The Trifecta of Storytelling, or the Whole Pie

I came across this diagram and decided to put it back up here, because it’s useful. I, at any rate, find it useful when I’m thinking about what I’m writing.storypie


The star in the middle represents the holy grail in fiction: a book that is loved by critics and devoured by readers. There are a few such beasts out there. Lonesome Dove always comes to mind when I think about this, a masterpiece of storytelling with characters who are going to outlive all of us, with pitch perfect prose and dialogue. The critics adored it, the public did too. It rode the top of the best seller lists for a good while, and made a lot of money.

Most novels fail in one or more of these three key areas. What’s interesting to me is that the litcrit crowd is vocally dismissive of one piece of this pie, but it’s the one piece you can’t do without if you want a novel to really take off, because here’s the universal truth: people need stories. Human beings think and perceive and understand in terms of narrative and story. The story is what makes the reader turn the page.

Strong supporting evidence for this can be found on almost any day’s best seller list. There are books out there which have made fortunes for their authors, which are (bluntly stated) badly written at every level. Off the top of my head, two titles: The DaVinci Code, and Fifty Shades of Grey (and yes, I’ve read them both). What these novels have going for them are their stories, and some of the wildcard elements (marketing in particular can do a lot for sales). They are both built on shocking but appealing ideas: In the first case, Jesus of Nazareth had children; in the second case,  a well-raised young woman can be sexually curious and open to the possibilities of kink,  if the guy in question has a ton of money and a tragic background.

Both of these novels are pretty awful in terms of prose and dialogue and characterization. I’m not going to quote anything here because the idea isn’t to point out what’s wrong with them, but what’s right. Either of them could be a fantastic whole-pie novel if their authors had taken a different approach.

And still: none of that matters because the stories work.

People who write and enjoy the genre generally called literature consider their work or taste  superior to all other genres, and they’ve convinced almost everybody else of this too — the emperor’s new clothes, on a grand scale. But even the most respected writers of literary fiction rarely get near the top of the best seller lists, because plot is, for them, a four letter word.

I personally  consider all three elements of the story pie equally important, but  it’s pretty rare that I come across a whole-pie kind of novel. Byatt’s Possession, Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising series, Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, some of Austen and Dickens and Hardy.  I’m always looking for candidates for the whole-pie shelf, if you’ve got any to suggest.




7 Replies to “The Trifecta of Storytelling, or the Whole Pie”

  1. So very apt and informative. I read across the board, but for me, plot is still so important for me. For that I can put up with sketchy characters and even clunky prose, but not always the other way around. It’s part of the ability to be absorbed, to feel transported I think. I understand many lit writers want to experiment and stretch the field, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean it’s superior, like you say.

    1. I certainly understand your love of the Outlander series, but I don’t believe there’s any body of work that as a whole could fit into this schema as I envision it. For example, I wouldn’t say that every Jane Austen novel hits the trifecta. A case would have to be made for a single novel on its own.

  2. I totally get what you mean. For me, story is the most important, but it is closely followed by pleasing prose/dialogue. I read Fifty Shades and trust me, I was addicted to the first 2 books. I couldn’t put them down, but not because they were good (they were AWFUL), but something the author did just made me want more. Like McDonald’s. It’s so bad that it’s good. After finishing the books, I was left with a sort of bad taste in my mouth.

    Then there are books like yours, and no I’m not sucking up, that you really can’t find much wrong with them. To me, they belong on my Classics shelf (and I mean classics as in books that to me, I could read over and over again and will always recommend them.) And my standards are pretty high for books.

    However, there is also the whole fan thing. Once I read a fantastic book, I become extremely loyal to the author. I have in mind Chelsea Cain (although I did love all of her books in the series), Jodi Picoult, and Diana Gabaldon. The last two, I’ll admit that I haven’t read a great book from them in a long time, but I still buy them in the hope that they will reproduce of their earlier gem.

    Anyways, sorry for the novel!

  3. I would give Diana Norman’s books the trifecta. If you haven’t read them before, try Taking Liberties. Strong themes about freedom and women’s rights, amazing characters (makes me want to move to 1700s Devon to meet the characters) and a heartwarming, well researched story. She has beautiful, almost sparse, prose, very evocative without being overwhelming or hard work.

    PS Just rereading Lake in the Clouds for the umpteenth time. Love the way that every time I reread one of your books (I am a multiple reader) I get something so new out of it. Never get that when re reading JK Rowling or Dan Brown.

    1. I love everything she wrote, as Diana Norman and as Ariana Franklin. There’s an interview I did with her under the ‘portfolio’ tab, if you’re interested.

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