By Cindy Brady (Contributor)
Freytag’s Pyramid complicated my writing life instead of making it more a breath-of-spring experience so many writers enjoy. Freytag-ing, or outlining, my first draft is akin to Exxon fracking beneath my house (exposition: location, era, protagonist, antagonist)—while I’m diligently punching away at my keyboard (exposition: where, what, point of view, character trait) waiting for the sinkhole beneath my office to open up (more exposition: emotional state of protagonist) and swallow all my characters in one oily rush (inciting incident), while I’m busy watching my story-movie as it pings around my skull (character development). Of course, I don’t have Detail One worked out, just characters telling me what to do next (Internal conflict, rising action, maybe?). I am an outline Outlier.
Until recently, proponents of outlining based on Freytag’s Pyramid (I’ve dubbed them Outlinists) questioned my writer-DNA (external conflict) as I struggled (definite rising action) to fall into formation and march in the footsteps of an ancient Egyptian captive up that great pyramid to . . . well, for me, to nowhere. In college I’d been the kid who always turned in her paper early because I had to write it first in order to outline backward from completed narrative. (Remember those pesky note cards and outlines that had to be turned in first?) Turns out, both Outlinists and Outliers get to be right. (Anticlimax.)
Martha Alderson, author of The Plot Whisperer, has an explanation for both our camps. Left-brained writers think “in language more than pictures and begin writing in the turbo thrust of high action and intrigue.” You’re analytical, detail-oriented, and “bottom-up” Outlinists. But those of us who are right-brained are “intuitive, big-picture, top-down. Outliers think in pictures and begin writing by developing characters and moments rich with sensations, thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses.” Often, we write the story ending first, then the beginning, and then saddle up for the ride our characters take us on until they buck us off into a large pile of stuff we sort into story. (Complications, possible reversals.)
As writers, we all know these two camps exist. But until now, for me, I couldn’t understand why outlining flings me up against a spiked wall (climax) called writer’s block. Ms. Alderson’s explanations may have caused me to relax into the sheer rock-face of outlining. I’m considering it. Here’s why: Ms. Alderson writes her craft book from the perspective of both halves. She remolds Freytag’s language (left-brained) into identifying phrases that make sense to intuitive thinkers by corralling our big-picture attention. (Thank you, Martha!) For instance, “inciting incident” read, to me, as if my plot had entered a riot zone. Or perhaps an episode from the Law and Order franchise.
Scene: Station house in New York. Liv and Elliot observe a perp through one-way glass.
Liv: Elliot, can you believe that perp? Blaming the double “i” for what he did to those authors?
Elliot (cracking his knuckles): Liv, just give me five minutes alone with him. I’ll show him inciting.
Liv: Well, be careful. I don’t want to have to write up the incident report. Just get some sort of meaning out of him.
Elliot (turning to enter the interrogation room): Liv, guys like him don’t care about what it means. All they care about is action. (Door shuts.)
Well. Inciting incident scared the bejesus out of me for years. Not now. Ms. Alderson reframes inciting incident for me, renaming it “end of the beginning.” Then, she eases me into the cold, cold depths of Freytag one toe at a time. (Falling action.) The end of the beginning is simply the moment when something happens to the protagonist to rock her world in such a way that she no longer fits into her old world, or it no longer fits her, and a new, foreign world presents itself. The journey begins. Transformation awaits.
Ms. Alderson gives a hint as to where to find the end of the beginning in each well-written story. About one-fourth of the way into the page count, the end of the beginning shows up. Or should. She believes too many pages fewer and the author will not have established grounding, character emotional plot points, thematic significance plot points, and dramatic action plot points sufficient for the reader to enter the story world. Going much beyond this first quarter to establish the end of the beginning means the author may be at risk for losing the reader due to paucity of action. She takes pains to point out the fluidity of these notions in the hands of great writers.
What does this end of the beginning moment look like? Can I go back into books I’ve read and identify the moment? Here are just a few of my recent tests using only page count to determine the moment a story and its protagonist cannot turn back into the “old world” for comfort. No end-of-story spoiler alert needed. Let’s look only at the world change inherent in the end of the beginning.
From The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell, page 43 of 164: Ruby Dunahew, a poor black woman has caught the eye of a rich, powerful white banker, Glencross. Ruby’s sister Alma works as his maid. He has given her a letter to pass on to Ruby after Ruby has flirted with him over his dirty hat. “At the Dunahew shack (Alma) and Ruby stared at the envelope and smelled its scent of vanilla and admired the fine script. They had to wait more than an hour for a child to come home and read the enclosed card to them. Sidney, nearly nine at the time, opened the envelope and read: “Dear Ruby, I have a business trip down to Mammoth Spring—would you care to take a ride into the country with me? I expect it to be Monday. I have cleaned my hat. Say you will and tell Alma.” Woodrell contrasts two worlds. He lets us see inferred emotional and psychological states of characters he names; introduces narrator, protagonist, point of view; and sets up a central dilemma for dramatic action. He sets up his theme as well in earlier paragraphs.
From The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison on page 51 of 206: Pecola has been shamed by a white shopkeeper who avoids her touch when she offers pennies to pay for Mary Jane’s candy. “Each pale yellow wrapper has a picture on it. A picture of little Mary Jane, for whom the candy is named. Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort. The eyes are petulant, mischievous. To Pecola they are simply pretty. She eats the candy, and its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane.” Masterful. Morrison delineates a major thematic plot point—cultural shame, black diaspora in white America. The splitting of Pecola’s world, its destruction, takes place in the shaming action of the shopkeeper and the image of Mary Jane’s blues eyes, representing Pecola’s desire to be a part of a world where she is not shamed for who she is, a world where she will be pretty, her features valued as Mary Jane’s are, a world where Pecola is as important as a penny candy. Morrison reveals her character’s emotional and psychological state shown in a comparison no reader can miss.
All rules, of course, are subject to exception, (moment of last suspense) as Ms. Alderson states. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt falls prey to such exception. The novel’s tale unwinds across 771 pages. Length may be why there seem to be several ends to the beginning. Perhaps, in novels of such lengths each divided part must have its own beginning’s end, as if the story structure is a spiral staircase with landings built every so often for the climber to pause before launching upward again. But if I had to pick (climax) one place where the protagonist’s world is rocked most, it would be when his estranged father comes to claim him after his mother is killed in the museum blast. From page 186 of 771: “My dad was still staring at me fixedly. ‘Okay, buddy? Think you might want to help us out?’ Maybe he wasn’t drinking any more, but the old late afternoon wanting-a-drink edge was still there, scratchy as sandpaper.” From here, Theo will be uprooted from posh New York surroundings and surrogate family and taken to a deserted, foreclosed-upon subdivision on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where only a few families actually occupy the homes. Theo takes action to ensure the painting he’s stolen remains in his possession and hidden. The fallacy of my choice for end of the beginning is that I cannot find where the author alludes to theme here. (Thwarted resolution?)
If you’ve read The Goldfinch, I’d love to hear where you believe something happens to cause Theo’s world to no longer fit him, where it contracts to force him on his journey of transformation, where all the stages of separation from his comfortable world are complete, story launches, and theme of the work is alluded to by the author.
We’ve come to the end of my beginning, the point at which I’ve started to grapple with transition from Outlier to Outlinist. (Possible denouement? Or catastrophe?) Wish me luck.
Cindy L. Brady lives north of Atlanta, Georgia. She enjoys gardening, backpacking, and hiking. In 2013, Spalding University conferred its Master in Fine Arts in Writing Degree in spite of her aversion to outlining. Her novel Phoenix Rising has been accepted for the Master’s Class in the Novel by the 2014 Taos Writer’s Workshop.