shapes of the novel


Years ago writer, critic, editor, Clifton Fadiman (Lifetime Reading Plan) addressed the issue of novel structure by suggesting three basic shapes. The horizontal novel follows events chronologically, Point A to Point B, and so, he said, is best suited to the plot-driven novel. The converging novel follows a number of separate characters with their separate subplots and sequences of action until the events and characters meet at a single culminating time and place. As the vertical novel proceeds chronologically, it sends down shafts into consciousness in order to mine the memory of the central character, and this based on some order other than the chronological. The recollections accumulate we come to some understanding about the character’s total experience.


I first ran across the discussion of Fadiman’s shapes in A Passion for Narrative, a terrific book on writing by Jack Hodgins, published in 1998. More recently, I ran across the same discussion on a web site called “The Fantasy Writer’s Cookbook,” by Stephen Tennant. I was startled to see that Tennant has appropriated Hodgins’ entire discussion, word for word. I would have said “borrowed” (borrowed ungraciously, to be sure), except that Tennant had the audacity to copyright Hodgin’s material! “Copyright Stephan Tennant, 2000.” And then he affixed this curious and disingenuous addendum: “I have made no attempt to acknowledge the sources for much of the above [his entire page] as they are many and varied and their work has been re-formed into a new narrative. [Word for word!] To those writers whose work appears here I wish to express gratitude–I hope you don’t get the Copyright Police on my case.” Tennant’s the author (he claims) of Blaydar’s Children and Dark Winter Riders. Fantasy writer, indeed. (The copyright police may have paid Mr. Tennant a visit--a recent check shows that his website has vanished.)