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W? Or Not?


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 imgresMary 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 vonnegut-man-in-a-holefrom 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

The Ken Prince from, I kid you not, ""

The Ken Prince from, I kid you not, “”

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.

Broccoli's fractal form, an instance of the Fibonacci sequence

Broccoli’s fractal form, an instance of the Fibonacci sequence

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?

Shakespeare Encumber(batch)ed

Hamlet (or Mr. Cumberbatch), in the throes of madness (

Hamlet (or Mr. Cumberbatch), in the throes of madness

Last night, I didn’t see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet in HD at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center. He certainly played Hamlet, the melancholy Dane, only the play wasn’t Hamlet. It was a three-hour performance of pieces of Shakespeare’s play, sliced, diced, and chopped. The meal was tasty. But I went for a dinner of Hamlet and got several interesting “small plates” instead.

I don’t call in the Holy Inquisition whenever anyone alters a word of Shakespeare. New views of old masterpieces occur each time anyone first reads/sees/hears them. Experiments with the text can be fine. And Cumberbatch is a perfect Hamlet for our times: a man trying to do the honorable thing in the face of enormous evil and confusion. Cumberbatch also treads the line between verse and ordinary speech so well you don’t notice he’s doing it. The play would have been comprehensible to an intelligent high-schooler, which is not always true of more conventional productions.

But why open with Hamlet in an attic, listening to a portable record-player spew out Johnny Mathis? Well, all right, if Horatio will then appear and we can get right out on the battlements and see the ghost. But no. Horatio’s first business is to get Hamlet to for Heaven’s sake come downstairs to dinner with the court. When he gets there, everybody else is dressed in Edwardian style. (I suppose Downton Abbey now defines “the olden days.”)

When the ghost finally appears – oh, dear. He speaks his lines very well. He even disappears at one point down a very Shakespearean trap door. But he also rips open his shirt to display a precise plastic imitation of mouldering human flesh. Just like in the movies. The camera closes in, so the HD audience gets a better view than the theatregoers did. And there is a musical (?) sound track, just like in the movies, that conventionally roars its instructions to the audience: Be horrified! Be grossed out! The sound track banged on through most of the play, often drowning out the actors, while the lighting effects mimicked sharp camera cuts.

Hamlet, in case you’ve forgotten, pretends to be mad while actually being driven almost mad by his impossible situation. Poor Cumberbatch, whether willingly or not we may never know, enacts this strategy by trying on a Hallowe’en costume or two, then settling on the uniform of the traditional toy soldier, complete with snare drum. He then marches the length of the banquet table – that’s on the table – drumming. This fools everyone.

Other business is equally incomprehensible. Ophelia has hobbies: she take pictures with a Mathis-era camera and she plays the piano. And your point is? Her final madness causes her speech to soften and accelerate so greatly that she might be listing the deadly side effects of some newly advertised drug. We certainly can’t hear her.

Then, in the final scene, as we try to weigh up the pros and cons of the production, Cumberbatch gives us a performance that absolves him of all offenses. He believes entirely in his reconciliation with Laertes; he behaves and fences like the Elizabethan gentleman, athlete and scholar that he really is, and he dies reconciled to death.

I’m no tekkie, but I hope some computer nerd somewhere will make sure that this performance will be preserved for the ages.




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