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The Hero as Potato: The Shape of Story

By Tim Wynne-Jones

Years ago I saw in an encyclopedic book on the art of creating mystery and suspense the visual representation of building drama in a thriller. It was a simple illustration of the top edge of a closed book with slips of paper, like so many bookmarks, standing at differing heights indicating the places where significant crises took place in the narrative. It made a pleasing little jagged hill. And although the heights to which each marker rose could only have been arbitrarily decided, it was plain enough to see that there were more markers, grouped closer together, as the story raced towards its climax. So when I decided to give a lecture on plot at Vermont College, in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program, back in January of this year, I thought it might be interesting to analyze one masterfully structured book to see if I could come up with some equally graphic representation of where the narrative arc took significant leaps and dives. I hoped to learn something about this pattern of actions that we call plot.
I used Ken Oppel’s novel, Half Brother, as my model. Ken typically writes a darn good adventure story and I wanted to see how he used his mastery of drama in a more straightforward novel, that is, apparently, his favorite. I mapped out moments of change in the profluence of the story along an x-axis representing the chapters, and a y-axis corresponding to the intensity of the drama. The idea was to determine, among other things, whether the plot points fell in moments of action and/or dialogue, that is to say scenes, as opposed to passages of summary.
Why? I mean, what was the point? Because no writer would ever be likely to map out a book in such a way, before the fact, as an aid to writing a novel, unless the aim was to create a pattern that could be reproduced again and again in formulaic fashion. Well, I did it because it was kind of fun, and instructive in the same way, I suppose, that opening up a cadaver and mucking about inside is instructive.
I was interested enough in this anatomical research to propose a generative plot workshop for the summer residency at VCFA, where each participant applied these means, as unscientific as they may be, to look at a novel they felt worthy of closer examination.
Today is the last of the six workshops and it has resulted in some interesting debate. For instance, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, defies any kind of linear plotting; the attempt made looked like a board game designed by someone on crack! Whereas Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, looks just like the range of mountain peaks you’d expect. Both books are wonderful in their own ways; that’s not the point. And perhaps the discrepancy in their structure puts pay to any presumed idea of the shape of a book. The student who took on Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, created a graph that looked like a heart attack, rising high about the axis and sinking far below as Ender battled his way through his strenuous regime of training, leading to his triumph over the enemy… and himself. The beauty of this latter diagram was to see that the action resolved not at some high point of dramatic tension but much nearer to the norm, as if Ender was a patient saved, or a young man finding balance.

The outcome of this interesting little workshop, I think, will not be in finding any definitive idea as to how plot works but rather in asking different kinds of questions about the concept. And in that regard, I decided to end the exploration for now looking at Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful piece, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which can be found in her collection of essays called Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1990. She posits, there, an idea that wisely and amusingly flies in the face of the action-packed, hero-oriented “arc” we inevitably characterize as the path of a narrative. She writes, with great wit about the hero’s story, the proper shape of which is the path of the arrow or spear and talks about how conflict is at the heart of such stories. And she replies to this paradigm with a different one: the novel as sack. She says: “the novel is a medicine bundle holding things in a particular, powerful relationship to one another and to us (169).” When we talk about plot we talk about a pattern of actions. Le Guin also talks about a pattern of actions but not necessarily one that must scale the heroic peaks in the all too well known trajectory. She says of her sack theory: “The hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in the bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato (169).” It’s a funny, bracing challenge to our staid and steadfast and shaky – or in need of shaking up — idea about the shape of story.

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