How to Use Cardinal Functions to Plot Your Best-Selling Story

In my 3 Strategies to Plot Your Best-Selling Story post, I mentioned the term “cardinal function” to highlight its value as a structural plot element. Detecting cardinal functions, and being able to create your own as a guideline for your story or script is an extremely valuable skill for producing captivating and well-structured narratives.

Whether you are a novel writer, a film or theater script writer or game designer (or even a Literature or Film student trying to figure out what these “cardinal functions” are supposed to be) it is essential that you can convey your story as effectively as possible to captivate and entertain your expectant (and oftentimes critical) audience or reader. Because, unfortunately, no mistake ever seems to escape their attention.

Hence, WordBend has created an extensive explanation on what cardinal functions are, and how you can use them to write your best-selling story or script. Let’s go!

What are Cardinal Functions?

So, what on earth are cardinal functions?

In short, cardinal functions are those moments in a story which decide the direction of events. In other words, they are the most important events or actions that are essential to the development of the story.

Cardinal functions are events that are structured in a logical order, as well as a chronological order. However, you can choose to rearrange your cardinal functions to fit the chronology of your plot structure.

Importantly, however, when rearranging your cardinal functions the logical aspect should be kept intact (either throughout the story, or at the end in the shape of a resolution).

How Do You Pinpoint Cardinal Functions?

Every story — whether it be visual or textual — is structured in a significant way. Even the most confusing, difficult-to-follow narratives contain structures. This is because every story is subject to taking turns; cliffhangers, deaths, decisions, relationships between characters — everything influences the direction of where the story is going, how the story is shaped.

You can practice by pinpointing cardinal functions in your favorite book or film, and analyse in what way they give direction to the plot. Do they lead up to the climax? Do they give way to a side-plot? Or do they perhaps influence the important decisions that characters make?

One way to recognize cardinal functions is by trying to locate moments of suspense. Often, you as a reader or spectator can intuitively feel when those moments arise — you start feeling curious, anxious to read or see more.

For example, in Harry Potter, the famous passage where Hagrid tells Harry he is a wizard can be labelled as a cardinal function — this pivotal discovery is the start of Harry’s action-filled life as a wizard.

Usually, we are triggered by such moments because they signify a turn in the story, whether it be for better or for worse. Metaphorical “gasp”- moments such as these may indicate roughly where you can find cardinal functions. 

Based on this rough indication, you can start cherry-picking which moments or events brought about these suspense-filled passages in the story. However, there are certain genres that are a little more challenging when trying to locate cardinal functions. 

Sometimes, less explicitly-action-packed stories make it more difficult to find suspenseful passages. In this case we can utilize the aforementioned logical nature that is inherent to the concept of the cardinal function. 

Because cardinal functions tend to arise at “logical” moments within the plot, you can try finding out what the plot structure of the story is (read more in our post about plot structures). This can help you locate the most prevalent, structure-bound cardinal functions within the narrative.

The remaining, less prevalent cardinal functions can be determined by debating on how the story is directed from one of such prevalent cardinal functions to the other.

How to Use Cardinal Functions in Your Plot

You have a clear idea of what cardinal functions are, and how to locate them in other stories. But how do you incorporate them into your own story? 

One very effective way of creating your own cardinal functions is by incorporating them into your plot outline, for example by building your plot outline on a foundation of your pre-decided cardinal functions or by color-tagging the most important events in your outline.

WordBend is a big fan of mindmapping — as you can read in our blogs on the 4 best mindmapping software for organizing your projects and 3 strategies to plot your best-selling story. In a mindmap, it is easy to tag and color-code your plot outline entries which can help you track your progress and produce a structured narrative.

Importantly, you should not forget to take a look at your side-plots. They are as valid as your overall plot, and deserve equal attention and structure (because truly, audiences never miss a thing) to prevent inaccuracies within your story.

After practicing with pinpointing cardinal functions in other narratives, you should now try to be able to pinpoint them in your own story — after all, you are the creator of all the events included in your work! 

If you find it difficult to analyse and edit your own work, try treating it as a piece of writing from another author — it may help if you put aside your work and come back to it after a few days or weeks with a clear, objective gaze.

Another way of improving and double-checking your plot can be to list all of the cardinal functions you can find in your finished story, and check whether each cardinal function smoothly connects to the next.

If not, you can add passages to ensure a well-structured narrative. Hence, this strategy of double-checking your story can eliminate potential plot-holes and irregularities within your story, because everyone knows that confusion can kill stories!

How to Improve Your Story Structure by Categorizing Its Cardinal Functions

So now you have defined, practiced and applied the concept of the cardinal function — is there more to it? Yes! To make your cardinal function-strategy even more strategic, you can try organizing your cardinal functions into several categories. 

What we mean by this is that you can try aligning your plot structure and side plots with your cardinal functions. For example: when you are using a structure based on the Fichtean Curve (read our blog 3 Strategies to Plot Your Best-Selling Story) it can be helpful to categorize your cardinal functions according to each arc (a collection of passages between minor climaxes within the story).

Each story usually features several arcs, and paying attention to each arc individually can help you flesh out your story and further detail any passages that might lack contribution to the plot.

— For example, there are 5 arcs within your story and you have 15 cardinal functions. However, 8 of the cardinal functions exist within the final story arc, and the remaining 7 are divided among the first four story arcs. This makes the story unbalanced; apparently the final arc contains far more important story events than its predecessors.

By taking a closer look at each individual arc, you can try identifying more cardinal functions in the arcs that otherwise seem to lack them, and make them more explicit and recognizable (and potentially more exciting) within the overall story by fleshing them out.

This strategy can help give a more balanced structure to your plot, potentially creating a much more enjoyable reading or viewing experience for your audience!

All in all, identifying cardinal functions and applying them to your own writing can be a helpful strategy in organizing your plots. By practicing and layering these skills you can structurally add more depth to your stories. Even if you don’t use any outlines and do not enjoy writing based on structures or strategies, re-reading your story and critically assessing the balance within the story can be a vital part of your editing process. Moreover, these skills can help you understand the works of others better as well — because as you know, reading is an incredibly important part of writing!

And remember, practice makes perfect — Happy WordBending!

— the WordBend team

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