Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 11, 2023

The Art of Expanding and Condensing a Story

by Leon Conrad

Tall cylindrical residential building topped with a traditional Thai architectural complex towering over a lush landscape with a dragon encircling it: Wat Samphran, Bangkok, Thailand

How long should a piece of writing be?

There is a huge range of opportunities for writers to explore between the towering masterpiece that is War and Peace and a condensed microfiction six-word story.

But what makes a piece of writing of any length work? Often it is not so much the length of a piece, but the underlying story that matters. More precisely, it is the link between the form and content that makes a piece of any length feel not too long; not too short; just right.

The story so far

In an earlier ‘Writers in the Storm’ blog post which explored the Deep Structure of Story, I outlined very briefly how story structures can be mapped using a set of six simple visually intuitive symbols. Two common patterns can be found at the heart of story. These follow the natural ebb and flow of story, at a level of story structure. They also show how sequences of events can expand and contract:

Mapping the Heartbeat of Story

Handled well, expansions of ‘backward steps’ can increase tension; expansions of ‘forward steps’ can release tension:

Illustration of how a single backward barb expands to a pair of backward barbs and a single forward barb expands to a pair of forward barbs.

For instance: ‘She left it all’—which could be mapped as a single backward step—could be expanded to a series of them: ‘She left her house, her spouse, her wife, her child behind her.’

Illustration of how two backward barbs condense to a single backward barb and two forward barbs condense to a single forward barb.

Alternatively, ‘The dragon took off, soaring higher and higher into the air, way past the cloudy sphere, until cloud-wrapped Noosa was a tiny speck beneath her’—which could be mapped as series of forward steps—could be condensed to: ‘The dragon soared high, high, high above the clouds’, or even further to: ‘The dragon soared high above the clouds’.

Similarly, sequences of different step types can expand and contract as follows. The combinations of forward and backward steps can make the task of keeping things varied and interesting much easier for writers:

Illustration of how a single backward barb expands to a triple set of backward-forward-backword barbs and a single forward barb expands to a triple set of forward-backward-forward barbs.

Illustration of how a triple set of backward-forward-backword barbs condenses to a single backward barb and a triple set of forward-backward-forward barbs condenses to a single forward barb.

For example:

Example of a 'backward--forward' sequence in the wolf's story line from the story of The Three Little Pigs (The wolf is hungry - and sets out to find food) can expand to a 'backward-forward-backward--forward' sequence described as 'The wolf, who is in his house, is hungry.
To find food, he needs to leave his house.
He goes from his bedroom to the front door.
The front door is closed. In order to leave the house, he has to open the front door, step through it and close it behind him (a further backward-forward-backward expansion is implied here) …
… and sets out to find food.'

The Heartbeat of Story

Just like a living being, a story needs a healthy pulse rate appropriate to the function it is performing. This can be traced both in the underlying sequence of events that can be mapped in a character’s story line, and in the way in which the story is told, at the level of plot patterning.

Short time, long telling: easy
Long time, short telling: challenging

As outlined above, by visualising how steps expand and contract, we cannot only visualise the tightening or loosening of tension, but because the symbols are visually intuitive, we can embody the ebb and flow of tension and use that to inform the way we shape and tell the stories that want to be told through us.

By doing that, we have a better chance of staying true to the heartbeat of story without losing quality and without introducing unnecessary waffle. Moreover, when condensing a story, we can heighten tension, craft blurbs more easily, and come up with great film poster taglines or elevator pitches for the ideas we are working on or the projects we are pitching.

Try Your Hand at Expansion

The 1:3 expansions described in the example above which mapped condensed and expanded versions of the wolf’s exit from his house in order to find food are pretty common. This is not the only way in which a ‘backward-forward’ sequence can expand, however.

Where we start with a strong inciting incident, and the second step expands in a sequence of three consecutive moves, we end up with a Call and Response structure (Variation 1).

The barbed blade pierced his side. He grabbed the masked assailant’s hand to stop the advance, knowing that if it twisted, or retreated, he would die before he could complete his mission. He gripped harder, his left hand reaching for the cold steel stiletto which lay hidden in the lining of the left leg of his combat pants. In one swift move, he drew it out, thrust, twisted, and slashed, only releasing the attacker’s hand once he was sure they were dead. Making sure to keep the barbed blade in place, he stepped over the blood-smeared body, heading for the door, knowing he would have to make up for lost time somehow, ‘… if I even make it,’ he winced.

The sequence is mapped visually as follows:

A diagram showing how, after an  opening (1), the introduction of a character in an initial situation (2), and an initial problem (3), the next forward step (4) expands into a forward-backward-forward series (4-5-6), repeated for (6-7-8) and (8-9-10), ultimately leading to a character in a final situation, allowing the story to come to a close.

Alternatively, a series of three negative steps can lead to a ‘1,2,3, Bang!’ sequence, which I describe as the Call and Response (Variation 2) structure:

A diagram showing how, after an  opening (1), the introduction of a character in an initial situation (2), an  initial problem (3), expands into a backward-forward-backward series (3-4-5), repeated for (5-6-7) and (7-8-9), ultimately leading to a final result (10) which could have a positive, neutral, or tragic quality, ultimately leaving the character in a final situation, allowing the story to come to a close.

You will probably be familiar with Hemingway’s six-word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The back story that unfolded in my imagination started out with an expectant couple, a baby shower, the loss, and the placement of the advert. The account was internally inconsistent, though. A standard baby shower would involve quite a few gifts. What happened to the others? Why the need to dispose of a single pair of baby shoes? I engaged with story structure and the back story found its way from the weaker form above, to a stronger sequence of at least two Call and Response (Variation 2) structures.

The expectant unmarried couple, estranged from their families, conceive, and decide to go ahead with the pregnancy. However, they lose the child. On their return from the hospital, the arrive home to find a package waiting for them. They recognise the writing as being from her parents. They open it and find a pair of baby shoes inside, no note: a peace offering. Overcome with grief, they take a ‘too little, too late’ attitude, and put the shoes up for sale. The story is left open-ended at this point.

The patterns work. But they are not set in stone. The patterns are adaptable, variable. They are open to a variety of treatments. The closer these follow the natural ebb and flow of story structure, the more successful they are likely to be. Rules created by humans are made to be broken. The underlying rules that story follows go deeper. We break them at our peril.

Try Your Hand at Condensation

You can see how the longer story above was condensed into a poignant six-word telling. The taglines on film posters often follow a Transformation structure: ‘Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free’ (The Shawshank Redemption). ‘Fifty million people watched, but no one saw a thing.’ (Quiz Show). Sometimes, they follow a triple unfolding structure: ‘Lake Placid: part mystery, part thriller, parts missing’. The large accompanying image of a huge, toothed monster about to devour a helpless swimmer completes the sequence. ‘Five criminals. One line up. No coincidence.’ (The Usual Suspects).

The visuals play an important part in the framing of the story, but what original back stories you could derive from these condensed lines by imagining a different visual? Use the approach to come up with original taglines for folk tales or stories you are familiar with.

Start with a Quest structure story, one of the 16 linear structures outlined in Story and Structure. Condense the sequences of events in a 3:1 pattern to generate blurbs and elevator pitches, but also to spark ideas for choruses for song lyrics, to inspire poems, and to create micro fiction that works.

Have you expanded or condensed your stories? What are your experiences?

* * * * * *

About Leon

Leon Conrad was born in London, UK, to a Polish father and Coptic Egyptian mother. He moved to Alexandria at age 6, and grew up in a multilingual environment there, among the souks and bazaars of Egypt. He is currently based out of London.

As a writer, Leon sees the written word as sound on the page. Why else do we call nouns and verbs 'parts of speech'? He has written plays, and have published articles, poetry, and books.

As an editor, he offers in-depth proofreading, editing and review of manuscripts, focusing on a work’s structure, the reader’s journey, the narrative presentation, the style of a work, the sound, rhythm, musicality and the flow of a piece of writing.

Find out about his various projects, awards, and services at his website: LeonConrad.com.

Top Photo by Tan Kaninthanond on Unsplash

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7 comments on “The Art of Expanding and Condensing a Story”

  1. For condensing a story, I think about Flash Fiction and how concise that must be.

    The one sentence story by Hemingway that you included always makes me sad. It's amazing how much power is contained in such few words.

    Thank you for this thought provoking article, Leon.

  2. Pieces of story: condensed and expanded to fill the story need, the 'feel' of 'just the right size/length' that is part of becoming a pro at what we do.

    Because anything less than the right length will feel WRONG to the reader.

    It requires the self-discipline to lose beloved - if too long - lovely pieces of writing, and to worry about the effect of a piece that is somehow NOT enough.

    The pace, the balance - each writer's special take.

    And something readers can manage a little (skipping and skimming the boring stuff, thinking along fan fiction lines for things originally too terse), but that's all.

    Best served by finding authors where you instinctively feel at home. Like the story of the three bears: just right.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Alicia, which made me think about the reading practices you brought up: skipping over things, filling in gaps imaginatively. And then there's the 'just right' - where we are immersed in a story, where we can lose ourselves in it, where we can just follow the flow of events as they are told, or revisit a well-told story and enjoy discovering the unfamiliar familiarity in it. Isn't this why we engage with story in the first place?

  3. I've written a lot of six word stories over the years, as well as flash fiction, short stories, and novels. I've managed to get pretty proficient at condensing and expanding to fit the need. Overall, I tend to let the story dictate the length. As I write, the characters and the story let me know when I'm on the mark...okay, also my editors and beta readers. They know how to keep me honest.

  4. My earliest published fiction were 500-700 word stories for children's magazines. I had to learn how to expand stories to write novels. Now I write flash fiction from time to time, but I prefer novel length. I like being able to plumb the depths of characters and situations.

  5. I jokingly comment that I can't write short stories, because they always grow into novels. I love your approach to story. It helps me see how I could condense some areas. I like this approach to the flow of story.

    1. Thank you, Lisa - I'm glad you find the approach helpful. Stories can be a bit like bread dough: Knead. Let rise. Knock back. Bake. Break off bits to enjoy.
      I think we underestimate the potential that any story has to generate microfiction, poetry, haikus, cameo pieces, reflective essays, and so much more. All of these involve either expanding a tiny moment and looking at it from different angles, or condensing a longer story into a key moment, distilling its essence down to a smaller form. Yeast promotes expansion. Gluten provides tension.
      Stories are the bread of life.

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