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The asymmetric hill

We were taking apart the opening of a novel in manuscript, and I was describing the classic way to shape narrative, as described by John Gardener. Gardener's diagram is an asymmetric hill: a right-angled triangle resting on its hypoteneuse, so that the scene works its way upwards to the point of climax, and then runs rather more quickly and steeply down to the close. I find this shape a much more useful way of thinking about such things than the arc which is often recommended, since it pin-points the moment of climax, and suggests that there's plenty of space for the build-up, so that we're convinced by the climax and its consequences, although the latter may not be spelt out, for now, in as much detail.* Those consequences, of course, need to include the next scene, which builds up from it. (And yes, I am aware that discussing it like this is edging towards discussing plots like a W, but bear with me.)

I'm using the term 'scene' loosely, of course, in the sense of an event - a unit of roughly continuous action - but although writers vary enormously in how much they see their narratives as a set of scenes linked, or a continuous flow, if it didn't have this build-up and run-down, we wouldn't keep reading. You can conceive of it, alternatively, as Booker's constriction-and-release, otherwise known as Rowan William's systole and diastole, and of course it's not just a scene which needs to have something like this shape if it's to carry the reader forward. It can be very helpful to see a chapter thus, or a whole novel: how does it build up, where's the apex, how does it wind down? Or a even single sentence: yes, really. As much as in a discussion like this, where point leads on to point, idea to idea, by the end of each sentence in fiction the narrative should have moved very slightly on from where it was: either in tension or in our apprehension of a character or their motivations. If not, why is it there?

And then I asked why one character had come to see the other, and in the discussion it became obvious that the chief reason was that the plot needed to be got moving. So we went into the basics of character-in-action: What does she want? What does she do to get it? What gets in the way? How does that change what she wants and what she does? And suddenly I saw how this, which I've always thought as a verbal catechism, maps onto Gardener's asymmetric hill. 'What does she want?' is what makes the first side spring from the baseline. 'What does she do?' starts to drive her up the slope, but as she climbs along comes 'What gets in the way?' The apex is the moment when they either accommodate each other, or one wins: the moment of change. The downwards slope is how that plays out, so that by the bottom, either or both of 'What does she want?' and 'What does she do to get it?' have changed. And we're ready for 'What does she want?' to start driving her up the next hill.

Later that same day, I was driving home - a long, dull drive - and worrying about one of my two narrators in Kindred & Affinity. At the moment, two chapters in, his narrative is all talk: there's a lot being explained and a lot being set up for later, and backstory and setting-up are essentially static. For reasons emotional and practical - perfectly good plot-reasons which I could tell you, except that then I'd have to kill you - he can't do anything about what matters most to him. And, clear as a bell, imprinted (yes, I've mixed two sense-metaphors on purpose) on the space above the A3 (round about Liphook, if you're interested) I saw the beginning of the hill of his story, and he was stuck at the foot of it. I and he know what he wants, but all the ways he might try to get it seem impossible for him. In starting his narrative at a paralysed point of his story I've given myself a built-in problem, and now I've got to solve it. I know what I want; now how am I going to get it? And, as so often, it wasn't following a rule, but trying to explain something to someone else, which made me realise how it works for me, and my character.


*Any one who's familiar with the Anglican Prayer Book will know that the Communion Service has exactly that shape: I suspect it's something very fundamental to the storied nature of the human race, but I haven't yet laid hands on the book on Narrative Psychology which has been recommended to me, to find out if I'm right.