Narrative arc redrawn

How might we take the idea of a book’s “narrative arc” and expand the metaphor beyond the rather limiting image of a curve? Geometry helps: triangulation, spirals, parallel lines. But geometry is made from lines and surfaces; it lacks texture.

Today I asked my students to discuss the structure of the prologue and first section of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, then to wordlessly represent the texture, flow, and rhythms of the narrative using chalk. My hope was that their reading and writing might benefit from the exercise of translating from text to image, from lineated page to blackboard surface. Of course, this is only one way to inhabit the structure of a text. For most, it is unfamiliar approach. Are books fantastical illuminated maps? When they’re good: oh yes!

Here are some of the student groups’ representations. They had just 20 minutes to complete the exercise (with discussion following). Maybe next time we’ll take more time and use a full afternoon to cover the boards. The contrast among their images is striking: heart-beat movement, enclosure within a shell, a vortex of re-visitation, and a sweep into the future.

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8 thoughts on “Narrative arc redrawn

  1. John

    Just a brilliant idea and exercise. Your students now know they have generated admiration for their creativity far and wide. If snails’ biography is shaped by narrative, then for those interested in whether we humans are self-constructed by our own narrative, see essay ref’d below; and if this ability or attribute is an outcome of agency, how does it apply to non-humans?

    “I am not a story” by Galen Strawson, (in Aeon).
    From: “On Life-Writing”. Edited by Zachary Leader
    978-0-19-870406-5 | Hardback | 08 October 2015. OUP. Also available as: eBook

  2. Jim Markowich

    The third one down (employing the spiral of the shell) is really neat. It manages to subvert the convention a left-to-right time axis… except the animal itself is slithering along from left to right.

  3. Kay MacKenzie

    What a great exercise for one’s own writing. One could “draw” the imagery and ITS texture back into one’s writing: From text to imagery and back from imagery to text. Surely this would help clarify and write more crisp “images” in the text by going outside words then using that process in editing or re-writing the narrative. Much to experiment with here, especially engaging for processes or movement. Original image or experience to be conveyed; written text; chalk representation; back to text for editing. Theoretically should enrich the writing by having depicted the text. So interesting– a form of “imagining” in pictures and words that should reveal weaknesses in the writing. Huumm . . .

  4. Robley Hood

    I’ve done this with students before and found it just as fascinating and valuable as you, David. Loved this!

  5. Judy Malamas

    Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I just finished reading it and truly loved it. I hope you will share more books you are using in your teaching with us in the future.

    Sent from my iPad


  6. fiddleheadferns

    I see that narrative arc took you to the idea of a snail, its path, and the spiral of the snail shell.
    What if you move from Euclidean geometry to fractal geometry and think about the Koch curve,
    about organization using recursion and iteration with some random perturbations? That is,
    write from a fundamental theme, elaborate on that theme over and over, creating an ever more complex structure with strongly self-similar aspects, which includes strangeness and weirdness (cf. Douglas Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach.) I teach, too, Drawing/Writing. Embedded in that process is the idea of the usefulness of geometry to thought, including drawing and writing… taking inspiration from non-Euclidean curves, like the Koch curve.


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