Uncoiling plot structures

I recently read an article by John McPhee on the topic of structure, and I’ve been doodling diagrams ever since. (The article is in the Jan. 14 issue of The New Yorker; unfortunately, you can’t read the whole article unless you’re a subscriber, but you can buy the issue online.)

McPhee includes diagrams of various nonfiction articles and books he’s written over the years and offers some interesting insights into how he puts all the pieces together.

However, I always bump up against the knowledge that even if you envision your plot as a spiral or two side-by-side columns of circles, you still have to tell the story in a linear fashion because that is how we read. In other words, you can imagine a story in all sorts of different shapes, but you can still only tell one event at a time.

My book has a complex series of events both real and made-up, characters from the past who intrude on the main story line, and a story that spans several years. I have been struggling to find the most effective way to tell it.

During a recent job-related meeting, I didn’t have paper and pencil with me for doodling, but I did have my trusty red proofing pen and my office keys on their coiled key chain. I started playing with the coils, wrapping them in circles around the pen, and at one point ended up with a figure 8 with the pen through it.

I was intrigued by the shape and wondered if it could be a plot structure. But I was only looking at the 8. Then I realized that the pen was the key (pardon the pun). When I got back to my desk I drew a sketch with the pen as the through-line of the novel, the past story as the “bottom” loops and the various subplots as the “top loops,” with a crucial event (likely the crisis of the novel) at the point where the two loops intersect, which in my initial sketch is the midpoint of the novel but I now realize needs to be closer to the climax.

key ring plot

At home over the weekend, I laid out the index cards with all my story events in roughly that shape and rearranged them to see how it would affect the telling of the story. I won’t say all my structure problems have been solved, but I have gotten some much-needed clarity.

By the way, James Scott Bell has an article in the January issue of Writer’s Digest in which he discusses his favorite visual representation of story structure: the suspension bridge. It’s about the doorways, plot points or, in his case, pillars of the classic three-act structure, with lots of examples from well-known books.

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