Fuck The Straight Line: How Story Rebels Against Expectation
Imagine, as the image indicates, a straight line.
This straight line is everything.
It is your path through school.
It is your path through life.
It is the status quo.
It’s eyes forward at your school desk. It’s a cubicle monkey job. It is the safe and simple path. It stretches out in a calm and linear fashion. It has handrails and is nicely lit and has benches and pigeons and old people sitting on benches and old people feeding the pigeons.
The straight path is the direct path.
It is also the path of the protagonist before a story begins. It is the life everyone expects of her. Or, perhaps, the life that everyone demands. The line is situation normal. The line is plain vanilla frosting. The line is office parties and yearbook photos.
The line is conservative and afraid.
The line is fucking boring.
Let’s add some lines. Let’s mix this shit up.
That is Freytag’s Triangle, or Freytag’s Pyramid.
It is often defined as the expected structure for story.
We have our inciting incident: a thing happens. That one thing that happens is a thing that complicates every other thing and so we end up with rising action — that action lifts and rises and eases upward like a roller coaster on a gentle incline until the cork pops and the cookie breaks and then it’s all downhill from there, a climactic gasp and rupture before tumbling downward in the falling action toward resolution.
It is, in a sense, also the larger arc expected of our lives.
We’re born, we learn shit, we do some fucking stuff, job and friends and family and sex and conflicts and complications and triumphs and then one day we reach some unseen narrative apex and after that it’s all soft foods and oversized diapers and beds with hospital rails.
Given over, as it were, to the denouement of death.
This triangle is, as triangles are, three straight lines bolted together at the joints.
Which makes it more interesting than one straight line.
But, frankly, the triangle is still boring.
It’s also pretty fucking inaccurate.
Here, then: another line.
A line of life. A line of story.
A line that pivots and shifts on up-beats and down-beats. A plus for a win, a minus for a loss. A steeper rise based on a more bad-ass triumph: we won the race, we got the job, we killed the bad guy, we painted the Mona Lisa. A steeper descent for a perilous fall: a parent dies, we lose our business, the bad guy wins, bankruptcy, disease, betrayal, oh no, oh fuck, egads.
Or, little bumps and dips: found my keys! Broke a heel! Hey, a cupcake! Oh damn, dog poop.
This is not the expected line.
The expected line is straighter. Or more gradual.
It’s pre-defined. Pre-understood.
But our lives are not pre-defined. Nor are they well-understood.
Which means our stories shouldn’t be, either.
A line can be any shape we want it to be. A gentle curve suggests a slow build and a slide downward. A sharp peak is a knife’s blade, a mountain’s peak, a fast rise and a quick fall.
Lives and stories needn’t be driven by a single line. We can imagine a number of lines running together, tangled into knots. Here a line of plot, of narrative beats. There a line of character. One line for emotional tension, a second for physical, a third measuring thematic shifts or tonal turns or the signal-fires of various mysteries lit with questions and doused with answers.
Sometimes lines go fucking batshit.
As they should.
One line falls when you think it should rise.
One line ends when you think it’s just beginning.
Some lines are the snake that bites its own tail, a spiral, a circle, looping back on itself and becoming that thing and that place it was trying to flee all along.
Some lines detonate — a plunger pressed, a dynamite choom, an unexpected gunshot in the dark of the night, a sudden collapse of an old life, a death that is life that is rebirth that is death all over again, a massive avalanche, a soot-choked cave-in, a heart rupture, a giddy explosion.
The lines of our stories and our lives should not be safe, straight walking paths.
They should be electric eels that squirm and shock. They should be the lines in Escher prints, the peaks and valleys of mountains and volcanoes, the sloppily painted strokes of a drunken chimpanzee. The right line, the interesting line, is a line that defies, that spells out fuck this noise, that is shaped like a middle finger aimed squarely at the expectations of others.
Storytelling is an act of rebellion. Story is a violation of the status quo.
Everything the straight line tells you to do is how you know to do differently.
When you think you have the answer, defy it with a new question.
When the path seems well-lit, kill the lights and wander into darkness.
When the way is straight, kick a hole in the wall to make a new door.
When everything seems so obvious, closes your eyes and look for what remains hidden.
Seek the wild lines.
The straight line is our anti-guide.
Do so in the act of narrative design, of storytelling architecture. We anticipate what is expected — the music swells, hero saves the princess, the protagonist seems to have lost everything, the villain twirls his mustache, the dominoes line up in a nice neat pattern and fall one by one as ineluctable as the phases of the moon — and then we say, fuck that shit, George, and we kick over the dominoes and we kill the princess and we make the villain the hero (and he doesn’t have a mustache to twirl but rather mutton chops to comb vigorously). We take a camping hatchet to Freytag’s Fucking Triangle and chop it into pieces and make our own shape — a mysterious square, a love rhombus, a thrilling tumbling dodecahedron of two-fisted spectacle.
It shows us too how to describe things. The status quo is a known quantity and so it does not demand the attention of our description — we know what a chair looks like, a bed, a wall, the sky, that tree. The straight line is as plain and obvious as a pair of ugly thumbs. We know to describe instead the things that break our expectation, that stand out as texture, that are the bumps and divots and scratches and shatterpoints of that straight line. We describe those things that must be known, that the audience cannot otherwise describe themselves, that contribute to the violation of their expectations. We don’t illuminate every tree in the forest: just that one tree that looks like a dead man’s hand reaching toward the sky, pulling clouds down into its boughs, the tree from whence men have hanged and in which strange birds have slept. We describe the different tree. The tree that matters. The crooked tree that doesn’t belong.
And we as storytellers are the crooked trees that do not belong.
For what we do is an act of twisting the straight line, not just in the architecture of our own stories but in the design of our own lives, not just in the art itself but in the life-long expression of that art. Nobody wants you to be a storyteller. They want you to sit in a box. They want you to crunch your numbers or fill that pail or dig that ditch or learn how to do the things that will let you make that money, hunny-bunny. They want you to do the things that are expected of you. They want to wave to you from their own straight lines, comfortable that you’re all on the same ride together, certain that you’re all safe and going in the same direction and, oh, hey, look, benches, and old people, and pigeons.
But the storyteller is the shaman. The storyteller whoops and gibbers and flees the safe path — the firelit path — and then wanders off into the darkness and learns things in the deep shadow. The shaman dances in the labyrinth. The storyteller gleefully wanders the tangle. They disappear out there within the occluded mists until it is time to return and record all of what was found there in the maze-knotted channels of the human mind. Those truths must be recorded, then swaddled in layers of lies and imagination and grim whimsy (grimsy!) before finally shared with all those out there so that they too may find ways to leap the guardrails and find their way away from the straight line.
Our stories are best when they are put to paper and made to reflect the bravery and madness of the storyteller, to mirror our Byzantine hearts, to channel the chaos of life and love and all the unexpected and unpredicted things that come along part and parcel.
Our stories are best when they are like the storyteller: when they have gone off-book, off-world, off the goddamn reservation. When they have forgotten their lines and made up better ones, when they have lost the map and found secret passages and unknown caverns.
Don’t be afraid to do different. Don’t be afraid to tell stories the way you want to tell them. With genre or page count or style, with voice or plotline or character, I say hop the rails, I say kick down the walls, I say tear up all that yellow DANGER DO NOT ENTER tape. Be bold. Ride the sharp turns. Gallop down the mountain switchbacks. Tell your stories the way you want. Tell the stories that aren’t married to a safe and previously-established pattern.
Be the shaman in the darkness.
Find your own shape. Seek your own circuitous route.
Escape. Disobey. Rebel.
Fuck the straight line.