Architecture as Narrative

(Mirrored from the Iasa Blog)


Architectural design as a form of storytelling is an established theme. Ruth Malan’s January “A Trace in the Sand” highlighted a quote from “The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar” that reinforces the analogy:

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

Getting a design out into the light of day where it can be polished via collaboration and critique is something I definitely value. I decided to see which other Pixar rules spoke to me as well.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

If the technology is driving the architecture rather than the stakeholders’ needs, you have a problem.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

You can shape your solution to the problem, or you can try to impose your solution on the problem. The problem will most likely be fluid, so how robust will a rigid solution be?

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

Good design is as much about editing as it is about composition. There will be plenty of complexity inherent in the domain, so you don’t need to add your own.

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

It’s tempting to start solving the problem right away, but that can lead to dead ends. You have to know where you want to go before you pick your route to get there. Just remember that today’s ending will be tomorrow’s beginning.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

Your purpose is to deliver value, which can’t happen until there’s an actual delivery. Perfection that never sees the light of day is worthless, and today’s perfection is tomorrow’s “not quite”.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Simplicity and focus (#5) is important enough to repeat.

The narrative of an architecture should be an epic, moving from birth to maturity and ultimately to closure. Like Scheherazade, it’s important that our stories do not end too soon. Keeping the principles above in mind can help.

7 thoughts on “Architecture as Narrative

  1. Pingback: “Architecture as Narrative” on the Iasa Blog | Form Follows Function

  2. Pingback: Selling SOA | Form Follows Function

  3. Gene: As a novelist and a software architect, this post really resonates for me. You’re making great mental connections in my brain.

    One thing I couldn’t resist adding: all stories that are worth reading/telling include narrative tension. Who will win–the bad guys or the good guys? Will the girl get the guy? Good authors walk a tightrope, keeping many considerations in balance. They can’t reveal too much, too soon, or the reader will lose interest. They need to manage plot issues early, so that later developments make sense. And so forth.

    In software architecture, I think this narrative tension applies in at least two ways. First, you have to have meaningful problems to solve. Architectures in search of a problem are a waste of everybody’s time. (This relates to your point about Pixar’s #2.) Second, good architecture inevitably balances many considerations. I am always suspicious about an architecture where its proponent talks about only one characteristic (e.g., it’s fabulously secure, or fabulously performant, or fabulously resilient, …). In most cases, something that’s solid on 4 or 6 dimensions is better than something that’s incredible on 1, but only on 1.


  4. Thanks, Daniel.

    Alan Inglis picked up this metaphor and ran with it in a post that followed my putting this up on the Iasa blog. He covered the whole 8 point story arc from an architectural perspective – really worth a read.

    I completely agree re: balance. Something with a broad base tends to be a lot more stable.


  5. Pingback: Architecture as Narrative | Iasa Global

  6. Pingback: Selling SOA | Iasa Global

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