Linear Vs. Patterned: A Brief Discussion of Structure
I just listened to Lani/Lucy and Alastair’s podcast on Out of Sight, one of my all time favorite movies and now one of theirs. But we differ radically on how we read the movie, which I pointed out in the comments and then realized that saying, “This is not a fragmented structure, this is a patterned structure” was probably not helpful unless I defined my terms in discussing structure. So this is the Crusie Theory of Structure, not necessarily anybody else’s theory of structure.
The important thing about structure in storytelling is that you have one. It doesn’t really matter what plan you choose, just have a damn plan. Any plan. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote a short story of twenty-six sentences in which the first sentence began with “A,” the second sentence began with “B” . . . I know this because Ron Carlson talked to her about it and then assigned it to me as a writing exercise, at which point I discovered that structure can be an amazing, fluid thing. There are limitless possibilities for structuring a story, which is where the trouble starts.
The problem in choosing a structure is that you have understand the story you’re telling because structure has meaning. If you use the wrong structure to tell your story, you distort its meaning. Case in point: Out of Sight. For those of you who have seen this film (and if you haven’t, go see it right now), imagine rearranging the scenes in chronological order. See? It’s a different movie with a different, weaker, much less interesting focus. On the other hand, Pulp Fiction was followed by several movies told in fragmented structure that were knee-capped by not being told chronologically. Generally speaking, chronological, linear plotting is the writer’s friend because viewers and readers are used to it. But if your story wants to be something other than the unfolding of events, you need to listen to it. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to stick to linear and patterned structures, but really, you can do anything you damn well want as long as your story consents.
Linear structure is as old as Aristotle (and he’s old, isn’t he, Bruce?). [Sorry, couldn't resist. It's one of our go-to movie quotes, from His Girl Friday.] I’d say older, but a lot of the really old stories are more picaro than focused linear, and I don’t want to get into that. Why is linear structure so old and so ingrained? Because it reflects the male life experience. It begins with the birth of an idea/event/problem/struggle, rises through the ranks accumulating power and tension, and then achieves the climax of its path/career, after which it retires. You may also notice that that’s the trajectory of the male sexual experience. People tell stories that reflect their experiences and for a long time, patriarchal power was so entrenched that acknowledged storytellers were predominantly male.
But of course back in the kitchen, women were telling stories, too. The difference was, they were telling patterned stories, stories that emphasized detail and repetition, that built up meaning through the relationships of events, recurring climaxes that achieved meaning through their juxtaposition with each other. That structure replicated their traditional lives of doing the same thing each day, over and over, so that detail and subtle change took on huge meaning because of the repetition. Each day was its own story, part of a bigger story formed by the pattern of those days. And if you really look at that, it’s the female sexual experience. (You guys think we can’t focus? That’s why we have multiple climaxes, suckers.)
The next part of this is sexist because it implies that men tell stories one way and women another and that’s clearly wrong. Scott Frank (writer) and Steven Soderburg (director) did a masterful job of telling a patterned story, and women writers have been telling razor-sharp linear stories for centuries. But for the purpose of this argument, let’s stick with the male-vs.-female bit for a while.
So imagine a man coming home to his wife and saying, “I saw John today. He’s getting married.” After which his wife asks who John’s getting married to, how they met, how he looked when he talked about her, when the wedding is, how her mother feels about it, how his mother feels about it, how John’s ex-wife feels about it . . . The husband can probably tell her who John’s getting married to, but after that he just thinks she’s crazy: he gave her the important info, what’s her problem? She thinks he’s hopeless: he’s left out all the stuff that matters.
Or if you will, a man tries to tell a woman a joke.
Man: “This traveling salesman meets this farmer’s daughter . . . ”
Woman: “How old is she?”
Man: “What difference does it make?”
Woman: “Is she sixteen and innocent or forty and jaded?”
Man: “I don’t know. She’s . . . twenty.”
Woman: “What’s he selling?”
Man: “How the hell should I know what he’s selling?”
Woman: “Is he selling pots and pans or condoms?”
Man: “Can I just tell this story?”
Woman: “Evidently not. You don’t know the important stuff.”
Meanwhile, when a woman tries to tell a joke, she has a hell of a time because most jokes only work if they’re told in a strict linear fashion. You tell a joke out of order, there’s no joke. I make speeches all the time, I tell jokes all the time, and it’s HELL because I desperately want to embroider the story with details and character; the joke just wants to get to the punch line.
And that’s what a linear plot wants to do, it wants to get to the punch line, the big obligatory scene, the climax, after which it rolls over and has a cigarette in the denouement. A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads to D . . . It’s chronological, it is above all logical, and the build to the great climax leaves the listener/reader/viewer satisfied. It’s also the way 95% of modern stories are told, so it’s your safest bet.
However, sometimes your story isn’t about what happens next. Sometimes it’s about the pattern of events, the accumulation of small crises, the juxtaposition of character reactions, the layering of behaviors that make a character deeper and more faceted and the release of the information about that layering in juxtaposition with other characters (how her mother feels about it, how his mother feels about it, how his ex-wife feels about it). It’s not the cause and effect that matters, it’s the pattern.
A brilliant example of this is Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies,” which begins as a woman talks about listening to her co-workers talking about rape fantasies at lunch and then begins to tell about her rape fantasies, although not to her friends, that lunch is over. She tells the short (and very funny) stories without escalating in any way, they’re just fantasies that have no cause-and-effect relationship to each other, they don’t lead to each other, they just exist, stories she pulls off the shelf of her imagination and retells to comfort herself. It’s only when you see the pattern among the stories that you begin to understand who this woman is, what she desperately wants (fantasizes about). And then Atwood delivers a knock-out of an ending that makes you look at all of the stories as a whole. That story cannot be told in chronological order; it requires patterned structure.
So in a patterned novel or film (damn hard to pull off), you need to construct pieces that are complete in and of themselves, scene sequences that form complete stories, and then juxtapose them with other pieces to make a pattern so that at the end, the pattern is the meaning of the story. Think of the scene sequences as quilt blocks, beautiful on their own, and the story as the finished quilt in which the blocks disappear when it’s finished to form a patterned whole. The blocks are beautiful, but it’s the quilt as a whole that’s the finished design.
So if you put Out of Sight in chronological order, it’s the story of a charming but hapless bank robber, a trickster who gets caught three times because of the people he cares for. And, I think, you’d get a little impatient with Jack for not being smarter about people; if you’re going to be a top-notch bank robber, you need to be ruthless. C’mon, Jack, get it together.
But that’s not Jack’s story. Jack is a trickster with a problem: he likes people so he’s loyal to them. Big flaw in a trickster who has to stand above the action while manipulating reality. Jack’s a genius at shifting reality, but then he connects to people and it all goes to hell. So Jack’s story is a pattern of events where he shifts reality brilliantly and then has reality shifted back on him by people he cares about; his struggle is that the two halves of his nature–trickster and caretaker–are at war with each other. Even so, he’s doing pretty good until he meet Karen. Karen’s problem is that she’s a born trickster, her instincts are to move outside the law, but her daddy is a lawman, and she wants to please her daddy (who, to be fair, adores her and is a great father) so now she’s a marshall out to get Jack. And her story is now a pattern of events where her two sides–trickster and lawkeeper–are at war with each other. Either story is interesting by itself, but when the two stories are placed in juxtaposition with each other, they’re both intensified, not just because Jack and Karen fall in love, but because they fall in love with the thing in each other they’re fighting every day. Their love story becomes part of the pattern of their main story, Jack’s attempts to escape and Karen’s attempts to bring him in. That description sounds boring, but as patterned plot of two tricksters in an intricate dance, it’s fantastic. Then add the quilt blocks of the supporting cast–Snoop the genial psychotic, Buddy the honest crook, Ripley the cowardly man of power, Glenn the innocent murderer–and you have a pattern of stress and paradox, each piece increasing the tension in the next. You can’t tell that story in chronological order because what happens next isn’t important. It’s what happens when you put this scene sequence next to that sequence, the pattern that forms when the quilt blocks of scenes are sewn together.
Needless to say, patterned structures are a bitch to make work, particularly in long form. The story has to really need that structure to pull it off. But when it works, it’s amazing. How amazing? Watch this patterned, detailed love scene sequence between two tricksters. Then imagine it done in two separate chronological sequences. The patterned version is about character, about relationship, about fantasy and connection and desire; the linear version would be about a pick-up in a bar followed by sex. Nothing wrong with that second one, it’s just not the way this story needs to be told.
Structure isn’t just a way to tell a story, it gives meaning to the story, it informs and intensifies the story, it says “This is what is important here, this is what you need to pay attention to.” Most of the time, most stories need linear structure, but when a story says, “I don’t care what happens next, I care what these things together mean,” you’re looking at a patterned structure.