What does geometry have to do with writing? When you think of Freytag’s Pyramid of the seven elements of fiction, you tend to envision an isosceles triangle—two equal sides with two equal angles and the climax designated at the apex. It’s oh so neat. The problem is that the isosceles form doesn’t accurately represent the structure of a story. Why would the complexity associated with all the conflicts that makes up the “rising action” on the left side of the triangle be the same length as what happens after the climax—the “falling action,” resolution, and denouement—on the right side of the triangle?
In realty, the representation of fictional writing would be better reflected perhaps by a “scalene” triangle. So you don’t have to look it up, a scalene triangle has neither equal sides nor equal angles. This allows for the longer “ride” up to the climax and the logically shorter ride down through the falling action to the denouement and on to the conclusion. You also need to sort of tip the triangle off its base and up and to the left because you never end up at the same level from which you started. Life doesn’t work that way so your story shouldn’t either.
Once you visualize this shape, flip it. The short, falling side becomes the rising action side, and after the climax comes a long slide down to the conclusion. This actually represents the structure of some mysteries and thrillers, especially those from the 1930s. It is still, I submit, what makes British mysteries different from those generated on this side of the pond. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, Freytag’s structure gets stood on its head. With a string of people turning up dead in the mansion filled with guests on a lonely island, there’s a constant increase in tension as solutions that keep getting dashed . . . in the head, in the library, with a candlestick. The whole affair involves chasing solutions through an array of conflicts and climaxes.
In a more modern application: kablooey, dead guy in a tuxedo shows up in the middle of the street in the middle of the night in the middle of the bad part of a town . . . You get the idea. It’s from there that the story opens up as the investigation, driven by the observed and discovered evidence (cue the forensics guy), gets methodically unraveled. What Dame Christie did was to constantly derail the traditional linear methodological efforts and create a methodology of her own. She didn’t so much deliver a climax as continuously disrupt the efforts of others to reach it.
Of course, all the efforts to solve the accumulating murders could arguably constitute the rising action and the stuff on the right side of the triangle (pyramid) merely runs down a really short side to the final conclusion—Sir Lawrence Wargrave and his hypodermic needle! If you analyze some of today’s popular television detective series, you could debate which literary structural element goes where for a month of Sundays. Like everything else, we teach writing using rules and guidelines, and this creates a tendency to want to find the parts of a story and label them as if dissecting a frog in biology class. What’s important is to not let the formal concepts and delineated structural rules and guidelines of fiction get in the way of the frog, i.e., the telling of a really good story.
It’s easy to fall into this “checklist trap” when writing. Like a pacifier to a baby, Freytag’s pyramidal elements of fiction provide a level of comfort to the newer writer, and perhaps that is what motivated Mr. Freytag to first spell them out in his 1863 Die Technik des Dramas. But the good stuff of fiction usually resides beyond the safe harbor and in the choppy waters with white caps beyond the bay. To venture there, you have to lift anchor, and the rules and guidelines can be more akin to an anchor than a sail. If you spend too much time adhering to them, you’ll remain in sight of the shore—safe but boring. The rules should be thought of more as a map, but an ancient map with the unexplored parts of the world indicated by the warning, “There be dragons here.” That is precisely where the writer needs to go.
Indeed, by focusing on making your story uniquely interesting, you might miss or gloss over some structural rule or guideline in your first drafts. If it turns out to be important, any such deficiency will show as you reread, edit, re-edit, and rewrite. Although it’s important to start at some point, which is the inciting incident usually (where you supply sufficient information to orient the reader), after that you’re not tethered to any absolute rules of linearity in structure. So long as you don’t confuse and lose your reader, go for it. If you find yourself at the end of a dead-end inlet, paddle around and search for another route. As a writer you should not follow a map, you should create your own.
The reason I bring this process up is to remind you of the importance the rules and guidelines play as you learn the basics, but the dangers they present if your strict adherence to them becomes too habitual. Work to break free from trying to fit your story into some traditional, logical, or customary format, and work to discover or create you own.
As a litigator, I didn’t care much for the “Perry Mason” television series. To me a lawyer needed to have his case well prepared before he entered the courtroom. Mr. Mason seemed destined to solve the crime during a client’s trial. Luckily for him, the real culprit always showed up in court and broke down under cross-examination. In my real world, the courtroom was where you presented your already well-prepared case to the jury. It was in the preparation phase where you solved the mystery that would determine whether a jury would find your client guilty or not guilty. The trial was the orderly presentation of your efforts. Oh there was great joy in the dramatic delivery and I tried to structure my presentation of evidence and witnesses along the lines of a TV show to keep the attention of the jury focused on the case at hand, but it was bad preparation to wait until trial to solve your case, and very risky for your client were you to make a misstep and fail. But the dramatic, in-court discovery of the real culprit worked for the plot structure of a television show because it was not confined to the basic rules of logic and reality; the fictional courtroom was bigger than that. So here we are, almost 57 years later, watching Raymond Burr as Perry Mason in reruns. Perry Mason had staying power because the plot structure had staying power.
My problem was that I tried to apply the reality of proper investigative techniques—the rules and procedures of my legal training—to my assessment of a fictional courtroom. There are dramatic moments in a criminal trial that give rise to memorable interactions, but mostly it’s the presentation of a case in a logical and straightforward manner via Q and A, and if it weren’t for bathroom and lunch breaks, you could run the risk of jurors becoming inattentive or dozing off. Don’t get me wrong. An effective trial attorney will present her case in the most dramatic way she can, but even then the underlying formula is structurally simple, and frequently can be downright boring. The fiction writer takes this real life structure and electrifies with extra voltage to make it crackle and spark. That’s what the fiction writer must keep in mine at all times—the crackle and spark. Too strict a commitment to the compliance with structural rules of fiction can drain the life from a story. The fuse burns out.
Like flipping the direction of play at half time, you need to alter your perspective and that of your characters and your readers. In her Narrative essay, Kay Boyle referred to what she called “restrictive thinking.” It’s what causes a writer to hold back his or her creativity. One can read the works of others as examples, but Boyle takes the position that although that exercise might reduce or alleviate the fear of speaking (writing), “. . . one cannot be sure that the students will dare to understand the words that other men have said. It takes courage to say things differently. Caution and cowardice dictate the use of the cliché.”
In lieu of the term cliché, we could use “tried and true” or “safe” or “hackneyed.” Whatever the term, it’s what happens when the result becomes predictable and thus boring to the reader. When a reader yawns, the writer is in serious trouble.
The flipside of cowardice is fear of embarrassment. This is particularly true of younger writers because their cohorts are more inclined to use the ever-handy put down if they try something that flops in the execution. Older students and others with a little more life experience appreciate the display of courage. The writer needs to ignore his reluctance, i.e., fears, and fend off stage fright and put his words out there in the spot light. Boyle offers this insight:
“Most adults, having somehow lost touch with the great simplicities, have forgotten that to write is to speak of one’s beliefs. Turning out a typescript with the number of words neatly estimated in the upper right hand corner of the first page has nothing to do with writing.”
You read the works of others to gain perspective. You follow guidelines and structural rules for your own comfort as you find your way through the story you are creating, but in the process you can easily forget that your primary goal is to engage the reader in your telling of story. To do that usually requires that you color outside the lines. The most important perspective to change from viewing the rules and guidelines from the writer’s perspective is to view them from the reader’s perspective. Readers know when something is working because they continue reading. The writer has to constantly ask herself as she writes, “Does this grab AND hold my attention?” If it doesn’t, it certainly won’t grab the attention of readers.
So take the elements of fiction—inciting incident, rising action (conflict), climax, falling action, denouement, resolution, conclusion, and shake them up like dice and give them a toss. Try starting your story from a completely different perspective or one from an unexpected character’s perspective. What would have happened if Dame Agatha Christie in her Ten Little Indians instead of solving the crime and finding the murderous culprit, would have delivered the story from Sir Lawrence Wargrave’s perspective and focused on his efforts to fend off suspicion and misdirect inquiries? It would have altered the dynamics of the story.
Sometimes it’s as simple an exercise as exploring how you might make the familiar unfamiliar. The exercise will make you think about your story from different perspectives and from that you might find a better, more effective—not to mention unique—perspective from which to relate your story.
I knew an L.A. County district judge who, as a young prosecutor, met his wife, an L.A.P.D. detective, standing over a dead guy in the middle of Wilshire Blvd. in the middle of the night sipping coffee and discussing what happened to the corpse and how it got there. Great beginning for a crime story, but perhaps an even better beginning for a romance story. Think how you could interweave the soft romantic side of two people meeting for the first time at a crime scene with their hard-nose professional personae? Oh the complexities you could add as they struggled to find their romantic way. I smell a series! Maybe the dead guy turns out to be the detective’s estranged husband who was already under investigation by the prosecutor’s office for professional misconduct—another lawyer! Maybe the detective comes under suspicion and the assistant D.A. assumes the role of investigator to prove her innocence. It’s in that process where they fall in love. That plot might sell a lot of soap, as my father would say.
Yes, you do generally need to plug the various ideas about your story into Freytag’s categories somewhere along the way. They do, after all, represent the necessary ingredients of effective fiction, but in what order and how you present them is where you play with the recipe and add the hot sauce rather than ordinary pepper to the pot.
So if you have a story idea you like but have had trouble coming up with a way to tell it, try mixing things up a bit. Unlock yourself from logic and absolute rule-driven linearity; shake up the elements of the story and pick one and see how you might use your selection to create a unique approach to your story.
Were this a classroom rather than a blog, I would list a set of factual ingredients of an event with a list of characters and turn students loose to discuss how many different ways the story could be written and from what perspectives and how would they change the facts and/or characters. You can do that by yourself. It’s called brainstorming. Over-reliance on rules and guidelines that generates what Ms. Boyle labeled restrictive thinking puts a damper on brainstorming.
Remember that the incident that gives rise to your story has to be bigger than life. So do your primary characters. Anything less and you might just have your readers read the menu in a restaurant. You could start with a few characters with characteristics and a plot you find interesting and decide what you need to do to make them fascinating. Create an event that brings them together and let them interact. At this point you’re just making notes and not writing story. You will be amazed at how soon you find yourself piecing the parts together to create a unique story with unique perspectives—you know, those dark alleys readers love to wander into.
Think of the elements of fiction as lights along the shore. They keep you from getting lost, but they also keep you from exploring very far. Look for those areas on your literary map marked “There be dragons here” and steer directly into them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson would likely take the position that too much reliance on guidelines and rules leads to a foolish consistency, about which he said:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today. –‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ –Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be a great is to be misunderstood.”
I like Mr. Emerson’s term “hobgoblin.” Writers are frequently attacked by them, as I suspect Emerson was on occasion. Perhaps it was not that those people he listed were misunderstood as much as they provided a new approach to various thoughts and it took their audiences a while to catch up with them. It’s the writer’s duty, however, to help your audience catch up, and show them the path clearly, but don’t make your literary triangle too obtuse.