Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Story Bones: Sabriel

I should really be writing this post after reading some Joseph Campbell, but I'm usually not a person who throws caution to the winds and I'd like to do something different. Besides, if I read his work then my own opinions will likely bow to the weight of his authority and I'd like to do a before/after comparison.


I went through the book Sabriel, by Garth Nix, and did a chapter by chapter outline - fewer than eight words per chapter - to see the progression of the story, the rise and fall of tension, where important characters entered, so on. Then I broke the chapters up into rough arcs, which I will discuss below.

Warning: no specific plot details discussed, but potentially lots of spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.



The protagonist (henceforth referred to as MC) is safe, ensconced in one lifestyle, perhaps on the verge of a transition - graduation, in this case, or in general terms on the border between child and adult. Pacing note: one or two representative scenes will suffice.

Call to action

Danger calls, someone close to the MC needs their help, and MC must decide whether or not to leave the comfort of the past. The answer in a satisfying story is yes.

Crossing the border

Leaving behind the known for the unknown, the dangerous; usually a world that feels more "real" or vital. In Sabriel, going into a world with advanced magic (unpredictable) instead of advanced technology (which usually plays nice with humans).

Thrown into danger

Before the MC can get comfortable in their new world, danger strikes and they must immediately respond. They often do so with panic. This initial danger is often indirectly related to the big danger that drew them in. Rarely does the Big Bad itself make an appearance.

Refueling/safe haven

Help comes from an unexpected quarter and the MC has some time (usually limited) to get acclimatized, or at the very least to catch their breath. May gain an important ally and lay plans.

Tangential crisis and resolution

Those plans go astray and MC is thrown off track. Often wind up exactly where they need to be anyway - that is, the pit stop won't be an arbitrary place.

Gain ally

Team member(s) added. Good to have someone to rely on, though interpersonal problems may arise.

Journeying toward danger

In Sabriel, this segment is something for which I've not coined an appropriate phrase: some conglomeration of unpursued/has a lead on the enemy/not in immediate danger. Steady, deliberately-paced progress toward the goal. Pacing note: can be skipped over if monotonous (mini time skip). Get more info about the threat. Not usually a physically comfortable part of the story, but low on terror.


Last stop before venturing out into the wilderness. Lay final plans, catch breath again, get more supplies.

Into danger

Pacing note: usually there's a pretty short space (in time/space/pages) between refueling and confrontation. Mostly the point is to show the MC walking unflinchingly toward the goal/turning down the last change to go back.

Encounter with enemy

MC and allies find out that they underestimated the enemy or are otherwise underprepared, or that the problem is more complex than they anticipated. Either way, they come out of it by sheer luck or a sacrifice or some panic-born stratagem.

Strategic retreat/Regrouping with more allies

Withdraw from the arena and dig within for more useful information and such. Preparations. Very time sensitive. More likely than any other part of the story for mobilization of many people.

Final battle

Last confrontation with the enemy, draw on all inner reserves. Most likely place in story for people to die; in certain types of stories, this includes the MC. In better stories, the MC uses some information or skill the reader has seen them acquire over the course of the story (foreshadowing) to defeat the Big Bad. (And I would argue that in satisfying stories, the MC does win, even if at a great price.)


Wrapping things up. In some stories, the epilogue falls under this category.


General pacing notes: the first half of the story usually takes much longer (in in-story time) than the second half, because events move quickly after the last stop (see refueling, above). The reader's reading pace also tends to accelerate with in-story danger, so very likely once the reader passes the last stop the rest of book will be read in one sitting.


Take or leave these notes as you see fit. I am going to do more examinations of story structure, simply for my own use, to see what pulls readers along with the story and what stops them short. Next week I may take a look at Hilari Bell's story structure points, unless a shiny other topic catches my attention. We shall see.

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