Six impossible things

Stringing beads

Writers use a variety of different metaphors to describe how they think about plot and structure. One that I’ve seen used quite a bit is “beads on a string” – that is, figuring out a plot is a process of lining up a series of beads/scenes in a pleasing manner and then running a thread through them to hold them together. In this metaphor, the beads are the scenes and events that make up the plot, and the string is the structure. Without the structure, the beads will only stay in order until someone bumps the table; then they’ll go rolling all over the floor. With the structure to hold them in place, you can pick up the string and wear it as a necklace or bracelet.

You can get a lot of different necklaces out of a simple beads-on-a-string construction just by varying the colors, sizes, and shapes of the beads and the order they’re in. The dandelion necklaces I made when I was seven and the popcorn-and-cranberry garlands we made one year for the Christmas tree are made this way, the same as my mother’s elegant necklace of perfectly matched malachite beads. The two things that are key here (from a metaphorical standpoint; I don’t actually know much about jewelry-making) are 1) The strength of the core – the “string” – that holds the beads together is really important (the dandelion necklaces disintegrated long before the flowers themselves wilted…and I was the one stuck with vacuuming the popcorn up when the thread broke), and 2) The string is meant to be invisible; it’s completely covered by the beads or the popcorn or the dandelions.

In plot-and-structure terms, this is a relatively simple and straightforward structure, one that’s intuitive for a lot of writers and that fits a lot of different stories. It also fits really well with the way reading works – one word at a time, one sentence at a time, words strung together in order on one page after another. And because it is straightforward and intuitive, linear and chronological, this type of structure can be completely invisible to both reader and writer. Which can lead to some interesting misconceptions, most notably the notion that structure is the sort of thing that only other writers ever notice, and therefore can be safely ignored if one is writing for a “popular audience.”

The thing is, a bowl full of beads is not a necklace. Neither is a row of beads lined up on a table. They may look like a necklace, but until they have that center core to hold them together – until they have structure – you can’t pick them up and wear them. Tip the bowl, jiggle the table, and the neat arrangement is lost. Use a string that’s not strong enough, and the necklace will break under its own weight. Use a solid steel rod with no give, and you have a nice way to store your beads, but not a particularly good way of wearing them. Use bendable wire, and you can shape your row of beads into curlicues and outlines – possibly wearable, but possibly vulnerable to being pulled out of shape. Structure matters, even when it’s simple and hidden underneath everything else.

Being unaware of structure in fiction works for a lot of writers because they’re using a chronological, linear structure that they don’t have to think about. Time is an obvious enough and strong enough connection to hold most plot-points and events and scenes together, though it will start to break down if the writer tries to cram so many details in that the reader begins to lose track of the main story-thread, or if the writer gets careless about their internal consistency and/or order of events. And if the structure is invisible, hidden underneath the plot-pattern created by the order of the scenes, then any minor kinks and flaws won’t show to the average reader. This means that the writer can concentrate on fixing more visible weaknesses.

Also, a straightforward, linear structure is highly adaptable – it works in a lot of different stories. You can write a lot of books and stretch in a lot of different directions without ever needing to play around with the simple beads-on-a-string type of structure, and many brilliant writers have done just that.

But structure doesn’t have to be hidden. One of my friends makes amazing jewelry in part by taking the structure – the wire that holds the beads together – and bringing it out in the open where it becomes ornamental as well as functional. The metaphor doesn’t hold up quite as clearly when it comes to written fiction, but visibly playing with structure in writing can emphasize or enhance particular aspects of a story or a plot. Combining structure with other plot or character elements allows for things like braided novels that follow three or four different viewpoint characters, each with a different story that intersects and overlaps the others.

If the structure – in jewelry or writing – is going to show, though, you probably want it to be more than plain cotton string or an ordinary linear narrative. You want something interesting and attractive, and the more of it that shows, the more interesting and attractive you want it to be. Structure that shows in between plot-and-event beads has to have a function other than simply keeping the beads in order. Maybe it’s there to hold particular sorts of scenes a little apart, so they’ll have more individual impact. Maybe there’s a scene that would be long and boring if it simply happened, but spreading it out in small pieces embedded in other scenes makes it memorable, or allows the writer to make subtle connections with other plot threads in the story.

Which is about as far as I can stretch this particular metaphor, I think.

  1. When as a youngling I tried to make popcorn garlands for the Yule tree, the popcorn broke apart as I tried to push the needle through. (I don’t know whether this informs the writing process, but it wouldn’t surprise me.)

  2. I’ve always likened my envisioning of my plots as riding a train. I know my departure point and my destination. And I know a number of stops along the way. But I’m pleased with all of the discoveries I make as well: people I meet, things I see out the window, the range of emotions I feel, the passing of time, et cetera.

  3. Brenda Clough used to use the analogy of the boa constrictor in the zoo. Reptiles keep growing all their lives, so long as they’re healthy; so every year or so the zoo has to rassle up enough keepers to go into its cage, grab its head, grab its tail, and put enough keepers on its middle to stretch it out so they can measure it.

    So there’s a point where you’ve got the head and the tail and are still groping for the middle. Right now I have the head and about six chapters’ worth of neck, and I *think* I can see the tail out there, but I can’t quite make out its shape yet … I have to find more of the intermediate segments.

Leave a Reply

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,