Monday, May 9, 2011

Writing Novels Using The Circus Method

In several reviews of The Soulkeepers, readers have mentioned the intricacy of the plot and how the characters develop as the fictional world unfolds.  I've had a couple of writers email me and tell me that they changed the way they looked at their own story after reading my book.  So, I thought I would share how I develop a story with you.

I call my method The Circus Method. Everyone has heard of the three ring circus, right?  Well, my writing has three rings or, in other words, a  minimum of three story arcs.  These are stories within the story.  You could call them sub-plots, too, if you prefer.

Inside the first ring is an intrapersonal story arc.  It deals with how my main character is changing on the inside.  The second ring is an interpersonal arc, about how my main character deals with the other people in his or her life, like family and close friends.  The last ring is the public arc.  This has to do with how my character reacts to an external event that is bigger than any one person or group of people.  The rings alternate under the spotlight, so the reader gets a small taste of only one story at a time.  The story starts with the inciting event, which takes place in one of these rings but will drive the activity in all of them until the end of the story.

Most great stories have these elements.  If you look at The Hunger Games for example, Katniss is struggling internally with growing up, while balancing her relationships with Gale and Peeta, and at the same time facing off against the games themselves which are beyond all of their control.  I bet you could define any of your favorite works through this method.

But, coming up with your three rings is the easy part.  The trick is to write more like Cirque Du Soleil than like your everyday circus.  If you've ever seen a Cirque show,  you know that wherever you look in the theatre something is happening.   You may be watching an acrobatic act but the actor from scene one is singing opera to your left and a contortionist is hanging from a trapeze above you and to your right.

The same happens in great writing.  The character's intrapersonal turmoil must jump into the ring with his interpersonal conflicts and the greater public threat must in some way circle back and be meaningful to the main character in a way that goes beyond coincidental.

If you can do all of these things, and still describe the pattern of the tent upholstery, the smell of popcorn and animal dung, and the sound of the next act waiting in the wings, you will have written a story worth reading.

Good luck with your writing.  I hope you've enjoyed touring my literary circus.  Don't step in the elephant dung!


  1. I like the way you explain the process. Very interesting.

  2. A wonderful explanation of weaving a story together. Thanks!

  3. I'm starting my next novel with the circus in mind. Thanks for the nice visualization!

  4. I always write with the circus in mind too albeit the second kind you mention and I often feel like I have my head in a lion's mouth. Great insight though and I agree that this process does make for a great story!

  5. Thank you all for stopping by. I hope it helps. I've found this method very useful in maintaining tension throughout a manuscript.

  6. Thank you for explaining this process, it sounds very interesting.

  7. I always find it fascinating to see the different ways that writers approach their stories. Trying to maintain the balance between inner and outer lives, as well as the plot, is something I often struggle with, so this has given me a good insight into how it can be done.


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