Sep 242003

Friedrich von Blowhard is on about story structure:

My son loves to watch Stuart Little 2; consequently, I have listened to this film a large number of times while out doing errands. Hearing the movie all the way through repeatedly, it finally dawned on me that its basic story structure is broken up into four roughly equal parts:

Part I — Introduction to our hero/heroines inner, emotional problem

Part II — Introduction to our hero/heroine’s outer, practical problem and the explanation of the link between it and the inner problem

Part III — First round of engaging the practical problem

Part IV — Second round of confrontation with practical problem, culminating in ultimate success or failure

Friedrich applies this to The Great Gatsby and amusingly concludes that it is really a noir, which, considered from a certain angle, it is.

Let’s take Friedrich’s notion out for a spin with one of my favorite novels, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

Part I — Isabel Archer sails from America to England to visit her cousins, the Touchetts. She is young, beautiful, clever, proud, naive, and single. She begins poor, but James provides her with a fortune, in his usual way, to allow her maximal freedom of action, or to put it differently, enough rope to hang herself. Isabel resolves to tour Europe to gain an education.

Part II — She is also touring Europe to find a husband. Suitors present themselves. First is Lord Warburton, who, being handsome, kind, well-spoken, titled, and immensely rich, clearly won’t do.

Part III — Next up is the young American magnate, Caspar Goodwood. Isabel, who by this time has fallen under the spell of the arch-European Madame Merle, refuses Goodwood because he is too good, too wooden, and just altogether too American. Instead she marries Madame Merle’s choice, the evil gold-digging aesthete Gilbert Osmond.

Part IV — Isabel realizes her error, which it is too late to correct, for super-subtle Jamesian reasons to which I cannot do justice in a sentence and to which James, in truth, doesn’t do justice in the novel either.

Well, it works, I guess. Yet it is too vague to satisfy. Friedrich deals in themes, when what we really need is a classification of plots.

Surely there are several plots even if there is only one theme. The Seven Plots (or however many there are, maybe fewer, certainly no more) is one of the desperately needed books that may never be written, along with Albert Goldman’s proposed Encyclopedia of Musical Plagiarism. One of the seven, I am sure, is the hourglass plot, in which two characters begin high and low, cross in the middle, like an hourglass, and swap positions at the end. Martin Amis, for one, can write nothing else. Success is quintessentially hourglass; and Money and The Information both rely heavily on hourglass elements.

Instructors in screenwriting are fond of talking about character arcs, and they may be on to something, much as it pains me to admit. Since all stories take place in time, make time the x-axis. Represent a character’s death as y=0. Graph the plot, with a single line if there is one main character, with more if, as in the hourglass, there is more than one. Zoom out and note the shape. There’s your plot type. A Greek tragedy would look like an upside-down hyperbola, the protagonist cruising at the peak of his powers until the sudden revelation, and disaster. Novels of descent — say, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — would look like straight lines with negative slope, with an occasional squiggle to keep the reader’s attention. Horatio Alger stories are the same, except positively sloped.

The Great Gatsby is another single-line affair, Gatsby himself being the only character who changes. It might be a skewed bell curve: Gatsby begins with nothing, reaches his peak with his affair with Daisy — “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts” — soon realizes that nothing will come of it, and is shortly thereafter found floating face-down in his swimming pool. Tales of peril and redemption will be inverted bell curves, skewed right when the peril takes more space than the redemption, the usual case.

A book’s merit, of course, has nothing to do with its graph. If The Seven Plots is ever written, let alone read, it will serve the useful purpose of dispelling the notion that some types of plots are better than others, and refocus the reader’s attention on other qualities, where it properly belongs.

Stanislaw Lem once wrote a little collection of reviews of non-existent books called A Perfect Vacuum. Its unstated premise was that the review rendered the actual book superfluous, and the titles themselves were marvelous — Die Kultur als Fehler (Civilization as Mistake) by Privatdozent W. Klopper, Being Inc. by Alastair Waynewright, Toi, “a novel about the reader,” by Raymond Seurat. A collection of reviews of non-existent books that we actually need would be an equally profitable exercise.

  10 Responses to “The Seven Plots”

  1. In your Cartesian plot universe, Kleist’s works would graph power laws, Sartre’s and Mann’s a flat line and Kafka’s discreet points that could not be connected continuously.

  2. Aaron, how would two of my favorites graph out…’The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford and ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ By John Kennedy Toole’?

  3. Friedrich’s formulation is okay, but a bit idiosyncratic. The accepted constituent parts of story structure are as follows:

    Act I: We meet the protagonist in his nature, primeval state; we learn who he is before the events of the story change him.

    Plot Point I: Something happens which sets the main story in motion by giving the protagonist one primary goal (i.e., Meg Ryan hears Tom Hanks on the radio in Sleepless in Seattle and decides she must make him love her).

    Act II: The protagonist pursues his goal, facing and overcoming greater and greater obstacles along the way.

    Plot Point II: The Act II climax, which resolves the great sweep of story that comprises Act II.

    Act III: We see the impact of the protagonist’s Act II adventure on his life, his character, the other people in his life, etc.

    For the most part, at least in movies, Acts I and III are short –15 minutes or so. Act II is long: around an hour.

    The mistake most critics of screenwriting theory, workshops, etc., make is in thinking that preaching this sort of structure makes movies simplistic, boring, predictable, etc. As Aaron points out, this is a red herring. When you get used to thinking in these terms, you realize that practically every movie, novel or play you can think of fits fairly neatly into this paradigm: the great work right along with the mediocre. My understanding, Aaron, albeit mostly from secondhand sources, is that 3-act structure derives ultimately from Aristotle. True?

  4. Of course, the book is the thing (if I can paraphrase Shakespeare); the review , however perfect, cannot suffice because an art work is an experience, and an argument is its guts, not its summary.

    But, I concede it may be profitable to provide a list the books that can or should be written.

    By the way, Aaron, can we expect any such titles from the pen of Mr. Haspel…?

  5. Funny you should ask…

    There’s a French book published in 1916 as "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations" by Georges Polti and described further here:

  6. Lyn: I don’t know the book, but I looked at the site, which is interesting. Thirty-six plots, though, are far too many.

    Michael: That is a vulgar version of what Aristotle said in the Poetics, which is that dramas require a beginning, middle, and end. He did not discuss "acts" and in fact Greek plays were not written in acts at all.

    Jim: Who knows? In the meantime I have to concern myself with mundane tasks like making a living.

    Steve: I’d like to help out here, but I’ve never read Confederacy of Dunces, though, or perhaps because, it has often been recommended to me, and I haven’t looked at The Good Soldier for nearly twenty years. You tell me.

  7. Well Aaron, I tried graphing Ignatius from ‘Confederacy’ and it was going good. However, after he started looking like a Wyndham Lewis abstract, kinda like one of the ‘Timon of Athens’ series, I had to give it up.
    p.s. I’m mailing in money….I can’t stand the guilt of getting something as good as godofthemachine for free.

  8. I posted a link in Friedrich’s comments, but I’ll put one here as well: I responded to what Friedrich said, noting that he was conflating two different aspects of story structure and backstory.

    As for how many plots there are, that depends on how broadly you define "plot." If you go really broad, there are only three: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. I tend to see plot as slightly more detailed than that…

  9. Two of the most famous movies of all time, Casablanca and Gone with the Wind have the same plot: Boy finds girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back; boy dumps girl. However, the themes, and presumably the coordinates of the character arcs, must be entirely different. Motivation makes them differ, not plot line.

  10. Northrop Frye already wrote "The Seven Plots" but he called it "The Anatomy of Criticism" and had only four basic plots: Comedy, Tragedy, Irony and (Chivalric) Romance. Actually, the section on plots took up only about a quarter of the book. Frye identified lots of variations within each of the four basic plots, but he was able to organize the variations. Read the book and you’ll never think about plots the same way again.

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