Was It Good for You?: A Feminist Reflection on the Pleasures of Plot

by Rosalie Morales Kearns

Rising Action: Where Have I Seen This Before?

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or read a book about fiction-writing techniques, you’ve probably seen the Freitag triangle. Teachers like to use this diagram to illustrate the movement of the conventionally linear narrative. Basically the message is that a story, in order to be a story, has to contain rising action, a climax, and a denouement, although it’s agreed that in contemporary fiction the climactic moment is likely to be “quiet” (interior, epiphanic) rather than overtly dramatic, and the denouement may be brief or merely implied.

Now, is it just me, or does this pattern bear a remarkable similarity to the male sexual experience? Think about it. The story’s humming along, and things get more exciting, and more exciting, and more exciting, and it all builds up to a peak, an explosion of sorts (if you will), after which the story kind of droops (so to speak).

You may be wondering why I find this problematic. After all, some authors have described alternatives to the rising-action model. In The Art of Fiction John Gardner briefly mentions two. The first is what he calls a “juxtapositional” novel, whose parts “have symbolic or thematic relationship but no flowing development through cause and effect” (185). This seems similar to what Madison Smartt Bell calls the “modular” design, in which “narrative elements are balanced in symmetry as shapes are balanced in a symmetrical geometric figure, or as weights are balanced on a scale” (Narrative Design, 214). Bell’s modular examples include the Canterbury Tales; The Arabian Nights; Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra; Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine; and Faulkner’s novels Go Down, Moses; The Unvanquished, and As I Lay Dying. Perhaps we could also put in this category novels that I think of as episodic, quilt-like, or kaleidoscopic, such as Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, or Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.

Gardner also includes a brief but intriguing description of what he calls the “lyrical” novel, examples of which include the works of Proust and Virginia Woolf as well as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

What carries the reader forward is not plot, basically–though the novel may contain, in disguised form, a sequence of causally related events–but some form of rhythmic repetition: a key image or cluster of images . . . ; a key event or group of events, to which the writer returns repeatedly, then leaves for material that increasingly deepens and redefines the meaning of the event of events; or some central idea or cluster of ideas. The form lends itself to psychological narrative, imitating the play of the wandering or dreaming mind (especially the mind troubled by one or more traumatic experiences); and most practitioners of this form of the novel create works with a marked dream-like quality. (185)

But as I read these books and articles on plot, it seems like the authors present an either/or choice: (a) either a novel is nonlinear (lyrical, juxtapositional, modular, quilt-like, etc.); or (b) it’s linear, that is, a “sequence of causally related events,” and therefore follows the rising-action model.

Here’s my question: can we expand Option B? Can we draw lines that move in other ways? If the traditional linear plot pattern imitates the male sexual experience, what are some alternatives?

One pattern that springs to mind is a sharply falling line: the climax is at the beginning, and the rest of the novel is spent exploring why the crisis event happened the way it did (Eva’s Man by Gayl Jones; Toni Morrison’s Paradise). How about others? Multiple climaxes? Long plateaus of intensity? Leisurely playfulness with no climax at all? Surely we can draw these lines, write these stories. Maybe they already exist, but we as readers/critics simply don’t see them that way. Maybe we as writers aren’t writing them because we haven’t thought they were possible.

The Plot Thickens

The other troubling aspect of plot, as it’s discussed in popular books on writing, is the focus on conflict as the driving force of a story. In the rising action/climax/denouement model, conflict is what makes the action rise. If you’re writing a story and you feel it isn’t going anywhere or nothing’s happening, throw in some conflict–an obstacle, a complication, an enemy–and hey presto, you’re on your way to the rising action and, you hope, a rousing good climax.

“Modernist manuals of writing,” notes Ursula K. Le Guin, “often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. . . . Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing” (Steering the Craft, 146).

Janet Burroway, whose excellent book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is now in its eighth edition and is often required reading for creative writing students, calls conflict a “fundamental element of fiction” (8th ed., 249). Burroway’s aesthetic tends to reflect the consensus among authors of popular books and articles on writing, and she is articulate, persuasive, and careful. Here she waxes eloquent on the dramatic potential of conflict (and rising action) for the fiction writer:

Just as a minor “police action” may gradually escalate into a holocaust, story form follows its most natural order of “complications” when each battle is bigger than the last. It begins with a ground skirmish. . . . Then one side brings in spies, and the other, guerrillas. . . . So one side brings in the air force, and the other answers with antiaircraft. . . . [She continues the metaphor, with missiles, rockets, poison gas, nuclear weapons.] The crisis action is the last battle and makes the outcome inevitable; there can no longer be any doubt who wins. (252-53; italics in original)

It’s useful to keep in mind the distinction between the rising-action model and the conflict-centered model, but the truth is they’re often conflated, as we see in the preceding quote. And that’s interesting in itself. Either Pat Benatar is right that love is a battlefield, or else war is erotic, take your pick. Maybe both.

Rewriting the Script

Burroway does offer some alternatives to the “all-the-world’s-a-battle” model of plot construction. Some authors, she acknowledges, “object to the description of narrative as a war or power struggle. Seeing the world in terms of conflict and crisis . . . not only constricts the possibilities of literature, they argue, but also promulgates an aggressive and antagonistic view of our own lives” (255). Besides discussing Le Guin’s critique of the “gladiatorial view of fiction” (255), Burroway cites the dramatist Claudia Johnson: “narrative is also driven by a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect” (255). What’s most interesting is that in earlier editions Burroway had suggested two additional alternatives to the conflict model. The first of these was to see “the shape of the story . . . in terms of situation-action-situation” (3rd ed., 43). The second is even more fascinating:

some critics of recent years have posited birth as an alternative metaphor. . . . Birth presents us with an alternative model in which there is a desired result, drama, struggle, and outcome. But it also represents a process in which the struggle, one toward life and growth, is natural. There is no enemy. The “resolution” suggests continuance rather than finality. It is persuasively argued that the story as power struggle offers a patriarchal view of the world, and that it would improve both stories and world if we would envision human beings as engaged in a struggle toward light. (43)

Birth as a plot structure is a breathtaking idea. We might say that “Someone is born” subsumes the two “classic” plot lines “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town.” And since the point of this discussion is to expand the possible stories, we can start with “Someone is born” and keep going. Someone dances, someone dreams. Someone weaves a web, pieces a quilt. Someone has multiorgasmic sex.

The Morning After

I’m sure most people enjoy a good Freitag triangle now and then. What’s not to like about build-up, release, turn over and fall asleep?

As I see it, the problem arises when we identify plot solely with the conflict-centered, rising-action model. A writer invested in that model won’t recognize other kinds of plots. If she’s a student in a creative writing program, or if she’s an editor or a teacher of creative writing, she may try to impose her own understanding of “plot” on less conventional writers. Even worse, she may impose a sort of self-censorship and distort her own art to fit the perceived mold.

We face two challenges, then: to picture linear plots that aren’t rising-action, and to conceptualize stories that aren’t based on conflict. To dream the impossible dream.

Was It Good for You?: A Feminist Reflection on the Pleasures of Plot