Pyramid Scheme

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In my earlier short story, To the Great Infinite, our main character was somewhat unrelatable to the audience. From the very outset he possessed a great amount of knowledge and beliefs that the reader did not. The reader did not know what he meant to accomplish, what his motivations where, or even what his basic personality was like. Over the course of the piece some of these minutia could be resolved, and so the mysteries and unknowns of both the character and world went from broad to narrower, like a funnel. This structuring was intentional, but it is not the only option for how to shape a character and story.

In contrast, this last Thursday I posted the first section of a story that features a main character, William, where the setting is rudimentary and basic, and the first paragraphs are focused purely on giving samples of his character and personality, so that the reader can feel they understand him as a person. This grounds the reader in a comfortable space, and all serves to make the experience far more relatable. Then he is introduced to a truly unusual and bizarre lady, one that can alter reality, essentially by magic. He initially responds with confusion and skepticism, but eventually decides to learn more of this woman and her powers. Thus in this piece, the flow of mysteries goes is the opposite direction of To the Great Infinite’s. Here we start narrow and then go broad, like a pyramid.

There are definitely examples in literature of both of these styles when it comes to introducing the reader to a foreign world, but I would argue that the latter “pyramid” structure is much more prevalent. It’s quite common for stories to introduce us to a hero that is much the same as the reader, possessing the basic human ideals, capabilities, and personality traits, but who then embarks into some great unknown. And I mean, this is like really common. A few examples off the top of my head would include A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, Avatar, Treasure Island, The Divine Comedy, The Terminator, A Christmas Carol, The Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan, Hamlet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Time Machine, One Thousand and One Nights, Moby Dick, The Lost World, The Matrix, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Even stories that take place in entirely foreign environments will still make use of this pattern by showing us the world through the lens of a particularly sheltered hero. In The Lord of the Rings we follow Frodo who, though a native citizen of Middle Earth, is isolated and naive to the point that he finds the stories of Elves and Orcs just as mythical as they are to us, and he remains just as awestruck as the reader by the strange things he encounters when he ventures out into the bigger world.

On the opposite end, even stories that are grounded entirely in historic settings can still take us to corners of the world that are novel to us. In All Quiet on the Western Front, we meet Paul Baümer, who hails from a provincial town in Germany and then goes away to war. There is nothing supernatural or alien in his experiences, but they are, nonetheless unnatural. He discovers a horrifying facet of the world that is just as new to him as it will be to the average reader, and is so changed by it that when he visits his old home partway through the book he feels that it now is the foreign world to him.

Now not only is this structure of storytelling widely used, it is also ancient. Some of the most beloved literary pieces of all time fall under this category, and have remained compelling to us for millennia afterwards, such as in the cases of The Odyssey and Beowulf. Further, stories that utilize this structure well are some of the most commercially successful tales. Modern works that fall under this category are constantly topping sales charts and inventing entire new categories of pop culture, such as in the cases of Star Wars and Harry Potter.

So why is this pattern of storytelling so common, so timeless, and so successful? Well, it turns out that baked into its very architecture are components that are naturally engaging as well as aesthetically pleasing. I think its worth mentioning that these fun and exciting elements I am going to describe do not need to be in every story that you write. Perhaps you want the reader to feel out of their depth, or alone, or challenged, those are all valid experiences. So as I point out the benefits of this particular archetype, know that I am not disparaging other contrasting approaches, I am just trying to explain why this one is so popular.

The first half of why these stories work is because readers want to experience something new. Usually when we scan the back of a fresh book we are looking to see if there is some hook that is unfamiliar to us. Of course publishers are well aware of this, and often put promises on the back of the book such as “…but all that changes when Mr Peppy is whisked away to a bizarre world, both as strange as it is fantastic.” Knowing that we are going with our main character into the unknown just naturally creates an engaging premise. However, the pace at which the reader and character forge into that unknown is of great import. Facing too much novelty too quickly can be shocking and overwhelming. On the other hand, advancing too slowly, will leave things feeling sluggish and boring. Yet the pace should not be consistent, either, otherwise the cadence feels flat and featureless. If the ideal experience were drawn as a curve it would start shallow, and then begin ramping up at an increasing rate, culminating in that satisfying climatic finish at the end. This is the narrow then broad pattern that we discussed earlier, and is inherent in the pyramid story structure.

Another element that makes the experience more pleasant, is the fact that you are journeying together with an equal; companionship in discovery always seems to heighten the experience. This pyramid story dynamic artificially provides a constant comrade that is of similar experience and intelligence to the readers, one that is confused when we are confused and stimulated when we are stimulated. Also, it’s no coincidence that this character is always designed to have such a nice personality, one that the reader wants to be around for the next 30 hours. It’s a similar idea to the straight man in comedy, everything else in this world might be wacky, but there will still remain at least one grounding presence to provide familiarity through it all.

In short, this blueprint for making stories is such a recipe for success because it provides adventure couched in comfort, and who doesn’t love the sound of that? I do believe that there is another reason for why this format works so well, but it is not unique to the pyramid structure, it is a principle that is shared even by the opposite funnel-shaped design. As such, I think it better to tackle that principle in next week’s Writer’s Toolkit post.

Before we get there, though, come back Thursday for part two of Imposed Will, where I will try to further illustrate this pyramid pattern as our relatable hero explores the surreal together with the reader. The antics he gets up to will be steadily increasing in novelty, and then in the third and final part of the story we will reach that climatic spike at the end.

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