A Design-Based Approach to Storytelling

A Design-Based Approach to Storytelling

I’m one of those writers who loves plot for plot’s sake. (Which is probably one reason I’m drawn to genre fiction.) But one thing I’ve found is that outlining a plot is a wretched place to begin. I’ve known since my NaNoWriMo days that I’m not a plotter.

But I’m a not a seat-of-my-pantser, either. I don’t like to fly blind. I’m a designer. Which means I like to know what the constraints are. And sometimes, this means setting my own constraints, even if they are arbitrary.

Start from Constraints

I’m not a plotter, but I like structure–even if only as a place to depart from. I like rules–even if only one or two rules, like freewriting has: don’t stop, don’t edit.

Often, I start drafting a story with a set of three tropes. Something like: secret laboratory, satchel switcheroo, always night. Writing within the constraints of that small matrix of tropes, I find that characters and conflicts emerge nicely on their own. (I wrote more about this approach here.)

Two rules, three tropes–So, how about five principles?

I want to show you today how working with five composition principles in mind can help you shape the plot of a story without getting bogged down.

Principles of Composition

These principles actually come from a book on the visual arts: Arthur Wesley Dow’s Composition: Line, Notan, Color. In Dow’s book, he outlines the five principles of composition as follows:


Perpendicular lines; black and white; complementary colors. Strong visuals know how to use stark contrasts for emphasis.


A curve at the intersection of lines; a gradation between contrasting colors. You can manage and structure your oppositions by mediating them with transitions.


A line branching off another; a smaller mass of color juxtaposed against a larger one. A hierarchy, or order of importance, starts to come across to the viewer when you subordinate elements.


Think a landscape with multiple evergreen trees along the skyline. The same element repeated creates a pleasing rhythm for the eye.


Radial or reflective symmetry, which you could call a specific type of repetition, also pleases the eye.

I’m an artist myself, so I played with these principles when planning and analyzing my own art. But I’m also a writer, and it didn’t take long for me to realize the form of creative product didn’t matter. Dow’s composition principles could apply to writing too. And dance, and architecture, and theatrical lighting, you name it.

But you’re here reading, probably, because you’re a writer. I want to demonstrate to you how these five principles are ways to describe good writing. How an awesomely-plotted piece of fiction uses opposition, transition, subordination, repetition, and symmetry.

So, let’s take a look at a story that has survived generations of retelling. Let’s suppose, for the sake of this exercise, that oral literature like this has been whittled down to what works–boring, ineffective, decorative elements don’t tend to survive generations of oral transmission (when it comes to prose tales, anyway). Let’s also ignore for the moment that a folktale like this has many extant versions and variations.

The False Grandmother

So there’s this girl, Red, who lives with her mother in a village by a dark wood. The girl’s grandmother, who’s bed-ridden, lives in another village on the other end of the dark wood.

Red’s mother sends her on an errand: carry a care package to grandmother, to help her get better. She warns Red, “Don’t stray from the path or speak to strangers in the wood.”

In the middle of her trip, the girl meets a hungry wolf. The wolf asks her where she’s going, and she explains that she’s taking a care package to her ailing grandmother, and gives the address, too. The sly wolf suggests, “Why don’t you gather a bouquet of wildflowers for Grandma, too?” Red’s delighted with the idea. While the girl wanders off the path, further and further as she spots the next flower and the next–the wolf makes a dash for Grandma’s house.

The wolf, knowing Grandma was too weak to put up a fight, goes right in and gobbles her up. Still hungry, he makes plans to devour Red as well. He dresses in the Grandmother’s nightgown and waits in her bed.

Red shows up, and notices something is amiss, but can’t quite put her finger on it. “Why Grandmother,” she says. “What big eyes you have!”

“The better to see you with, my dear,” replies the wolf.

“Why Grandmother, what big ears you have!”

“The better to hear you with, my dear.”

“Why Grandmother, what big teeth you have!”

“The better to eat you with!” says the wolf. With that, he springs on her and swallows her whole.

The wolf, now sleepy as Uncle Frank after Thanksgiving Dinner, decides to take a nap. But he snores so loud that a passing woodcutter says to himself, “I better check in on the old lady.”

The woodcutter (played by David Harbour) pops in and discovers the sleeping wolf. “You’re the bastard who ate my daughter last year,” he says under his breath, raising his axe.

But he restrains himself, seeing the bloated, still-writhing belly. With the corner of his finely-honed axe, he carefully slices the wolf open. Out pop Red and her grandmother.

The three rejoice and, that evening, share a delicious pot of wolf stew.

A Well-Composed Folktale

Dow applied his five principles to the study of line, color, and notan (a Japanese term for the balance of light and dark tonal masses). But we’re looking at a story, not a painting or wallpaper pattern. Story can be boiled down to setting, character, and plot. And it turns out, those are the elements where we can find Dow’s principles at work:


At the heart of the conflict are the opposing character traits of Red and the Wolf. She’s naive, he’s wily. There’s opposition in setting, too: the domestic spaces contrast against the wild woods.


Neither young (like Red) or old (like Grandmother), the mother provides a transitional element. She also lends the story a transition between naive and wily–a character who is good-intentioned but also aware that others might take advantage, a character who warns Red but does little to arm her against the potential danger of the woods.


The wolf introduces a secondary motivation for Red: find wildflowers. The wildflowers as a gift to grandmother are an add-on, a subordinate to the care package; Red’s desire to gather them is a subordinate motivation to the desire to please her grandmother. Her wandering off the path is a literal tangent line to the through-line of the narrative.


Folktales often repeat plot events or characters in threes (think the Three Little Pigs). While we don’t get that in “The False Grandmother,” we do get an example of repetitious dialog as a device to raise tension: “Why Grandmother, what big X you have!”


The fact that the two villages are on either end of the dark wood provides a symmetry in setting. When the woodcutter cuts open the wolf and pulls Red and Grandma out, the action of devouring them is reversed, which creates a plot symmetry.

Designing Narrative

Folktales are well-toned little narrative muscles, without an ounce of fat on ‘em. Because they are so darn well composed.

That’s not to say we should all be writing folktales. But they are instructive. And as we are developing stories, I believe we should keep their lessons in mind. When you are designing a story, folktales tell us, don’t get caught up in worldbuilding. That’s important, but it’s not what plot is made of. Do it later. When you’re designing the tale, remember: the elements of character, plot, and setting must have functional relationships. And those relationships are made of oppositions, transitions, subordinations, repetitions and symmetry.

No matter what genre you write in, you can use Dow’s five principles in two ways: as a brainstorming tool, or as a revision tool. (And if you teach creative writing, like I do, a class exercise.)

Hey. If you feel it would be worthwhile, I could write a follow-up post where we do a couple examples. I could take a story idea and brainstorm characters, plot events, and setting using Dow’s principles. Or, I could revise part of a story, mining those same principles for ideas.

If that’s something you’d like to see, leave a comment. Let me know. Thanks!