The shape of things

I’m driving to Starbucks to grab some breakfast and work on my novel, and I keep going over it in my head: is my plot strong enough to keep a reader’s interest? Is it building to a climax, steadily ratcheting up tension?

I start thinking about the classic Algis Budrys seven-point plot, the symmetrical upside-down V of Shakespeare’s plays and the slanted, upside-down V of Cinderella that diagram that classic understanding of plot:

1. A person
2. In a place
3. Has a problem.
4. They try to solve their problem
5. And fail
6. Repeatedly
7. Until they finally succeed or fail beyond recovery.

But then I start thinking about how I tried to find another fairy tale to plug into that model when I taught it to a class. I had a hard time figuring out how to grid “The King of Cats” or “Sleeping Beauty.” Who is the protagonist trying and failing to reach their goal in “Beauty and the Beast?” What do you do with a story like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” which changes goals partway through? How about Ender’s Game, where a major point is that the protagonist’s stated goal turns out not to be the actual goal? What about the branching plotlines and protagonists of Lord of the Rings?

Maybe that classic V isn’t the only shape to show the structure of a plot. Maybe you need nesting dolls to diagram 1001 Nights, or a firework exploding and converging for Lord of the Rings. An Escher drawing for Rashomon. A hedge maze. An ouroboros.

I’m not the first to think this way. Some of this is coming from musings by Cory Doctorow I’d forgotten for ages, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first, either. But right now, when I’m trying to write this novel, it’s helpful for me to recognize that while it’s important that my plot keep moving, it doesn’t necessarily have to keep pushing forward in a straight line.


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