Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Story As Pretty Data Points

Yesterday I began a great experiment. Well, “great” may be a bit premature, but I promise it is a genuine experiment. For the first time I’ve decided to graph one of my novels prior to serious revision and editing.

Now, I am not a visual thinker and learner. Not at all. I staunchly maintain that there are really only twelve colors in the world and that all the rest of this complication is just people mistaking the moods of these twelve real colors. People who scrawl all over their texts in colors and shapes and lines and arrange everything in very particular spaces make little sense to a conceptual thinker like myself. So this graphing a story to help with revision idea would never have come to me if not for two people: Dave Wolverton and my wife, Amy. I heard Dave mention that he graphs his stories prior to writing the first draft. When I thought about that it didn’t seem to fit me at all, but on further thought I realized that I was intrigued as to what a graph of a rough draft I’ve already written might allow me to do. That planted the seed, and exposure to Amy’s learning style made that germ flourished.

Amy is one of those color, line, and space people. The first time she ever read a complete manuscript of mine she gave me back a printout of the entire novel with characters and concepts and emotions all outlined in colors, with strange webs and interconnected lines on pages, including comments and other annotation, as she showed me a whole new way to approach what I’d written. It was all pretty much biochemistry in Greek to me, but it did get me thinking about how visual symbolism can offer a different take on a story.

Now I’m testing that theory big time. Deciding that I was going to do this, and knowing I may only do it once in my life, I decided to do it full out. Full out has turned into a three foot by, I don’t know, ten or twelve foot graph. Every chapter of the fifty chapter book (it may gain a chapter or three by the time I’m done, even as it loses length) is represented by a two by two inch square. If nothing else, when finished this thing will make a strange artifact to the idiosyncratic nature of my writing process.

Amy was good enough to make the chart, and yesterday we started graphing. At this point, I have the central conflict of the story as well as two rivalries between the protagonist and other characters graphed. What’s left to come? A father/son conflict, the internal conflict of the protagonist, the conflict of a good teacher fighting a corrupt system on behalf of her students, the conflict of an overwhelmed principal trying to rise to her responsibility, the conflict of a self-doubting friend of my protagonist, and on-page time for a character I think readers will love, the Irish/Scotish/Something-ish Alleged-Ax-Murdering Male School Nurse Peetches. (I assume he’ll be fascinating whenever he makes an appearance, so I want to know where he plays a significant role in the story because that might cover an occasional sin.) So there’s much more to do.

What’s the verdict so far? I’m surprised by how excited the graph has me. The graph is a monster, but the story in graph form is remarkably easy to handle. Simple even. I can see the three peak structure, just as it should be, and examine the rate of conflict by looking at slope. (The vertical axis measures the rate of conflict on a subjective scale of 1/3, 1/2, or 1 square per chapter.) I can see every chapter thoroughly by comparing the lines of different conflicts and elements and, with these overlaid on top of each other, get a very good view of the nature of the chapter. And even before the graph is finished, I’m finding possible ways to improve the story.

One or two areas where I have too many downward slopes at once indicate I’m risking a lull in the narrative. I can see that my second peak or act, sometimes called rising action, is the least precipitous of the three in terms of intensifying conflict. This may or may not be an issue as that section of the story is largely about ambiguity; there are a lot of reversals of fortune, and that keeps the line from rocketing skyward as quickly as other areas. But it has given me reason to look at that section of the book carefully, suspecting that picking up the conflict in an area or two might improve things. And that came from a few moments of study of the graph before heading to a family party yesterday.

It’s way too early to predict what the outcome of this experiment will be, but I’m glad I’m doing it. I’ll post about this again, and I promise to include a photo of this titan when I’m finally done with it.

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