Sensibility & Storytelling

Sensibility & Storytelling

We all know Jane Austen’s books have endured in a way that is utterly fascinating and almost beyond belief. How does a young, unmarried person of limited world experience manage to write novels that find fanatics hundreds of years later? The story.

The art of storytelling is a delightful subject of study because as you consider the theories and accepted practices of what makes a “good story,” you go “AHA!” a great deal. I am currently taking a free class called Storytelling in Advertising with Futurelearn. (In 17 days, I am participating in another free course called Literature of the English Country House run by the University of Sheffield  if anyone wants to join, there a ton of highly interesting courses for free at FutureLearn, I strongly encourage everyone to check them out!)

But back to storytelling. Did you know story is the most powerful form of communication? In numerous studies, participants remembered information up to 27% more when it was presented in a story than any other format. Our brains are hardwired from the very beginning of our evolutionary tracks to decode and decipher a story.

So what makes Jane Austen’s stories so much more powerful than other writers of her time? Well, one story master I ascribe to is James Scott Bell’s Super Structure. He breaks down story into 14 specific steps for a 3 Act story. Conveniently, Pride and Prejudice is 3 volumes. Hmmm. 🙂

Bell’s thesis is:

Act One:

Disturbance : We have London gentlemen coming to the area.

Care Package : This is something that makes your Lead likable, I submit that’s Lizzy’s intelligence/her getting insulted. We are immediately on HER side. Also, she takes care of her sister. Basically, we all think Elizabeth Bennet is the bees knees.

Argument Against Transformation: Charlotte giving advice to Elizabeth. We also know Elizabeth is not inclined to chase a husband. (this is technically woven into that big care package section but that’s okay)

Trouble Brewing: Here comes Mr. Collins AND Mr. Wickham. Sheesh.

Doorway of No Return #1: Elizabeth turns down Mr. Collins’ proposal.

Act Two:

Kick in the Shins : The London party leave. Dangit!

Mirror Moment: The Visit in Kent where Elizabeth sees her convictions do have a cost (Charlotte is happy), and in casual conversation, yes, her family DOES sound ridiculous.

Pet the Dog: (this is a moment where the action seems to be going one way and there’s a momentary thing to remind us, we still love the Lead) I submit this is Colonel Fitzwilliam boasting of Darcy’s loyalty to a friend to stop a disastrous attachment, not knowing said attachment is Elizabeth’s sister, Jane.

Doorway of No Return #2: “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

Act Three:

Mounting Forces: Here’s where P&P gets a little interesting, because my supposition is framing the story as a battle or struggle, it is Elizabeth Bennet’s struggle against her Fate to marry and she’s going to lose, which you can do to your Lead, you can make them lose in the end, it’s usually a tragedy, but in a romantic story, it can be a happy ending. 🙂 So here is where she gets the letter, she makes plans to travel with her relatives, it’s FATE who is gathering forces against Lizzy, and she is oblivious to it. Because as this section goes, she thinks Darcy is a changed man, when really, he is the same man he was at the beginning, just prone to make errors like the rest of us.

Lights Out: Lydia elopes. That’s it, we think there cannot possibly be a happy ending for anyone.

Q Factor: Something planted earlier in the story that seems to make no sense to just be dropped in suddenly matters,  . . .  Mr. Darcy can work upon Wickham! That’s why out of nowhere we learn that Georgiana had a secret near elopement with the cad!

Final Battle: Lady Catherine comes to call, Elizabeth has to stand up and speak for herself and her changed self. She no longer doesn’t want to marry Mr. Darcy, she wants to marry him very, very much!

Transformation: Darcy comes back (because Elizabeth stood her ground in the final battle), and they become engaged.

Of course, this is a great deal MORE to Pride & Prejudice than just that storyline. In fact, a well-written novel will have secondary and tertiary storylines that weave in and out (I woudl submit Jane’s and Lydia’s), and what’s interesting there is that if one wanted to, we know Jane and Lydia had their own moments going through all of those steps, but we only saw the highlights (or lowlights in Lydia’s case). For example, we know Lydia had her Doorways of No Return, probably starting with her first flirtation with Wickham. And at least in Lydia’s perspective, she would be the Lead in her own story and very likable, even if we find her to be a spoiled brat. But in her story, she would likely see herself as being bold and smart, trying to secure her family’s future as all she see is her two oldest sisters mess it up and Mary and Kitty have no suitors. So it is up to her misguided ways! LOL

Bell’s Super Structure can be applied to many novels and stories. There are some modifications if you decide it’s a 5-Act hero’s journey, or a 4-Act. But he contends that these moments have to be hit for a reader to naturally feel like the story resonated.

When I write my stories, I am a plotter. And you can play along next time to James Scott Bell’s Superstructure and see if I measured up. What that means is that I don’t finish a book unless I know the broad strokes like those 14 points above. With my novellas, the first 5 points are usually in the first 1-2 chapters. For my novels, which are 30-50 chapters long, I have time to space it out. As for my class in Storytelling in Advertising, I am learning how to tell a story in less than 30 seconds. I KNOW! Here are two of the videos I have made thus far, the story I’m trying to tell is “You’re busy, have some time with Mr. Darcy because you deserve it, try mine.” 🙂


Funny Mommy Moments


As to whether or not the ads work, we’ll see. Both are running on Facebook right now. But I am learning a ton in my class and I think both of those videos are one step above what I was doing before which was just doing a one line synopsis or two of the book. 🙂

Storytelling is powerful. Learning the elements of story is an academic pursuit anyone can chase down and master. But fair warning: once you start taking apart stories to their basic building blocks of Kicks in the Shins or Doorways of No Return, you WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO JUST WATCH OR ENJOY A TV SHOW, MOVIE, BOOK again. Nope. Once you learn the the moments where authors and writers and creators tug on your heart strings, raise your pulse, or make you cry, you’ll still FEEL those things, but you’ll be sitting there going “I see what you did there, well played Madame, well played indeed.” 🙂 🙂

Elizabeth Ann West

P.S. This month look for A January for Jane coming out around June 23, and A Spring Society Book 6 of Seasons June 28. 🙂jane4 spring society

7 Responses to Sensibility & Storytelling

  1. Thanks for this, I’m rereading it over and over and having a giant epiphany. My self-indulgent WIP has two leads. My trouble imposing structure on it is because I’ve been treating it as one story when actually it’s two. Sometimes the elements are not the same for both characters, and sometimes they are. Yeah. I don’t have a solution, but I finally have the problem, and that’s a start. Most def will need separate care packages, because the two leads spend a good amount of time kicking each other at first, and any sympathy for one is probably going to be evoked by the treatment of the other. And hopefully, either makes perfect sense, depending on whose narrative you’re reading.

    • Sometimes it helps to write out the storylines or outlines of the two characters, and THEN look at where you can mix and mingle them. One thing I try to do in all of my books, which is why I am on the shorter side of JAFF, is to carefully construct what is happening OFF STAGE. In other words, I make sure I know what’s going on in the other characters’ lives when certain scenes are happening, but I don’t force my reader to have everything told to them 3 times. Jane Austen does this as well. Like I said above, we know at some point Lydia had a scene where in her mind she is making this romantic, smart elopement. But Jane Austen didn’t write that scene. I’m sure she imagined it though.

      It can be difficult though to make sure you put enough clues/indications about what’s happening off stage. Something as simple as one scene where Elizabeth is talking to Jane, and Lydia comes in with a flower she’s smelling and being all starry-eyed over, Jane of Elizabeth could say “Where did you get that?” and Lydia could be evasive and lie, say “None of your business,” and maybe what the girls are discussing is a serious issue to them so they just ignore Lydia, or maybe they decide to let it slide and decide to tell their father who we all know won’t investigate very far. Either way, you just signaled to the reader Lydia just came from somewhere and so when she elopes later on, it’s not a shock or surprise. There was some “off stage” groundwork to support it.

      I think the kind of story you’re describing is one reason why readers are so captivated by modern stories that switch POVs. They feel like they’re getting a 360 degree experience. But you still have to look critically at that and make sure you’re giving the highlights and not just turning into a documentary that’s capturing everything. That slows down the story. 🙂

      Good luck, and have fun with it! I color code my scene notecards in Scrivener so I can see where my storylines are intermingling and to make sure I’m not too focused on one storyline and we haven’t “checked in” with the other characters is too long of a time.

      • Thank you, this too is very helpful.

        The biggest problem I have with the double POVs is actually the opposite of what you described – It’s hiding certain things that I don’t necessarily want out right away. For example, my heroine’s Q factor: this surgeon apprentice seems to be very, very interested in her. She’s finally coming to be interested in him. But even as his flirting ramps up, he’s suddenly asking her a lot of questions about this other girl, and not really explaining why. She gets some misinformation. She finally becomes so frustrated she stalks him a bit. Turns out he’s assisting an illegitimately pregnant patient.

        So that’s her point of view. Problem is, you’ve also got his POV, and that burns off a lot of the suspense. How much of the action can I drop between POV switches without it sounding contrived? I’m figuring it’s too much to cover the nature of the case completely. Besides, I think it’ll be a great little dramatic irony when this poor clueless heroine rides off to bust the hero, and you know she’s about to walk in on the unfortunate woman giving birth! But I’m trying to find ways to withhold enough of the hero’s dealings with this family that there are still some smaller bombshells to drop as the scandal they’re now both involved in continues to unfold. It’s a tricky balance.

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