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.

80 comments

  • Three things.
    Really cool graphics–how did you do it?
    Have you ever read The Dot and the Line?
    And, thanks. I always get all bunched-up over all the “supposed to” stuff.

    • Yeah, I’m wondering about number one too. Having writing that sits on the lines like that could be pretty useful for plotting.

    • Hah, I thought the graphics were pretty pedestrian, sadly — so, thank you! I did them in Photoshop. The text can run along the line long as there’s a pen path in place. — c.

      • No noo, Photoshop IS NOT pedestrian. It’s like the 12-seater flashy limo that all the big shots get around in. And I can’t even get the doors open. Maybe Gimp’ll do the trick. Or maybe even *gasp* pen and paper.

  • Dear Chuck,
    Oh, my God. You are so fucking awesome. I agree with everything you just said, and that is why I have always “fucked up” my own life. It was too goddamned boring to do it any other way.
    Love, Angie

  • Wendig… You complete me.

    Err, that’s a bit weird, yeah?

    Sick post, BRO! Fist pump! Strip club! Face saved!

    You managed to cover a spectrum ranging from Aristotelian forms to some futuristic hybrid, Post-Moderny, amalgamous line-baby sired by the love child of John Barth and John Fowles and birthed through the cartoon canals of Nickelodeon’s uterus in this post.

    At least I think that’s the physiology for line-babies, anyway.

    If I’m feeling both artsy and daring tomorrow, I may share this with some of the students in my literature class.

  • Hi Chuck,
    Thanks for this great post. Your passion is infectious. I may be drawing squiggly lines today. One of your best I think.
    It reminded me of a YouTube clip of Kurt Vonnegut demonstrating the shape of story.

      • I saw him give a talk like that live at Duke. The next thing he did that night was to draw his version of the curve of Hamlet. Using the same technique (plotting lines and curves between story events) he illustrated Hamlet as a flat line.

    • I just Youtubed that and – Ha! It’s fantastic. I’m going to have to do my own one of these. Also stumbled on a video sharing his advice on short stories, and he’s really spot on.

  • Definitely one of my favorite posts and one of the most important. I think tonight, I’ll draw my squiggly shape and try to write the story to it… instead of the other way round.

  • April 2, 2013 at 4:02 AM // Reply

    Thanks for this post! Reading your blog never fails to cheer me up and getting me pumped about writing again.

  • Great stuff! I agree with everything that’s already been said. I think this is one of your best posts.

    There are so many lines relating to mood and subplot and characters and all sorts; I find it helpful to draw each line in a different pen on a sheet of acetate. Then I can tape them all together along the edge and either see the whole story working its magic at once, or flip through and isolate only specific lines.

  • I hate vanilla flavouring, it’s so bland. Vanilla is the blank canvas we get to play with by adding sprinkles *and* nuts *and* four or five different types of sauce, just to see what happens. It’s good that you remind us of stuff like this every once in a while. Maybe one day you’ll make ‘straight lines’ the topic for your Flash Fiction challenges, just to see how much we can bend and break them (this is not a not-so-subtle prompt ;))

  • Upon reading Mockingbird, I noticed there was what would seemingly be the climax in many books about to occur, yet about 40% of the book remaining per my kindle. And then you raise the stakes and mess with the reader’s mind. The straight generic line would have been a straight generic book. Instead you made something much more incredible.

  • Straightforward, no-nonsense, and sound advice. Thanks for reinforcing my own idea about writing; not to embrace the status quo but to stick to your own kalashnikovs and blaze away into the crooked and wide open world of writing. Great post!

  • I had to put permanent lines on a board one night …we use this board every day at work so it had to be kinda neat….anyway my manager said the next morning (I work nightshifts on a childrens ward) who did this, so I said rather proudly that was me…..But, she said these lines aren’t straight……..neither am I, I replied, so thats the best I can do….then thankfully she laughed……. Straight lines are boring totally agree!

  • The thing about straight lines is that you can see where they’re going. An audience that can predict what’s going to happen has no reason to continue the book. (Also why I don’t read/watch formulaic books/shows/movies.)

    Also, I totally want the ‘sometimes a line explodes like a motherfucker’ image just by itself.

  • Strange but true fact: Baskin-Robbins reports their best-selling ice-cream flavor is vanilla. Think of all the wonderful flavors out there, and the public buys more vanilla. This is followed by the other two – chocolate and strawberry. I too likes me some circumlocution, but there are reasons people write vanilla and that is to sell to their audience. I’ve been advised to flatten a few story ‘arcs’ in the past (not that I sell many stories, so maybe that’s the problem right there). This might be my bad, as in the story can’t be followed, or the reader’s bad, as in the reader can’t cope with the curves. Either way, it’s the same effect. What do to?

    • And McDonald’s is probably some of the best-selling food in America.

      Not to say bestselling books are equal to that — I don’t think they are. Many bestsellers are damn good reads.

      The point, though, is that “lowest common denominator” is not always the best target to aim for.

      Anybody can make a basket when the hoop is as big as a swimming pool. We don’t really remember vanilla ice cream. We remember the ice creams that were different. Or so good they imprinted themselves upon you. Some vanilla, admittedly, is damned fine — particularly when it’s using real vanilla beans of curious origin, but even there, even within the rigors of the “vanilla paradigm” (ugh that’s an awful phrase, forgive me), you have a special vanilla, a vanilla that itself has broken the straight lines, that has diverted from the norm in some way so as to be memorable.

      — c.

  • Like the way you think. Power to the writer, not the traditional Stepford-Publishers manacled to the norm, thier 50’s pleated skirts carefully protecting literary traditions that haven’t changed in a century. Established writers are allowed risks (maybe), unestablished writers are allowed to self-pub. That said, the Berlin wall of Publishing is crumbling. Good post, even with potty mouth.

  • All find and dandy, and I always love reading your blog …. BUT, as someone who’s trying to start out, would bucking the trend not lessen my ability to get published? Should I not try to be vanilla so that the publishers go ‘hmmmmmm vanilla’ and then, once my brand of vanilla is established say, ‘I want to add some chocolate to this’ and then gradually build up until I have a vanilla, chocolate, pralines and bailey’s flavoured ice cream that everyone remembers? As they can always fall back on the vanilla ice cream sitting on the middle shelf :)

    • YMMV, but generally, I don’t think so. Here’s the thing: the books that have done really well even when they’re maybe not as great as some people want them to be, generally did so by bucking the straight line. Harry Potter was rejected by god knows how many agents and publishers. Stephen King, too — he practically created the horror genre, or at least the modern incarnation of it. And even then King continued to buck his own trends with books like EYES OF THE DRAGON or DARK TOWER or anything that deviates from straight-up “horror.” Hell, even 50 SHADES takes the straight line and literally kinks it up with, well, kink. And it made that kind of low-grade soft-core BDSM popular when nobody probably thought it would’ve or could’ve been.

      The thing is, you’re concentrating just on that moment of getting an agent or getting published — but your book has to do more than that. A lot of books get published. The goal is to not merely pass that initial threshold but also to write something memorable, of quality, of power, and you don’t generally hit those qualities without in some way owning the shape and stepping off the too-well-trod paths.

      — c.

  • Fantastic post! Not just about writing, but about life. Life needs more wild lines.

    I may need a bit more practice before adding switchbacks and spirals to my novel story lines, but it’s definitely something to move towards.

  • I found this post spoke more to me regarding my life than my writing. I’m at a very strange place where I spent years trying and failing to follow the straight line, to do what everyone expected me to do, but my heart was never in it and it was as if…I was ashamed of myself because I couldn’t get my self to conform.

    Now after one spectacular failure, I’m wondering if maybe it’s not me who’s messed up, but the fact I keep trying to follow the straight line when maybe that isn’t my path.

    And to keep it on topic, I noticed my writing is the same. I’m trying to follow the rules, follow instructions, and thus I have no voice. Only when I allow myself to do whatever, when I feel no obligation to follow any rules, when I just let go, is when I write with voice and character and personality. It just comes down to having the courage to paint outside the lines when it matters.

    Geez. Where do you get this stuff? It’s amazing. Your posts are truly inspiring and helpful. Thank you.

    • Hi, Amber. I noticed the same thing, too. When I started reading Chuck Palahnuik, I had an epiphany. Not everything has to follow the rules of grammar, etc, to be good writing. It’s nice to know there are others like me.

    • I, too, spent most of the time it took to read this post thinking about how much it resonates with life in meatspace rather than just writing. And I think that’s what makes it even more profound. Knowing that it’s not just our characters who get to escape the straight line, that we can do it, too, that’s a hell of an inspiration.

  • Ha, ha. I wonder how you would like Switzerland (to which I just moved to): the epitome of the straight line. (I feel relieved every time I see graffiti).

    And yet I myself feel more like a tornado shaped line, a lightning bolt shaped line and sometimes a popsicle shaped one with a cloud through it. My life looks a little like that too – all adventures, all good. But that’s a long story (blogged in due course as well).

    Thanks for a great post – the first one of yours I’ve read.

  • I’ma fist bump you and immediately ignore that douchey video.

    Golden words, sir. I just jumped off the straight line (corporate job etc etc) and am now having the time of my life working as a penmonkey, wearing yoga pants (sorry for the pants), and working when, where, and how I want. You were partly the inspiration Wendig and I’ve got my “Art Harder Motherfucking” coffee mug within arm’s reach to prove it.

  • God, why weren’t there instructors like you when I was in college? Well, come to think of it, there may have been but they probably weren’t tenured yet. When my kid graduates from high school in May, I’m getting her a t-shirt that says, Fuck the Straight Line.

  • AHHHOOO, the sound of the Alpha Wolf!

    And the Wendig pack closes in, snarling. Whatcha’ mean, potty mouth?

    My first reaction was wow, who slipped what into Chuck’s cherry oats? Something had to have set you off and whatever it was, we all benefited.

    Hey, have a question on totally ‘nother topic. Is there a place to post questions?

  • heh… this post was like a breath of fresh air after some of the ‘writing vids’ on you-tube. I guess when it boils down, I want to write what I want to read. And I won’t read predictable, boring, same-ol, same-ole.

    Formulas have a place, sure. It’s a place to start. But hey, once you’ve started find the various lines and triangles and stars upon thars.

    Real life is a compilation of so many ups, downs, and stomach emptying curves that who the hell wants a straight line??

    Thank you for the reminder, the kick in the pants, and the hilarity :)

  • Why weren’t you my English teacher?

    Great post. Have saved it for when the plotting isn’t going so good.

  • I love your explanation and all the mad squiggle-things above. It feels like it’s not the full story, though–it feels random in a way that life is but stories generally aren’t. It doesn’t go into, for instance, the idea that stories escalate or that the progressive squiggles should both get bigger and have something to do with one another.

    I’ve been thinking about structure a lot lately, ever since I met a writing teacher who convinced me (after a great deal of arguing) that it was an actual thing. She’s a screenwriter, and advocates the classic “Divide novel into quarters, put progressively larger explosion at end of each quarter.” (Obviously, these are not random explosions but turning points that follow from the elements of the story and which end and begin acts and progressions of character development, etc. etc.)

    This definitely works as a structure and has helped me hugely… but I’m still trying to work out whether it is keeping me from noticing other structure-models that work. Other eras have preferred fractions other than quarters–Shakespeare liked five acts, obviously, and a number of nineteenth-century books were in thirds because they liked to cash in on three-book sets (this may have a lot to do with why the last third of Jane Eyre is so weird)–but whatever your favorite fraction is, any fraction at all is pretty different from suddenly yelling “FUCK THIS NOISE” and running off in another direction at an arbitrary moment.

    I’m trying to decide whether your squiggle-model complements my quarter-model (one possible combination of the two is “Reaching midpoint of story… Insert Mad Unexpected Squiggle of Unexpected Plot!!!”), whether it is its own crazy unstructured structure (SQUIGGLE SQUIGGLE SQUIGGLE SQUIGGLE) that works … because it somehow works, or whether there is some other happy conglomeration of proportion and explosion that escalates in a way that shocks the crap out of people but also satisfies an internal sense of story rhythm.

    I think what I’m actually asking is: “Chuck–do you agree with this quarter-structure thing, or do you think it is unnecessarily limiting?”

  • Thanks, Chuck. I’ve been having some trouble with the plotting on The Thing With the Thing and that Other Thing (working title), and this post comes as a very much needed kick in the pants.

  • Noel, my plot board is next to my treadmill, so I spend at least an hour a day staring at it. Am about maybe 40-50 pages from finishing and have my quarters color coded. Did a count. Interesting. Slam into part one. Looks like will slam out of part four. And all the “advice” says, balanced, ballerina on point at specified X marks the spot for such and such inciting incident, midpoint, etc.

    Why? If you can lift-off like a rocket and finish the same way, how is that “wrong?”

    Many roads to Rome and all that.

  • I’ve got to say, this explains a lot. Looking at those crazier, messed up lines actually made me think of the better works of Richard Laymon. Some of his books moved like a meth head being chased by cops; so fast and crazy that you’d get to the end of the book and realize all the events depicted took place over the course of only one or two days. He was one of the first people I thought of when I first read your work.

    Thank you so much for perspectives like this and thank you for your fiction. Honestly, if it weren’t for people like you writing day in and day out, I wouldn’t have shit to read. I’d probably just be staring at my television, contented and none the wiser.

  • Fuck the straight line? Amen to that. I particularly liked your… well… I suppose it was your ideal line. Really made me laugh. And I learned something too, honest.

    Cheers

    MTM

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