Nonplot-Based Narrative Ordering

Most readers when they think of the way a narrative (novel, comic, tv show) is ordered will think about plot: what Brian Richardson, in his “Beyond the Poetics of Plot: Alternative Forms of Narrative Progression and the Multiple Trajectories of Ulysses,” describes as “a teleological sequence of events linked by some principle of causation; that is, the events are bound together in a trajectory that typically leads to some form of resolution or convergence.” This is the classic organization often thought of with the terminology of Freytag: rising action, climax, and denouement. Most articles or books you read on writing will focus on this type of organization.

In his article, Richardson describes a number of varieties of “nonplot-based narrative ordering,” those that are not focused on cause and effect. I’ve been interested in these types of nonplot narratives for quite awhile, devouring all sorts of experimental fictions, but I’ve noticed how little we see these types of orderings in comics. The “graphic novel,” such as it is, is very much stuck in a plot-based narrative structure (not universally, there are always exceptions). So, in the interest of getting you, my readers, thinking about this, I’ll summarize and comment upon this article, briefly enumerating each of Richardson’s varieties of nonplot-based narrative orderings and bringing in my own observations related to comics. Richardson comes up with ten varieties:

a) after the order of an earlier text: Ulysses is well known for basing its order on the Odyssey (on which see Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses). I’m basing my webcomic Things Change loosely upon the ordering of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We’d also see this in the various adaptions of fairy tales or myths.

b) in a rhetorical order: Works that are ordered in such a way as to explicate a thesis or worldview. This is much more common in literature from previous centuries, such as Voltaire’s Candide.

c) “aesthetic” orderings: Sequencing based on motifs, architecture, numerology, geometry. This is common in many oulipian works, such as Gilbert Sorrentino’s Crystal Vision which is organized based on the cards of the tarot.

d) generated by pictures within the text: Common in Robbe-Grillet’s work such as In the Labyrinth, which describes a painting and then works elements from that painting into the rest of the novel.

e) “verbal generator”: “…a few select words go on to generate the object or actions depicted,” which I’m not sure of any clear examples of, but which bears some relation to Roussel’s method.

f) alphabetical patterns: We see this in Abish’s Alphabetical Africa as well as encyclopedic type works like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, both are which have alphabetical orderings.

g) “Serial constructs”: “Repetition of events rather than progression from one event to another.” See Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy or to a certain extent Peanuts.

h) collage, recombinations, and rearrangements: Burroughs is a prime example here, as is something like Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1.

i) multiple orderings for reading: “Forking paths,” hypertext, and the like, perhaps most popularly seen in the “choose your own adventure” books.

j) aleatory: chance or random orderings. Try a Surrealist novel.

Richardson makes the point that many of these orderings work independently, in compliment to, or in opposition to conventional plot. “It may well be that the most compelling narrative sequences are those that seamlessly interweave two or more strategies of progression, making the independent orderings seem to be coextensive and unobtrusive.”

The comic strip is one place where narrative orderings other than plot proliferates. Think about Peanuts. While many (most?) of the strips themselves obey the orderings of cause and effect–often in the form of the set-up-beat-punchline–through the progression of strips we see an ordering of serial constructs, repetitions, and variations.

Another alternative ordering, other than serial constructs, that one sees in comic strips is that based on the calendar. Events follow each other on a rigorous day-to-day basis not with cause and effect but through the simple passing of time. At the highest degree this would be the daily diary strip like American Elf. At lower degrees there are the seasonal/holiday shifts in Peanuts. While many comic strips (online and off) are published daily, they are not necessarily ordered in such a way, narratively. Adventure or soap strips from the classic newspaper style (Steve Canyon, On Stage) or webcomics (like Scary-Go-Round) appear daily, but the narratives maintain a plot-based cause/effect ordering. Gasoline Alley could well be the ultimate combination of plot and calendar/time based ordering, where the strips tick off the accumulation of days, months, years, decades in a way that is possibly unique in a fictive narrative. The strip has no end. This is not all that strange in comics, but it would be in literature or really any other media (except maybe soap operas).

Richardson, Brian. “Beyond the Poetics of Plot: Alternative Forms of Narrative Progression and the Multiple Trajectories of Ulysses.” A Companion to Narrative Theory. Ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Blackwell Publishing, 2005.