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Shape and sound of stories: geometry and music in longform writing

Science Online Session: Saturday January 21, 2012 Moderated by: Deborah Blum (@deborahblum) and David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs)


  1. Soap bubbles, rainbows and Led Zeppelin. That was how SCIO12's Sunday morning session on using shape and music in longform writing began. Following a late night of dining and constructive socializing (read: partying), the sleepy audience was roused by David Dobbs' symphonic narratives and Deborah Blum's shapely stories.


    Look for stories that are like a soap bubble, says Blum: "They float." Blum treats us to a kaleidoscope of shapes than can be used to structure stories:


    The Inverted Pyramid: that old newspaper fiend, it starts with the lede or “seduction”, followed by the "so what", the setup, the story points, and the conclusion. 


    The Diamond: a favorite for magazines, it starts small, opens up, and closes small.


    The Circle: pretty self-explanatory, this story begins and ends in same place.


    The Rainbow: the arc of action rises, peaks, and falls again.


    The Broken Line: a kind of upside-down triangle wave, it zigzags through the story, exposition, and history (order flexible).


    The Braid: story elements are woven together like so many strands of hair.


    The Layered Rock Formation: for complex narratives, it consists of a stack of story / information / story / information / story / information...


    The Radial Form: it expands from a central idea like spokes of a snowflake.


    And perhaps the most fun:

    The Turtle: a sensitive topic surrounded with bracing evidence.

  2. Blum’s shapes give concrete form to the intuitive structural elements we all recognize in good writing. She painted the picture, and David Dobbs set it to music.

    “Listen to Jimmy,” he says, cueing in Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Dobbs explains that this standard blues structure is a “set of rules” that can apply to any kind of structure. It’s easy to imagine Page’s wailing guitar as a meandering story narrative, rising to climaxes and dipping into cathartic resolution. Tools like timbre, tempo, rhythm – writers have them too, says Dobbs.

    "I became obsessed with structure when I realized I wasn’t using it," Dobbs says.

    Like the Zeppelin song, longform magazine articles can be thought of as having a classic structure with variations: there’s the lede, then some background or context, followed by development of the main story idea, and finally the close, which Dobbs says should also open things up. This works well for pieces around 3,000-5,000 words.


    Next Dobbs brings up the complex structure of a sonata: Mendelssohn's string quartet #1 Adagio. The basic form is exposition, development, and recapitulation. Just as you need to understand the entire sonata to play any measure well you need to understand the story structure for any sentence to work, Dobbs says. “You can develop a single story line from different angles, by the end echoing the original idea, but transformed,” he says.


    It can start with a gentle lede, what Dobbs calls the “shall we go upstairs?” Later on you can develop more intensity.


    As an example of a piece that develops two ideas at once, Dobbs plays us Franz Schubert string quartet movement #13. Schubert introduces one idea, introducing another later on. He juxtaposes the ideas, which are in tension with one another. “They start to infect each other with their DNA,” Dobbs says. In a narrative, the two ideas need to either touch or refuse to touch at the end, he says.


    Dobbs wraps up the presentation with a case study of his 2006 New York Times Magazine story “A Depression Switch?” He cut the story into seven sections: a 14-paragraph “lede,” followed by several shorter paragraphs explaining the researcher and the lead-up to brain surgery. Then come two long long sections of 12 and 11 paragraphs that deal with the surgery's effects and implications for patients and for depression, respectively. The piece closes with a brief scene that gives a new angle on the central core of the story.*

    The structure of the story - longer sections exploring two main ideas that bracket shorter juxtapositions of those ideas, closing with a brief new take on the main theme -- closely parallels the structure of the Schubert.  


    "Structure is fractal," Dobbs says. “There are many ways to think about structure, no one right way."


    “Every story's a river,” Blum adds. "Every time you hit a rock, you lose your flow and the reader gets out." The trick is to keep them in the boat.

    *Note: This paragraph and the one following were revised for accuracy (1/24/12)