Zettelkasten

The Zettelkasten Method for Fiction II – What You Can Look For

Recap: In part 1 we concluded that knowledge is knowledge, independent of its source. Applying the Zettelkasten Method to fiction books does not change anything if we are dealing with knowledge.

But if you want to use the Zettelkasten Method to analyse a story as a story? Then you need to know what to look for besides knowledge.

What to Look For in Stories?

Image via Pixabay

Disclaimer: Style is excluded for didactic reasons. Style is not part of the story, but part of the language used to present the story. Whether the author chooses to use just the verb “say” to signify direct speech, uses lots of different synonyms for “saying”, or if he is an alliteration addict is not important to the story itself.

There are six types of knowledge. In story, we find the following elements:

  1. Structural elements are acts, scene sequences, scenes, beats.1 The units of story.
  2. Elements of plot are things like changes in value charge,2 plot elements of frameworks like the hero’s journey (example: Meeting with the Goddess),3 the resolution or the introduction of the protagonist’s weakness.4 Elements of plot are the various events and actions that are part of the cause and effect network named plot.5
  3. Elements of character are all the things related to the character. Imagine you write the most comprehensive character sheet. Everything you can write on it is an element of character: Backstory, values, actions in the story, relationship to others, etc.
  4. Leading question and theme belong to a deeper layer. Within a story there are always connections to the nature of the world. The Godfather by Puzo ask questions on what a good leader is made of and delivers a series of moral decisions that paint a picture on how to act morally, independent of the law. More obvious are those aspects of story in the Drenai Saga by David Gemmell: His books are about heroism, which deeds turn you good or evil, and if you can redeem yourself by doing good deeds.
  5. Symbols are semantic elements of story that stand for something else. There are general symbols, like the heart as a symbol for love, and specific symbols like the holy grail in the Arthurian saga.
  6. World-building entails everything that creates a fictional world and its feel. Sometimes, the term exposition is used but since it can also be used for character description I choose this term.

This is my framework when I analyse stories. There is an obvious similarity to the six species of knowledge: You need more than just knowledge about them. You need competence. You can only detect an argument if you have the ability to spot the premises, the conclusion and the logical form. Accordingly, you can detect elements of plot only if you are able to recognise plot elements. That means that your ability to use the Zettelkasten Method to analyse story is mostly dependent on your ability to analyse story at all.

It is a beginner’s problem to be forced to become competent in different layer’s of a desired ability:

  1. If you want to be a competent knowledge worker you need to master the medium (hopefully, using software like The Archive), the method (hopefully, The Zettelkasten Method) and the knowledge work itself (rhetorics, scientific method, etc.).
  2. If you want to competently deal with fiction, you need to master the medium as well (hopefully, using software like The Archive), the method (hopefully, The Zettelkasten Method) and creating/analysing fiction itself.

Don’t confuse those layers and identify each of your abilities individually.

Second Conclusion: Learn How to Deal With Story First

If you want to make the Zettelkasten Method work for you to understand story, you have to be able to understand story first.

It is similar to learning the handstand: First you learn how to stand on your hands, then you learn how to kick yourself up into the handstand. If you kick yourself on your hands without any handstand ability, you don’t know to which place you need to kick yourself up to.

My personal recommendations to learn story are (affiliate links):

  1. Shawn Coyne (2015): The Story Grid. What Good Editors Know, USA: Black Irish Entertainment LLC.
  2. John Truby (2008): The Anatomy of Story, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  3. Christopher Booker (2004): The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Croydon: Bloomsbury.

So if you understand how story works, you have the first part down. The second part is to learn the basics of the Zettelkasten Method. The third step is to make your tools of thought work within the Zettelkasten Method’s framework. This will be the topic of the next installment in this series.


Do you want someone to assist you with using the Zettelkasten Method? I offer 1-on-1 coaching.


Christian’s Comment: I have (had?) no clue about storytelling :) Getting to know that there’s elements to hunt for and extract is a relief. I have yet to practice looking for “symbols” and “character elements” in books, but I recall that it took some time when I started out with non-fiction note-taking and processing as well. I believe that back then it helped to put marks in the margins to get into the groove, like “A” for argument, “M” for model, etc. even though now a general purpose dot suffices – so maybe I’ll have to start again with these newbie techniques for this new set of elements. Just wanted to share this in case you have a hard time memorizing and identifying what to hunt for.


  1. Shawn Coyne (2015): The Story Grid. What Good Editors Know, USA: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, p 195. 

  2. Shawn Coyne (2015): The Story Grid. What Good Editors Know, USA: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, pp 120-4. 

  3. Joseph Campbell (2008): The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Canada: New World Library, p 91. 

  4. John Truby (2008): The Anatomy of Story, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p 40. 

  5. Ronald B. Tobias (2011): 20 Masterplots. And How to Build Them, Writer’s Digest Books, p 40.