The three legged stool of writing

If you’ve been reading my posts here, you know that I love a good analogy. Today is no different, and we’re going to talk about the three legged stool of writing.

Think of the seat like it’s your story. That’s the only part someone is likely to consider if they sit on the stool, and it’s all that matters to your readers. Stool aficionados aren’t likely to care how the stool was constructed, and readers aren’t likely to care how your story is constructed.

They are both going to care that it doesn’t leave them feeling flat on their backs. A stool needs all three legs to hold it up, and so does your story. Let’s give our storybook stool some legs.

The first leg is called plot. Your story is going to need one, and you’re well served to look around for a good one. This is the enemy that must be defeated, the mystery that must be solved, or possibly the love that must be won. Wood grain has twists and turns in it, and your plot can have some too.

The second leg is characters. You’re going to need protagonists, antagonists, foils, heroes, supporting characters, and more. You need to make readers care about them and their problems, so choose them well. Stealing a box of Girl Scout cookies might not seem like a big deal if your victim is a 300 pound linebacker.

The third leg is setting. You can’t have your characters wandering around in a stark white environment. This is where you choose time, weather, magic, science, period technology, horses, cars, and everything else. Coon skin caps, or space helmets? Luxury tower apartment, or locked in a tower?

Maybe Daffy can help me explain it:

You start with three hunks of wood. They need to be measured, cut, and turned on a lathe. The author needs to address language, slang, dialog, and magic systems. What serves as the foil? It could be the wilderness, war, cultural differences, and more. Will characters die, or is this a different kind of story? Work all the way down to the fine sandpaper.

Let’s extend the example and talk about varnish, stain and glue. These are things like grounded airplanes, handcuffs vs rope, and the right color of chestnut for the bad boy love interest’s hair.

If you’ve ever built something, even something beautiful, you know where every flaw is. This is because nothing is ever perfect, and your story won’t be either. This does not mean it isn’t good, functional, enjoyable, or even beautiful.

I can tell you that when you have three of anything, (two actually) you automatically have the best one, and the worst one. This applies to stool legs, and to story elements. I’ve been told that I write great characters. If I’m being honest, my settings could probably use some work. I tend to keep them kind of sparse. Maybe I should book a session with Daffy.

This doesn’t mean my storybook stool isn’t serviceable, but it’s nice to admit it and address it as my career progresses.

It wouldn’t be absurd at all to make separate editing passes on your finished manuscript to see if your legs are strong enough. Maybe your critique group, and/or some beta readers can sit on it to make sure it doesn’t collapse before you send it to the world.

There is one story out there that failed as a three legged stool, and still reached popular success. It’s in the form of a movie called The Big Sleep. It’s a noir classic, and people love it. Wonderful period setting, in black & white is a bonus here. The characters are Bogart and Bacall, you can’t argue with that. If you’ve ever watched it, you might have scratched your head at the end and wondered what it was actually about. It’s the only example I can think of…

This is my way of acknowledging there’s always an exception. I’m not Raymond Chandler or Howard Hawks, and I don’t have access to Bogart and Bacall. I’m building my story-stool with three legs and I’m going to make them as solid as I can.

How about it folks? Does the three legged stool resonate with you? Do you have one leg that could be beefed up in your process? Do you know what The Big Sleep is actually about? (‘Cause I’d still like to know.)

A reminder that the Story Empire authors are all on The Story Empire Roadshow this week. We’re offering deals galore on some great fiction, and we’d appreciate it if you’d check it out. This is the tour schedule.

C. S. Boyack

31 thoughts on “The three legged stool of writing

  1. Pingback: Curated Content 04/07/17 | Story Empire

  2. Great post, Craig! The analogy is so appropo for a story, and love Daffy on the subject of setting 😀 This is a great reminder of the things we need to polish if our story will stand on its own. Now to go back to my WIP and fix those darn legs…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fabulous anthology, Craig. When I’m creating a story, some of my stools are sturdier then others, and I have to go back and tighten up the legs on the ones that aren’t.

    I’ve never seen the Big Sleep, but I’m curious about it now.
    And Daffy is a favorite 🙂

    This was a great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post, Craig. I really enjoyed the video, by the way.

    You raise some great points. I, too, think I need to work on setting in my novels. Even more in my short stories. Great reminder to all of us… those legs aren’t always the same.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Love the analogy of the three-legged stool. I love classic films and watched Big Sleep once. I’ll have to take another look. My favorite Bogart movie is of course, Casablanca. I once read where it began as a plot thrown together that had no purpose, character arc, etc. Yet it went on to be one of the biggest films of all time.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. The analogy of the three legged stool and writing a story is a brilliantly simple one, but crucial to remember. I have to admit to uneven legs on my stool, I tend to fall down (no pun intended) with my descriptions and settings. Far too concise in my opinion. I need to learn how to describe better and do it well.

    Liked by 4 people

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