Friedrich von Blowhard is on about story structure:
My son loves to watch Stuart Little 2; consequently, I have listened to this film a large number of times while out doing errands. Hearing the movie all the way through repeatedly, it finally dawned on me that its basic story structure is broken up into four roughly equal parts:
Part I — Introduction to our hero/heroines inner, emotional problem
Part II — Introduction to our hero/heroine’s outer, practical problem and the explanation of the link between it and the inner problem
Part III — First round of engaging the practical problem
Part IV — Second round of confrontation with practical problem, culminating in ultimate success or failure
Friedrich applies this to The Great Gatsby and amusingly concludes that it is really a noir, which, considered from a certain angle, it is.
Let’s take Friedrich’s notion out for a spin with one of my favorite novels, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.
Part I — Isabel Archer sails from America to England to visit her cousins, the Touchetts. She is young, beautiful, clever, proud, naive, and single. She begins poor, but James provides her with a fortune, in his usual way, to allow her maximal freedom of action, or to put it differently, enough rope to hang herself. Isabel resolves to tour Europe to gain an education.
Part II — She is also touring Europe to find a husband. Suitors present themselves. First is Lord Warburton, who, being handsome, kind, well-spoken, titled, and immensely rich, clearly won’t do.
Part III — Next up is the young American magnate, Caspar Goodwood. Isabel, who by this time has fallen under the spell of the arch-European Madame Merle, refuses Goodwood because he is too good, too wooden, and just altogether too American. Instead she marries Madame Merle’s choice, the evil gold-digging aesthete Gilbert Osmond.
Part IV — Isabel realizes her error, which it is too late to correct, for super-subtle Jamesian reasons to which I cannot do justice in a sentence and to which James, in truth, doesn’t do justice in the novel either.
Well, it works, I guess. Yet it is too vague to satisfy. Friedrich deals in themes, when what we really need is a classification of plots.
Surely there are several plots even if there is only one theme. The Seven Plots (or however many there are, maybe fewer, certainly no more) is one of the desperately needed books that may never be written, along with Albert Goldman’s proposed Encyclopedia of Musical Plagiarism. One of the seven, I am sure, is the hourglass plot, in which two characters begin high and low, cross in the middle, like an hourglass, and swap positions at the end. Martin Amis, for one, can write nothing else. Success is quintessentially hourglass; and Money and The Information both rely heavily on hourglass elements.
Instructors in screenwriting are fond of talking about character arcs, and they may be on to something, much as it pains me to admit. Since all stories take place in time, make time the x-axis. Represent a character’s death as y=0. Graph the plot, with a single line if there is one main character, with more if, as in the hourglass, there is more than one. Zoom out and note the shape. There’s your plot type. A Greek tragedy would look like an upside-down hyperbola, the protagonist cruising at the peak of his powers until the sudden revelation, and disaster. Novels of descent — say, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — would look like straight lines with negative slope, with an occasional squiggle to keep the reader’s attention. Horatio Alger stories are the same, except positively sloped.
The Great Gatsby is another single-line affair, Gatsby himself being the only character who changes. It might be a skewed bell curve: Gatsby begins with nothing, reaches his peak with his affair with Daisy — “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts” — soon realizes that nothing will come of it, and is shortly thereafter found floating face-down in his swimming pool. Tales of peril and redemption will be inverted bell curves, skewed right when the peril takes more space than the redemption, the usual case.
A book’s merit, of course, has nothing to do with its graph. If The Seven Plots is ever written, let alone read, it will serve the useful purpose of dispelling the notion that some types of plots are better than others, and refocus the reader’s attention on other qualities, where it properly belongs.
Stanislaw Lem once wrote a little collection of reviews of non-existent books called A Perfect Vacuum. Its unstated premise was that the review rendered the actual book superfluous, and the titles themselves were marvelous — Die Kultur als Fehler (Civilization as Mistake) by Privatdozent W. Klopper, Being Inc. by Alastair Waynewright, Toi, “a novel about the reader,” by Raymond Seurat. A collection of reviews of non-existent books that we actually need would be an equally profitable exercise.