Elephants to Zebras: Another Look at Story Structure

While in Colorado, I had great fun visiting the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.  Except for commenting on a friend’s a beta-version of a steampunk story and writing a review for another friend’s romance novel, I did no writing.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t think about writing.  Before leaving California, I’d finished the fourth and final Abishag’s discovery draft.  I’m already mulling over the next revision in view of what I saw at the zoo.

Beginning tomorrow, I’ll re-read An Eggshell Present: An Abishag’s Fourth Mystery in light of the character arc, the emotional arc, and the mystery. Or more specifically, from the perspectives of the giraffe, elephant, zebra, and lion.


ZOO_Giraffes While at the zoo, we fed the giraffes romaine lettuce. Unlike in Kenya, where we fed them pellets from our lips (not me) or the palm  of our hands, these reticulated giraffes stuck out their grey-black tongues as they moved from person to person, expecting us to put the lettuce there. My idea of story structure is to start with a premise. That premise better be off-the-wall and still manageable. I’m responsible for living up to the idea, following through with it, and delivering it. Even if it has a long reach, I need to re-visit it chapter-by-chapter and make sure it works.


ZOO-twoElephantsLeslie’s character arc spans three long novellas. Like an elephant, her memories of her previous husbands will affect her emotional response in the fourth story. Both good and bad. Also, her past as an Abishag wife returns to haunt her. This is the one story that cannot be read without the others. Her ability to respond to others hinges on her making a decision. Memories will both hinder and help. In the revision, I’ll be monitoring her interior thoughts and the emotional arc in chapters and over the book to ensure I address it.


P1000310The challenge of this fourth novella was how to take a tragic circumstance and still make it both fun and funny. I visited Tanzania seven years ago and fell in love with zebras. Essentially they are lion food, but I’ve never seen creatures so bent on adventure, pranks, and hanging out with their best buddies. My next revision needs to nail elements of comedy and joy and deep affection between friends.


CHEYENNE ZOO-EA-lionsThe final story element I’ll examine in this revision is its power infrastructure. Besides the mystery packing a wallop, will the villain be believable? Will he or she be terrifying? Will her or his story be consistent in motivation and action? Villains are predators. Can we feel their breath on the back of our neck throughout the story? Does momentum build and will the final battle roar? Will the story leave tooth marks on our hearts?

My mission is set. I face the animals tomorrow. Better pack a canteen.

About mlknowlden

In 2011, I left engineering to write full-time. Between the years 1992 and 2011, I’ve published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that have featured the hypochondriac detective Micky Cardex and two stories that did not. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. With Neal Shusterman, I’ve also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology (Tor) published in 1998 and co-authored with Neal Shusterman an X-Files Young Adult novel (DARK MATTER) for HarperCollins in 1999 under the name Easton Royce. For Simon & Schuster in July 2012, we published an e-novella UNSTRUNG in Neal's UNWIND world. I have graduate degrees in English and Electrical Engineering.
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8 Responses to Elephants to Zebras: Another Look at Story Structure

  1. jbadoud says:

    Very inspiring. I love the metaphors. They are a fun and very clever way to share excellent writing tips. I’m really looking forward to reading the next abishag novella. Too bad the series will end with that one. I’ll miss Leslie Greene and her cohorts.

  2. Ken Lew says:

    Wow, a very neat and concise lecture on writing . . . . I loved this article/lesson. Thanks.


  3. imagbigreader says:


    Kudos on the zoo. My favorite animal is the giraffe. I always hear them called awkward because of their long necks. But when I see film of a giraffe running, it think it is poetry in motion–they undulate gracefully as they run. And I fed giraffes out of my palm at a zoo back East years ago before we turned the corner of their habitat to see the sign, “Don’t Feed Me, I Bite.” But I was keeping my palm and fingers flat, just as you feed horses, so they won’t take a finger with the apple you’re giving them.

    Congratulations on finishing your fourth Abishag story. : )


  4. Rebecca Lang says:

    I like the way you relate animals to your stories. It makes for an interesting structure.

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