The Hero as Potato: The Shape of Story

July 18, 2013

By Tim Wynne-Jones

Years ago I saw in an encyclopedic book on the art of creating mystery and suspense the visual representation of building drama in a thriller. It was a simple illustration of the top edge of a closed book with slips of paper, like so many bookmarks, standing at differing heights indicating the places where significant crises took place in the narrative. It made a pleasing little jagged hill. And although the heights to which each marker rose could only have been arbitrarily decided, it was plain enough to see that there were more markers, grouped closer together, as the story raced towards its climax. So when I decided to give a lecture on plot at Vermont College, in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program, back in January of this year, I thought it might be interesting to analyze one masterfully structured book to see if I could come up with some equally graphic representation of where the narrative arc took significant leaps and dives. I hoped to learn something about this pattern of actions that we call plot.
I used Ken Oppel’s novel, Half Brother, as my model. Ken typically writes a darn good adventure story and I wanted to see how he used his mastery of drama in a more straightforward novel, that is, apparently, his favorite. I mapped out moments of change in the profluence of the story along an x-axis representing the chapters, and a y-axis corresponding to the intensity of the drama. The idea was to determine, among other things, whether the plot points fell in moments of action and/or dialogue, that is to say scenes, as opposed to passages of summary.
Why? I mean, what was the point? Because no writer would ever be likely to map out a book in such a way, before the fact, as an aid to writing a novel, unless the aim was to create a pattern that could be reproduced again and again in formulaic fashion. Well, I did it because it was kind of fun, and instructive in the same way, I suppose, that opening up a cadaver and mucking about inside is instructive.
I was interested enough in this anatomical research to propose a generative plot workshop for the summer residency at VCFA, where each participant applied these means, as unscientific as they may be, to look at a novel they felt worthy of closer examination. Today is the last of the six workshops and it has resulted in some interesting debate. For instance, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, defies any kind of linear plotting; whereas Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, looks just like the range of mountain peaks you’d expect. Both books are wonderful in their own ways; that’s not the point. And perhaps the discrepancy in their structure puts pay to any presumed idea of the shape of a book. The student who took on Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, created a graph that looked like a heart attack, rising high about the axis and sinking far below as Ender battled his way through his strenuous regime of training, leading to his triumph over the enemy… and himself. The beauty of this latter diagram was to see that the action resolved not at some high point of dramatic tension but much nearer to the norm, as if Ender was a patient saved, or a young man finding balance.

The outcome of this interesting little workshop, I think, will not be in finding any definitive idea as to how plot works but rather in asking different kinds of questions about the concept. And in that regard, I decided to end the exploration for now looking at Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful piece, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which can be found in her collection of essays called Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1990. She posits, there, an idea that wisely and amusingly flies in the face of the action-packed, hero-oriented “arc” we inevitably characterize as the path of a narrative. She writes, with great wit, about the hero’s story, the proper shape of which is the path of the arrow or spear and talks about how conflict is at the heart of such stories. And she replies to this paradigm with a different one: the novel as sack. She says: “the novel is a medicine bundle holding things in a particular, powerful relationship to one another and to us (169).” When we talk about plot we talk about a pattern of actions. Le Guin also talks about a pattern of actions but not necessarily one that must scale the heroic peaks in the all too well known trajectory. She says of her sack theory: “The hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in the bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato (169).” It’s a funny, bracing challenge to our staid and steadfast and shaky – or in need of shaking up — idea about the shape of story.

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2 responses to “The Hero as Potato: The Shape of Story

  1. Tim, what a great post. And yes, this in part is why I am not a fan of the hero’s journey. Not only is the hero always a guy but Campbell’s thoughts about heroes ended up being pretty darned Eurocentric no matter how hard he tried to make them “universal”. The arrow takes a route defined by culture, which could be why the application of those arbitrary hills and valleys to stories from other places feels forced. I love the way Le Guin pulls all this apart and for me personally, it’s really exciting to find that your workshop confirms what I’ve always suspected. There is no single shape. There is no universal journey. What you have left is humanity, heart, longings, and relationships. And that is a remarkably freeing thought.

  2. First let me say, Tim, that that is the best title ever: The Hero as Potato. Since I follow the blog, the title came to me in my email Inbox, and I had to come over to the web to read your essay immediately. Second, let me say that yes, I love the way your conclusions embrace so many different models of the hero’s journey. I’ve always had a weakness for stories where the hero travels in some kind of internal way, without too much happening externally (though not NOTHING happening! In film, I think it’s called “talking heads.”) When I read something with a lot of action (the peaks and valleys of the graph) I’m almost always aware that it is “pretend,” that is, it’s a metaphor for the real journeys we all travel in our lives which are more subtle and less clear. I love the metaphor of the bag, within which the hero is sometimes sightless. Possibly this is because I feel my own journey (and I am the hero of my life, I think) proceeds in the semi-dark, as I bump along inside that sack. Maybe this is also why I love potatoes – I always thought it was because I was a potato farmer in a former life. But now it’s possible that the lowly potato might be quite a nice metaphor for a hero! I find that comforting. Sounds like your workshop was wonderful – both practical AND thought-provoking, the best kind.

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