Showing posts with label LeGuin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LeGuin. Show all posts

03 September 2014

Two Plots, No Waiting

by Robert Lopresti

I recently came across a novel and a short story which used the same plot structure, one that I have seen once before.  I am wondering if anyone can point out more examples of this scheme.

The current samples are the novel Parlor Games, by Maryka Biaggio, and the story "Jaguar" by Joesph Wallace, which appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I recommend them both.  The novel is the life story of a female con artist as she travels the world at the turn of the century.  "Jaguar" tells of a forest guide in Belize who joins up with an American tourist to escape a violent home life.  But a traveling female main character is not the similarity that interests me.

You may have heard Lawrence Block's comment that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end -- but not necessarily in that order.  The structure of these two tales is such that they begin and end in the middle.  How does that work?

Well, let's say that a story had six parts.  The traditional way to present them is in chronological order : 1 2 3 4 5 6.  (I have put the second half in bold to make what follows clearer.) 

Now maybe you want to follow Larry Block's suggestion of not beginning at the beginning.  You might rearrange the story: 2 1 3 4 5 6.   That is, you start with the action under way and then go back to "catch up" with what you missed.  After that chronological order takes over. 

But the tales I am discussing use a more radical approach: 4 1 5 2 6 3.  In other words, you start halfway through the story, go back to the beginning, and then alternate.  In effect you have two plots taking turns, one that will end where the other one  begins. 

Am I making any sense?  Let's try another example.  The first time I came across this structure was in The Dispossessed, a great science fiction novel by Ursula K. LeGuin.  LeGuin wanted (I assume) to show us two contrasting societies.  One  is an anarchist organization that was given their planet's inhabitable moon as a way of preventing their revolution from taking over  the  home planet.

The book begins with Shevek, a scientist from the anarchist moon, getting ready to return to the home planet, the first person ever to do so.  The next chapter begins with his childhood.  And so the pieces alternate, showing Shevek's visit in contrast with his upbringing on the moon.  The latter ends with his decision to visit the other world, bringing us back to the beginning of the book.

Parlor Games starts with the con woman on trial.  Then we see her childhood in the Upper Peninsula.  Back to the trial.  On to her early adventures in Chicago... And so on.

"Jaguar" alternates between Ana's first day in America, and her meeting with the tourist who winds up taking her there.  This structure allows the author to cleverly conceal some plot points until he wants you to see them.

I planned to ask you if you knew any more examples of this plot structure when I realized that I had a contributed a modest sample.  My story "Why," (AHMM, May 2011) has the structure  3 1 4 2.  Here is part of  what I said about the story when it was published:

I wrote a story with two endings. In one finale, a character had an ah-ha moment, an epiphany if you will. In the second ending we see him reacting to that realization. Originally I went with chronological order, but I decided to end with the bigger bang, even though it meant losing an exit line I really liked.

At the time I didn't make the connection to LeGuin's novel. 

Can anyone name more examples?