Posted by Heidi Wilson
Would-be writers can always be lured into taking just one more how-to-write course, buying just one more book, attending just one more conference. Flailing and weeping in the chaos of our own material, we’re sure that someone out there has a system. No, has The System that, with one hard shake, will order our characters, themes and events into a page-turning plot.
I lost a lot of time trying to cram my plot into the shape recommended by Mary Carroll Moore’s Your Book Starts Here. Her system is to shape your plot like the letter W. Your protagonist encounters loss or danger, plunges to the depths, pulls herself together and addresses her problem with some success – we’re now at the peak of the first upstroke of the W – then gets really whacked by some failure or complication, descends to the uttermost depths, and finally wrestles her way back to whatever fate you have in store for her.
The W method is good for making a start, and also for combatting saggy-middle syndrome. In the end, though, you have to compound your own prescription. So today, I offer a few alternative plot shapes, as discussed by Kurt Vonnegut on the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog.” In a hilarious (truly!) video Vonnegut explains how simple it all is, really.
Plot 1 is “Man in Hole.” The hero starts in a reasonably comfortable condition, encounters a problem, solves it and ends up better off. Vonnegut graphs this from beginning to end as a nice even sine wave on a happy-unhappy vertical axis. Events head down into negative territory, reverse course at the bottom, and end up even higher on the happy scale than they started. Wonkblog’s example: Arsenic and Old Lace. Note that Mary Carroll Moore’s W could be titled “Man in Two Holes.”
Plot 2 is “Boy Meets Girl,” in which the initial events head upward on the graph, i.e., boy falls in love. From there on, Plot 2 replicates Plot 1, as the lovers are separated, then reunited. Traditionally, “Boy Meets Girl” ends higher on the vertical scale than “Man in Hole,”since (as we all know) they lived happily ever after.
Now we get into the kind of plot I like best: Cinderella. No, not for the happy ending. By me, that prince is a Ken doll. According to Vonnegut (and strangely
mis-graphed in the Post article), “Cinderella” is distinguished by its beginning – among the cinders, way, way below the middle of the happy-unhappy axis. Then (and this is what I love), progress toward the Prince’s ball takes place not in a smooth curve, but in a series of stair-steps. The gown. The glass slippers. The pumpkin coach. The mouse-horses. These lovely items are provided by Cinderella’s fairy godmother, but in more interesting stories, each has its own provenance, sometimes but not always obtained by the heroine’s own efforts.
It’s the detail that grabs me. The plot takes on the shape of a Fibonacci sequence. Every step can replicate into a handful of details or issues, which in turn can replicate. This is why I like Proust. (Trouble is, I haven’t yet been able to work out what the heck his stair-steps are leading to.)
The stair-steps also occur in the folkloric creation story, in which a deity or deities generate successive gifts which, combined, produce the world. My favorite literary example is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but of course Genesis I is better known. According to Vonnegut, the Old Testament is simply the creation story with an unhappy ending tacked on: God makes the world, we live in it, we die. With the addition of the New Testament, we are back to Cinderella.
Vonnegut does not ignore modern literature. There’s “From Bad to Worse,” in which some poor schlemiel simply gets hammered, and that’s it. Wonkblog’s example: The Metamorphosis. And then there’s “Which Way is Up?”, exemplified by that most modern of stories, “Hamlet.”
You can noodle around with these curves forever, and come up with a story to match anything you can draw . At present, I have no idea what shape my own story (fictional, that is) will take. I got troubles, I got worries, I got stair steps, nobody gets a girl … who could ask for anything more?
Tags: Arsenic and Old Lace, Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim, Fibonacci sequence, Hamlet, Kurt Vonnegut, Man in Hole, Mary Carroll Moore, plot, plot diagrams, The Metamorphosis, Wonkblog, Your Book Starts Here