narrative weight

The Shape of Stories: Part 3

In the last post, I discussed the idea behind narrative weight and how we can turn the fluctuations in a narrator’s depth of attention into a story shape. But that method of creating a shape is only one way to visualize narrative weight. A second way is to integrate a story’s narrative weight into its Vonnegutian shape.

As previously noted, Vonnegut created story shapes by graphing the ups and downs of a protagonist’s situation. His shapes allow us to see how seemingly disparate stories use similar narrative structures. But those stories are still disparate for a reason, right? And one of the things that makes them different is the way they use narrative weight.

I’ll explain more fully by comparing two stories: Story A and Story B. Both stories are a doomed love story and follow the same, basic Vonnegutian shape. The protagonists begin in a less-than-perfect state and are headed downward but, when they find love, their condition improves and things move upward until an event tears them from their love, sending them into a final, tragic descent. This gives us a Vonnegutian shape of:

Story Shapes - Doomed Love StoryBut Story A and Story B are not as alike as their Vonnegutian shape indicates. That’s because Story A is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Story B is a Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. While both stories center around a doomed love (Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby and Jude and Willem in A Little Life), they take a vastly different approach, and not just in the length of the novels (The Great Gatsby is barely a fifth as long as A Little Life). A substantial part of their difference is in where the narrative weight of each story rests.

Before I go on, let me say I love both of these novels. I’m not attempting to compare their artistic merit; I’m attempting to show how, despite their Vonnegutian similarity, the shapes of their stories are still quite different.

We’ll begin with The Great Gatsby.

The central character is Jay Gatsby, but the character of Nick Carraway tells Gatsby’s story. That means it’s Carraway and his interests that determine what elements the narrative focuses deeply on and what elements the narrative speeds past. Carraway spends a long time on the lower part of the Vonnegutian curve upward, giving us glittering details of Gatsby’s parties and Gatsby’s demeanor. He also spends a long time on the beginning of the final slope downward, taking his time to set up and describe the confrontation between Gatsby and Daisy’s husband and the immediate fallout from that confrontation.

However, Carraway spends relatively little time describing how Gatsby became Gatsby (the initial slide down), only a bit of time on Gatsby and Daisy’s affair (the upper part of the rising line) and just 15 pages on the aftermath of Gatsby’s ultimate death, relying on lyrical elevation (which I will discuss in my next post) rather than narrative weight to bring the novel to a close. In short, The Great Gatsby is heavily weighted around the early part of the Vonnegutian shape’s rise and the early part of the final fall and lightly weighted everywhere else.

How does that compare to A Little Life?

A Little Life uses a 3rd person omniscient-leaning narrator that dips in and out of the perspectives of the novel’s four primary characters. Yanagihara uses this expansive narrative voice to give us multiple views of the characters and to control the speed and intensity at which we learn about the novel’s central character, Jude St. Francis. It’s Jude’s story that holds most of the novel’s narrative weight, with his tragic past of victimhood described in graphic detail over the course of multiple flashbacks spaced throughout the novel’s second half.

In fact, Jude’s life of pain, both mental and physical, pervades the novel, centering the story’s narrative weight along that first descending line in the Vonnegutian shape. The romance with Willem and the hope that it brings Jude (the rising line) takes up a relatively small fraction of the narrative attention. So does the ultimate fall, occurring after the tragic death of Willem, which itself happens in less than a page.

The intense focus on Jude’s years of pain gives A Little Life a notably different feel than The Great Gatsby. Where The Great Gatsby feels like a melancholic sigh, A Little Life feels more like a vice around the heart. This difference is due to a lot of narrative choices, but I would argue that one of the most significant is the difference in where the narrators center the narrative weight.

And this is a difference we can turn into a shape. The shape uses the ups-and-downs of the Vonnegutian shape but, instead of the line being a consistent width, the line thickens wherever the narrative weight is heaviest.

Using that method, The Great Gatsby’s shape looks like:

Story Shape -- Great Gatsby

A Little Life’s shape looks like:

Story Shape -- A Little Life

My less-than-fantastic artistic skills aside, this method of visualizing a story lets us see that the two stories share a similar arc but have profoundly different shapes. I think this method of creating a story shape can help us think more deeply about the narrative construction of stories and how those structures function to create the reading experience. Additionally, I think this method of visualizing stories can help us better see the structures of our own stories, which can help us refine them into the shape—and reading experience—we want.

And thus ends my discussion on narrative weight. Up next: lyrical elevation.

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.