Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Engineering plots, and reverse-engineering literature

Hester Prynne’s husband, left behind long ago in an Old World city and later held captive in the wilderness of the New, shows up in Boston just as Hester Prynne has appeared on the scaffold, along with her baby, to be publically shamed as an adulteress. How on earth does Hawthorne get away with such a contrived beginning?

Several chapters into Pride and Prejudice, you can guess that Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy and going to end up marrying Jane and Elizabeth, respectively. How does this not make the novel feel hopelessly predictable?

When we analyze literature, we focus on small-scale “devices”: an image here, a symbol there, a smattering of alliteration. When we expand to the big picture, it’s mostly to look at character development and themes. But what about plot and plotting?

In none of my high school or college literature classes was plot considered something worth analyzing. But, as any real story teller can tell you, coming up with an interesting, believable, character-driven plot is one of the hardest things about writing fiction.

Then there’s the intricate “plotting out” of the plot, including decisions about how exactly to set things up and what to reveal when.

Good plotting is difficult. It’s like an extended magic act: you create a diversion in one direction while stacking decks and contriving coincidences in another. The way that Hawthorne gets away with his first big coincidence is by distracting us with what appears to be the main focus of the book (the heroine on the scaffold) and making the new arrival among the onlookers seem like someone who serves simply as our temporary proxy in inquiring about what’s going on. Only some dozen pages later, when this coincidence is no longer so fresh in our minds, do we learn Roger Chillingworth’s true identity.

The centrality of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy is less in doubt. We’re pretty sure we know what will happen, but Austen sets things up so that we don’t know how, and that yes, but how is what drives the novel’s suspense. There are the barriers of social class; of insufferable relatives; of pride, of prejudice; of geographic separation; of the fact that Mr. Darcy has already proposed once to Elizabeth and been resoundingly, humiliatingly rejected. And yet the plot is so engineered, with carefully timed revelations, and coincidences that manage (as in The Scarlett Letter) not to be too self-evidently contrived, that everything convincingly works out. The inevitable yet surprising resolutions seem entirely driven by believable characters, and not by the clever author behind the curtain.

Deconstructing how all this is engineered involves a left-brained, analytical approach to literature in which you take apart not just the stereotypically “literary” elements, but also the mechanical ones. Demystifyingly reductionist though this is, it would, I think, significantly enhance students' literary appreciation—at least when it comes to those classic novels whose intricacies (reminiscent of those of their musical contemporaries) extend far beyond multiple syntactic embeddings and sentential clauses suspended by appositives and parentheticals to the embeddings and suspensions and other complex machinations of plot.

After all, everyone wants to tell a good story. Isn't the best way to learn how to do so to spend time reverse-engineering those of the world's best story tellers?

1 comment:

Adelaide Dupont said...

Plot and story are big in the theatre.

Especially when you are reading and treating a script.

It becomes transferable to some of the more text-heavy classes.

For me, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was my first attempt at Austen in October-November 1995.

Plots and their predictions are not a strong point for me, in reading or in writing.

So this reverse-engineering is fascinating. There is also hacking and coding.

I really started to get plots after I used a piece of software called Dramatica which is attuned to a writer's mind and makes you see the big picture. Think it was on one of my CD-ROM discs and then it was on the Internet 2000-01.