Discovering the Plot Pentagon

Rarely are we quick-minded enough to catch the exact moment and circumstance that produces a new idea. But one of my moments of discovery stands out and has been bugging me for years. It’s time I expose to my reading public how the epiphany occurred and the circumstances surround it.

The origin for the plot pentagon presented in Chapter 3 The Plot Pentagon of Story Alchemy started way back while I was writing Novelsmithing, perhaps in 2007. In particular, Chapter 2 Plot, Page 24, Figure 2 of Novelsmithing presents the order and sequencing of plot points that define the nature of the central conflict that is the essence of story.

It’s laid out as a two-dimensional diagram, the horizontal axis being time, but the vertical axis is left unexplained. The vertical axis is not even shown. I didn’t know what it represented. The plot rose and fell for no good reason until the conflict was resolved at the end. Even when I presented this graph to university students, they didn’t object or find anything to criticize about it. As a matter of fact, in Chapter 8, Figure 10 where I provide a spacing of chapters relative to plot points, one author, a university graduate in creative writing, called it pure genius. She finally finished a novel she had been working on for years but couldn’t get it to jell properly. I thought the figure was problematic, but I accept praise where ever and whenever I get it.

Still, the plot as depicted stood, problematic as it was, and I let my contrariness about it slide.

I could let this go on by as an unexplained phenomenon, but I would like to dissect it and see if we can gain insight into the creative process. I realized that the plot diagram wasn’t quite right. But how would I know that? Possibly I had something within my consciousness that told me it wasn’t right. Perhaps I was unconsciously comparing it to something that was right. If so, this then would create a tension between consciousness and the unconscious. And that tension would be held in stasis for a couple of years until something a little closer to the truth would trigger my brain to pull the answer out of the unconscious and into consciousness. This in fact did happen.

One evening while reading in bed, I had an epiphany. I was reading a book by Joseph Mazur, a professor of mathematics at Marlboro College, titled The Motion Paradox: The 2,500-Year-Old Puzzle Behind All the Mysteries of Space and Time. I was still at the beginning of the book but well into Chapter 2: Zeno’s Visit to Athens, and Mazur had just finished talking about the pentagon and its shrinking and growing replicas and had started on the Pythagoreans fascination with numerical patterns. Here is the complete paragraph that had its impact on me:

Numerical patterns also suggested to Pythagoreans that numbers were the clues to understanding the nature of the physical world. They saw numbers in music when they discovered that a plucked string produces the same note (one octave higher) as a string twice its length, and extended music theory to a harmony of the soul. They saw numbers in nature, observing the fine structures of flowers. They saw numbers in the construction of their temples, where form followed what they considered to be the spiritual beauty of divine number relationships. They saw numbers in sculpture and art as their artists sought to represent the general makeup of shared attributes, rather than the soul of an individual. They saw numbers in their plays, built on structured themes of crimes and curses. All this logic, structure, and clarity, all this love of symmetry, form, and perfection was applied to reasoning and a belief that the universe is ordered and explainable. [page 17]

Of course, the part about seeing “numbers in their plays” coupled with the previous discussion of the pentagon was what triggered my epiphany. I grabbed a copy of Novelsmithing and turned to my tiresome plot diagram. And there was the answer to my long-suffering plotting problem, and it came in the form of the pentagon. I realized that I had five plot points, and if I shrunk the axis representing time, and left the lines between plot points straight but allowed them to pivot at the plot points, it would form a pentagon. But what then had happened to time? The answer was obvious. Time was imbedded in the flow of events around the pentagon. Conflict changes with time, and the plot pentagon was the symbol of that change.

From this plot pentagonal shape, ideas about what it all meant started flowing from my imagination nonstop. I realized that I had to add the circular arrow to indicate the flow of time and that the premise had to be in the center. I also realized that the diagram existed in the mythic world, that that was where conflict of the story variety existed. It all made so much sense.

But it was only the beginning of the revelations. I connected subplots with adjacent pentagons, and the dodecahedron practically formed itself. Once the all-inclosing circle and all-encompassing sphere appeared the Philosopher’s Stone of storytelling was born. It was as if it just fell into my lap.

So this is the story of how the plot pentagon came to be, and I could leave this story of discovery there, and we could all remark about how conveniently coincidental those events happened, but that would trivialize the event. How to put it into perspective?

The first way would be to recognize that the discovery was just that, a discovery and not an act of creativity. I didn’t invent anything. All I did was realize a remarkable correspondence between geometry and the nature of storytelling that already existed, just as had the ancient Greeks with their revelations concerning correlations between numbers and the natural world. That realization came about because of an uneasiness I had with the way I had previously presented plotting. I wasn’t ready to find the answer. It just wouldn’t come for another five years or so. All that time, every time I looked at that troublesome figure, my brain had tugged at the unconscious to provide the answer. It took time and a trigger from Mazur for the answer to come.

The other thing to realize is that this plot pentagon discovery led to a waterfall of related discoveries concerning storytelling, each coming on the heels of the previous, in such a non-stop fashion that it’s difficult to understand how it all came together so quickly. And that is something important to understand — how it all came together.

Obviously, the discovery of the plot pentagon was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, concerning the nature of storytelling. The fact that it fit so well within the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, or that they shed light on it, was another indication that it exists out there somewhere independent of the person who discovered it. The plot pentagon and the Philosopher’s Stone for storytelling no more belong to me than relativity belongs to Einstein or DNA belongs to Crick, Watson and Rosalind Franklin.

The fact that it is a part of such a wide variety of related psychic disciplines indicates that in all probably it is related to other fields of study in the external world. Indeed, I have been thinking of this from time to time and have come to realize that the Philosopher’s Stone of storytelling can tell us a great deal about politics, the justice system, international relations and many other conflict driven relationships. We just have to recognize that conflict is built off of narratives. Practically everything social has its narrative, and conflicting narratives have a nature that can be studied, understood and resolved by use of this particular Philosopher’s Stone. It can teach us not only about the nature of narrative conflict, but also how to resolve those conflicts and live peacefully together. All we need is the will to use it.

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