Designing Principle: Examples from the Masters

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.


We’ll share our own designing principles…

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3 thoughts on “Designing Principle: Examples from the Masters

  1. Hi. Thank you for all the explanation. I am writing my first screenplay (thriller) and was wondering if the genre imposes some limitations in the designing principle. For example, if in a thriller the main character has to be the protagonist and also, if there are limitations regarding flashbacks. Thank you for your help.


    1. Hi Arturo! Great questions.

      For me, designing principle’s limitations come from the writer–as in what can you figure out how to pull off–not from the genre. Some designing principles are going to be easier to apply to certain genres, but if you’re picking one that’s easy to apply, it’s probably because it’s been done before… a lot, and you’re missing out on the coolness that is designing principle: Designing Principle is an opportunity to make your story stand out from the genre.

      So, I’m going to assume you have a designing principle in mind that you’d like to try on your thriller. I think a more helpful set of questions to ask is: (i) What is the reader/viewer expecting and wanting from the thriller genre? What kind of emotional rollercoaster are they hoping I deliver? And then (ii) Does my designing principle help my story meet and maybe even exceed those expectations? Or is my designing principle detracting from the story?

      For example, I’ve been working on a “contemporary fantasy,” so-called because I was just getting started and didn’t really know what I wanted it to be yet, just knew it had a fantastical element. When I was working on the designing principle post, I cooked up an awesome designing principle for the story. And it was awesome… until I decided my story is actually, more specifically, a horror novel. People want to be scared when consuming horror, and my awesome designing principle detracted from those expectations. So I scrapped it.

      Or put it another way: Say you’re writing a thriller novel (you’re writing a screenplay, I know, but pretend you’re writing a novel). Maybe your designing principle is to put quotes at the beginning of your chapters. Personally, I think quotes at the beginnings of chapters, in general, pop me out the narrative and detract from the story experience. Quotes aren’t very thrilling, so you could say your genre imposes a limitation on using this designing principle. But! Let’s say your idea is that the antagonist is a serial killer who writes about his killings, and the quotes are his murderous intentions, pulled from his writings, and so the quotes have a luring effect on the reader, and they scare the reader, and they make the reader wonder, Is that going to happen? Or will it be something even worse? I don’t know! I must read on! In other words, they’re meeting and maybe even exceeding expectations. And I’ve never seen quotes like that in a thriller before (but I don’t read thrillers much, so maybe quotes are everywhere), so quotes would be new and different, setting your story apart. So, in short, to someone else, thriller could limit the use of quotes as a designing principle, but to you, the quotes designing principle, more commonly used in literary fiction, becomes an opportunity to shine in the thriller genre. Does that make sense?

      As for flashbacks: Again, I wouldn’t approach storytelling from the what can’t I do perspective. Sure, most people say flashbacks slow the story and have other “don’t do that” opinions, but I don’t find that helpful. Yes, learn the craft; yes, learn what has a high likelihood of succeeding or failing. But then go into your story telling, and approach your ideas, knowing that you can make anything work, but some things will take more work on your part than other, more commonly seen things. Again, I think the more helpful question to ask is: What’s the experience I want to deliver? Does using flashbacks help me achieve that? Exceed that? If not *yet*, then how might I play with the flashbacks so that they do achieve the effect I’m going for? If you can’t figure out how to make them elevate the story, then scrap the flashbacks. But if you can pull it off, if you can get it to work, get it to even shine, then you’ll probably set your story apart. And that would be awesome for all of us.

      As for whether the main character has to be the protagonist. As I understand it, “the main character” and “protagonist” are synonyms, so yes, they’re one and the same (though there can be several “main characters,” one of which would be the protagonist). But do you instead mean to ask: Does your main character/protagonist have to be the viewpoint character? To this I say: No. Watson was the viewpoint character telling the story of Holmes, the main character/protagonist. That Nick Caraway guy was the viewpoint character telling the story of the Great Gatsby, the main character/protagonist. In The Book Thief, Death is the viewpoint character telling the story of the main character Leisl (I think her name was). Does that help? If I’m misunderstanding your question, please let me know.

      Hope this helps, Arturo. Thank you for your questions and for stopping by!


      1. Thank you very much! I really appreciate your reply! I will keep working on my designing principle. Such an interesting topic!


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