The Trellis Method: Discover What Story Beats Can Do for Your Writing

The Trellis Method

Popular masterworks, such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, follow a traditional story structure. I wondered, why do many writers resist using a story structure? Do they perceive it’s too complicated? Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In this post, I’ll explore how Story Beats simplifies structure, crucial to The Trellis Method, and I invite you to judge if it’s simple enough.

Two Views of What Readers Want

Prolific author Kurt Vonnegut, in his thesis for his master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago, theorized there were basic story shapes, what he called “a unified theory of narrative arcs.”

He proposed showing the emotional aspects of these basic shapes with graphs, but the anthropology department rejected his thesis. Three decades later, a team lead by the University of Vermont Ph.D. Candidate Andrew J. Reagan analyzed the emotional arcs of stories using data from over a thousand stories. The team found evidence supporting Vonnegut’s thesis.

Kurt Vonnegut's 6 Story Shapes
Click to Enlarge

Watch Vonnegut talk about his story shapes theory in this February 4, 2004 YouTube video.

Story Structure Versus Story Shapes

I’ll leave the complex math and computer models to the Ph.D. Candidate, and instead, focus on how story shapes (i.e., emotional values) differ from a story’s plot (i.e., action events).

In my research, I marveled at how skilled authors used plot events to reveal characters’ emotions—the essence of what readers crave. At first, I wondered if writers should keep it simple by focusing on Vonnegut’s 6 story shapes, foregoing more complex story structures. In theory, that sounded like a plan, but as I soon discovered, readers expect much more.

Centuries of storytelling taught audiences to expect the delivery of characters’ emotions in familiar shapes, and the plot events presented in familiar patterns.

Say Hello to Story Beats

As emphasized in my post kicking off this series, Story Beats is a writing lens that focuses on the patterns of plot events found in blockbuster films and bestselling novels.

To be clear, Story Beats are like a map of your story’s plot, and you can choose to follow the guide or take a detour. If followed, the process offers places to tie actual content to the story structure at strategic points (i.e., the vertical lattice of The Story Trellis Method). However, even if you connect content to the story’s structure in the right places, reliance on the tool alone could takeaway instead of enhancing quality.

For this post, we’ll focus on the “plot lens,” but keep in mind using Story Beats alone is like owning a hammer and treating everything like a nail, so stay tuned for future posts where we’ll discuss the “scene lens” and “content lens.”

Story Beats
Click to Enlarge

How Story Beats Work

Story Beats support the narrative’s plot, forming the vertical lattice (aka “plot lens”) of The Trellis Method.

The plot lens helps you identify the Story Spine (i.e., the essential elements supporting your narrative) and then draft the Story Body (i.e., a one-page summary of your entire story). The beats organize the story based on the Acts 1-3, suggesting the strategic placement of crucial elements in a combination of single scenes and scene sequences. When I wrap up this series, I’ll share prompts that power the Story Beats.

Although the process suggests where to place scenes along the vertical lattice, you’re free to deviate based on your genre and writing preferences.

The Story Spine

The Story Spine relies on a subset of the Story Beats to jumpstart narrative development.

A well-constructed narrative relies on the Story Spine for support. Besides making sure key scenes support the narrative, this backbone helps writers identify their story’s theme. Like piers underpinning a bridge’s crucial points, there are 7 essential beats used to support the narrative: Hook, Trigger, Thrust Into 2, Midpoint, Plunge Into 3, Climax, Resolution.

Click to Enlarge

To see how you can use the Story Spine to kickstart your story, read this post.

Note: As you turn a premise into a plot, consider this blog excerpt from the Story Spine’s originator, Kenn Adams: “… the Story Spine is not the story, it’s the spine. It’s nothing but the bare-boned structure upon which the story is built. And, that’s what makes it such a powerful tool. It allows you, as a writer, to look at your story at its structural core and to ensure that the basic building blocks are all in the right place.

Story Body

The Story Body includes all the Story Beats, enabling writers to envision a front-to-back narrative with a minimal investment of time and effort.

Do you recall as a child how your mind engaged with fairy tales? Each transitional phrase served as a cliffhanger, opening up a switch in your mind that had you longing for closure. Like a familiar story from childhood, the Story Body presents you with prompts and you fill in the blanks.

Check out this post to see how the Story Body works and notice how the prompts dovetail with each of the Story Beats.

Using Story Beats as an Analysis Tool

Kurt Vonnegut figured out the simple emotional arcs of stories without relying on computer models, and similarly, you can read masterworks to see where Story Beats occur at familiar points.

The obvious occurrences take place at the story’s beginning (Hook), middle (Midpoint), and end (Resolution). Less obvious but still verifiable are the other 15 beats found in blockbuster films and bestselling novels. Whereas the Hook beat is a single opening image that entices the audience to stay tuned for more, the Setup beat is a sequence of multiple scenes introducing characters and setting.

For example, I used Story Beats to analyze the masterwork, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and in the posts linked below, I share the prompt questions and answers for each beat.

  1. Introduction
  2. Setup, Hook, Trigger, Wrangle, and Thrust Into 2
  3. Response, Power Play 1, Premise, and Midpoint
  4. Action, Power Play 2, and Battle 1
  5. Plunge Into 3, Ponder, Face-off, Battle 2, Climax, and Resolution
  6. Conclusion (includes a beat-by-beat synopsis)

Note: Depending on the writer’s preferences and genre, the Hook can come before, within, or after the Setup.

Using Story Beats to Estimate Number of Scenes

Based on the percentages where beats occur within narratives, you can use Story Beats to calculate an estimate of the scenes using the total word count and average words per scene.

To make this example scalable, I set the total word count to 100,000. Then I divided by 750, 1,000, and 2,000 words for the percentages of the Story Beats. The percentages are merely approximations of where scenes fall within a novel.

There are no right or wrong answers as to the average words per scene. Reading popular books within your preferred genre will help you discern readers’ preferences.

Estimated Words & Scenes
Click to Enlarge

Note: Observe how authors who write lengthy scenes may include a single beat in a sequence (e.g., Hook within Setup). Some writers use a shorter scene to emphasize a beat (e.g., Thrust Into 2).

Make Sense of Story Shapes and Plot Arcs

Our little gray cells swirl in dizzying confusion because a genre’s conventions and key (i.e., obligatory) scenes fall within the Story Beats but don’t show the emotional arc.

The image below of a Cozy Mystery Story Arc shows the conventions (i.e., action events) in Acts 1-3. Also, I color coded the key scenes on the plot line. But what’s missing is the story’s emotional arc, what Kurt Vonnegut called the “Man in a Hole” graph.

Story Arc Cozy Mystery
Click to Enlarge

The second illustration below superimposes the Man in a Hole graph over the Cozy Mystery Story Arc.

Note: The Trellis Method emphasizes the combined use of all three lenses: Story Beats (aka “plot lens”), Scene and Sequel Sequence (aka “scene lens”), and Actual Content (aka “content lens”).

Story Arc & Emotional Shape - Cozy Mystery
Click to Enlarge

Note: Typically, the Man in a Hole slope “falls” below Good Fortune at the Thrust Into 2 beat and “rises” above Ill Fortune at the Plunge Into 3 beat.

Story Beats Serve as a Writing Lens Focused on Plot

No rules, just a simple principle: use Story Beats as a lens to focus on where action events will take place in your narrative.

You’ll find the Story Beats useful for identifying the Story Spine, drafting the Story Body, and envisioning the entire narrative before you invest too much time and effort. Like a map, Story Beats are not reality, and you’ll still make real-time choices to detour when facing an obstacle. In a future post, I’ll explain the prompts for each beat.

The way scenes flow influences the story’s emotional values, giving writers many opportunities to enhance readers’ satisfaction. In the next post, we’ll look at the Scene and Sequel Sequence—The Trellis Method’s “scene lens.”

Let Me Hear from You

Exploring The Trellis Method is our grand experiment. I value your advice and want to hear what you think.

What’s one change that would make Story Beats more useful?

Please share your thoughts below.

7 responses to “The Trellis Method: Discover What Story Beats Can Do for Your Writing”

  1. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    I enjoyed this, Grant. I really liked that last visual with the story arc and emotional shape. I’d seen Vonnegut’s shapes before and I use a structure based on Save the Cat, but I hadn’t considered that overlap. And I loved the line: “… using Story Beats alone is like owning a hammer and treating everything like a nail.” Lol. This is very insightful. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Thanks, Diana. I’m hopeful The Trellis Method will help writers see how to simplify solving what may seem like a Rubik’s Cube.

      1. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

        I wouldn’t say it’s “simple,” but it’s definitely got me thinking. 🙂

  2. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    Story beats make a lot of sense. I’m going to try to use them in my upcoming novel.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      I’m eager to hear how Story Beats works for you. My goal is to simplify its use and look forward to your feedback.

  3. harmonykentonline Avatar

    Lots of great information and graphics here. Thanks for sharing, Grant 💕🙂

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Thanks, Harmony! I always appreciate your insights.

%d bloggers like this: