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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
|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:
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.
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.