An original system for dissecting & designing the best stories.
Fiction isn’t just for entertainment.
Human beings are WIRED to consume, create, and be affected by stories, both good and bad.
Which means that a well-told story can change lives more powerfully and efficiently than hours of lectures or stacks of dry philosophy books.
But do you know what stories you are consuming, and why?
- Why do you like this story over that one?
- What lessons or worldviews are your reading choices teaching you?
- How are the stories you absorb changing your mind, and therefore your life?
Many people consume stories mindlessly, just looking for a “quick fix” and a distraction from their stressful lives.
They don’t pay attention to what the stories are doing, for good or ill, to themselves, and to the people around them.
But you know better than that.
You’re a brilliant writer, and what’s more, you’re a curious brilliant writer who loves stories and wants to produce more great stories yourself.
To do that, you need to analyze how stories work, on multiple levels.
You need to sort them in your mind, figure out what they’re doing to the people who consume them, and borrow the right elements from the best ones for your own stories.
I’ve been munching on this idea of how to classify, organize, and extract the most important elements from the most powerful stories to apply to life and writing.
In this article, I’m going to share with you my 3-part rating system for the stories I read. This includes:
- The Concentric Rings of Storytelling (including the LMA Evaluation)
- My personal 4H System
- And my 6-Star ratings key
The Concentric Rings of Storytelling
Every story can be said to exist on three levels: Core, Concept, and Craft.
You could say that each of the three levels corresponds to a level of human existence — the spirit, soul, and body.
Think of it as a concentric bull’s eye ring. Something like this:
Now, here’s what each level represents:
Level 1 — Core
The core of a work is the worldview portrayed, the thesis argued, the deepest moral of the story.
This is what the writer, artist, or creator believes in their heart of hearts about human nature, the meaning of life (sounds cliche, but actually…), what is required for a quality existence, and other similar Big Questions.
This worldview can’t help but leak out in everything a person writes and creates.
And this is the reason why sometimes you resonate with a particular book, movie, or piece of art, even if you can’t always articulate why.
While on the other hand, this is also why you may dislike a certain book or piece of art, although on paper, it seems like there’s nothing really “wrong” with it to make you feel that way.
It’s because you resonate (or not) with that author’s worldview on the deepest level.
The “core” of a piece is the hardest thing to put into words, because it is so deep that it’s often beyond words. It’s the lens through which you view everything, the proverbial water you’re swimming in.
And be careful, if you mindlessly consume a lot of content with a core that is untrue, rotten, or twisted, it will screw up your life.
On the flip side, good art and literature (that is, content with a healthy core) can have the opposite effect, giving you light in dark moments, encouragement in despair, and strength when you need it.
- In Les Miserables, the ultimate worldview is that no matter how bleak a society or situation or person may be, there is still Goodness in the world worth striving for.
- There’s also the idea, expressed in the Romans 2:4, that “God’s kindness leads us to repentance” (Example: Jean Valjean turns from bitter convict to loving father after being shown undeserved mercy by a bishop).
- And that selfless love can do a world of good, saving lives and making them worth living.
- There’s more to it than that, but like I said, mere words don’t do an entire core worldview justice.
Level 2 — Concept
The concept of a work of art is the underlying structure of the piece. In other words: The genre, premise, or hook, if you will.
Concepts can be so timeless they’re tropes (“enemies to lovers” is in play to some degree in Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc). But they can also be remixed or fresh and new (“infiltrating dreams to pulling off an epic heist” in Inception, “training and deploying brilliant child space soldiers via video games” in Ender’s Game, etc.)
Moreover, concepts set up audience expectations that must be met in order for the story to feel satisfying:
- A traditional non-tragic romance must end with a Happily Ever After or a Happy For Now between the two main characters, or else it doesn’t qualify as a traditional romance.
- A cozy mystery may kick off with a dead body, but the overall tone of the story must not be high-stress or overly conflicted.
And so on and so forth.
- The movies Groundhog Day, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, and Happy Death Day all play on the idea of a character stuck in a time loop unable to move forward with his or her life.
- This concept / premise / hook creates certain expectations in viewers:
- The main character must be deficient in character in some way (usually it’s self-centeredness and selfishness)
- The overall tone of the show (even Happy Death Day) must be fairly lighthearted.
- There must be hijinks and fun times with the repeated time loop where the main character anticipates certain events happening and interferes with them (such as preventing a person from getting pooped on by a bird, etc)
- The main character in the time loop must have at least one meaningful relationship (usually romantic) with another character within or outside of the time loop who is integral to the plot and the solution of the time loop.
- The solution to the time loop must involve the main character growing more mature and selfless, overcoming character flaws.
Another aspect to the Concept of a story is what I call the LMA System:
The LMA System
All stories can be primarily classified into one of the following categories: Love, mystery, and/or adventure.
And each one of these categories (when done well) has a particular, unique, and practical benefit for readers:
- Love: These stories are primarily about the relationship between two or more people, in which one or both or all parties learn to be more selfless and caring. The love in the story can be romantic, fraternal, platonic, filial, societal, or some combination thereof.
Purpose: Brilliant love stories help you get along better with your fellow human beings.
Examples: Romances: A Walk to Remember, Pride and Prejudice (and anything Jane Austen). Friends/family/social love stories: To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime and Punishment, Little Women, The Kite Runner, Number the Stars. Both romantic and non-romantic: A Tale of Two Cities, Quo Vadis.
- Mystery: These stories are primarily about solving a puzzle, finding the answer to a problem, resolving unfinished business. Something is hidden that will be brought to light. And when it does, it changes the world (not necessarily the literal WORLD, but the community or environment), the character, and/or the reader to some degree.
Purpose: Brilliant mysteries help you see and understand something you previously were unable or unwilling to see, delight you with their cleverness, teach you something interesting, and/or make you feel smarter or more confident in your mental abilities (to discover the mystery alongside the detective, or to understand the final reveal).
Examples: Clear mysteries: Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s books, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Sammy Keyes. Unconventional mysteries: Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, 1984.
- Adventure: About discovery — having fun (most times, but not always), taking risks, finding something exciting, traveling somewhere new. Think quests, fights, journeys, etc. Note: adventure is not always about discovering something positive. It can be dystopian.
Purpose: Brilliant adventures teach you more about the (physical or metaphysical) world you live in, shows you how to navigate it, and encourages you to do so. Great adventure stories also elicit feelings of awe and wonder.
Examples: Journey stories: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Alice in Wonderland, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine. Survival stories: Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island. Growing up stories: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Picture of Dorian Gray, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Revelatory stories: Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Stories tend to feature ONE of these three elements primarily, but often use the other two (usually in subplots) to add depth and complexity and richness to the narrative.
Level 3 — Craft
The craft of a story is the execution of the story. These are all of the surface features that most people recognize and can critique most easily. Characterization, magic systems, plot twists, language use, style of prose, pacing, etc.
- James Cameron’s Avatar series are pretty flimsy on levels 1 & 2, but the technological genius and artistic renderings are breathtaking.
- Andy Weir’s The Martian is a fairly simple and straightforward plot when it comes to level 2, but the main character’s snarky narrative is so delightful, he hits the ball out of the park when it comes to level 3.
How to Use the Concentric Rings of Storytelling to Understand and Assess Stories
Whether you’re trying to more deeply understand a story you’ve just read or watched, or you’re trying to write a story that matters yourself, you can use the Concentric Rings as a sort of guide.
First, consider the core message or worldview that the story conveys.
- Is it clear, or contradictory? Is the message resonant with real life and objective truth, or is it deceptive and mind-darkening?
- Does this story inspire and motivate people, sober them up and make them think seriously, or depress and deceive them?
Second, look at the concept(s) and see how that affects and plays off of the third level, craft:
- What is the overall concept, premise, or hook of the story?
- What kind of promises are explicitly or implicitly made, or what expectations are raised for readers, and does the story fulfill those promises and expectations well?
Then for a focus on craft, you can pay attention to the surface details:
- What exact wording does the author use to convey an idea?
- Where does the author increase or relax tension and how?
- How does the writer build characters, worlds, set up plot twists, build climaxes, etc.?
Now, aside from the 3 Concentric Rings of Storytelling, I also have a more personal 4H scale which I semi-consciously use to evaluate all stories
This is my own personal rating scale for which books I like.
If a book scores high on each of these four elements, I will most likely love it. If it doesn’t, I won’t.
I call it “The 4H’s” because each of the four item I’m looking for in a story starts with the letter H:
Anything that makes me smile, laugh, or chuckle. Stories that delight, that show the lighter side of life.
- Best Examples: Artemis Fowl 3, The Squire’s Tale series, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Huckleberry Finn, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Pride and Prejudice, Hoot, Flush
A story that “warms the cockles of the heart.” These books remind you of the great potential for good in life, and in humanity.
They set an example you’d like to follow and encourage you and leave you feeling warm and content.
They’re often earthy stories, about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but with warmth and faith.
- Best Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help, The Chronicles of the Kings, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Silas Marner, The Blue Castle, A Walk to Remember, The BFG.
A story can be dark, and can show sadness and tragedy and kill off beloved characters, but if it doesn’t have a sense of hope, it’s dead in the water for me.
Hope means that, even if a story ends on a sad note, you know that this isn’t really the end, that better things are around the corner. These stories tell us that no matter how disappointing life may be, we have the chance to make things better.
(This is the main reason why I loathed Frankenstein. Not a single one of the characters was relatable, redeem-able, or had any hope whatsoever.)
- Best Examples: The Restoration Chronicles, To Kill a Mockingbird, Redeeming Love, The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables, Hope Was Here
I use this word in 2 ways:
- The world/setting is well-developed. If the author is writing historical or Biblical fiction, the details are accurate, the portrayal of society is realistic and makes you feel like you are really there.
- Depth and internal consistency. Throughout the story, there’s a sense that what you’re reading is the tip of the iceberg. The author knows a lot more backstory for the characters, the situation, the setup, than he or she is letting on. There’s a sense of three-dimensionality to the story because the author has a history with the story and its characters that goes beyond what’s on the page.
- Examples of #1: Chronicles of the Kings, Restoration Chronicles (and almost everything by Lynn Austin), Janette Oke’s books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Help. Examples of #2: most of Brandon Sanderson’s books, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings.
For a deeper look at these and other factors, with a ton more practical examples, check out these articles:
What I LOVE In Books & Why: The Scylighter’s Literary Preferences
Specific Book Tropes, With Examples…For kindred spirit readers!
What I HATE In Books & Why: My Weird (?) Taste Literary Preferences
Detailed Book Notes Summary
⋆ 6-Star Ratings Key
In my book reviews, I tend to use the standard 5-star system as a quick ranking system. 1 is the worst, 5 is the best.
But I also have an extra sixth star for books that deserve a spot on my 100s List.
What is the 100s List?
That is better explained in this article:
The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got from (My Favorite) LIVING Award-Winning Writer
Could this tip also change the way you live your life?
And because the standard 5 (or in my case, 6) stars means something different for different people, here is, explicitly, what the stars mean to me:
- 1 star: Blegh. Don’t bother
- 2 stars: Eh, read if you have the time/energy
- 3 stars: Interesting; read if you like the topic
- 4 stars: Solid read, highly recommended
- 5 stars: Best of its kind, worth re-reading multiple times
- 6 stars: Made my Top 100 List
It’s taken a few years to refine, but I use this star rating key for all the books I read every month, and every year. So if you ever see me do a book review or deep dive with a star rating, this is what it all means 😉
And there you have it, the Scylighter system for evaluating and analyzing books.
This is the criteria I use to decide whether or not a book is beneficial to me.
What about you? I’d love to know how you organize and analyze stories in your head.
And if any of the above resonates with you, stick around because have I got some book recommendations for you 😃
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