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Reviews - The Architecture of Narrative

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In 2013 I had the good sense to attend a masterclass with writing mentor Sydney Smith, the Story-Whisperer.  Using her innovative approach to plotting and structure, I revised the manuscript I was working on for Penguin at the time, Currawong Creek.  According to my editor, this redraft took the story to the next level in terms of plotting, characterisation and narrative arcs. Currawong Creek went on to become a best seller. In the Architecture Of Narrative, Sydney puts together the principles of that masterclass for a wider audience, all in an easy-to-read form. She also draws on her vast experience as a mentor and manuscript assessor. 

It’s a universal writing truth that character + conflict = plot. Using examples from The Bourne Identity and Pride And Prejudice, the AofN explains how to build that moment-by-moment friction to keep readers turning the page.  Compelling conflict must hurt, be hard to resolve and, most importantly, must involve characters with clashing goals.

It describes how to identify and avoid one of the biggest killers of narrative tension – the passive protagonist. Writers often want to protect their characters. For example, instead of facing problems head on, the protagonist will wait for trouble to find them. The AofN shows how to push a story forward, by casting characters into confrontations with each other, again and again. These simple techniques will not only incorporate greater tension into your writing, but deepen characterisation at the same time. 

There are tips for creating committed, sympathetic protagonists and convincing antagonists with their own goals and desires. Effective antagonists need to be worthy foes. I particularly enjoyed the section on how to create charming villains! There is a great chapter on character flaws: how to identify them and their importance in driving the story from set-up to resolution. And then there’s my favourite literary device - the plot thumbscrew - where two or more storylines intersect and ratchet up the conflict. What an evocative term! You won’t find such an analysis in other writing craft books. 

All this comes in the context of  the characters’ internal, emotional journeys – their arcs. Using examples, the AofN examines the mechanics of character change, and shows how to apply it to any work. This leads to a deeper understanding of how character drives plot. I particularly enjoyed the discussion on how a satisfying narrative will transform the reader, as well as its own characters. 

Sydney Smith’s highly creative approach provides a simple yet comprehensive story-structure framework. It can be applied to any narrative,  and will breathe fresh life into characters and plot alike.  A great resource for every writers'  bookshelf!

Jennifer Scoullar is the author of Brumby’s RunCurrawong Creek and Billabong Bend (Penguin).



I galloped through The Architecture of Narrative, whooping all the way! What a brilliant and incisive approach. I loved the way it was all threaded on the twin works of Pride and Prejudice and The Bourne Identity. I think a book like this could teach a budding novelist a great deal. Even as a non-novelist I found it fascinating. So many of her insights chime with my understanding of the structural mechanics of performance writing.
Peta Murray,
Playwright, lecturer




Buy The Architecture of Narrative - available in paperback and ebook