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Playing with Narrative Shapes
How to plot a circle
I am candid about my biggest writing weakness: plot. It's one of those things I either can't nail down or, more often, think I've nailed down, only to be told no, not quite.
And so my mind was blown wide open while reading Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison. The premise of the book is this: we all know about the plot arc. For thousands of years, we've been told that stories should fit into a plot arc. "A situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides." Alison asks why, though. "So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life. Why not draw on them, too?"
The plot arc was devised by Aristotle for dramatic plays. And while the plot arc (or Freytag's pyramid, or Kurt Vonnegut's drawings on graph paper) certainly can be used for stories, it doesn't have to be. (The plot arc is also a very Western notion, and it's a similarly Western notion to think that every story has to fit into it, and if it doesn't, then the story does not have a plot.)
Meander, Spiral, Explode says that the arc -- a mountain, a wave -- is a shape from nature, so why not look to nature for other narrative shapes? The shapes she investigates are wavelets, meanders, spirals, explosions, networks/cells, fractals, and one possible tsunami. The examples in the book are all novels, short stories, and novellas, and as soon as I started thinking about other narrative shapes besides the plot arc, it became clear that the picture book is an ideal plaything for experimentation. I am ever loyal to Rob Sander's picture book plot map, but sometimes the picture book form doesn't call for a traditional rising action, denouement, and resolution. Sometimes it might want to meander, and that's all it needs to do.
You want some examples?
Everything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Emily Hughes, is made up of wavelets, each treehouse a little peak, the page turn the valley. There is a slow build as the treehouses get more detailed, but no one treehouse (wavelet) is markedly larger than the others, thematically. The narrative motion of the book is the ride on the waves from treehouse to treehouse, until the final page ("Everything you need for a treehouse starts with time and looking up") feels like the waves finally reaching shore and dissolving peacefully into the sand.
I Am The Subway by Kim Hyo-eun, translated by Deborah Smith, strikes me as a spiral as it moves between the subway stops and the people riding on it, and, with each new rider, a tighter and tighter circle toward the final destination. (Another spiral example -- or it could be waves? -- is Fortunately by Remy Charlip).
Let's think about meandering. Before I read Meander, Spiral, Explode, I might have thought "this story meanders" is an insult to the story. But now I see that some stories are meant to meander, and meandering, with intention, is a perfectly fine way to tell a story. Alison says, "A meander begins at one point and moves toward a final one, but with digressive loops...[it] lingers by flowing along an extravagant arabesque of detours." When you meander (in real life or telling a story) you zig and you zag, perhaps without balance or pattern, but you are on a path. And the meandering plot of a story can be telling the story as it needs to be told, and staying on that path. A terrific meandering book is The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby. The path of the book is Margaret Wise Brown and her life, but the narrative meanders, tells us about her dog and her rabbits, and run-ins with a librarian, about that librarian's wooden doll and damning rubber stamp, and about what MWB did with her first book money. The book even acknowledges its meandering on the penultimate spread: "There are patterns in a life, and patterns in a story, but in real life and good stories, the patterns are hard to see, because the truth is never made of straight lines." It meanders.
Jane Alison describes cell narratives as being made of discrete segments, building polygons like a honeycomb or "a foam of bubbles," narratives where "instead of following a line of story, your brain draws the lines, makes connections." Picture books are so perfect for this kind of story. They're everywhere. Think of something like Home by Carson Ellis, with every cell a different sort of home. Or something with bigger segments, like Little Witch Hazel by Phoebe Wahl, where the cells are little stories in themselves, but each of them, one for each season, is (somewhat) separate from the others.
I think Big and Small and In-Between by Carter Higgins and illustrated by Daniel Miyares is a fractal (Carter is my friend, so I'm allowed to use two of her books as examples). A fractal is a branch that keeps branching, or a lightning strike with its tendrils of electricity, or that method of blowing paint through straws. Big and Small and In-Between has cells, too, but it has a definite structure -- that trunk of the big things, to the branch of the in-between things, to the twig of the small.
I keep looking at Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Is it made up of cells? Meandering cells? Waves and wavelets? There's so much happening in it, so many stories on stories that it must be an explosion, yes? There is even a bit of a traditional plot arc with that Pig family.
The examples in Meander, Spiral, Explode are subjective. They aren't cases where the authors gave interviews explaining how they set out to write a spiraling narrative. Instead there's a sense that it's how the stories naturally evolved. (Similarly, maybe you think I Am the Subway isn't a spiral but an explosion, and I think we're both right). I will say that there is more of an expectation for a novel to follow the traditional arc; if not, it is labelled "experimental" and risks making (Western) readers feel uneasy and unsettled. But there's none of that expectation with a picture book! We are free to meander all over the place if it makes sense for the story. There is for sure a place for a picture book with a full plot arc, but there's just as much as place for one that is only brief sketches of feelings.
We are lucky, as picture book makers. Picture books are made for play. There are narrative structures which might honestly get tedious in a longer book, or which might be too out-there for a novel, but which work perfectly in a picture book. The real reason, though, that these non-traditional-plot-arc narrative shapes work so well in picture books is because of who picture books are for. The imagination of a child is one that meanders, spirals, and explodes. They understand this structure. When a kid reads Home, she understands it deep in her bones. "These are all the wondrous possible homes" is a complete and satisfying plot for a picture book because it's such a complete and satisfying imaginative thread for a kid. It's our job to give children stories that match the pattern of their imagination.
For me, the best way to write a story is to just sit down and write it, but Meander, Spiral, Explode has given me the freedom to consider other forms when I'm revising. The fact is, life doesn't generally follow a neat narrative arc (a fact that makes stories that do such satisfying fantasies!) and kids know this.
Thoughts and Links
I had a blast talking to Tara Lazar about Rick the Rock of Room 214 and how to anthropomorphize just about anything. Plus! I'm giving away a picture book manuscript critique. Head on over to the post to enter.
Ruth and I had a great time doing a joint interview to celebrate Rick the Rock at Max's Boat.
I love this video tutorial about how to make your own Rick the Rock.
This is an interesting interview with film director Todd Field about his first film to be released in 16 years, particularly this bit on rejection: "I know some absolutely extraordinary actors who simply were not built to handle the rejection of auditions, but that’s part of this process. You have to believe every time that there will be light at the end of that, when it’s very, very likely there won’t be" and this about social media: "your anonymity is absolutely essential as somebody that makes things because you have to be able to observe without being the observed," both of which felt relevant to writing.
I love this interview with Lynda Barry. I try not to read the comments on anything, but I'm glad I stumbled into the comments for that interview, because they led me to the hour-long Grandma's Way-Out Party video, chronicling a road trip Lynda Barry and Kevin Kling made from Minnesota to Seattle in 1992. It is absolutely worth an hour of your time, if anything for this Lynda Barry quote: "I think that this urge to create is actually our animal instinct. And what's sad is if we don't let that come through us, I don't think we have a full life on this earth. And I think we get sick because of it. I mean, it's weird that it's an instinct, but it's an option."
I spent an hour on Sunday reading this essay about human mistakes, which is a fascinating meander that I'm still thinking about.
This Mediterranean Quinoa Salad is pretty quick (eggplant and zucchini are so easy to chop) and it's great cold the next day for lunch.
I had to order some more pen refills from JetPens.com (I'm currently very into the Pentel EnerGel and the 0.7mm refills, which is a smooth and fast pen for free-writing and is also dirt cheap) and I ordered some fun washi tape supplies. First I got these index tabs (wait, I guess these aren't technically washi tape) -- I've been looking forever for small tabs to mark off frequently-referenced pages in books and my planner, and these are great. Then I got these adorable notebook-themed washi tape strips, perfect for neatly sticking art on the wall or making any piece of paper into a sticky note. Finally, I got these color-coding washi dots without being sure what I was going to do with them. I've been using them to note when I complete a deep work session. If I do 30 minutes of undistracted, uninterrupted work, I put a dot in my planner. It's extremely satisfying to line up those dots.