A Million Jelly Beans And No Bowl (facts and narrative)

facts and narrative

A well-constructed story has the right blend of facts and narrative. This post turns this concept into a sweet and colorful metaphor.

Have you ever been reading a book and you suddenly realize, I’ve read a lot of facts, but what’s going on? What’s the bigger meaning of this passage? How is it tied to the main story?

In a good book, what keeps you reading is the bigger picture, the progression of the story, the why of any given passage of text. If you’ve lost sight of that, it’s possible you just zoned out. If it’s a novice work, a work-in-progress, or simply a poorly written story, it could mean the narrative faded out while the facts kept flowing.

This is the problem of a million jelly beans and no bowl.

You can’t keep hold of a lot of anything small without something to put it in. No matter how coordinated you are, you can only hold so much, and if your hand is tied up with that job, you can’t do anything else. Not to mention that when you hold some things in your palm too long, they tend to melt.

Your readers can’t keep track of a rush of facts without a bigger picture to attach them to and organize them by. That bigger picture is the narrative. This is often the problem with information dumps or putting too much backstory at the start of your book, but the disconnect between jelly beans and bowl can happen anywhere in a book.

If you start spewing jelly beans without giving your reader a bowl, they all go missing. If you have a bowl and no jelly beans, your reader feels slighted. It’s all about balance. Writing is made up of lots of tiny parts. The key to great writing is how the words coalesce into beautiful sentences, the sentences into paragraphs, and the paragraphs into sections, chapters, and finally, a book.

Your narrative is the bowl

Narrative is the heart of storytelling. It’s the actual story, minus all the exquisite details. It’s the big picture. If the jelly beans are the facts, the narrative is your bowl.

Strong narrative is all about answering the why:

  • Ah, I’m reading this long passage where Mark finds his way in the woods because…
  • Ah, I’m reading this long passage on how to weave baskets because…
  • Ah, I’m having to sit through this very uncomfortable torture scene because… (this better have a SUPER good justification)

If readers don’t have a sense of the longer-term narrative, they won’t know how to interpret the immediate text at hand. They won’t be able to engage. They might put the book down. Without a strong connection to the bigger picture, you’re just delivering dry facts.

It’s up to you to pique readers’ curiosity. Readers are happy to read forward when they are itching to get a question answered and are curious to find out what happens next.

A cabinet full of bowls

So, really, a book is a cabinet filled with bowls of different sizes. It’s up to you to fill those bowls with jelly beans. You might have tiny bowls just for the content of a single paragraph – i.e. a character description. A big bowl is required to contain a chapter. The biggest bowl is the one that holds your concept.

Ideally, your cabinet is well-constructed and has everything in its place — and a place for everything. Organizing and building your cabinet, setting up your bowls and filling them with yummy stuff, is the art of engineering an enjoyable book.

So, look at your book and try to see the jelly beans and the bowls. Do you have enough bowls for all the jellybeans? Do you have enough jelly beans to fill all your bowls? What is your cabinet like?


Printed Book Design 


Related Posts
The “Why Do I Need This?” Check
Truth and Narrative: The Two Timelines Of Your Story
Narrative Structure, Part One: What It Is and How To Use It
Filling The Holes In Your Story
The Key To Great Writing



  1. Wonderful metaphor. Really made sense when it changed to a cabinet of different bowls for a story. I had started to imagine a bowl with layers of different colored jelly beans to make it have some sort of structure! Then I read about a cabinet full of bowls. This makes perfect sense. Yet you wouldn’t want to eat so many jellybeans one after the other.

    What about this analogy. My favorite jigsaw puzzle when I was a child was circular but like a pie cut into twelve pieces. Each segment had a different picture. It was all about seasons and months of the year to do with farming. Can’t remember which hemisphere or country was involved but it was challenging yet satisfying when complete. You couldn’t separate the pieces as the puzzle was all connected into a whole.


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