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.

There Are Literally No Words for Trump

The first president I remember clearly is Ronald Reagan. And what I remember is that he was a crook and a liar and a heartless bastard.

I’m not sure who told me this. I probably overheard it from friends of my parents during routine political discussions. But no matter where I heard it, I spent many years certain that Reagan was one of the worst things to ever happen to America.

At least until the Gingrich revolution, which, of course, was going to end civilization. Although, wait, no, the buffoon George W. Bush was the real apocalyptic threat. He was evil. He was Hitler. He was going to stage a coup and claim a third term with the help of his four horseman: Cheney, Haliburton, Diebold and Rove.

No, wait, no, there’s worse. The Tea Party is ripping apart the very fabric of the universe, shredding the laws of physics so the Koch Brothers can build thrones out of the bones of the 99% and force-feed the survivors Monsanto until their souls dissolve into piles of collateralized debt obligations.

Okay, I may have gotten carried away in describing the exact nature of the criticisms. But it is true that, for as long as I can remember (and I’m middle-aged, mind you), the opposition has been a grave enemy and something to fear, and often hate.

The exact same dynamics have, of course, been at play on the right for just as long. A peek into the way many conservatives speak about Obama will reveal a shit-stream of fear and hate roiling with such frequent comparisons to Hitler that the slur has become weightless, part of the miasma.

You can even see this rush-to-demonize happening in intra-party contests. A small but vocal percentage of Bernie Sanders supporters spend countless hours online portraying Hillary Clinton as some form of corporate-powered Kaiju beating the poor with bags of Goldman Sachs money. Meanwhile, hard-line conservatives are regularly portrayed by their harder-line Tea Party opponents as traitors to cause and country.

Over the last few decades, we have become increasingly incapable of reasonably criticizing the failings of our opponents, or appropriately defining the stakes in front of us. Every opponent is the WORST human being to ever live. Every election is the difference between American ascendancy and the End Times.

That’s not to say important things haven’t been at stake or that certain leaders haven’t been less than beneficial for the country. But it is to say: we’ve wasted all our words.

Now we have no way to describe the force that is Donald Trump.

Both sides have exhausted our language in an attempt to portray the other side as evil. Now our vocabulary is bare, our metaphors exhausted, our dire warnings dead on the road. There is nothing we can say about Donald Trump that hasn’t been said about far lesser threats. And that means there’s nothing we can say that will make his supporters pause and reconsider. Why would they pause at warnings they’ve heard all of their lives about every other politician?

Trump is an existential threat to the character of our nation. He has no respect for the dignity of the office he’s running for and no interest in protecting the Constitution or following international law. And by allowing the space for white-supremacists to move freely within his movement, he is giving power to a dangerous element that threatens the well-being and lives of millions of our citizens.

He riles up fear and hate in a way that is truly comparable to Hitler. And yet that analogy is useless. It won’t convince a single Trump follower to reassess because we’ve rendered the analogy meaningless. Indeed, everything I said is meaningless to anyone who is predisposed to support Trump. It’s all been said before, and said louder, and said with more rancor and spit.

When we overuse our words, we choke out our ability to speak truth. For the first time in my life, there is a real monster rising within our political system. But we’ve already named a thousand lesser threats monstrous. What do we call Trump? How do we find words that hold any meaning? Where are the words that will stop him?