Anatomy of a Story, Part 1: Unity

In a nutshell, this is how I think about and evaluate every story I write/read.

In my mind, a story is like a painting. None of the parts exist separate of the others. Character, setting, plot, pacing, POV, etc. are all enmeshed together to form a cohesive whole. The story fails or succeeds based on how unified all of the elements are with one another. Just like a painting, every word and element of the story, when taken together as a whole, should form a single unified idea or theme.

Just as a cell is simultaneously an entity unto itself and a part of something greater, a single idea, so are the words, sentences, and paragraphs part of a single idea or mission. Though the metaphor is incomplete, think of atoms as letters, cells as words, tissues as sentences, paragraphs/sections as organs, and the story itself as a single being.

This idea of complete unity should guide every single decision you make in writing a story. EVERYTHING.

I would go so far as to say that (A) the more unique parts a story has and (B) the extent to which they are all unified (connected) without having any parts that don’t belong (cancers) is what makes a story good. On a spectrum, the higher (A) and (B) are, the better your story is.

For clarification, this isn’t saying that a story needs to be complex to be good. While that may take more skill, that doesn’t mean it’s better. It takes a lot more skill to throw a small plastic ring around a pole at the carnival than it does a football to someone, but no one gives a shit about that. People care about quality.

What I’m getting at is that the type of connections your story makes are vital. If your story puts together several things that have never been connected for, and those things are unified, then that’s WAY better than just putting a bunch of random stuff together.

Whether or not it resonates with people is a different issue — different people relate to and respond to different things. The very best stories are complex (or unite a few parts in brilliant, unexplored ways, like Bullet in the Brain) and touch on themes that resonate strongly with people.

More thoughts on the anatomy of a story later.

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