The Trellis Method: How Busy Writers Can Use Story Structure and Write a Book Readers Will Love

The Trellis Method

Two life-changing words: what if. A few years ago, I asked, “What if I could find and apply the techniques used by bestselling authors?” I found intellectual wisdom, but practical application was scarce. Starting with this post, I’ll explain how The Trellis Method answered my what-if question and invite you to test whether the process can benefit your writing, too.

My Quest

After I wrote a three-book series for grade schoolers, I appreciated the accolades, but the sales results were less than stellar.

So I got busy and started studying how authors attained bestseller status. Research revealed many top-selling writers told remarkable stories with unremarkable writing skills. That turned out to be good news.

Genius writing skills were not required, but I needed to know how to tell engaging stories, which led to more research and notes on storytelling structure and techniques.

A Lifelong Learner

I enjoy learning, and here’s why.

A long time ago, while at the start of a four-decade career, I overcame workplace problems by knowing how to find practical solutions in books. For me, that was freedom from worry, and that’s why I became a lifelong learner.

I try my best to give credit for the work of others, and my intent is to organize, edit, and make their expertise fit my writing needs.

Charlie Munger of investment fame put it this way:

“I believe in the discipline of mastering the best of what other people have figured out.”

The Hunt Continued

So I’m putting notes about writing into my database like a hungry kid stuffing his pie-hole at an all-you-can-eat buffet. My collection swelled to over 3,000 notes, but only a small portion answered my what-if question about the structures and techniques employed by bestsellers.

I cherry-picked the notes to use the good stuff. Along the way, I shared the advice on my website. Even though subscribers appreciated the information, the accumulated notes were too much to keep resident in my little gray cells, forcing me to search for the right note, and that was a real pain in the kazoo.

I wanted to use the wisdom of bestselling authors without hunting for notes, and I knew there had to be a better method than maintaining a vast database, so I kept looking.

The Streisand Effect Pointed Me Toward The Trellis Method

One thing can make a big difference.

Attribution: Copyright (C) 2002 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project, www.californiacoastline.org

Consider what happened in 2002 when Kenneth Adelman, a retired software engineer, started a project to photograph the entire Californian coastline and publish thousands of aerial images. Early in the project, he received a letter from Barbara Streisand’s attorneys, demanding he remove one photograph showing the celebrity’s mansion. The famous singer and actress felt Adelman had invaded her privacy.

Adelman’s intent was to photograph and preserve images of the entire coastline, not snap a picture of Streisand’s home, so he refused to take down that one image. After all, the image was one of thousands, and revealed nothing material. Streisand slapped him and his non-profit with a $50 million lawsuit.

Before the lawsuit, there had been only 6 downloads of the image showing Streisand’s property. However, after the news headlines that Streisand lost the lawsuit, thousands downloaded that image from the California Coastal Project. One change raised awareness overnight, and the difference was so big, it’s now referred to as the Streisand Effect.

For writers like us, a change in the writing process can raise our awareness of what matters most, but it takes the right lens to focus on the right things.

A Personal Example of the Streisand Effect

Whenever I take a car in for service, I usually bring a book.

One time I forgot to pack reading material, so I wandered through the new car lobby and a bright yellow convertible with a black leather interior caught my attention. The event gave me a life lesson about marriage because my wife’s reaction to the new car did not mirror my joy.

After the purchase, my car-viewing lens changed. Before, I never noticed yellow cars, and thought they were rare. Now they popped up every time I ventured out because my lens had changed, and so did my awareness.

You can change your writing lens to focus on what matters most to you.

What Forms a Writing Lens?

Story structure is not a new subject, and I don’t count myself as an expert, but I know where to find them.

Like the Munger quote above, I’m willing to use experts’ advice on story structures and techniques. Finding the information is actually the simple part. What’s difficult is keeping all the moving pieces in focus.

Story structure serves as one writing lens, and here are examples:

To come up with an actionable process, I wanted to know the pros and cons of applying the story structure.

Selected Story Structures

Because there were so many story structures and writing techniques, I narrowed my primary study to three books teaching story beats found in blockbuster movies and bestselling novels.

James Scott Bell’s
Super Structure

  • Hook
  • Disturbance
  • Care Package
  • Transformation Argument
  • Trouble Brewing
  • Doorway #1
  • Shin Kicks
  • Mirror Moment (Midpoint)
  • Pet the Dog
  • Doorway #2
  • Mounting Forces
  • Lights Out
  • The Q Factor
  • Final Battle (Climax)
  • Transformation

Blake Snyder’s
Save The Cat!

  • Opening Image
  • Theme Stated
  • Setup
  • Catalyst
  • Debate
  • Break Into Two
  • B Story
  • Fun and Games
  • Midpoint
  • Bad Guys Close In
  • All is Lost
  • Dark Night of the Soul
  • Break Into Three
  • Finale (Climax)
  • Final Image

K. M. Weiland’s
Structuring Your Novel

  • Hook
  • Setup
  • Inciting Incident
  • Build-up
  • 1st Plot Point
  • Reaction
  • 1st Pinch Point
  • Realization
  • 2nd Plot Point (Midpoint)
  • Action
  • 2nd Pinch Point
  • Renewed Push
  • 3rd Plot Point
  • Recovery
  • Climax Begins
  • Confrontation
  • Climatic Moment
  • Resolution

I found there were more commonalities than differences between the works of Bell, Snyder, and Weiland. I hoped the discovery would simplify my understanding and application of the story structure. However, I wasn’t sure.

I had more work to do.

Story Beats: The Vertical Lattice of The Trellis Method

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the books by Bell, Snyder, and Weiland, you can see from the lists above the similarities.

Those commonalities are good news for writers. Once you adopt a structure, you can adapt it to fit your writing style and genre. Inspired by the similarities, I created a list of the common beats, included a few offering unique views, and simplified the definitions to create the story structure lens.

Here’s my visual for the vertical lattice of The Trellis Method.

Story Beats
Click to Enlarge

I began using the Story Beats to assess masterworks, and to outline, write, and edit my works in progress, but that lens alone did not give me all the insights needed, so I kept looking for how to juggle all the moving parts without having to refer to the notes database.

Scene and Sequel Sequence: The Trellis Method’s Horizontal Lattice

The Scene and Sequel Sequence shapes the second writing lens.

The “scene” refers to action and the “sequel” refers to reaction. Some writing teachers separate the action and reaction into two scenes, but others combine into one. I prefer the single scene format with the sequence divided into 4 action beats and 4 reaction beats, but there are no hard rules, so you choose whether the sequence occurs within one scene, or in separate action and reaction scenes.

Here’s my visual for the Scene and Sequel Sequence.

Scene and Sequel Sequence
Click to Enlarge

The Scene and Sequel Sequence helped me layout the content, but it did not eliminate the constant referral to my notes, so back to the drawing board.

The Trellis Method’s Multi-Lens Approach

In a garden, a trellis structures and supports growing plants.

For writers, The Trellis Method structures and supports the vertical and horizontal views of our stories. The design possibilities are endless. However, the trellis by itself does not eliminate the problem of our little gray cells struggling to keep track of hundreds of moving parts spread across 50,000 to over 100,000 words.

We need a third lens.

The Third Lens

At the start of a poker game, players must “ante up” a required bet to play.

In a novel, writers ante up what readers expect: the Story Beats plus the Scene and Sequel Sequence. But to win the writing game requires emotion-satisfying content. Just-in-time prompts for content can eliminate the clutter of notes and the error-prone reliance on memory alone.

The Trellis Method provides the third lens focused on just-in-time content prompts.

The Trellis Method Explained

Think of it this way:

The Trellis Method uses three lenses to focus on plot events, scene flow, and actual content. It’s not one-and-done, but an ongoing process, prompting writers to include structure and content where they will have the best chance to satisfy what readers crave. Each lens serves up a “just-in-time prompt” for what readers expect.

The Trellis Method
Click to Enlarge

The combination of three lenses focuses attention on plot events, scene flow, plus actual content, and in future posts I’ll share how you can create just-in-time prompts for each.

Structure and Content Models Are Maps

A lens helps us see a “map” of structure and content.

However, a map is not reality. When traveling, a map guides your journey. But when you encounter obstacles, reality takes over and you make real-time choices to arrive at your desired destination.

Your story belongs to you, and you have the freedom to detour from the map.

The Point of All This

Two simple questions focus on what we would all like to achieve.

  1. Why do some writers master story structure and others don’t?
  2. What can we do to write intentionally a book readers will love?

Way Forward

The Trellis Method, at its core, is about helping writers gain insights to organize and enhance their novels.

In this series, I’ll offer my view of how The Trellis Method works. Along the way, we’ll conduct “thought experiments” to see if the process will work for you. Then, based on your feedback, I’ll keep adjusting the method until we have a process worthy of sharing with more writers.

In upcoming posts, here’s what we’ll explore.

  • Story Lens: The 18 Story Beats (vertical lattice)
  • Scene Lens: The 8 Action/Reaction Beats (horizontal lattice)
  • Content Lens: The Just-in-Time Prompts (lattice connections or “ties”)
    • Genre (e.g., the conventions and obligatory scenes expected by readers)
    • Scene (e.g., goal, problem turning point, and more)
    • Characters (e.g., character’s want, need, try/fail cycle, senses, and more)
    • Time (e.g., scene start date and time, scene end date and time)
    • Foreshadowing (e.g., foreshadow opened, foreshadow closed)
    • Questions (e.g., question opened, question closed)
    • Symbols (e.g., symbol, motif, or object emphasizing the theme)
    • Plot & Subplots (e.g., “A” story, “B” story, “C” story, etc.)
  • Testing: Application of the The Trellis Method on a masterwork.
  • Process: Using The Trellis Method to write a book readers will love

Let Me Hear from You

I’m having a ball applying The Trellis Method to my work in progress, so I’m curious.

Do you see the potential to use The Trellis Method in your writing?

Please share your thoughts below.


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8 responses to “The Trellis Method: How Busy Writers Can Use Story Structure and Write a Book Readers Will Love”

  1. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    So much in this article. The car–I had that experience also. When my son, back from overseas with the Army, had to buy a car, he took the only one available even though it was pumpkin orange. Now, I see it everywhere!

    Enjoyable post, as usual.

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

      Thanks, Jacqui! Coming from a master of research and details, I appreciate your insights.

  2. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    That was so interesting, Grant. I used the 7-Step Story Structure for a long time and then recently have been playing with Save the Cat, but my tendency has been to overlay them and incorporate elements of both. I love your analysis and the outcome, especially how you layered plot and character and the different elements they contribute to a story. Great visuals too. Thanks.

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

      Coming up in March, I’ll share more of the details. Thanks for stopping by today!

      1. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

        I saw that note at the end. Great stuff!

  3. Priscilla Bettis Avatar

    Yes, the Trellis Method sounds like it has potential. You’ll have to tell us how it worked for you when you’re done with your WIP, Grant!

  4. Madhu R Avatar

    This is an interesting structure Grant. I’d love to learn more about it. It’s funny I had the same experience with the car. I used to think yellow and orange cars were rare, but once I started looking for unique colored cars (a weird hobby of mine. Don’t ask) I see them all the time.

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

      Once our “lens” changes, it’s hard to un-see something. Thanks for stopping by, Madhu!

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