This image comes from the blog of a teacher at Dingwell Academy, which is such a perfect name one of you better steal it and put it in a story. I’m including solely because this drawing delights me. Especially the trees. If someone writes an 200 word essay about those trees I will publish it on this blog. Come on. I dare you.
If you’ve been writing a while, you’ve probably encountered the Freytag Triangle. At the triangle’s first corner, you’ve got your first conflict, the rising action (or complications) slope up the to the peak–your crisis. That’s followed by a downslope of falling action, and finally the story ends.
If you just puked a little in your Earl Gray, this post is for you.
I personally find the ol’ triangle useful-ish–but not with every story. And really, you can bash in some of the most interesting artistic impulses by trying to fit them into such a neatly labelled container.
At “Making Plot”, my recent Writer’s Ink class, we all got especially excited about this more intuitive–some might say dumber–model. Dumb because once you get it, you only need to think about it for like three seconds. (Unlike the Freytag Triangle, which is responsible for entire neural networks in my personal brain.)
So, connect-disconnect (which comes to me by way of the incomparable Matthew Clark Davison and Janet Burroway‘s Writing Fiction) works like this:
Any moment in your story (or memoir or segmented essay or bricolage poem or interactive novel or wtf-ever you crazy kids are writing nowadays) can be considered either a connect or a disconnect.
A connect = Something positive, something your character likes. E.g. an appreciative observation, a warm exchange, a funny joke about a bad situation, a mouthful of food when your character is hungry. Any form of approach–something that brings your character nearer to other people or her/his world.
A disconnect = you got it. The opposite of everything above. If a bunch of roses reeks of dead cat, that’s a disconnect. If the mouthful of food is rancid and has to be spit out, again, disconnect. Any time your character retreats from the world/others, disconnect.
This works on any narrative piece, but is ideal for emotionally driven stories or pieces that seem to meander or flop or circle their way to an ending, rather than ascending a cute lil’ storybook mountain (as pictured above). You may know that I’m medium-obsessed with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Her weirdo plays (which have won the Pulitzer, so there) evade any paradigm. And yet they–even they–can’t resist the dumb hypnotic stare of connect-disconnect.
Now, let’s practice with this excerpt from “Wants” by Grace Paley.
I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
Ok, we’ve got the narrator moving toward the husband, so even though it’s quiet, I’d call that a connect.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
Debatable, I guess, but I’d call it a connect, because she’s agreeing (sort of) and approaching the library to resolve a problem.
The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.
She owes $32 and doesn’t feel super about it. Disconnect.
My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.
This guy, really. We should just call him Mr. Disconnect.
That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them any more. But you’re right. I should have had them to dinner.
a series of small disconnects (memories with air of sadness), then a small connect (which is humorous even if we think she’s sarcastic).
I gave the librarian a check for $32. Immediately she trusted me, put my past behind her, wiped the record clean, which is just what most other municipal and/or state bureaucracies will not do.
Instant trust! Connect!
The story goes on, and you can read the rest here. And though the connect-disconnect pattern never becomes predictable, it continues shifting back and forth. Toward the end, you get a few very large connects and disconnects, but still, nothing you’d call a climax unless you were being incredibly generous to Paley’s reverence for our good friend Freytag.
How to use this in your own writing
So let’s say you’re novel-in-progress has flatlined. You feel dead when you go to work on it, you feel dead when you give it to your writing group. In your barely beating writer’s heart, the novel is an endless sea of blah and you’re a fisherman without a license in a sea filled with lethargic sharks who might eat you or might not but you wish they get it over with already. Sound familiar?
Connect-disconnect is your happy recipe for breaking up the monotone-arama. It is your flying fish brigade leaping amongst the unmotivated Jaws extras.
Here are three ways to use it:
- When you’re just messing around or want to start something new. Using your own life or fictional characters, write 5 consecutive mini-paragraph (or 1/2 page of dialogue for drama) scenes. Alternate connect and disconnect. Goal: practice juxtaposition and get a feel for how it heightens/intensifies opposing emotions.
- During the first draft. Analyze your own connect-disconnect pattern so far. Does your character only report things that make her disappointed or angry? Your assignment for the next scene is to write a connect. E.g. A memory of something she loved; a sensory delight; an overheard conversation that she finds entertaining; a passing conversation with a stranger in which she feels fully herself. Goal: Keep yourself awake and remind your reader why that other stuff, the disappointing, angering stuff, matters.
- On revision. Cut-and-paste. Get out your red been and label each chunk or scene as connect/disconnect. If you want, use lowercase ‘c’/’d’ to denote quiet moments and uppercase to denote intense ones. Now, check out the connect-disconnect rhythm. If you have long stretches of only connects or only lowercase, try inserting a disconnect or “uppercase” chunk. If you don’t have enough variety to work with, write a few new, contrasting chunks and consider whether you really need all those similar ones. Goal: orchestrate a lively rhythm that will keep your reader engaged throughout and always wondering what will happen next. (Even if basically nothing is happening.)
You did it! You mastered the skill you will never have to consciously think about again. See how easy that was?
Want to learn more cool sideways approaches like this–and get a whole helluva a lot of writing done? Want to lope around with the sharks and rocket over with the flying fish? Aren’t you in luck, because Wayward Writer’s January/February classes are open for registration. Now available as 1-day workshops for you non-committal types. You know who you are.
Wayward Writers offers creative writing classes for all levels of writers from beginner to advanced. We believe that our poetry, fiction, memoir and playwriting skills improve when we seek new creative challenges, get out of our comfort zone and steal craft techniques from contemporary writers. Click here to join us in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego for our next class series, or here to find out about free weekly writing meetups.