The Tapestry of Story

This week, my creative writing students were studying plot: what is plot, how do you create plot, etc.  We talked a lot about the shape of a story, beyond just the “beginning, middle, end” type of shape, but what has to happen when in order to keep the reader engaged in the story. 

The best description I’ve ever heard comes from my friend Carol Lynch Williams, author of more than 20 books for middle grade and young adult readers.  She describes plot as a tapestry, a variety of different threads that when taken separately don’t amount to anything special, but when woven together in the right way create an amazing image.

I like this description because it gives a visual element to a part of writing that can be exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) for some beginning writers to understand.

I took Carol’s analogy a step further and developed my own explanation of the tapestry concept.  The elements that are constant, such as the main characters or the basic conflict, are represented by the warp and weft threads on a loom.  These have to be present before any detail can be added, and without them (or if they are weak or underdeveloped) the story fails from its inception.

To these bare threads the writer adds threads or yarns of different colors.  These are worked between the warp and weft threads at different intervals.  Each color represents a different aspect of the plot, for example, a green thread might represent the setting, a blue thread might mean loss, a red thread might stand for emotion or danger.  This is also how subplots are woven into the story.  A purple thread might represent a new relationship that complicates the protagonist’s situation. A yellow thread could be comedic relief offered by a character or event.

Early on in my writing, I used an almost literal version of this weaving to sketch out my plots in detail.  I had multicolored sticky notes that I would write ideas on, and then those ideas would be stuck to a large poster board that was divided into chapters.  I could literally see the shape of my main plot and subplots by the representative colors on the chart.  I know writers who use a version of this to this day, though I now have much more simplified version of it for myself.

In order to better understand this idea of multilevel plotting, one of my MFA instructors suggested taking a book (one I owned, not one from the library), and underlining or highlighting in different colors every time I identified a new plot element.  I did this for several books, and it was wonderfully insightful.

This intricate weaving of elements into story really does create rich, interesting plots.  Louis Sacher’s book “Holes” was written this way, with about four subplots enmeshed with the main plot. There is the story of Stanley, who is wrongly punished for stealing shoes he didn’t steal and his efforts to survive Camp Green Lake.  Then there is the subplot of Zero, whom Stanley teaches to read in exchange for help digging holes.  There is the thread of the history of the land around Camp Green Lake and the bandit Kissin’ Kate. Another thread is the curse on the Yelnat’s family caused by their great-great-grandfather and his broken promise to Madame Zoroni, Zero’s great-great-grandmother. The final subplot is the Warden’s real purpose in having the boys dig – to find the Kissin’ Kate’s lost treasure.

Sacher claimed in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly that he was only somewhat aware that this is what he was doing while writing the book, but the man is darn near a genius, so he wouldn’t have to work as hard at that as we mere mortals do.

Another writer who weaves these complex plots is Alison McGhee.  In her book “Rainlight” she uses multiple points of view to blend together the various story lines of her characters into a seamless, poignant picture that revolves around a brain-damaged boy.

If you’re a horror fan, Dean Kuntz is a master of the well-crafted plot.  In his book “Dragon Tears” he blends the stories of several disparate characters into one chilling idea, following each storyline to the point where it merges with the others in an apocryphal moment of good vs. evil.

Does every story require this complicated an approach to plotting?  Of course not.  And in the hands of an unskilled writer, this kind of multilayer plotting becomes a huge, gloppy mess.  It takes a lot of practice and patience.  Kuntz, himself, speaks of continually working on plotting as a writer. 

I view my own attempts this way: I can’t create the famous Unicorn Tapestries that hang in the Cloisters in New York.  I have to keep it simpler than that.  I use fewer threads, but I strive to make them each matter.  With each book I risk a little more.  The newest book, which only has a few hours of work to it thus far, is the most complex plotting I’ve attempted.  In addition to the main plot, there are four subplots that feed into the story.  This one is still in the very rough stages, but it is loads of fun to work on.

The intricate plot is nothing new.  Even Shakespeare used it.  Take “Romeo and Juliet” for example.  The main plot is the relationship between the two characters.  One subplot deals with the feuding between the two great houses of Verona.  Another subplot involves the meddling of the priest.  Even the busy-body nurse could be seen as a separate subplot.  Prior to Shakespeare, and I do mean prior, was Sophocles, one of the earliest Greek playwrights.  His most famous play “Oedipus Rex” deals not only with the plague that has hit the city, but with the crimes of Oedipus, his paranoia, the meddling of servants, and the revelations of oracles and seers. 

This multi-layered approach to storytelling is nearly as old as storytelling itself.  Its importance and value are obvious in that it survives to this day and we continue to study it.  The successful writers are those for whom this technique becomes second nature. 

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