Friday, December 12, 2008

Plot Begins with W

As this blog advertises, we have a smattering of math today in the form of triangles and line segments. And they say writing and math are strange bedfellows! :) Let me explain: In my writer's library is a helpful volume called Writing Fiction, Nonfiction, and How to Publish by Pat Kubis and Bob Howland. (Yes, it's pretty comprehensive, though not that thick a book.) The one piece of advice from this book that I've never forgotten, and have now gone back to revisit, is the section on plot structures, particularly the "classic plot" described by Aristotle, discussed and interpreted by a number of others, and diagrammed like the above. Using several specific examples (such as Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea and Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire) Kubis and Howland make an excellent case that many strong plots follow a pattern in the shape of a W. Basically, the line segment AG represents the main character's overall goal. AB, a downward line, is the first major obstacle that stands in his way. BC is an upward turn caused by the character's attempt to overcome this barrier. Things are looking up, and CD represents a high point -- it looks as if success is at hand. But in DE, disaster strikes. The trouble gets worse, and EF shows the slide to catastrophe, the black moment. FG is the resolution, in which the protagonist finally achieves his intent, although it may or may not have happened in the way he expected, or even be as worthwhile as he thought.

Multiple characters in a book often have their own W diagrams, and the book itself, separate from any one of its characters, can have a thematic one too. The segments of the W can be different lengths. For example, point F, as the lowest point in the book, might be shown as lower than point B, making the whole DF line segment longer (filled with more action than some of the other parts) and the climb up to success (FG) steeper and more arduous. The endpoints of the line segments are the pivotal events that define each phase and signal the switch to the next. For example, what event, exactly, is your high point (your point D)? What event causes the slide down to E? What scene in your book is your point F? The W diagram can be really helpful in making sure that your plot actually has such moments.

Ever since I first read this, I've been creating W diagrams as part of plot and character development. Since the segment AG represents the character's conflict or goal, and the line segments of the W show what action the protagonist is taking to get there, the W concept really helps show how character and plot develop hand in hand. As it's often been stated (to my great relief, because I prefer character development) "Character is plot."

9 comments:

Meg Wiviott said...

Great post. So simple and yet so true. Thanks for sharing this.

Gottawrite Girl said...

Oh my God. Math. What a bloody battle that was, for too many years.

: )

Thanks for your post, though. Very, very true!!!!!

Anne Spollen said...

This is beyond math! Math is addition and long division -- this is geometry. Egads.

But you're right, and it works.

Marcia said...

Meg -- Yes, I like specific models that help us get a grasp on the writing process. I have fun trying them all. :)

GWG -- Yes, but at least there's no x-y axis involved. :)

Anne -- You said the G-word so I don't have to. :) But you're right -- I moved beyond what was promised (or threatened, or allowed, or however you want to put it). It's arithmetic that's addition and long division and that I advertised on the blog, and I went beyond. Don't slap me too hard with your ruler. :)

Marcia said...

Meg -- I meant to ask, where in WI did you go to college?

Brenda said...

I love visuals...it really helps me see what I'm suppose to be doing...thanks for sharing...

PJ Hoover said...

Visuals really do help pinpoint scenes in our MSS and show us what's missing!
Thanks for the great post!

Marcia said...

Brenda -- Visuals are helpful, and I like when others can come up with them, as I am a "word girl." :)

PJ -- Yes, I like how techniques like this can help you get a handle on HOW to be sure your plot is working. "Do it" is nebulous; HOW to do it gets practical.

FrecklesandDeb said...

I've been focusing on studying plot structure lately and your post came at a great time! Thanks for the info.
Deb