Narrative Structure: Breathe In, Breathe Out

Much like Stephen Watkins, I don’t like giving writing advice. I am, on the other hand, happy to talk about the way I write, the tips and tricks I’ve learned, and my opinion on anything from crime writing in the 1930s to the future of ebooks. (That doesn’t mean I’m always right, of course, it just means I’m opinionated.) So that’s how I found myself writing about Proactive vs Reactive characters last week.

I’m really glad that people found it useful reading, and I was delighted to have as many comments as I did. Amongst the comments was this statement from Ben Trube:

I’m struggling with breathers and where to drop into the action in my current revision right now, and would love to see an expansion on that theme.

So, because I’m opinionated I care, this week I will again be sharing my opinion on an aspect of writing.

First: Learn about narrative structure. There are a number of different ways to structure a story, and I’d suggest reading about all of them. (Although they all really break down to: Stuff happens, then it gets worse, then it seems to get better but really gets even more worser, then it ends either well or badly.) Some structures will suit you better as a writer, some will suit this story better than that story, and some you’ll read about and promptly forget because you think they’re stupid.

As a starting place, allow me to recommend Janice Hardy’s post explaining the Three Act Structure. You can find it in two parts: here and here. (Plus, Chuck Wendig just posted 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure. How convenient!)

Second: Find a way to think about narrative structure that works for you.

I can’t tell you what will work for you, but I can tell you what works for me. If my method appeals to you, use it. If not, please don’t tell me I suck — just move on and find something  else you like. And feel free to share it with all of us.

I like to think of a story as a living thing. A good story, whether it’s a book, movie, episodic TV show, joke, comic books, computer game, or roleplaying games, should have a life of its own. It should breathe.

And that’s how you work out where to put your rising tension, and where to give everyone a break.

Breathe in; breathe out; breathe in; breathe out.

What’s do you do when you’re startled or stressed? You breathe in.

What do you do when you have a moment to rest or relax? You breathe out.

A good story will breathe. There will be conflict, tension and surprises (breathing in), and there will be quiet moments to plan, recover, and celebrate (breathing out).

Do you know what happens if you keep breathing in without pausing to breathe out? Me neither. But I suspect either your lungs explode or you have a heart attack. Neither is good. If every scene is full of tension and suspense, and the poor characters never have a chance to catch their breaths, your readers won’t either. If your reader is exhausted by halfway through your book, what do you think the chance is that s/he will finish it?

Do you know what happens if you keep breathing out without breathing back in? You pass out. In life, your body is starved of oxygen. In reading, your mind is starved of excitement. But whether your reader is dying of suffocation or boredom, s/he is probably not going to leave your book unfinished.

Now, the rhythm of every book is not going to be the same. The breathing of a thriller is going to be very different to that of a sweet, coming-of-age story. So, how do you (or really, how do I) make sure the story is breathing at the pace it should?

  1. Write the book. Keep this in mind while you’re writing if you like, but get your first draft on paper. This is more useful for revising.
  2. Make a list of all the scenes in your story.
  3. Note next to each one either “in” or “out”.
  4. Look at the pattern. Are there a whole string of ins or outs? Is the flow different at the beginning to the end? Is there anywhere that you think inserting an extra breath in or out would improve the flow of the story?
  5. (Optional — I do this, but my sanity is sometimes questionable.) Breathe, following the pattern of your book. See how you feel — are there any places where you’re breathing in too much without respite? Are there any places where you find that you don’t have enough breath to breathe out for as long as you’re supposed to? Also, don’t hyperventilate unless you’ve got a paper bag handy.

Note: I came up with this method while running roleplaying games. When you’re crafting a story with a group of people, you have the opportunity to watch their facial expressions and body language with each new character, plot point and twist that you reveal. After a while, I realised that I could tell when I needed to arc up the tension or introduce some down-time just by taking note of the players’ breathing and the set of their shoulders.

It took quite a bit of experimentation to get it right — but that’s what you do with a group of friends, right? Experiment on them?

When writing, there’s no “instant audience”, and no way to easily tell how the tension will affect a reader. It took me a while to put together this breathe in; breathe out method of tracking scenes, but it’s worked well so far.

What do you think? Does this sound interesting, or just plain insane?



Filed under Writing

26 responses to “Narrative Structure: Breathe In, Breathe Out

  1. This is excellent advice. I’d never thought of a story breathing in and out, but it’s really quite an excellent analogy. Thank you Jo!

  2. I always think of structure and pacing as two different (but obviously related) things. I think of structure as the overall, the big picture, and then pacing is the scene-by-scene breakdown, where breathing is definitely a big factor.

    I always think of this in terms of the Lord of the Rings movies. The battle scenes are pretty great, but the best scenes are usually the scenes before battle, and after battle, and even the quiet moments in the middle of battle (since even battle scenes need to breathe).

    It’s possible that I think differently about this than most writers since I post as I write (I have a new story starting now, by the way <– small plug). So, I have to think about pacing all the time, including how each excerpt ends, but so far I have only a hazy idea of the overall structure (I think the whole thing will have four parts, or maybe five…).

    • I think you’re right about pacing and structure being different, but they’re often so intertwined that you can almost consider them to be the same animal. On the other hand, when you’re writing a serialised story, your pacing takes on a whole new level of importance. I can’t even imagine releasing my work in that format!

      • In the story I’m posting now, the parts divide in pretty obvious places, since each part is focused on a different character (at least that’s the plan).

        I could probably do a post about pacing on serial stories, but I’m not sure who the audience would be. 🙂

  3. Ben Trube

    First of all, thanks for devoting a post to the subject, really appreciate it!!!

    Second, I like your novel approach to labeling scenes. I’d never thought about taking it quite so literally but I’m gonna give it a try in my current revision. My story is a very action oriented one so I think it’ll be breaths out that I need to work on.

    Thirdly, I did have a question:

    I write my first drafts without chapters, then structure the scenes into chapters on the first revision. This keeps me (in my opinion) from writing a scene longer than it has to be and from trying to artificially keep all of the chapters the same length (they end up being about the same after revision anyway). How important do you think the chapter itself is for providing breaths of fresh air?

    • You’re very welcome. As they say, there’s many ways to skin a cat (although, personally, I prefer them with their skin on) and I think the more approaches you hear about, the easier it is to find what works for you. I’ll look forward to hearing how this goes.

      As to your question, I think chapters can be used in many different ways. I’ve read books without clear chapters (with breaks after every scene) and books with a set number of chapters per section of the story. I’ve read books where each chapter is the same length regardless of what’s happening, and books where each chapter ends with a cliffhanger. I’ve read books where each new chapter heralds a change in POV and others where each new chapter is set in a different place or time. I’ve read books where the end of each chapter is an opportunity to present a piece of exposition disguised as a diary entry or newspaper clipping, and books where each new chapter begins with a quote or piece of verse that sets the theme for the next scene.

      I don’t really see chapter breaks as so much a pacing break as a way to display the structure of a story. When I’m reading, chapter breaks often serve as a place to stop reading for the day — a place to take a physical break from the story like an ad break in a movie, or the end of an episode in a TV series, or an intermission in a play. When I’m writing, I put chapter breaks wherever they feel right.

      I’m not sure if that’s any help… 🙂

  4. As a reader, but not necessarily a writer, I think this makes complete sense! I can picture myself breathing in and out with a good book I’ve read recently. 🙂 Now I’ll pay more attention to it.

  5. Yeah, I don’t do writing advice. But I advise every writer to earn some of their chops in Roleplaying Games. I exclude no genres from this dictum. 😉

    • Also, I do think the “breathing” idea is a pretty neat way of thinking about pacing. I think of the same things in terms of heart beats and blood pressure, but breathing is naturally related to those things. (In real life, I’ve found I can somewhat control my heart rate, imperfectly, through concentration, and a big part of that is breathing. Slow, deep breaths can slow your heart rate some while rapid breathing can increase the heart rate.) But yeah… there’s a natural rhythm to a story. I think I shall have to develop my own personal theory of story rhythm, now.

      • Haha. I can’t wait for your post on the subject!

        Heartrate works as well, but as you say: they’re both related. It’s just a matter of which you feel is more noticeable or more easily controlled.

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  7. I like the systematic approach. I’ve written mostly short stories (begins-stuff-happens-happens-happens-done) so far, so my experience with this is limited.
    I have no desire to play role playing games but you’ve made me seriously consider working with someone who does on a story. Being able to experience the reactions to a story directly would be interesting.

    • Thanks, Connor. Out of curiosity, why do you have no desire to play roleplaying games? I ask not out of any desire to convince you, but because I’ve been playing with the idea of writing a post about them for a while, and I’m curious as to what the current perception is of roleplaying games in the non-gaming community.

  8. I really got something from this blog. Eventhough I don’t have a completed novel (yet) to test it on it makes perfect sense. Everything has a rythym, breathing, day/night, the tides so it makes absolute sense the we (readers) respond very well to a story written in this fashion. Nice one Jo.

  9. Pingback: Narrative Structure: Breathe In, Breathe Out | Narratology & Narremes |

  10. Another thing that occurred to me about structure (since you mentioned the Three Act Structure), and that’s that structure itself can be invigorating. If you structure something (this applies to movies, books, plays, pretty much any type of long-form story) in a way that doesn’t follow the conventions, that can catch the audience’s attention, since they will be aware that they don’t know where the story is going next. I talked about this here:

    You can’t do this as a gimmick (well, you can, but it won’t work 🙂 ), but if it flows from the material it can actually help hook the reader.

    • I completely agree. I think Chuck Wendig mentions something like that in the post of his that I linked to — having a a structure that suits the story you’re telling is just as important as finding the right words to tell it.

  11. Love the analogy. Really helpful. Will definitely bear this in mind when writing stuff. You should definitely give more advice/opinions! Thanks Jo.x

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