Diagramming Babel (Part 5)

(Originally Posted Wednesday, September 12, 2007)


Diagram 5. Here, I’m trying to work out the plot lines within Oberon Displaced Persons Camp. Anybody who’s ever attended a Clarion workshop where I’ve taught will tell you that I’ve got a thing for triangles. Here’s my theory:

John Kessel once observed that it took three people to make a plot. With two, you’ve only got a tug-of-war. But with three, the protagonist can be pulled in two directions and the story’s outcome will be a synthesis of these forces. That’s an oversimplification of his thoughts on the subject, of course, and to almost any rule there will be exceptions, but it is, as we say, good enough for government work. So whenever I have trouble with plot, I map out the characters’ relationships with each other. Three in a firm triangle is good. Three where the interactions between two of the characters are weak is less good. Characters stuck out on the side, interacting with only one other character are weak, but they might well be simply incidental. A lot of characters relating only to the protagonist and not to each other is a fatal flaw. And so on.

The thing is that character triangles are analytical rather than prescriptive tools. They can’t tell you what to do. They can only tell you what’s going on. But if you want to get a look at a story or a novel fragment as a whole, they’re a great way to sum up a lot of information. Which, sometimes, can tell you what to do. Or at least tell you where it should be done.

Here, the novel’s going well. There are three strong triangles: Will-Esme-Mother Griet, Will-the Lamius-Mother Griet, and the Lamius-Nat-Mother Griet. Note that Nat doesn’t have an explicit relationship with Will. Since Will is the viewpoint character, this means that Nat’s relationship with the Lamius and Mother Griet is entirely implicit in later actions.

Underneath the character diagram, are the words “Garbage duty/[something indecipherable]/Nat,” which map out the plot yet to come. Yet again, I have to apologize for my handwriting. And yet again, I’m trying to force Nat to come out in the open while he, wiser than I, reminds behind the scenes, waiting for the right moment to make his entrance.

Note also the notation “26,802 words,” and the date, “1/30/04.” I’m almost a quarter of the way through the novel and just shy of four years from its pub date. As I said, things were going well.

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