In 1925, not long after publishing Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf turned to a fresh page in her notebook and set out a plan for a new novel. It took the form of a sketch (see image). This spare diagram—"two blocks joined by a corridor," as she captioned it—was the seed of To the Lighthouse. Those who've read the novel recognize how aptly the sketch captures its three-part structure: first, a fully realized world; next, a long zoom of years; and then, at last, the world becomes full again.
Woolf was visionary in many respects, but in feeling the urge to visualize a narrative structure she was perfectly pedestrian. Her sketchy skeleton of To the Lighthouse is just one example in a rich and apparently ancient tradition. It's a visual analogy for narrative structure; it takes something ethereal—a narrative pattern—and gives it visible expression. In a sense, it's remarkable that spare doodles like this make any sense to us at all. But they do, and, by all accounts, we love them.
Like me, you may have first encountered this type of analogy in high school English class, through fusty-sounding phrases like rising action, climax, and falling action. These are three elements of the five-part structure known as "Freytag’s Pyramid," after a scheme first set out by Gustav Freytag in 1863 (see image). Visuospatial analogies for narrative structure are commonly built out of two basic dimensions. One is time, and it often extends horizontally, as in Woolf’s corridor and Freytag’s pyramid. The other is something like dramatic intensity or valence, and it usually extends vertically.
The above examples have a certain visual resonance with two-axis graphs. Elsewhere this resonance is much more direct. Most famously, Kurt Vonnegut's master’s thesis on the “shape of stories” is expressly couched in the trappings of graphs. In Vonnegut's framework, the horizontal axis represents time and the vertical axis represents valence—or, in his terms, 'Ill Fortune' at the bottom and 'Good Fortune' at the top. Others have abandoned or subverted these graph-like elements. John McPhee’s recent book on writing, Draft No. 4, is brimming with diagrams—many in a chapter titled ‘Structure'—that take other forms, such spirals and equations. Among the earliest contributions to this visual tradition are the celebrated squiggles in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), by Laurence Sterne. They are also among the most playful and subversive (see image).
Visuospatial analogies for narrative structure are not confined to paper. They also pervade our everyday language—in fact, it may be that's where they started. We speak of story-lines, arcs, and through-lines, of the twists and turns of plots. We invoke the language of weaving and knitting, describing stories as yarns, as having discernible threads, and denouements (from the French word for 'unravel').
And these analogies apply far beyond stories narrowly construed. They also work for biography, history, and for endeavors large and small. Increasingly, we talk of pivots and swerves to describe unexpected changes of course, whether in our projects or in our lives. President Obama notably reached for such metaphors in his consolatory address after the 2016 election, when he said: "You know, the path this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back." Every country has a story, and so does every life, every journey, every project.
By now, the idea that narratives are pervasive borders on cliche. So does the idea that they are powerful. Less appreciated, perhaps, is an especially pervasive and powerful way we try to make sense of such narratives: by visualizing them.
1. For more about the context of Woolf's To the Lighthouse sketch, see http://www.woolfonline.com/.
2. Vonnegut's Master's thesis, "The Fluctuations between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks," was rejected by the University of Chicago but ideas from it were later popularized in a widely shared lecture.
3. McPhee's thoughts on 'Structure' first appeared here, in the New Yorker.
4. Aristotle, in the Poetics (see Part XVIII), describes dramatic structure in terms of "tying knots" and "unraveling knots."
5. Another notable example in this tradition is "ring structure"— an analogy at play whenever we describe stories as "coming full circle."