Plot vs Structure in Confessions of a Mask

Wherein it becomes clear that I didn't miss my calling as a graphic designer, because I am definitely still waiting to be called

Sticking to our focus on Confessions of a Mask, this is a good opportunity to tease apart the differences between plot and structure.  When we were focusing on the X-Act structure, we noted how the primary narrative focus has a tendency to look like or have the same shape as the overall structure of the work. For example, the plot of a plot-driven work tended to have a climax it built up to and came down from in line with the overall structure of the book containing it. Similarly, character arcs in character-driven narratives also rose and fell around a critical climax.  That’s not universally true, and you’ll find small divergences in most works, but it is extremely common inside the traditions that lean on X-Act structures. Kishotenketsu have different norms, and the visuals here should help illustrate that. For example, a good representation for how a Kishotenketsu structure works is this:

Even without labeling the four acts, it’s pretty clear which is which.  The divergence from the visual representations of rising and falling tension around a climax should be pretty clear, too.  There are clear changes from act to act, and you can see that the ending is not the same as the beginning, but tension is not an intrinsic feature of this structure.  Rather, depth and nuance is the focus.  

The plot for Confessions of a Mask also shows stark differences from how you might visually represent the plot of an X-Act structure.  It looks something like this:

Yes, that’s a flat line.

The plot in Confessions of a Mask doesn’t matter.  There is one, in that there are a series of events related to the audience by the narrator, but those events don’t build. In most cases, each event doesn’t relate to the next except that it serves as an example of the message the narrator is communicating.  Arguably, the sequence with Sonoko is unique and one event intrinsically triggers the next, because the narrator is extremely unlikely to find another relationship like that one, but even if you wanted to focus very narrowly only on that section of the book, you’d get an image that looks something like this:

It’s still not building to anything. The point, in fact, is that it doesn’t wind up going anywhere.  If the relationship with Sonoko had culminated in anything, or had the potential to culminate in anything, it would have been a very, very different book.

Looking at a plot that charts as a flat line, the question from an X-Act perspective becomes “Why does anybody read this book?”  What is the impetus to turn the page? How does the audience stay engaged with the content?

The answer to that question brings us back to the structure.  The dynamic element, the thing that changes, is charted there.  It’s a little facile to say “You go from a think black line to a thick blue line. BAM! That’s engagement!” But the fact is that, hey, you go from a thin black line to a thick blue line--with squiggles along the way!--and that’s engagement.  Or, to put it another way, if you wanted to visually represent the reader experience of a successful Kishotenketsu, it looks something like this:

That looks more like a book to pick up, yes?  Note how that still looks an awful lot like the picture of the Kishotenketsu structure, but this time with something that, if you squint at it, also resembles some of that arcing we got used to seeing with X-Act structures.  This time, though, the arc isn’t present without the audience. That element of a Kishotenketsu structure, and how it differs from an X-Act structure, is something we’ll dig into more soon.

First, though, we’re going to have a subscriber only post with exercises for mapping mood across a story.  If you don’t want to miss out on that, make sure to subscribe before then.

Another note: The next book we’ll be focusing on in depth is Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić.  This book is unique, and it will greatly facilitate your understanding of the discussion during that section if you’ve not only read it, but have it close to hand.  I strongly encourage you to grab a copy and dive in. It might feel like a dry read at first, but it pays off beautifully.

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