Six impossible things

Plot Shapes III: Beads on a String and spokes on a wheel

I’m sure all of you have been waiting for the e-book with baited breath. Wrede on Writing goes live tomorrow, December 4th. It’s the first time I’ve had THREE sets of galleys to look over (epub, mobi, and the pdf that they’re using for the hardcopy version). It also got put together with stunning speed to make the Christmas rush (they turned the copy-edit around in 24 hours, so I can’t really complain that they only gave me two days each to look at the galleys. Even though I want to.)

For those who don’t already know, this is a collection of my blog posts and classroom handouts, edited and rearranged to follow some vaguely logical order. If you like reading this blog, get a copy and give it to a writer friend for Christmas. If you hate my advice, get a copy and give it to an enemy…

Enough with the shameless self promotion. Back to talking about plot shapes.

Yet another plot shape to consider is the one I think of as beads on a string. Beads plot

This one has a central core that connects everything, even though the scenes or chapters or sections that make the “beads” aren’t necessarily or obviously connected by anything else.  Often, each “bead” is a different viewpoint, as whatever-it-is moves from one place/character to another, the way the jeans do in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It can also be something like the original Star Trek series taken as a whole, where each “bead” is an episode in the ongoing mission (whereas, as somebody pointed out, each episode taken individually is circular, putting the main characters right back where they started). One novel that I remember reading but can’t place at the moment was a great fat bestseller-like thing that followed a gemstone from being dug up by a medieval miner, to the jeweler who cut it for a nobleman, to the Renaissance pawnbroker who took it as a pledge from the nobleman’s wastrel grandson, and on through different characters who owned it during the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and of course World War I & II.

A beads-on-a-string plot often looks a lot like a fix-up book (and sometimes it is, when the author has written a series of short stories that deliberately follow portions of a larger plot-arc, like John Brunner’s Crucible of Time). Or it can be something like Dr. Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, in which the alien species the humans are trying to contact live at such a significantly faster rate that, to them, decades and centuries go by between each message, and each chapter or section from the alien’s viewpoint must therefore feature a different main character and different social and cultural problems as they essentially move from being a primitive civilization through several thousand years of development (from their perspective) over a couple of weeks (from the perspective of the humans).

Related to this, but not the same, is the wheel plot shape: spokes on wheelIt’s related to the beads-on-a-string because each section or wedge is a completely different view of the same central thing or event (the hub). Unlike the beads, which are independent of each other and only connected by the central thread, the wedges are different takes on the same thing, so they necessarily cover similar ground.

The wedges can be differing accounts of the same event, as in the movie Rashomon, or differing story forms (poetry, myth, legend, song, “nonfiction”) that interpret and reinterpret the same story, as in Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark. Unlike the beads-on-a-string, though, the story could theoretically start with any one of the “wedge” bits, as they are all focused on the same central event or story at the same time. Usually, the author arranges them to get the maximum effect – Rashomon would not be nearly as effective if the woodcutter’s story came first, or if the samurai’s story was told before the bandit’s version or the wife’s. Still, the stories are independent enough that you could start with the samurai’s story if you wanted. Everything would still make sense (as much as it ever does), it just wouldn’t have quite the same impact.

Again, you don’t see a lot of action plots that have either of these shapes, though I think my examples demonstrate that it’s not only possible for an adventure plot to work in this shape. And using one of them instead of the usual triangle-shape can lead a story in some really, really interesting directions.

In both of these cases, there is usually at least a bit of build-up to something, whether it’s keeping the most dramatic story for last or twisting the reader’s interpretation/reinterpretation with a major revelation near the end. Still, the overall story shape just doesn’t fit the traditional triangle I started with in the first post of this series. The individual beads or spokes often do follow that pattern, though, especially when each is a complete story of its own.

This adds a whole enormous layer of complexity to the topic: combining and layering different plot shapes. Novels have plots and subplots, and each can have its own shape (as with the Star Trek episodes I mentioned earlier, which fit the triangle problem-obstacle-solution shape in the action plot, leave the characters circling back to exactly the same place at the end of each episode, and work as beads-on-a-string when you look at the whole season at once).

Which brings me to the reason I got to thinking about all this in the first place, which I’ll talk about next time.

  1. Ooh, you tease, still holding off on why you’re thinking of all this 🙂 I don’t think I’ve read any books with these types of structures, at least, not for a long time. I think the “traditional” ones are probably easier to get published, since taking risks can either be a very good thing or a very bad thing. I’ll have to look into some books that fit this mold …

  2. I’m thinking about E. L. Konigsburg’s The View From Saturday, in which several characters tell separate but related stories, explaining how they work as a team (the frame story is a quiz bowl). Would you call that pie wedges, or beads on a string?

  3. The novels in Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series (for the first half or so) each have parts of the overall story that are often centuries apart.

  4. And Lawrence Durrell’s _Alexandria Quartet_ takes related-but-different viewpoints perhaps to an extreme.

    Each volume can, I think, be graphed as intensity across time, with various peaks and valleys (it’s a character-, not a plot-heavy story)

    The first volume, _Justine,_ is a first-person narrative whose narrator, if not truly unreliable, is somewhat naïve.

    Then in _Balthasar_ another character takes the first guy’s narrative and comments on it so thoroughly — on the order of “You don’t know what you’re talking about, THIS is what really happened” — that it’s a whole ‘nother book.

    Thirdly, _Mountolive_ pulls back further, told in multiple-third-person and giving perspective on what was really going on, most of it political.

    The fourth volume, _Clea_, returns to the original first-person narrator, several years later, who returns to Alexandria and loses much of his naivete, to his considerable benefit.

    I’m not sure how you would diagram that.

    P.S.: Patricia, do you have any data on when the dead-tree version will come out?

  5. Modesitt’s “Archform: Beauty” tells a story from five points of view.

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