Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for Plot Snake

[This is the 16th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Back in letter B, I blathered a bit about narratives and plots, but the search for order in storytelling chaos is neverending...

The idea of diagramming a plot goes back to Aristotle, and probably earlier, with the basic idea of "something" (call it tension?) that goes up, then comes back down.  It builds up, then it is released.  A famous playwright called it the tying and untying of knots.  Some say that the whole is divided into three parts (protasis, epitasis, catastrophe) and others argue that it's really five acts (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and d√©nouement).  Up until the middle of the 20th century it was rare to see anyone questioning this basic idea.

Enter Professor Allen Tilley.  He claims the old Aristotle up-down just characterizes one "episode" in a more complete narrative.  The minimum necessary sequence for a truly satisfying story isn't a single mountain, it's a SNAKE:

(He's got one book from 1992, a more recent one from 2009, and also an active web page at his university... lots to see there!)

He calls the vertical axis "entropy," with upward motion meaning more order, and downward motion more chaos.  The story ends on a "higher" plane than it began, but the characters had to go through their highs and lows to get there.

I'm particularly fond of Tilley's plot snake because it's such an infectious mind-worm... once you know it, you start seeing it everywhere!  Let's briefly break down a story that everyone probably knows:  Cinderella.  Compare these steps with the ups and downs in the snake diagram above:
  1. Initiation:  Her parents dead, Cinderella is stuck with her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. The main conflict is set up: her own self-worth clashes with how the others see her.
  2. Burnt Fingers:  The conflict begins to come to a head.  She wants to go to the ball. The stepmother says she can, if she accomplishes an impossible amount of work.
  3. Temporary Binding:  The fairy godmother helps Cinderella attend the ball and she falls in love with the prince.  Everything seems to be working out perfectly!
  4. Infernal Vision:  Not so fast...  It's midnight!  From the heights, to the depths:  Cinderella has seen love, but is now even lower than before.
  5. Final Binding:  Of course, the prince is searching for the owner of the glass slipper. Through many travails, he finds her.
  6. Termination:  And they live happily ever after.
See the flow?  The transition from stages 3 to 4 is pretty much required in modern-day romantic comedies, usually about a half-hour before the end of the movie.  You've seen it, I'm sure:  3 is the stage of a happy musical montage... frolicking in the park, trying on funny hats, and so on.  But then the big bad secret is revealed, and we're into despondency and stage 4: will they break up forever?  Of course they won't; there's still stages 5 and 6.  Sometimes stage 6 is only shown in snippets in the end-credits, or with freeze-frames on the characters with words telling how they ended up (Senator and Mrs. Blutarsky).

Of course, there are other templates.  Joseph Campbell's monomyth is often visible through the cracks of modern film making. (I know what example you're thinking about, but I would bet money that George Lucas didn't know about it until 1986 at the earliest, despite what he says now...)  There are also companies who sell software that supposedly does this work for you.  Some of these don't seem to be that worthwhile, but others do seem to be doing their homework on comparative dramatic theory.  But Tilley's plot snake is compelling because of its simplicity and unintentional ubiquity.  I dare you to NOT think of it in the next movie you see!  :-)


  1. Good morning, Cygnus. I have so much to say in response to all you have written, I'm not sure where to start. Plus, I just looked over at your sidebar and was tempted to click on the xkcd link. :D

    All right, first off, I've wandered over to Amazon to check out the book by Tilley. My greatest, grandest challenge as an author is plot. That sounds pathetic, but it's the honest-to-God (no, not Neil) truth. I have hammered my prose into a shimmering submission which does my bidding by the second or third revision at this point in my development. I am madly in love with my characters and heavily invested in their experience and can literally hear them when I write. Well, not literally, but you get what I mean.

    Basically, my prose, characters and setting are three things on which I have either worked very hard or sincerely love and enjoy. Meantime, my plot disintegrates because I don't want to harm my characters. Anathema. It is extremely difficult for me. But I have come so close to the prize boar on the strength of the other aspects of my fiction, that I feel like the rubber has really hit the road for me in terms of getting my fingernails dirty with this creature who has been undermining my efforts because I refuse to properly grapple with it: Plot. (That was a lot of metaphor.)

    I liked so much what you wrote in this post that I hopped over to take a look at the book and will continue to explore the introductory pages in the hopes that something will really gel for me. The way you have described plot in terms of entropy, order and chaos is like new block falling into place for me. Or maybe new visions of old blocks.

    In any event, thank you for this. Sorry about the incredibly-long comment, but I just really appreciated this post and plan to read it, again, after I post this comment!

  2. Before plopping money down on Tilley's books (probably from pricey academic presses), dig thru his web site. I think he gives away the content of one of them in MS-word form.

    The desire not to harm one's characters also shows up in role playing games. Some "Dungeon Masters" want their players to succeed so much, they fudge the game in favor of having them win. Unfortunately, that tends to destroy the fun -- i.e., if there's no possibility of losing, it's no longer a game!

    Maybe there's also a "snake theory" of reward and punishment for fictional characters. One of the gurus of our old-school gaming movement once gave a piece of advice that may apply to novel-writers, too...

    Give the players the sun and make them fight for the moon: What I mean is that you give the players almost everything they want and them put them through a thousand Chinese hells to get everything else. Put the [characters] on the throne of Aquilonia, if that's what they want, then have ten-thousand angry Cimmerians invade, intent on burning their capital to the ground. Not because you're a sadistic asshole, but because fighting off an army of Conans is one of the cool things kings get to do.

    1. Tilley book was $14.99 on Amazon. I just bought it. Will be traveling, soon, farther than I ever have in my adult life, and am kind of pinning a bit of expectation for my work on the change of scenery. Wanted the book along.

      Started 'Diaspora,' last night, on the heels of the puerile, hideously-disappointing 'On a Pale Horse,' by Piers Anthony. I hope you don't know the man personally because, dear Neil, what a flaming turd sling. The premise was nothing less than brilliant -- a mortal becomes Death and has to grapple with the terms of his office as he goes along. The execution, though, Kee--rist! I was forcing myself to finish it and got the last forty pages and just said to hell with it.

      Anyway, back to 'Diaspora.' First few pages were pretty dense. Was reading it after I posted, last night, and couldn't go too far.

      'The desire not to harm one's characters also shows up in role playing games. Some "Dungeon Masters" want their players to succeed so much, they fudge the game in favor of having them win. Unfortunately, that tends to destroy the fun -- i.e., if there's no possibility of losing, it's no longer a game!'

      Been reading a bit about game theory. I think you've hit on something in that some of the best stories are the ones in which 'the Fates' sport almost savagely with the principal players. And as gamemasters and novelists, we are (gulp) 'the Fates.'

    2. I'm not a Piers Anthony fan either. I like puns, but even I couldn't slog all the way through a Xanth novel.

    3. On Diaspora... Yeah, that first "birthing" chapter is kind of dry. I think that chapter was originally a stand-alone piece. Once the new being has come out into the world, the plot starts moving along.

    4. The first twenty pages of 'Diaspora' are amazing. I have really appreciated what I have been reading, so far. Was less drained during the day when I picked it up, again. Those introductory pages read a lot like the non-fiction on cognition of which I am an enormous fan, but it also read a little like poetry. It's really working for me.

  3. Oh, and you DO need to keep up on every Mon, Wed, and Fri.

    I'm seriously considering including an xkcd cartoon as a figure in a grant proposal that I'm going to send to NASA...


      Why I fear Julia sets, strange attractors and your basic run-of-the-mill conceptions of infinity.

      Is it fair to ask what you do for a living? Or would you have to kill me? I'm well-versed in that sort of thing as my husband's line of work is one in which I've contented myself never to ask too much.

    2. The word "astrophysicist" appears somewhere in my job description. Unfortunately, the words "federal government" are in there, too. Combine that with some pernicious in-group thinking (i.e., scientists with outside interests deemed too "froo-froo" or too time-consuming are viewed as unserious and unworthy of job advancement), and you get Pseudonymous Me. :-)

  4. The plot snake is new to me but the concept is familiar. Thanks for highly memorable plot snake. :)
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