Monday, April 8, 2013


The Secret Language of Stories is a twelve step story analysis system I’ve devised both to plot my novels and to teach story building to adults and kids. It’s based on Joseph Campbell’s classic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, with strong influences from The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. In the past few years I’ve seen Vogler’s work referenced more and more in the classroom, but for the struggling readers and writers I work with, some of the ideas are still a bit abstract. My impetus for creating The Secret Language of Stories was to come up with imagery and vocabulary my students could understand, but with concepts deep enough to still be a challenge in adult creative writing workshops. A description of my system may be found at SLOS..

When I give presentations at conferences and workshops, I provide numerous examples for each of the twelve points in the story analysis, but teachers frequently ask if I can give them an analysis of an entire book. Some of my older Spellbinders posts contain outlines of picture books, but I recently completed reading a novel that was so well plotted, it was easy to see the structure.

City of Bones is a fabulous New York Times Best Selling novel by Cassandra Clare. It is the first book in The Mortal Instruments series and it tells the story of Clary Fray, who seems to be a typical teenage girl until she starts seeing demons and Shadowhunters.


The following analysis contains several spoilers so I strongly advise reading the book before proceeding. I will attempt to avoid talking about the wonderful twists and turns while focusing on the spine of the story. I don’t want to ruin the fabulous revelations and family secrets that are uncovered. On the other hand, the book is so well written, that it’s a total delight, even if you know how it ends.
THE OLD WORLD: Clary is a typical teenager hanging out with her best friend, Simon, at a club called Pandemonium. She sees an attractive young man slip into a back room with a girl and becomes concerned when he is followed by two young teens (Shadowhunters) brandishing knives. When she goes to investigate she sees the Shadowhunters kill the young man (aka: demon shape shifter) who shrivels into nothing and disappears.

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: Clary receives a frantic phone call from her mother telling her not to come home because it isn’t safe. Clary rushes to their house to find her mother has disappeared. She is attacked by a Ravener demon who nearly kills her and is whisked away by Jace, one of the Shadowhunters from Pandemonium.

MENTORS, GUIDES, AND GIFTS: Jace serves as a mentor in the ways of the Shadow World. After Clary is poisoned by the sting of the Ravener, he must get her past the Du’sien demons disguised as police offers. Jace “hides” her temporarily by marking her arm with a mendelin rune. Throughout the story he gives her weaponry and other items she will need to fight off demons.

THE CROSSING: Jace carries an unconscious Clary to the Institute, a building in the middle of the city that looks like an old abandoned church on the outside because it is hidden by a glamour. On the inside, it’s a large and beautiful research institute capable of offering lodging and safety for up to two hundred Shadowhunters. Only four currently reside there; Jace and his friends Alec and Isabelle, along with their teacher and mentor Hodge.

THE NEW WORLD: At the institute, Clary meets Hodge, the mentor, teacher and guardian of the three young Shadowhunter residents. Throughout the story he will give her information and guidance. This is the stage in the story where Clary becomes aware of the rules of the new world she has entered, a world threatened by demons and occupied by the slightly less dangerous Downworlders; creatures like vampires, werewolves and fairies.

THE PROBLEM, THE PRIZE, AND THE PLAN: Clary and the Shadowhunters uncover a plot by Valentine; rogue Shadowhunter, to find the Mortal Cup. He plans to use it to create an army of Shadowhunters under his control whom he plans to use to annihilate the Downworlders. The majority of Shadowhunters have formed a tentative peace or Accord with the Downworlders. Valentine has turned against his own kind because he believes the earth must be purged of Downworlders. He kidnapped Clary’s mother because he thought she had the Mortal Cup or at least knew where to find it. In order to discover where her mother has been hidden, Clary must first understand who has erased her memory of the Shadow World and learn her true part in it.

MIDPOINT CHALLENGE: Clary, Jace, Isabel, Alec, and Simon (who has also joined the group) go to a party at the home of Magnus Bane, High Warlock of Brooklyn. There Bane reveals that it was Clary’s own mother who paid him to erase her memories, for Clary’s protection. As she and the others start to leave, Isabel informs them that Simon has imbibed in a blue drink that has temporarily changed him into a rat. A group of vampires takes him to the Hotel Dumort, thinking he is one of their own. Clary and Jace battle the vampires and just when it appears they are terribly outnumbered, werewolves intervene to create a diversion.

CHASE AND ESCAPE: Narrowly escaping death, the three teens find a flying motorcycle on the roof of the hotel. They get away, but as they are starting to relax and take pleasure in their joy ride over the city, the sun rises and the motorcycle crashes. Apparently the demons energies that power the bike don’t work during daylight.

DOWNTIME: Safely back at the Institute, Jace and Clary share a romantic moment on the roof which is interrupted when they return to her room and a jealous Simon emerges. With both boys upset with her, Clary settles on her bed to draw and to think. She then has a revelation about where the Mortal Cup is hidden, a location I will leave out just in case you haven’t read the book. If you have read it, then you already know.

DEATH EXPERIENCE: Jace and Clary retrieve the mortal cup with the help of their friends only to have it stolen by Valentine with the assistance of someone they thought they could trust. Along with the cup, Valentine also takes an unconscious Jace with him and Clary fears that the evil Shadowhunter plans to kill him.

CLIMACTIC SHOWDOWN: Clary, with the help of long time family friend Luke, travels to a remote location on Roosevelt Island where they battle dozens of Forsaken. Clary finds her mother, unconscious, confined to a bed with hands and feet in manacles. She then locates Jace who is completely unharmed. Valentine has convinced Jace to go with him to Idris. Clary confronts Valentine about his evil plans and convinces Jace to stay with her, which is much more difficult than it sounds, but I don’t want to disclose too much in case you haven’t read the story. Valentine escapes through a mirror portal with the Mortal Cup, but Clary saves Jace and rescues her mother. Those are her main objectives. She will leave the Clave to deal with Valentine.

REWARD: Back in the everyday world, Clary visits her mother in the hospital. She is in a coma, but for the present she is safe. Clary’s friendship with Simon has been mended and they reflect on coincidences versus “fortuitous occurrences.” Clary returns to the Institute where her tense relationships with Alec and Isabelle have softened. She meets Jace up on the roof where he shows her the flying vampire motorcycle that Magnus Bane recently gave him as a gift. He takes her on a ride and she marvels at how different the city looks. Jace points out that the city is just the same. Clary is the one who is different.

Understanding the basic plot structure of stories can be an invaluable way to start getting story ideas of your own. When young people understand these patterns that are repeated across genres, they start to recognize them in movies and books. Remember, for a more detailed discussion of each of these twelve steps, go to SLOS.

The City of Bones will be released as a major motion picture in theaters August of 2013. When it comes out on DVD I hope you show it to your students. It would be a great topic for a story analysis discussion.

But be sure to read the book first!


  1. This is a great post. I wonder though if it would/could (on some level) apply to a middle grade (lower grade humorous read) ....or if its applicable universally or just to a certain type of book. Need more examples for my MG, lower grade non-fantasy story mind :)

  2. I will be doing an analysis of Bad News for Outlaws in November. It's non-fiction. Stay posted:)