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The case of the inverted plot

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Recently finished reading Tales from Earthsea. Sometimes Le Guin stories are so rich I can't read many of them at once; I read the first half of this book a while back, but only finished it recently. Finishing took longer than it might have, 'cause I ended up re-reading much of "The Finder," the long novella or short novel that takes up the first third of the book. I wasn't as thrilled with "Dragonfly," the final (and second-longest) story in the book; some good stuff, but the ending didn't really work for me. But I liked "On the High Marsh" (the second-to-last story) a great deal.

Because (the rest of this entry contains major spoilers): take Silverberg's universal plot skeleton. Adapt it to an Earthsea-style milieu: perhaps you have a Good Wizard who must go on a Quest to find and stop the Evil Wizard who has devastated the Good Wizard's homeland. In the end, the Good Wizard finds the Evil Wizard, and an epic battle ensues, and the Good Wizard triumphs. Right?

But no. Turn it inside out.

Start with a good wizard (lowercase) who's wandering out in the boondocks. He's maybe a little dim, maybe a little crazy in a gentle sort of way. Look at him through the eyes of a widow with a small farm. She thinks of him as "a silent, damaged creature that needed protection but couldn't ask for it."

The wizard and the widow interact; the wizard does good on various local farms; he has a run-in with a local wizard, in which nobody dies or is even severely injured, though our wizard comes out of it shaken.

And then, right near the end of the story, another wizard comes along, and he tells the widow a story, and the story he tells (summarizes, really) is the Universal Plot Epic Fantasy story outlined above; he's the Good Wizard, and our heretofore quasi-protagonist is (or rather was) the Evil Wizard. And when Mr. Good Wizard is done telling the story, he talks with the "Evil" wizard, and gently helps bring him back to himself.

No epic battle. The character who would be the protagonist of the epic fantasy—the Good Wizard—doesn't show up until the end of the story, and when he does, he's there to tell stories and heal rather than to fight. The character who is faced with the difficult problem during the course of the story Le Guin is telling doesn't make attempts to overcome the problem, not really; more just trying to cope with everyday life. The Universal Plot is backstory; it's essentially over by the time "On the High Marsh" begins. The other protagonist, the widow, doesn't really have a try/fail cycle here either. (It's not entirely impossible to apply the Universal Plot to this story; it's just that it doesn't apply in remotely the ways that you would expect for a High Fantasy story.)

None of which would matter, except: it works. The story is compelling and sad and moving and rich. It kept me reading, and it kept me caring about the characters, and the ending is completely dramatically satisfying.

Really nicely done. Doesn't actually make my top-5 Le Guin stories list (there's a lot of competition for those slots), but it still pleases me immensely, on structural as well as dramatic grounds.

2 Comments

Hmm. I suppose I should read it, but my usual experience with attempts to subvert the Universal Plot is that it ends with a very cranky reader. Not that (as I've mentioned before) I believe that the Universal Plot is in fact universal, but my experience with writers intentionally messing with it hasn't been great.
On the other hand, there are the magic words "it works". Not that it'll necessarily work for me, of course, but "it works" makes up for just about anything.

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-V.


As your co-editor I'm just so amused to see a familiar phrase crop up here. "Some good stuff, but the ending didn't really work for me." Note to any authors out there who may be smarting over rejection letters: he says the same thing about URSULA LEGUIN.


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