Essays – Top Story/Bottom Story
William H. Coles
Story, by a more traditional and limited definition, is a series of imagined related scenes with conflict and action while developing meaning and enlightenment for characters and unique enjoyment for readers. Writers can improve their writing of stories by thinking of two (or more) stories–top story / bottom story–interacting to provide action and meaning that blend with synergy into one.
In general, most effective stories–short stories or novels–have the action and plot of top story, and the lyrical prose with emotional and intellectual enlightenment of bottom stories. The ratio of importance, top story / bottom story, varies with the nature of story and the skill of the author.
The traditional story, and the special effect and meaning it can give to readers, has become less common as the array of prose forms published as fiction story is increasing: tone-based lyrical prose, memoir based descriptions of enjoyable events and experienced emotions, character sketches, and a boxed version of loosely related–often too clever–ideas. Many of these non-story forms do not provide the pleasure for readers who seek the traditional story. Yet writers have few resources to learn effective storytelling with imaginative prose that results in literary stories.
One essential of a good story is imaginative structure that gives information in dramatic prose. Effective drama in the written story requires an overall plan that gives form to the story so that what is written on the page supports the drama and theme of the fiction. Great stories are not simply the discovery of withheld information by the author. Drama is not just revealing something. Good story telling is not scratching a lottery ticket to discover the winning number, or digging deep in acres of dry earth to find a dinosaur femur, or filling in the boxes of a crossword puzzle to find a theme. Drama is humans in conflict acting to resolve their problems in meaningful and enlightening ways. Literary stories supply information, when the plot requires , to avoid manipulating reader suspense and, as a result, provide credibility that will intensify meaning. (In contrast, genre stories follow a familiar and desired plot with discovery as the major feature of suspense—murder, investigation, discovery of murderer.) In general, literary stories are harder to construct, have dramatic action and character desires and motives feeding an escalating momentum and require useful conceptualization before writing. One way to consider creating a story is conceiving the story as two stories, seemingly one, that drive plot and deliver meaning. A top story and a bottom story.
Here, as an example, is how top and bottom stories might be structured. In the top story, John loves his fiancée. John’s brother seduces John’s fiancée. John kills his bother. John is convicted and jailed. The fiancée marries someone else.
Developing a bottom story will mature the top story. The fiancée really loves John, but has a personality that can’t turn anyone down because she can’t stand the thought that someone might not like her. John loves her unconditionally, and can’t make himself face the reality of her vacuous personality. Jealousy consumes him when his brother takes advantage of her weaknesses. John’s jealous anger for his brother turns to hate. He is shocked when he kills his brother without remorse, destructive in its intensity and materialized by childhood wrongs against him by his brother. With time, John realizes that his failure to see the erosive nature of his fiancee’s personality caused a cascade of emotions and actions that could have been prevented.
The diagram below helps visualize the action of top and bottom story. The top story (solid line) reaches a climactic plot point and the action declines. At the same time, bottom story (dotted line) becomes more intense and rises, crossing the declining top story and now becoming the top story. The crossing of the stories can be perceived as story climax, and the bottom story continues to rise and reveals theme an meaning (or epiphany) based on character enlightenment.
Although there is great variability, often learning distinctive features of top and bottom story are valuable in creating a story.
Top story :
- Plot oriented. Often in scene. Prose tends to be succinct, action oriented and void of passivity, and strongly attached to conflict and action.
- Prose advances plot and supports logic.
- Prose tends to depend on suspense of what will happen as circumstances dictate.
- Prose action without bottom story may lose reader engagement in character, decrease caring about character outcome, and erase theme and meaning.
Overall, successful top story tends to be an action presentation of a series of conflicting events that resolve in interesting a satisfactory ways.
- Character based. Standing alone, it is more emotional, emphasizing core desire and justifiable feelings.
- Prose may be lyrical (elements of poetry) and when in scene action relates more to emotional conflicts and basic main reversal of thinking (enlightenment).
- Prose clarifies and justifies character change. Prose may be internal reflection.
- Prose that tends to present all plot information for bottom story when needed, not depending on suspense by information manipulation but creating suspense by dramatic irony and concern for character problem solving and action that results in change.
- Prose can be in danger of being static and boring, and there is tendency for the writing to dissolve into narrative description (telling). Authors love to write in bottom story and tend to express personal, not story oriented, thoughts and feelings. As a result, prose style may take over with baroque intensity, hurting story.
Overall, bottom story tends to deal with conflicting emotions, and often poses thoughts about who we are and why we are here, so that theme and meaning take on significance for the reader seeking knowledge about the human condition.
Thinking about top and bottom story also permits more focus on different ways of reader engagement early in the story. Top story lends to objective ways of engaging reader: hero, trickster, imminent danger, barely surmountable obstacles, are characteristics that are plot oriented. Bottom story allows more subjective use of engagement of reader in character through: injustice, false accusation, shared—or a least accepted—motivations with character, common morality. As a story develops, there is a plot-oriented, action-motivated, series of events that embody conflict, action and resolution, and are structured for engagement of reader to character and concern for what will happen.
The actual fundamental elements of top story and bottom story may be mixed in the final story product. The advantages of thinking with two stories with identifiable differences assures that during the creative process the advantages of both stories are incorporated in the unified final achievement. In essence, the process assures action and meaning, and builds significance while suppressing tendency for trivial writing.
The origin of top story/bottom story thinking is not clear.* It is not uncommon to see the idea referred to in reviews of short and long works, and it may be applied when plot in literary fiction is lacking, the “this has no top story (plot)” type of critique. Top and bottom story, although they might not be labeled as such, also seems to relate to the problems of transferring a fiction story to a screenplay where stories tend to be all top story and there is a struggle to incorporate the bottom story (that may be the strength of the written story). No matter what the origins, defining top and bottom story with detail can be a valuable tool for authors seeking ways to strengthen their storytelling is but it is not a guarantee or a replacement for good writing.
Even authors who concede that top story and bottom story thinking has some value will often reject the process as too structured or too contrived. They fear their creativity might be siphoned away. “I love to put my character in action and see where the character goes.” These authors believe there is advantage to creative decisions are applied moment to moment in a story with inclusion of random detail, to line up like pearls on a strand. But the structure and control allowed by top/bottom story–and other ways to consider story structure–actually allow a more expanded, intricate and effective use of creativity and allow the potential for great literary story writing. Creative structure, and creative decisions on how to make a story great before writing, is how most great fiction is created.
With a little practice, any author can begin to see the actions of top and bottom story in many great stories. The exercise in clarifying what makes a story work through the identification of top and bottom story is always a positive, enlightening exercise.
*This concept of top and bottom story is very well taught by Nancy Zafris in Kenyon Review workshop. Her teaching provides checks on authors moving in the wrong directions, and also accentuates development of powerful stories incorporating elements of both top and bottom story, as well as attention to character motivations and craft.