Turtles All the Way Down

by | Jan 10, 2023 | Writing with StoryCAD

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[Please note that StoryBuilder is now called StoryCAD.]

Steven Hawking, in his book A Brief History of Time, relates a story in which a famous scientist gave a public lecture¬†on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re a very clever young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”

Plotted fiction stands on the back of conflict, and it too is ‘turtles all the way down.’

The turtle on top is the story problem, the central, unifying conflict that holds the story together. The events in the story- the plot- revolve¬†around trying to solve the problem; it’s what holds the story together and gives it power.

But all stories more complicated than fairy tales contain multiple problems. One problem is the main story problem, the problem whose resolution defines the story’s ending. Other problems are complications (subplots), or are character arcs, defining your protagonist’s inner demon or weakness, or are sequences, story events that require more than one scene to tell. These problems are turtles too, which support the story problem.

As you peel back the layers of storytelling, understanding the foundational elements is just the beginning. Learn how to take those initial steps to transform a blank canvas into a rich narrative tapestry.

StoryBuilder’s Problem Story Element represents a single problem, and your outline can have as many Problem Story Elements as you need to tell your story:

Conflicts will change over the course of the story. Here, the outline’s structure identifies not only this main story problem, but three subplots, as the story develops from Santiago’s ruinous bad luck to how far out to sea he goes to end the drought, to an epic battle to kill a fish bigger than his boat, to his losing effort to save his catch from sharks. There’s also a separate ‘coming of age’ problem involving the boy Manolin.

Each problem will become a sequence of scenes:

Each scene is a specific event or episode, which takes place at one location and time, and which has a specific cast of characters interacting with each other. Consider most scenes as stand-alone stories. Like a short story, it can and should have conflict:

Not just turtles, but snapping turtles: from story problem to each individual problem to most scenes, your story should contain conflict all the way down.