know the timeline, we know how this moves through time, we know the high points and the low points, and you can start to get more and more specific. So, we look at Finding Nemo. So this one is a little bit more specific because we've got a little bit more of the points put in. So in this one, the dad Marlin, was trying to protect his son Nemo. Nemo goes swimming off into the ocean, bad things happen. And then the dad goes after Nemo and there's all these adventures and things go down and then he thinks he's got him, and then, I can't remember the exact details of the movie but I think the dad like watch's his little fish son get flushed down the toilet. (laughing) So that's this, that's bad, and then everything is fine in the end. So, that's a kind of a more nuanced version of a graph. And then you can get even more particular, this is Cinderella, and start putting in actual time scene stamps, what happens at that moment, what happens at that moment, what's that moment about. You can start to fill in the structure of how the story is going to go. So what I ask people to do is just to take 15 minutes and take a crack at drawing your story out on a graph. They take very different shapes. And once you do that, you can begin to refine them. So, I'm going to share two graphs that students in our classroom did. This is Katie's graph, and Katie where are you? There you are. Do you want to describe, like this looks pretty Finding Nemo like, it's pretty dark. Like, some bad stuff goes down. Can you just give us like a one line version of this? Yeah, so my idea was that, you know, that the protagonist is like, you know, investigating things. And so like, every time they find out something it goes a little up because oh I found out about this thing in the world. But then it goes back down, like oh, now I have to deal with it. So that was basically the point of that graph. Excellent. Yeah I love it. And then we see, it's up and down it's up and down, and something really bad happens, and then something great happens. I love it. And then, we also have Jocelyn's. And what Jocelyn did, which I love, is you went ahead and actually started putting in the scenes that we're going to see. So what was your instinct to do that, because I didn't tell you to do that, but I thought it was super awesome, because in fact, we're going to do that. (laughing) I just started seeing them. I started connecting the beginning and the end and started figuring out well how do you progress through that pattern, what is that. Who am I, this is who I am. So what happens in the middle. Right, so that goes for those starting and ending points, you know where they are, you know the general tenor, is it positive, is it negative. The general shape, and you can start plotting things out on it. And this is just an incredible way to come to see that shape or structure of our story. And any narrative can be plotted out in this way. I love it, I thought it was great. At this point I usually get a lot of questions about story present and backstory. When people start thinking about graphing their novel, and they think about the timeline and where their narrator is standing in time, they tend to get very upset about, well what about all the stuff that happened before the story started. So we put that start and end point because we want to see that arc of change. We enter the story at the moment when the wolf is at the door. Something about today is why we're paying attention to this story, and it's going to change, but what about all the days that come before that. So I want to draw that out for you guys, because it is really important to understand. Okay, so here is our story timeline. And let's say that the arc of change that you identify starts here. So this is a teeter totter. So this is where story present starts. And story present is that timeline that we talked about. Right, it's going along like this. So let's just use the example of the, the war. So let's say that this is a story in one of those years during the war there was the Battle of Gallipoli, it was a turning point in the war. So let's say this is the Battle of Gallipoli right here. There's a big battle, and my novel is going to be about that battle. It's going to start when that battle starts and it's going to move through to the end of that battle. And the arc of change, let's say, is going to be about a soldier in that fight. So what do I do about all of this that comes before the story even starts, what do I do with that. And the way that you want to think about it, this is where story present starts, and this whole chunk is in fact story present. This whole chunk that we are going through here. Now story present has nothing to do with what we talked about before, past tense or present tense of the narrator. Story present is a concept of chronology. Every story has a story present. Like I said before, it could be one day, it could be a weekend, it could be 17 years, it could be three generations, it could be anything. But there is a period of time that is story present that it covers. And then there is a giant period of time that it doesn't cover. So, the question people always as is what do I do with all that material back here. And the reason I like to draw it out is because this is how it looks. I'll use a whole other color. How it looks is, okay we're in the Battle of Gallipoli, and something in story present is going to trigger a memory in this soldier's childhood. So something in story present, flashback and backstory is always triggered in story present. There's something happening here that we have to know something that happened in the backstory to understand it. So, the characters are moving along, they're going through story present, something happens and they are reminded of something. Usually what's happening is they're trying to make sense of something in story present. They're grappling with something, they're struggling with something, they're trying to make sense of it. And they use what they know, what they've already experienced to make sense of that. So that could be a sentence. It could be my dad always taught me to revere all life and not to kill anybody. That would be a problem for a soldier in this story, so maybe it's a little snippet of that, or maybe it's a whole long giant scene. Let's say this soldier's father is a minister in a church, and his whole philosophy and his whole idea about human nature is we do not kill and killing is a sin. Well now, in this moment confronted with having to kill somebody, this soldier might go back in time and remember an entire scene here of his father, and listening to his father preach, and listening to people coming up to his father. There could be a whole scene, or it could be a little tiny moment, but we're going to be coming back to the backstory all the time from story present, grabbing information as we go forward. So, I want to make sure that you understand. This is a, of all the things that I see people get wrong, I mean I feel like I'm saying that a lot today, I see this a lot. People don't know how to handle anything that's not in story present. And there's often a very clunky nature to how they, what they do is the dreaded info dump. So, this is the dreaded info dump. I can draw that out. So it's dreaded because it stops the story cold. So here we are in story present. Let's say our story starts here. And what the writer does, it's like, okay the story starts here, story present. But before you can understand this whole story I need to tell you this whole thing that happened back here, so I'm going to just take this giant chunk and I'm just going to plop it right here. And it's just like this big plop of information that the author needs you to know. Like, I need you to know all this, so you can understand all this, and so it makes sense. And that's not good, it's never good. We never want to dump information on the reader. We never want to just explain, it's like, this is where the whole show don't tell thing comes from. We don't want to tell people. And info dumping is telling people. It's just this giant thing. And I often see it right at the beginning of a story when the, it's like the writer's ramping up. It's like they're ramping up the story, and now we can start the story. Well all of that doesn't have to be dumped in in this big thing. You can seed it in as you go. It's the way our memory actually works. So, what I would suggest that you do to understand this is pay attention to your own mind, and when something happens, like it could be anything, and you find your mind going like, oh I've experienced that before, oh I remember something about that. You're using your past to make sense of what's happening. And oftentimes it happens when you're afraid. So, you're afraid of something, or something surprising has happened and your, you have a whole bank of knowledge about scary things. Or bad things happening. And you draw. Like I have this, this is a perfect example. I have this really irrational fear of cars breaking down. Like, I'm afraid to drive long distances by myself or at night by myself. I have my Triple A card that I hold very tightly and very dear to me. Like I have this very irrational thing that cars break down. And for the longest time I just had that irrational fear, and I thought, I guess cars break down. But one day I was driving and I passed a car that had in fact broken down that looked exactly like a childhood car that we had. It was a, there was brand, I don't even know if it still exists, it was called, it was an International Harvester. And my dad, we would pull boats on a trailer, and we were river runners and this whole thing was going down. And there was one day when I was quite young, but I remember it really clearly, when the trailer hitch broke and we were stuck by the side of the road for like a day and a half. And was just a child, nobody asked me anything, except to be quiet while the adults solved everything. But I remember this deep dread, like how are we going to get where we're going. How is this going to be fixed. I can call that feeling up in my body today. There is nothing worse than breaking down on the side of the road because little me didn't know what to do. But, that irrational fear I carry with me. So if I were talking about a story, and I just told you this whole backstory, right, there would be no reason for me to just dump that on the story. What I'd want to do is, let's say there was a character who had to take a road trip. And there was some reason she had to drive somewhere by herself, a long distance at night. That would be the moment to say why she didn't want to do that. Or to say why she delayed going, because she had to get her Triple A card renewed, or you know there would be some reason in the story that I came back to tell you that piece about my childhood. Otherwise there would be no reason for me to tell you that. There's no reason for me to tell you that. So you want to have a story reason to go into the backstory.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Take Your Chapter From Good to Great
The No Excuses Book Map
Romance Cheat Sheet
Mystery-Suspense-Thriller Cheat Sheet
Fantasy Cheat Sheet
Historical Fiction Cheat Sheet
Young Adult Fiction Cheat Sheet
Middle Grade Fiction Cheat Sheet
Memoir Cheat Sheet
Science Fiction Cheat Sheet
Write Your Book Workbook
Jennie Nash Presentation
World-building Template

Ratings and Reviews

Nom Johnson

This is the first class I purchased on CL. I listened in on the Live Streaming day, taking notes furiously while feeling sooo blessed to finally have found such an outstanding industry expert who knew -- really knew -- what writers problem areas and blindspots were. Furthermore, Jennie is a GREAT teacher who doesn't just tell her listeners how to do things smarter but takes us by the hand and leads us through smart exercises or great stretches of well laid out logic that is deeply illuminating on how to do our job, LOADS better! And that, in the 1st draft instead of the 5th or 10th (if we're still tenacious enough to be hanging in by then.) I purchased it because streaming quality was poor (not sure why, I have top rate streaming package; made me think it could be a CL purposeful thing) and the course content too great to not own. I've started relistening, and will do so as many times as I need to in order to receive full benefit from Jennie's obvious expertise and great instruction. For ANYONE starting out in the world of novel or memoir writing, I DEEPLY RECOMMEND you get this course along with Lisa Cron's Story Writing one. With the 2 of them you will have done yourself the biggest favor EVER on the learning curve of the art -- and the science -- of writing the best book you're capable of.


Loved watching Jennie give this class. She brings great clarity to the writing process that for so long for me, has been so daunting. I can't wait to learn more from Jennie who's passion for writing is incredible, but also her heartfelt compassion for us writers is nothing I have ever seen. Thank you Jennie. ~Denise

Deborah Lucas

I love listening to Jennie Nash, especially for free any day. But I found this class to be so valuable, I bought it in a flash. I recommend it for anyone working on a novel. Even if you are well into a manuscript, this class will give you structure to understand your plot/emotional trajectory as well as the audience you are writing for. I can't say enough good things about it. FABULOUS!!!!

Student Work