Writing: Atomic Narrative


Writing: Atomic Narrative

If you’ve read some of the scene construction articles, the subject of the “atomic theory” of narrative came up. For New Year’s Day 2007, this will be something to file away as a different way to think about fiction writing (and all writing in general).

The principle of atomic narrative is a simple one. The concept is that there are three underlying structural “segments” in all writing, and I do mean everything; essays, articles, fiction, anything that has any real content to it (aside from something like a restaurant menu… you could even argue those too). I say underlying because in practice this general structure can be hidden under layers of more specific narrative tasks. This three-part association or “atom” consists of an introduction or transition, a body or context, and a conclusion or bridge.

To many people, especially journalists, the simple three-part principle is like an obvious “duh” thing. However, I find that many fiction people lose sight of structure in their pursuit of trying to get their stories on paper.

What is NOT a “duh” part of the atom is the way it scales. For instance, if you look at an entire book (specifically one that is a complete story), the first few chapters are setup, introducing the problem, the characters and what’s at stake. All of that work is the “introduction”. Everything in the novel up to the climax is the “body”, and the remainder is obviously the “conclusion”. If you look at a completed series of novels, this same loose structure applies.

As you begin scaling downward is when the significance of the narrative atom begins to take shape. A novel or novel series is what is called a “super aggregate”, essentially a collection of atoms each of which is a collection of atoms. This is because there are sections within the novel that themselves have atomic structure. The most common section is a chapter, sometimes larger books will have “parts” which are aggregates of chapters. Regardless, each of these groupings will conform to the given structure. It’s easy to see that a chapter will have an introduction, body, and conclusion. However, this is not where the pattern ends.

Each chapter consists of one or more scenes. Again, a scene has the same three parts. Further down, scenes have sub-scenes, same three. Below the sub-scenes are tasks. Tasks are like character entrances, scene descriptions, interactions and yes, the structure applies at this level as well. Atoms exist all the way down to a single written sentence that acts as a sub-task.

What does this mean to you? How does this help you write better?

A common obstacle for people writing long fiction is they simply get overwhelmed by the task. This is often because they are looking at it as this massive blob of literature rather than seeing it as a large aggregate of very small, easily written “atoms”. The key thing to take away here, is that if you focus first on the scene, and then the chapter, and the section, it will all take shape over time.

Other folks have the reverse problem. It’s not the big picture that bothers them, it’s where to start. They don’t “see” the structure, it’s just a giant blob and they’re kind of bouncing around inside looking for a direction to move in. The atom model makes it fairly easy to categorize those “bits” and place them where they should go.

Many people want to write, and I hear over and over they don’t know where to begin. If you embrace the whole concept of the atomic triad, this becomes trivial.

Let’s remind ourselves, the atom is an introduction, body, and conclusion. What is a story? A story is the introduction of a PROBLEM, the EVENTS (body) where the cast deal with the problem, and the RESOLUTION (conclusion) of the problem. That is PLOT, and plot fits the atomic model. Wait, there’s more. The plot version of the model scales too, right down to the scene level.

Why were you having problems figuring out where to start again?

It might seem overly simplistic, but you start where the problem is engaged. So many writers get hung up on this when they don’t need to. YOU START WHERE THE PROBLEM IS ENGAGED.


People get hung up on trivial things like chapters and prologues, and blah blah-blah blah. No. Simple. You start where the problem is ENGAGED. Not introduced–ENGAGED. It is the process of engaging the problem that is our INTRODUCTION to it.

Back to the prologue thing. Over and over and over I fight this battle. Prologues are a convention. That convention is simple. A prologue is a tool to bring in material pertaining to the story problem. An example is the opening scene of Lord of the Rings movies. The scene depicts the war and subsequent loss of the ring that Bilbo eventually picks up, and later bequeaths to Frodo.

In this case, the prologue provides CONTEXT for the story problem so that we know the significance of details that follow. The prologue gives the reader (viewer) direct access to relevant details that might not otherwise come up in the course of the narrative but are important to understanding events in the story.

Let me underscore something–IMPORTANT details. So many times I see prologues that contain essentially throw away information that we don’t need. A prologue is there because there’s a huge gap in time or it’s from a viewpoint of someone who dies or some issue in logistics that REQUIRE the material to be considered a separate self-contained entity ahead of the story you are about to tell.

The chapter versus prologue thing is that simple. You use a prologue when it structural NECESSITY. Not because you feel like it. It’s not a red or blue thing. It’s a widget thing. Does my machine need that widget to function, yes or no. Sometimes, people want that prologue so they can dump a bunch of back story in it.

I have one word for that.


Take a big red buzzer. Is there a reason we need access to back story so close to the beginning that we can’t follow along without? That’s where the concept of flashbacks comes in. Many flashbacks aren’t necessary either.

All right, horse– dead. Moving on. Before I digressed I was dealing with the hangups of getting started. You start the novel where the problem is ENGAGED.

I don’t care if your plot moves at the speed of a slug on flypaper, the BEST most RELEVANT place to start the story is where those who will solve the story problem are exposed to it in some way.

It is NOT a requirement they KNOW it is the story problem, just that something pertaining to the problem is presented, and that at least some kind of direction is at least IMPLIED if not spelled out before we get to the end of a chapter.

I’m not really certain why framing such a scene or series of scenes poses a problem for people, but I know it does because I see it all the time. I scribble it on their manuscripts. I wonder about it in my head, because it seems rather obvious to me. Stories are about people solving problems. It starts with the problem. You can put all kinds of fancy flowery stuff around that, but in the final analysis it boils down to that simple thing.

Before the story can advance you must introduce the problem, because without a problem you don’t have a plot. Without a plot… well, I hope you know the answer to that.

To tie all this back to the theory of atomic narrative, understand that your writing should be task oriented. To start the novel you have to introduce the problem, you have to introduce the characters who will solve that problem, you have to introduce the milieu that will constrain the approaches to solving that problem. Right there, three tasks, go to it.

I know this seems grossly over simplified. However, to be honest, it really isn’t much more complex than that. The parts that require energy and thought are all the techniques utilized to make those things come to life in an engaging way.

Let’s go back to the task-oriented thing. When you think about your novel as a whole, you should be considering in the atomic framework. You fill out the introduction first. The introduction requires a problem, characters, and milieu. The milieu is intertwined with the problem, and is your setting. The story has to be set SOMEWHERE. So that’s a given. That leaves only two things you need to do. Show the problem and bring the characters on stage to engage it.

You can’t get into the body of the novel until the primary players are on stage and in position. So, when you start out, the scenes and chapters are going to be doing one of three things: advancing or refining the story problem, introducing or refining characters, or introducing/refining milieu elements.

That’s it.

This is an A, B, C thing. To move forward from a blank page to formulating a solid foundation for your novel is just a matter a jotting down (or mentally considering) which piece is what.

You start like this:

  • You need a scene introducing the problem.
  • You need a scene introducing any significant milieu elements that will establish the direction of the way the problem will be solved.
  • You need scenes that introduce the major catalyzing characters.

Three things.

Write down your problem and the milieu constraints, and list the characters you need to establish. Now, it’s simply a matter of how many scenes you want to use to get that accomplished. Remember, a scene can do more than one thing at once.

Some people use a story board approach to this with note cards and such. For me, I rarely even need to draw it out, but whatever helps you organize your checklist.

The key thing is KNOW what the goal of a scene is.

If the goal is introducing or refining the problem, then your focus should be on having the characters engaging the problem or discovering more about it. It’s significant to note that as characters grapple with the problem, how they deal with it and try to resolve it help define them.

If the goal is introduce a character, then you bring them on stage and give us the broad strokes about them. Usually, that initial meeting will show their “signature” traits that give us a handle on that character. We call these things “tags”. Tags are what gives a character identity, whether its a particular way of speaking, a scar, or even a prop (like a gun or a hat). A part of your introductions to all your characters will show what their needs and desires are, and what’s at stake for them. These things won’t necessarily be all spelled out, but should at least be hinted at because it will become important as the story moves forward.

Scenes focusing on milieu tend to be establishing frameworks and how the characters will be constrained or driven to solve the problem. Often what’s a stake for the characters will be tied to the milieu. For instance, if the problem of the story is that the world is going to get blown up, that’s a problem tied to the milieu. A milieu frame work is where you reveal facts that effect the problem. For instance, a mad scientist has created a super-duper atomic planet smasher, and it is the existence of this device that threatens the world. Other items that refine the problem is said-same mad scientist has a private army and lives on a secluded island that no-one knows the location of… (Hmmm, this plot sounds familiar for some reason…) However, you can see how I have introduced the broad strokes that are going to shape the way the story develops (however cliche that might be).

Of the three scene goals, milieu is the most tricky. Now, there is no question that it is a critical thing to establish. However, it is in establishing the milieu that many go awry. It is in introducing milieu where BACK STORY comes in.

The foundation of your introduction should be a BALANCE of introductory elements. A little milieu goes a long way. In the introduction of the novel we should be merely introduced to the major aspects of the milieu as they pertain to the problem. Any detailed material should be saved for further into the story.

That’s it. The introduction section of the novel is basically ticking off those items on your checklist.

Laying out the middle of the novel is done as similar to the introduction except your checklist is a bit more free form. However, it STILL boils down to three things:

  • Scenes that illustrate or complicate the problem.
  • Scenes that define/refine/introduce characters
  • Scenes that define/refine/introduce milieu elements

It looks pretty simple, right? That’s because it actually IS. If you sit down and consider the what-ifs, the scenes that show the problem resolution setbacks give you your core scenes. What goes between those either handle character or milieu. Whatever significant cast members are going to exist in the story predicate scenes at that point in the time line. Milieu elements that complicate the story problem SHOULD have foreshadowing scenes (if appropriate).

I liken this process to going shopping for groceries. Let’s see, I need a couple characters, a few road blocks, a little romance, a little tension, and some villains with guns… let’s start cooking!

The conclusion part is really the easiest of the three sections to do because if you’ve gotten this far, it’s all downhill. It too has only three faces:

  • Scenes that illustrate ramifications of the resolution
  • Scenes that illustrate how characters have changed
  • Scenes that illustrate changes/ramifications in the milieu

The epilogue elements is where some writers fall apart. They solve the story problem and don’t know where to go. The answer is you merely sum up the story consequences. Sometimes this can take a page, sometimes three or four chapters. It is this part where you consider your reader. What unanswered questions are left that the reader will want (and need) taken care of. Character resolution is important too. For god sakes let the hero kiss the heroine or whatever is appropriate. Don’t forget the “world is safe for democracy again” aspects, those get often overlooked or just given lame lip service.

In broad strokes, that encapsulates atomic narrative theory and what it means to you as a writer. In summary, atomic narrative is the idea of that an introduction, body, and conclusion scales from a single sentence all the way up to series of novels. In addition, this extends to plot elements from the sub-scene level up. In application, the atoms are written to address either the problem, characters, or setting.

I hope you find this helpful in your writing endeavors. If you have questions about this or other aspects of writing send a message to writing@ringrealms.com with the word ‘WRITING:’ somewhere in the subject.

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