Importing Vocabularies
to Describe Literary Structure

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 22.1 (1992): 77-93.

© 1992 by Journal of Technical Writing and Communication ; © 2004 by Louie Crew

"What terms do you use to describe the structure of a story?" I ask. No one in this class majors in English.

Long pause. Embarrassed fidgeting.

"Climax, uh?" one student proffers. A few eyes brighten, but most dull.

"Rising action, conclusion..." another adds. Denouement, adds the student who routinely trounces classmates.

Bits and pieces of literary jargon which survive the students' passage from high school continue to intimidate. "That's why I am majoring in computers," one whispers to a classmate, "to avoid this kind of junk. I enjoy stories but I can never follow an English teacher's ways of looking at them."

Literary jots and tittles should not intimidate these students. As managers, some of them will monitor corporate structures. As engineers some will design microscopic circuitry and spaceships. As biologists, some will catalog every cell. With the vocabularies of their own disciplines they can access fresh insights into how writers structure stories.

Using charts with narratives

Besides monitoring computer operations, the symbols of computer flowcharts (See Figure 1) can also monitor rhetoric. The flowchart (Figure 2) abstracts as displays five surprises in "Legg's: A Modern Parable":
  1. Paragraph 4, the butterfly;
  2. Paragraph 9, the rock with green moss;
  3. Paragraph 12, Billy's empty carton;
  4. Paragraph 14, "retarded" Billy's insight;
  5. Paragraph 14, the class's empathy.

Leggs, a modern parable

  1. "For our next project," she told the third-graders, "please hide in a Leggs carton something which represents spring."
  2. (a) Other children had started to notice that Billy was different.

  3. (b) "Maybe I should not have persuaded Billy's parents to delay moving him to a special school," the teacher thought to herself.
  4. (a) On the next day, the pupils lined all 20 cartons on her desk.

  5. (b) When she shuffled them, she explained that they did not need to know who brought what.
    (c)Secretly she wanted to protect Billy. (d) He may have misunderstood the assignment.
  6. (a) She opened the first carton hesitantly.

  7. (b) Out flew a butterfly.
  8. "Woopee!" the pupils responded.
  9. "That's mine!" shouted Mary.
  10. (a) "What a clever idea," the teacher stated.

  11. (b) Mary beamed.
  12. "Now what do we have in the second carton?"
  13. It was a small rock covered with green moss.
  14. "That's mine!" shouted Thomas.
  15. (a) "Yes, moss does represent new life," she said.

  16. (b) Since he would not remain anonymous, she added, "That's an original choice, Thomas."
  17. (a)The third carton was empty.

  18. (b) She turned it upside down and shook it.
    (c) Nothing.
    (d) Some pupils snickered.
    (e) She reached for the fourth carton, but Billy interrupted, "That's mine! That's mine!"
  19. (a) "Yes," Billy, "Thank you.

  20. (b) But it's empty."
  21. (a) "Yeah," he said.

  22. (b) "In the spring the tomb was empty, and that brought new life to everyone."
  23. (a) A few weeks later Billy died quite suddenly, of a brain tumor.

  24. (b) On his casket his classmates placed twenty Leggs cartons, all empty.

The flowchart accounts for disparities between the chronology of events and the order in which the writer narrates them. In literary jargon, we would say the story begins in media res: the flowchart graphs Paragraph 2 as action prior to Paragraph 1. That is, the writer first shows the teacher announcing the assignment and then tells us the prior conditions to which the teacher is responding. The flowchart reveals a similar disparity in ordering for Paragraph 3.

Flowcharts for rhetoric, like those for corporate structures, lack the precision of computer flowcharts. What they forfeit in precision, they may gain in imaginative power, especially the power to account for seemingly disparate quantities. Terms such as process, sort, and merge prompt for fresh description. They force interpretation. They also allow flexibility. If one statement suggests several strategies (for example, sorting and decision and display), the chart maker may brace them together.

The flowchart may also account for implied strategies, as does the "electrical connection" which appears as the penultimate symbol in Figure 2. Many operations occur, unstated, at that gap, before "all empty": input/out: the narrative forces the reader to recalculate assumptions about Billy, about the class.... extract: The class has extracted its own meaning out of Billy's life and out of their connection to him. merge: many things merge here, most noticeably the predictable punch line. Try reading the story aloud, raising your pitch before the comma, then omitting the last two words. Many in your audience will supply these two words.

Even in computer science, no two flowcharts prepared independently for the same program will appear exactly the same. Each chart maker will arrange the same symbols differently to reveal what she or he sees as most essential to understanding the integrity of the program. Even more so, with literary flowcharts. Their merit is not inerrancy but heuristics: they provide a visual vocabulary.

Charting people

Like charts of corporate hierarchies, Figures 3 and 4 demonstrate major shifts in people from the beginning to the end of "Leggs" and stress that "retarded" Billy upsets and reorders the world his teacher and classmates initially perceive. By the end of the story he has proved "different" in ways the teacher did not imagine: he becomes a "little Christ," a means of grace if not for the whole world, at least for his teacher and his twenty classmates.

Charting themes

Like charts of goods and equipment, Figure 4 graphs vocabulary networks, to explain how Billy reorders of the hierarchies in "Leggs." Emptiness shifts from negative to positive connotation. Billy's carton is empty. When the teacher avoids it and moves to the fourth carton, clearly she fears that Billy is merely "empty headed." Instead, Billy upstages all others with his sophisticated interpretation : "[T]he tomb was empty." We never learn the contents of the other seventeen cartons. When next we see them, Billy's classmates place twenty Leggs cartons, all empty.

For the teacher, cleverness is a private enterprise. To protect Billy, she shuffles the cartons, but the students do not accommodate. "It's mine!" each shouts. By the end of the story, Billy's private choice becomes the collective choice. "It's ours!" his classmates seem to assert with their cartons, all empty. Cleverness has become the divine prerogative, with Billy as its high priest or sacrificial offering.

The teacher initiates the assignment for each student to discover "something which represents" spring. The chain of correspondences begins with the butterfly and the green moss on a rock. Figure 6 charts these correspondences as they unfold. "Different" Billy breaks this chain with his carton. His classmates snicker and his teacher patronizes him. Billy resists. Later Billy's casket completes his revision, his new vision, of the assignment. Figure 7 demonstrates how the writer has carefully ordered references to the cartons to set up the final surprise.

Cataloging words

With words as bricks and steel, the writer engineers a narrative. Word lists from "Leggs" reinforce what we have already discovered about its structure. The graph of substantive words repeated in "Leggs" (Figure 8) demonstrates how the focus shifts from the teacher and her project to Billy and his: teacher occurs twice and she nine times refers to the teacher; Billy occurs five times, and he twice refers to Billy. The writer refers to carton most frequently of all physical objects in the narrative.

Figure 9 graphs how the writer places several words used only once as little explosions throughout the narrative. In a secondary network, the teacher emphasizes different and special as negative, clever and original as positive. In another network, writer emphasizes negation, Nothing-tomb-died-casket, a theme reversed for the faithful at the end.

Charting syntax

Many effects lie beneath the surface. As an architect or an engineer may explain mysteries hidden within a building before which we stand in awe, so a rhetoricican may identify hidden forces within a text which moves us. For that, rhetoricians will need our own special vocabulary, even if we use graphics more popular in other disciplines. Having heeded our students' special vocabularies, we may expect students to examine our own more thoughtfully.

Figure 10 employs the grammatical terms coordinators, subordinators, and transitionals to graph the syntactical bones of the narrative at the most functional, least substantive level. Gutting most content, the graph demonstrates how the writer gathers momemtum with longer stretches before with the short jabs: "Out flew a butterfly"; "It's empty."; "The tomb was empty; "twenty cartons, all empty."

Figure 11 charts the pulse. It strips all content to highlight formal punctuation. Notice especially the pattern in last three sentences. Each divides in two. In the first, Billy's last words, each part balances, with seven words apiece:

"In the spring the tomb was empty,

and that brought new life to everyone."








all empty
Figure 5: Word matrices in "L'eggs, A Modern Parable

In the penultimate sentence, the two parts grow unequal. As a hammer rises in a slow arc:

A few weeks later Billy died quite suddenly,
with a jab of extra explanation the hammer falls:
of a brain tumor.
The final sentence bifurcates unequally again, this time more expeditiously, as the hammer rises in slow motion:
On his casket his classmates placed twenty Leggs cartons,
and falls in one sharp blow:
all empty.

Literary quality

Although descriptions of structure rarely resolve questions of literary quality or aesthetic value, they can help readers clarify their judgments. Those who view religion as an opiate might see in "Leggs" a closed system of belief which preempts the classmates' deciding for themselves what they think about Christian claims of resurrection. Such readers may value the narrative precisely because it documents anti-intellectual assumptions, or may devalue the narrative because the author prompts no critical distance from which to see these assumptions as assumptions.

Some Christians will argue that the passage has worth precisely because it does present a closed system in which "God is his own interpreter" (Cowper's phrase in the hymn "God Moves In Mysterious Ways"). From this point of view, we should not have to examine the "nail prints" or "evidence of things not seen."

Other believers will dislike the story charging that for genuine faith the author substitutes glib emotionalism. From this point of view, the "faith" of the children, of the teacher, and of uncritical readers comes cheap. The writer exacts no substantial change of behavior from anyone. We do not get so much as a pitch for Special Olympics or for taxes to support "special school[s]."

Those who like a closed emotional system may value the syntactical pulse which serves it. Those who complain of sentimentality may cite the penultimate punctuation mark as the point at which the writer unfairly jerks tears from unwitting readers.

A personal conclusion

I began teaching thirty years ago at a land grant college. In their offices several colleagues in English sported a cartoon of a dunce in a graduation gown, saying "Six muntz ago I kudn spel enginear and now I are one." Many "humanists" today plaster on their office walls a poster with the legend: "If you send me lemons, don't complain that I make lemonade." With what efficacy? Will contempt motivate students to discover and enlarge their intellect?

How much better to invite students to think of writers as colleagues, to ask an engineering major to see how a writer engineers words, to ask a business major to see how a writer uses hierarchies, to ask a computer science major to make a rhetorical flowchart.

Literature is everyone's heritage. No discipline monopolizes critical insight.


My shareware program Styled generated Figures 10 & 11.

I first heard "Leggs, A Modern Parable" when The Rev. Tom Bowers told the story in a sermon for Palm Sunday at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Atlanta in th mid-1970s. I retold it in a newsletter the next month. In 1981 Lutheran theologian Martin Marty told me over lunch at the University of Chicago that never had more people written him about any single piece than wrote him about this one which he reprinted in his newsletter for pastors.

Many of the structural features which I have charted undoubtedly derive from the genre of "Leggs," as a sermon illustration or anecdote. That's a separate article.


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