Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Story Structures: Beads on a String (C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

Note: This post contains numerous spoilers.

Lately I've found myself thinking a lot about story structures, those architectures upon which authors erect their narratives. I'm talking about something a little broader than scene-by-scene plotting and a little finer than the old high-school critical pattern of exposition leading to rising action leading to climax leading to denouement. The latter seems universally applicable and the former specific to every individual work, which means neither really helps much during the difficult work of composition. Are there any mid-altitude setups we can spy out that give us the overall lay of the land while providing enough detail to aid with detailed plot work? I think so. Just look at what C.S. Lewis did with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third installment (at least by publication date) in The Chronicles of Narnia.

A fair amount has happened in Narnia prior to Dawn Treader, but it's not essential to know if you're new to the series. Suffice it to say that a chance encounter with a magical picture draws Edmund and Lucy Pevensie into Narnia, along with their boorish cousin Eustance Clarence Scrubb. You wouldn't exactly call it a pleasant journey. The trio find themselves unceremoniously dunked into a frigid ocean and saved just in the nick of time by a Narnian ship, the titular Dawn Treader. Onboard is King Caspian, who in the current time of peace has pledged to find seven lords exiled during the prior reign of an evil ruler.

You can see the setup right off of the proverbial bat, can't you? The seven lords serve as progressing plot points, each leading to the other as the Dawn Treader races farther out into the unexplored blue. I like to think of it as the Beads on a String structure. That's mostly how Lewis uses it, too. In the Lone Islands, Caspian and crew find a lord who fell in love with a local woman years ago and decided to stay; with his help, they eradicate the local slave trade and setup a loyal Narnian government. On an island entirely shrouded in darkness, they discover another one, only he's bedraggled and half-mad; his warning saves them from a place where dreams -- and nightmares -- come true. Near the world's end, they happen on three at once at the table of Aslan, the lion son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea; they're sunk in a slumber that can only be broken if the crew completes a very specific task. Not all of the encounters end happily. One lord ends up at the bottom of a pool whose waters transform everything they touch into pure gold. Another gets transmuted into a dragon and dies as one. It's a simple structure, one easy to follow.

In fact, it's almost too easy. Had Lewis confined each landing to an encounter with a lord, Dawn Treader would quickly grow dull. Instead, he interspersed the beads of these central episodes with unrelated action. A sea serpent. A tremendous storm. Islanders rendered invisible by a magician. Mysterious, menacing merfolk. What's more, he adds two more plot movers in the form of character motivations, one negative and one positive, one occurring early in the novel and one near its end.

The first comes in the person of Eustace. Peevishly progressive, he allows Lewis to poke lighthearted fun at that philosophy while breaking up the action with an interlude tangentially connected to the seven lords. Only by magically becoming a scaly monster (just as happens to one of the lords) does Eustace's dragonish nature slowly surrender to something a little more -- how should we put it? -- lionhearted. The second appears in the form of a talking mouse named Reepicheep. A prophecy was murmured over him as an infant ("To find all you seek, / There is the utter East"), and those words keep the crew sailing a couple chapters after they find the last lords. The Beads on a String structure may seem easy, but Lewis shows us the need to vary it up a little lest the proceedings become dull.

(Picture: CC 2009 by David Jackmanson)


YA Sleuth said...

I like that beads-on-a-string structure. I've heard it referred as sequences in script writing, where you have about ten sequences, I believe.

I use this structure myself. Makes things easier, but you're right: it takes work to keep it from getting dull.

Ben Mann said...

I really enjoy the apparent simplicity of this kind of episodic structure where, as you've observed, it's all been identified up front: Here's the seven episodes you can look forward to. Ready? Let's go! This format of course also allows us to ramp up the tension, since each lord is found in even weirder circumstances than the last (I mean, hey, the first encounter is amongst slave traders: Compared to later it's almost mundane).

How many times (and usually about now, on the eve of nanowrimo) has some forum post asked Hai gusy, can I write a novel made up of a series of short stories? To which the inevitable reply is Well, it can work, but...

Because it does work - and work especially well, in cases such as Dawn Treader, where character arcs and a story problem tie it all up. With string.

Loren Eaton said...


Yes, "sequences" sounds right. I knew there had to be a more technical term for it, but I couldn't think of it for the life of me! Myself, I really need a structure like this when I write. Otherwise, I find myself floundering pretty quickly.

Loren Eaton said...


Great to hear from you! What you been up to?

This format of course also allows us to ramp up the tension

Yup, I think you're right. The irony of this sort of structure is that it gives the author a lot of freedom. You already know roughly where you're going; now you can let your imagination run (mostly) wild.

And the "short story" novel rarely works in my very humble opinion. Even The Martian Chronicles (which is pretty awesome) feels disjointed because of its structure. Of course, Bradbury admitted that he simply cobbled together a bunch of shorts because he needed a novel-length manuscript.

Chestertonian Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'm not sure how much C.S. Lewis actually succeeded. Dawn Treader has some of the most fascinating scenes and set-pieces of the Narnia series: the sea of dreams (read: nightmares), Eustace as a Dragon, the river that turns people gold, the crisp waters at the end of the world ... I really could go on and on. Nonetheless, I came to my true appreciation of that book late. Not incidentally, it was about the same point in time when I gained an appreciation for the short story collection.

There's a reason why the recent film version (however ineptly) stuck in a frivolous plot about swords and some Generic Nameless Evil--the book as is is too dissolute in its plotting to satisfy modern tastes, unless read as allegory (where there is some deliberate moral progress throughout.)

Loren Eaton said...

Funny! Because Dawn Treader vies with A Horse and His Boy for the top spot in my affections amongst all the Narnia books. Prince Caspian and The Last Battle duke it out for the least liked position.

De gustibus non est disputandum, eh?

Chestertonian Rambler said...

My career is to debate tastes--though this is an odd thing. The Last Battle and The Silver Chair are my two favorites. Obviously, I've always had a bit of a dark streak, so I loved the two about death and despair, respectively.

Prince Caspian has both one of my favorite scenes and the most striking. Favorite = the starlit lesson in Narnian history, given by the half-dwarf professor. Most striking = the duel, because it was the first I read that played up realism over glamor. (To wit: they strick at each other's legs, and jumped.)

The Horse and His Boy, we all can agree, is the most fun. And has the most non-evented interracial marriage I can think of, which is refreshing.

But in the case of Dawn Treader, I really do think it's because I had a very specific idea about fiction. Each scene was great--again, some of the most memorable in the series--but the "and then" structure kept me from being able to follow a "plot." The question "what are they going to discover next" is less engaging for me than "how are they going to save Narnia" or "how are they going to infiltrate/escape the dark underground caves?" I admit, it may be a flaw in my own tastes--this is why I love Doestoevski (whose books run from premise to its explanation) but find it very hard to get into Tolstoy (whose book is much more structured around a series of events.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I need to pay more attention to this sort of scaffolding. As a ss writer, I am too inclined to just let it sweep me away without paying to much attention to form and scene.
And when I tried to write a novel (twice) I found I could pretty much take it apart and make it into stories. So I wasn't doing it correctly.

Loren Eaton said...


I can see how you'd like those two, especially given your preference for more expansive narratives. Myself, I like things pretty cut and dried, although I'll admit this means I miss out on some good stuff from time to time.

Loren Eaton said...


Honestly? Picking out these structures is often the only way in which I can write. I have such a hard time getting started.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


I may be too eager to recommend unnecessary technological solutions, but have you considered checking out Scrivener? It is an OCD's best friend, but rather useful for the rest of us. It kinda sorta replaces your word processor, allowing you to divide your story into scenes and chapters. It was useful for me to see how many scenes I had per chapter, which perspective characters I used at which times, when I might want to move things earlier or later, which details I want to exclude/include. (As a bonus, it lets me save a final form of my story either with Italics or underline--great for submitting proper manuscript format to official places, and reasonably normal format to friends.)

Honestly, I'm often like Loren--I want to write my story to fit into an outline (which changes), and Scrivener allows me to do so in a rather literal way. But I imagine it could work equally well in reverse, since you could see your story in its entirety, look at its outline, and figure out how to better connect its various elements.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

(It is also great for that wonderful scene you write without knowing where it fits in--since each scene can be moved around with a couple of clicks.)