The designing principle, more or less, is the collection of creative things you do to present and tell your story.
In no particular order, here are some examples of how the masters have done it:
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
This is about a boy who learns why a girl has committed suicide. Its designing principle is three-fold. First, the girl has recorded her thirteen reasons why she’s committed suicide on 13 cassette tapes, the transcripts of which form a bulk of the narrative. Second, there’s a map included with the tapes, which gets the main character moving around the city, occasionally running into people, while he listens to the tapes. Third, it’s a type of framed story, with the listener’s front story framing the tape-recorded backstory.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
At its core, this is about a husband who’s suspected of murdering his missing wife. Its designing principle is to alternate between the husband’s present, front-story perspective and the wife’s past perspective by way of diary entries. The designing principle also provides a plot device, because the diary we’ve been reading provides a twist halfway through the story. At which point the wife herself starts taking over her part of the story narration in the present.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
This is about a pirate who tries to rescue his love from the evil Prince Humperdinck. Its designing principle is to present the story as written by a fictional author named S. Morgenstern who has taken the liberty of leaving out all the boring parts. As for the movie, the designing principle is to frame the story with a story of a grandfather reading the S. Morgenstern book to his grandson.
The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
This is a typical love story of how two people got together. The emotional genius of the story is the designing principle, which is also to frame the story. The main love story has been written down by an old man who reads the story every day to an ill old lady. And this designing principle also provides the plot twist: the main story is about the two of them.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This story follows the lives of several characters as they grow old. Its designing principle is hard to describe. It’s composed of thirteen loosely connected short stories, but it’s more than that…even if I can’t quite put it into words. One chapter is a slide show presentation. It’s definitely outside the box. Read it to see for yourself.
Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
At its core, this is about a reclusive mom who goes missing. Its designing principle has a couple of aspects. First, it plays with timing in that it starts late, with readers learning that Bernadette has already gone missing, and then it flashes back to how that happened. Second, it has a special narrator: the woman’s teen daughter tells the story, in part with her own narrative and in part through the documents she’s gathered to figure out where her mom went, with the file making an appearance in the plot.
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
This is a series in which an evil ruler wants to take over the universe. The designing principle revolves around classic fairy tales, with a different fairy tale informing the plot and providing a pivotal character in each of the books.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
This is about a girl who collects books in Nazi germany. Its designing principle includes a special narrator, Death, whose narration includes bolded asides, lists, and notes; and it is also plotted around the symbol of books.
Ditched by Robin Mellom
This is about a girl who gets ditched at prom. The designing principle includes a framing story, a finite time period, and a symbol. In the framing story, a girl has been ditched on the side of the road and she can’t remember how she got there, so she tells the main story about last night’s prom to a convenience store clerk, eventually sussing out the details of getting ditched by recalling how she got all the stains on her prom dress.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
This is the story of a family moving on with life after the oldest daughter is murdered. The designing principle includes having the victim narrate the aftermath of the murder, both her family’s and her own, from her own personal heaven.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
This is the story of a woman’s year-long trip after getting divorced. Ms. Gilbert explains her designing principle in the Introduction. She says she structured her story around the idea of a japa male, which is a string of 108 beads, with an extra 109th beed. The109th beed is her introduction, and her story is composed of 108 tales. Further, though she doesn’t mention this, she organizes the story around four “seasons”: Divorcing, Eating, Praying, and Loving. The story also plays with timing, with the story starting late and then jumping back to the beginning.
Happy Hour of the Damned by Mark Henry
This is about a zombie socialite. It’s fairly straightforward in terms of presentation, but it does have a designing principle of using footnotes.
Stolen by Lucy Christopher
This is the story of a girl who’s kidnapped and develops Stockholm Syndrome. The designing principle is to present the story as a long letter (with scene breaks, but no chapter breaks) addressed to the kidnapper from the victim, who tells the story in second person (you did this, you did that).
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The story is about five girls who commit suicide. Its designing principle includes telling the story through a first-person-plural (we did this, we did that) point-of-view from the perspective of an anonymous group of teenage boys who use interviews and other sources of information gathered after the events to tell the tale.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
This is a family saga that highlights the relationship between a girl and her grandfather. Its designing principle includes telling the story through parallel past and present narratives and playing with verb tense, with the main story told in past tense and the flashbacks told in present tense.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
This is the story of a kid trying to find out why his grandfather was murdered. Its designing principle includes playing with time through time-travel and constructing the narrative around a set of odd photographs.
It by Stephen King
The story is about a killer clown. The designing principle is to tell the front story of a group of adult friends tracking down the clown interspersed with flashbacks of each of the friends being terrorized by the clown as kids through an omniscient, third-person narrative.
The Demon Crown by James Rollins
The story’s about the use of prehistoric wasps to terrorize two people in particular, and ultimately the world. The designing principle is to open the story with two notes from the scientific and historical record that explain in a factual, non-fiction kind of way what’s true about the story, namely that insects kill more people per year than any other animal in the world and that the Smithsonian was funded by a Brit named Smithson, whose remains were once collected from Italy by Alexander Graham Bell. These intriguing bits of truth give the story that follows a sense of authenticity it may not have had otherwise, which coaxes the reader into being even more interested in the story.
Know of other examples? Tell us in the comments!
Did you notice how most of these stories can be summed up pretty quickly and without much inherent flair? It is, in large part, the designing principle of these stories that makes them stand out among stories with similar synopses.
UP NEXT, ON FRIDAY
We’ll share our own designing principles…
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