This tool is really an opportunity. It’s a prompt to get you thinking about your story and about how you might tell your story in an original way.
WHAT IS IT?
John Truby says that the designing principle is stated in one line and is the “overall strategy for how you will tell your story.” It is the synthesizing idea, an internal logic that organizes the story into an organic whole.
For Paula Munier, the designing principle is “the framework you use to tell your story.” It’s a little something extra.
Peter Rubie says the designing principle (which he calls structure) is the most effective way to tell a particular story and to hold its various story elements together.
For Ronald B. Tobias, the designing principle (which he calls strategy) “is a unified course of action that guides your decisions about what choices to make as a writer.” It is both map and journey.
And Larry Brooks says that the designing principle (what he calls narrative strategy) is “how you tell the story in terms of point of view, framing devices, and other creative approaches.” “It’s part writing voice, part wit, part pathos, part structural framework, part intangible.”
I personally like the term designing principle over narrative strategy because the former gets me thinking in loftier, more ambitious, and more creative ways. I think of designing principles as the most desirable subset of possible narrative strategies.
OKAY, SO WHAT’S THE OPPORTUNITY?
Wow ’em originality.
As Mr. Brooks says, “This one is ‘the X-Factor’ of writing.”
A designing principle can bring life to an otherwise lackluster story. It can elevate a story to a level greater than the sum of its parts.
It can also deepen your story. As Ms. Munier says, the designing principle can “add layers of meaning, provide a ready image system, enhance the setting, and deepen the themes of your story.”
Further, it can provide a way of withholding information, thereby creating suspense and tension (and a page-turner) in ways that wouldn’t be possible if the story were told without a designing principle.
Yet, as Mr. Truby, points out, most stories don’t have a designing principle. “They are standard stories, told generically.”
Some of the more commonly seen designing principles and narrative strategies include building a story around:
- A Journey (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland*)
- The 4 Seasons (Meet Me in St. Louis*)
- A symbol (The Scarlet Letter*)
- A metaphor (Jacob’s Ladder*)
- The source material (Julie and Julia*)
- Diary entries, letters, blog posts, etc. (The Perks of Being a Wallflower*)
- A single day or night (Before Sunrise*)
- A special narrator (The Princess Bride*, book version)
- A framing story (The Princess Bride*, movie version)
- Non-linear presentation (Pulp Fiction*)
- Quote chapter-openers that illuminate theme (The Secret Life of Bees*)
- Opening late and then flashing back to the beginning (Fight Club*)
- Opening with a statement about what’s true in the story (The Da Vinci Code*)
- Point-of-view choices (first-, second- or third-person; close or omniscient; one or multiple)
- Verb tense choices (past, present, future)
Those last two count as narrative strategies, but for me, they don’t reach the level of designing principle unless you make a non-default choice, like second-person point-of-view.
Anyway, these examples are just a glimpse of what’s possible. I’ve been collecting a list of examples of really clever designing principles, and I’ll post them on Wednesday when we look at how the master storytellers do it.
GREAT, SO HOW DO I FIND MY DESIGNING PRINCIPLE?
If only it were that easy…
First, as Mr. Rubie says, “You need to be able to distinguish what the story is, from how you intend to tell it. They are not the same things.”
Then, as Mr. Truby says, “You find the designing principle by teasing it out of the simple one-line premise [synopsis] you have before you. Like a detective, you “induce” the form of the story from the premise.”
As you are teasing out opportunities for your story, start considering your one-liner in light of the three main designing principle types:
- Theme: symbols, metaphors, quotes, etc.
- Timing: fininte time periods, non-linear telling, framing story, opening late and flashing back, etc.
- Method: source material, research material, the one-line synopsis itself, other types of media, other genres, point-of-view, etc.
These, however, are in no way your only options. They’re just places to start. Dig deep. There is lots of fun and wow to be had here.
Unfortunately this is all the direction I can give you. But this lack of direction is also what makes the designing principle tool so fabulous. It’s the uncertainty that provides the huge potential for greatness.
That said, Update for 2020: I’ve found new material on designing principle, and I’ll release it when WWT receives 1000 newsletter subscribers (newsletter, because that’s the easiest way to share documents–I suspect this material will include a designing principle worksheet). So if you’d like to receive the designing principle update and likely worksheet, please share WWT with other writers who might find it helpful and want to subscribe. And, of course, upon subscribing, you–and they–will receive the 19-page Character Development Workbook that I use when developing characters, which you can peruse–or put to hefty, needling-moving work–while we wait to hit the magic, designing-principle-releasing number. Sound good? So, click here to join the WritesWithTools newsletter. Thank you!
The designing principle isn’t the same as the synopsis; it’s not what happens in the story. “The designing principle,” as Mr. Truby says, “is abstract; it is the deeper process going on in the story, told in an orignal way.”
It’s also more than just a plot device. As Ms. Munier says, while it can provide a twist on what happens, it also “helps shape the manner in which the story is told or informs the themes of the story.”
Mr. Truby warns: “Don’t make the mistake most writers make at this point. Instead of coming up with a unique designing principle, they pick a genre and impose it on the premise [one-line synopsis] and then force the story to hit the beats (events) typical of that genre. The result is mechanical, generic, unoriginal fiction.”
Mr. Tobias also warns us: “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that writing is simply an act of recording the details of what goes on in life.” Instead, take all of your raw material and shape it into something even more compelling than regular life. A designing principle is what helps you do this.
Truby also notes that just because you tease the designing principle from the one-liner doesn’t mean that there is only one designing principle per idea that’s fixed or pre-determined. There are tons of designing principle options, and each comes with different possibilities and different problems, all of which are opportunities for originality.
Don’t feel like your narrative strategy has to rise to the level of a designing principle. The designing principle is just a tool. If a linear, past tense, third-person-omniscient point-of-view, though the most common narrative strategy, is the best strategy for your story, then that’s great. Go with it.
The point isn’t to force a designing principle onto a story just to say that we applied the tool. The point is to think about all of the possible strategy options and pick the best one for your story, as opposed to not considering strategy at all and settling on a less effective one by default.
RECOMMENDED BOOKS ON DESIGNING PRINCIPLE
*Starred links–and these book cover links–are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you. In other words, if you’re thinking of buying copies of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copies through these links is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!
Well, that’s it for me. What about you? What sorts of Designing Principles have you seen used–or have developed yourself? Tell us in the comments!
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UP NEXT, ON WEDNESDAY
We’ll look at some examples of how the pros put designing principle to work.