Notes on Plot Composition from Brown’s Hope Amidst Ruin

So I’m posting the notes I took on how literature works from A. Philip Brown’s Hope Amidst Ruin, and it occurs to me that maybe I should note that attending to these features will help you read all kinds of narrative, not just biblical narrative. Maybe I didn’t need to say that, but there it is. Anyway, here are my notes on what Brown says about Plot Composition:

Plot composition is the result primarily of three activities: selection, arrangement, and presentation” (73).

Selection: inclusion and omission (73).

“A story is ‘any account of actions in a time sequence’ or ‘the collection of things that happen in a work.’ A plot, on the other hand, ‘takes a story, selects its materials in terms not of time but of causality; gives it a beginning, a middle, and an end; and makes it serve to elucidate character, express an idea, or incite to an action” (73 n. 20).

“At times more telling than what an author says is what he does not say” (74).

“The series [of events] that we see [in a narrative] is a radical selection, and when we understand what it is that governs the writer’s choice, we will have found the main point of access into his linguistic work of art” (74 n. 23, quoting J. P. Fokkelman).

“Two levels of plot events may be distinguished: kernel events and satellite events” (75).

“a kernel . . . ‘advances the plot by raising and satisfying questions. Kernels are narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events. They are nodes or hinges in the structure, branching points which force a movement into one of two (or more) possible paths. . . . Kernels cannot be deleted without destroying the narrative logic’” (75 n. 29).

“Satellite events are ‘minor plot events [which] . . . can be deleted without disturbing the logic of the plot, though [their] omission will . . . impoverish the narrative aesthetically. . . . Their function is that of filling in, elaborating, completing the kernel” (76 n. 29).

“One may distinguish a narrative’s ‘topic’ from its ‘theme(s)’ in this fashion: the topic of the narrative is that subject that is talked about most, whereas the theme(s) of a narrative is the theological message it is intended to communicate” (76 n. 30, citing Gudas).

Arrangement: “Having selected the events he wants to include, an author must then choose how he will arrange those events. Sequential relationships exist at all levels of a narrative: across the totality, between episodes, between scenes, and within scenes” (83).

“three types of logical relationships between scenes: ‘cause and effect, parallelism, and contrast’ . . . Other potential relationships include paratactical coordination and synecdochic relations, where new material specifies the preceding material, includes it, or uses it for generalization” (83 n. 47).

“Narrative coherence normally consists of a cause-effect chain of events in which one thing produces the next, or in some way grows out of an earlier event. The impact of a story depends on the presence of such coherence” (83 n. 48, citing Ryken).

Presentation: “Having decided which events to include and in what order to place them, an author must then decide how to narrate his story. The principal modes of presentation available to an author are scene and summary. How effectively an author uses these presentational modes determines the degree to which the narrative absorbs the reader into its world, involving him in its emotions and psychology” (85–86).

“The scene-summary distinction may also be expressed as ‘showing vs. telling’ . . . ‘Telling’ relates events in summary form, compressing time and action, whereas ‘showing’ displays events with a relative fullness of action so that narration time approximates real time” (86 n. 51).

“an event dramatized into a scene will assume greater importance than one telescoped into a summary” (86 n. 52, citing Sternberg).

“third person narration is frequently only a bridge between much larger units of direct speech” . . . “The functions of this summary narration, according to Alter, are (1) ‘the conveying of actions essential to the unfolding of the plot . . . , (2) the communication of data ancillary to the plot . . . , [and] (3) the verbatim mirroring, confirming, subverting, or focusing in narration of statements made in direct discourse by the characters’” (86 n. 53, citing Alter).

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