Jan. 19th, 2005 07:06 am
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[personal profile] odd_buttons
The last entry. I've made it all the way to zigzag.

I'd started typing and posting these terms because I couldn't write; I'd hoped revisiting them would help jump-start some inspiration. I can't say it was unsuccessful (I have managed to write a bit, though little related directly to hobbits), but my productivity remains less than it was. Hrm, I'll have to brainstorm other ways to get my mojo back.

I am very pleased, however, that it seems some of you have found the excerpts from Stern's book helpful.


The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.


This term is useful for describing what might be called micro-plotting. Plot refers to what happens in the work as a whole -- the upturns and downturns, the changing positions of the characters. For example, the plot outline for a piece of fiction might be as follows:
Vilmar is happy and about to be married. Vilmar is arrested. He escapes. While on the run, he discovers who framed him. He is captured again, and is to be executed. At the trial he exposes the real villains. Vilmar is exonerated and wed.
Zigzagging is on a smaller scale. It involves producing tension within a single scene by creating fluctuations of feeling to maintain a high degree of attention.

For example, we read a sequence in which we believe Vilmar is going to kiss his sweetheart. But he's too shy to kiss her. No, he leans his face toward hers, but she turns her head away. She looks at him now, but he's afraid to try again. He's steeling himself to do it, but someone is coming. No, it's just the wind in the leaves. Now she is nervous, but Vilmar feels bold. The church bell rings forbiddingly. They both look up. Suddenly their lips meet.

Tension is created by this rhythm. The backs and forths, the advances and retreats all move toward a goal. The zigzag is a micro-paradigm of plotting.

You can exploit the excitement generated by zigzags in physical action as easily as the film director does in a chase or a fight sequence. Vilmar's escaped under the house! Good. But the gangster's dog is sniffing under the house! Oh no! But the dog finds a bone and ignores Vilmar! Good. But now the gangster is looking under the house! Uh oh! But Vilmar has rolled behind a log! Thank goodness. But it's covered with fire ants; he's going to have to make a run for it! And so on.

The most melodramatic and the most sophisticated of fictions share this heartbeat. Flaubert does it in his scenes with Emma as readers watch her mind dart from one impulse to another. A conversation in a Henry James novel, with its rhythm of understandings and misunderstandings, uses the same techniques for creating suspense as the adventures of Benji as he is pursued by his kidnappers. The last chapter of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms plays on this micro-plotting device as we wonder whether Catherine and the baby will live or die.

Zigzagging reflects psychological reality -- the way hopes and fears alternate, how in our desperation we leap at solutions that we quickly reject, how human situations can change drastically from one moment to the next. And for readers zigzagging makes each scene electric with suspense.

See Intrigant, Position, Suspense, Tension.

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