The Shape of Stories: Part II

The first of the two types of story shapes I want to discuss in this series is what I’m calling narrative weight. I’ll preface this by saying my ideas on this are nascent, which is why they’re appearing on my blog. I’ve always found blogs to be a good venue for test-driving ideas.

So… what do I mean by narrative weight? Simply put, I mean how much or how little attention the narrator of a story is giving to any particular event, situation, setting or emotion. The more attention a narrator gives an element in the story—the longer the narrative eye examines it—the more weight that portion of the story has. The less attention—the briefer the narrative eye examines an element—the less weight that portion of the story has.

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve realized there are two different ways to turn narrative weight into a story shape. In the interest of keeping these posts at a somewhat manageable length, I’ll discuss the first way here and the second way in the next post.

The first way to create a story shape using narrative weight to is to line-graph the story from beginning to end, moving lower on the graph to represent when a narrator is giving an element extra attention and moving higher to represent when the narrator is giving an element less attention. This creates a shape that captures how often a story slows for examination and how deeply that examination pierces. It also reveals how often and for how long a story uses a lighter touch.

As an example of how this would look, I did a quick, narrative weight graph of Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach. It’s off the top of my head, but I think it gets the point across. The narrative weight shape of the story looks like this:

Manhattan Beach story shape

Egan is a descriptive writer who takes her time delving into emotions and creating vivid scenes, so most of the novel exists in the weightier realm. In Manhattan Beach and her other works, she rarely crosses the line between weightiness and lightness, although the placement of that line is certainly up for debate. Nevertheless, I think this graph demonstrates how a story’s shape looks when we use narrative weight as the measure, rather than using the Vonnegutian measure of whether the protagonist’s condition is improving or worsening. For reference, the Vonnegutian story shape for Manhattan Beach looks like this:

Manhattan Beach Vonnegut

The difference is clear. And I think envisioning a story’s shape as a measure of the narrative weight’s ups-and-downs can be as helpful for writers as envisioning the story’s shape as a measure of the protagonist’s ups-and-downs. In particular, a story’s narrative weight shape can help us identify whether we’re leaning into detailed descriptions and analyses more than we want or less than we want. After all, narrative weight directly affects reader experience. Weightier elements in a story can be intellectually and emotionally engaging to read but risk being dull. Lighter elements, on the other hand, can be fun and breezy to read but risk being forgettable. A controlled fluctuation of narrative weight can help a story take advantage of both weightiness and lightness without succumbing to either’s negative side.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a story with little or no fluctuation of narrative weight can’t work, artistically, commercially or otherwise. In fact, some stories, when graphed for narrative weight, are flat, existing along one level for the entire narrative.

For example, the narrative voice in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code spends a brief amount of attention on every moment, never slowing things down to examine a particular element for any longer than it takes to get the basic facts across. The novel’s narrative weight shape is a straight line running along the upper part of the graph. There are also stories that run in a straight line on the lower part of the graph. I’m thinking specifically of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which the narrative voice obsesses over every element in every moment, making every page narratively heavy.

For my tastes, a flat narrative weight creates an unenjoyable read, although given the popularity (albeit different kinds of popularity) of The DaVinci Code and Infinite Jest, my preference for frequent fluctuation in narrative weight is obviously just that. A preference. I’m not positing that one kind of narrative weight shape (or one position on the heaviness/lightness scale) is superior to another. All I’m saying is that the shape of a story, as measured by narrative weight, affects the nature of that story and the reader’s experience with that story.

But graphing narrative weight in the way I describe here is just one way to think about narrative weight as it pertains to story shape. There is a second way, which integrates Vonnegut’s shapes. And which I will discuss in the next post.

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