Coetzee’s Disgrace: The fractal structure of novels (tip 82) Reply

In this video, DD Johnston discusses why novels are structurally similar to fern leaves, analysing JM Coetzee’s Disgrace as an example.


I keep a picture of a fern leaf above my writing desk. Ferns are great. But this isn’t a promotion for the British Pteridological Society. No, it’s a reminder that novels have a fractal structure. A fern leaf, you see, is made up of lots of little fern leaves. And I think the same is often true of novels.

I’ve spoken before about the three act structure, how most stories have an inciting incident that propels the protagonist into some different circumstance or situation, how the ensuing conflict escalates to a climactic moment, at which point there is a resolution and the protagonist settles into a somewhat changed existence [see tip 17].

Well, what we sometimes forget is that this structure is formed by component parts that share the same structure.  And when I’m editing I find it tightens a novel to look at the structure of each chapter. In this chapter, I ask, what is the inciting incident? What new situation does the protagonist of the chapter face? What do they want? How does the conflict escalate? How is it resolved? If I can’t answer these questions, then the chances are the plot lacks direction. It drifts. So I’ll try to give the chapter a better structure and more narrative direction. When I’m happy that the chapter has the same structure as the novel, I’ll apply the same analysis to each section of the chapter. And when I’m happy that each section has the same structure as the chapter, I’ll apply the same analysis to each paragraph.

This works with plot-driven genre novels, but I think the fractal analysis can also be applied to character-driven literary novels. Take JM Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novel, Disgrace. It’s a thematically-complex and cerebral novel, but it still depends on structured story telling. There are several ways one could synopsise the plot; let’s start with this:

In act one, David Lurie is an unhappy uni teacher who lives in Capetown & pursues sexual affairs. He’s fired for having non-consensual sex with a student. In act two, Unemployed, disgraced, & without a role in post-apartheid South Africa, Lurie’s power is diminished. He goes to stay with his lesbian daughter on her rural farm. There he searches for some meaningful role, something he cares about, some means to a tolerable existence in a violent country that holds him to account for the past. And in act three, He begins a sexual relationship with a woman close to his age and volunteers at an animal shelter.

If a novel is really like a fern leaf, then any chapter within the novel should be like a fern frond. I’ve picked a chapter at random, and it’s chapter nine:

In the first act of chapter nine, Lurie’s objective is to occupy himself by watching TV at his daughter’s farm, but he’s disturbed by his neighbour Petrus. In the second act, Lurie leaves the TV room and talks with his daughter. She says ‘once you find things to do you won’t be so bored.’  She then suggests that he helps at the animal clinic.  David is initially reluctant: ‘I’m dubious, Lucy.  It sounds suspiciously like community service.’  He goes outside to see his daughter’s dogs. And in the third act, the chapter ends with David confirming that he’ll volunteer at the animal clinic: ‘When shall I start?’ he says.

If a chapter is really like a fern frond, every scene within a chapter should be like a fern pinna. I’ve looked at the first scene in chapter nine:

In the first act of this scene, Lurie tries to watch TV but he can’t understand the commentary and can’t concentrate. In the second act, things get worse when his neighbour Petrus arrives uninvited. Petrus makes Lurie uncomfortable, and the climax of Lurie’s little quest to entertain himself by watching TV arrives when Petrus switches the channel to the boxing. In the third act, Lurie abandons his original plan and wanders off to speak with his daughter.

Now, if a scene within a chapter is really like a fern pinna, each paragraph within a scene should be like a fern pinnule. I’ve looked at the first paragraph of this scene:

In act one, Coetzee writes “He is sitting in the front room, watching soccer on television.” In act two, he writes “The score is nil-all; neither team seems interested in winning. The commentary alternates between Sotho and Xhosa, languages of which he understands not a word.  He turns the sound down to a murmur.” And in act three, he writes “Saturday afternoon in South Africa: a time consecrated to men and their pleasures: he nods off.”

Like a fern leaf, right? As David Mamet said, “Dramatic structure is not an arbitrary – or even a conscious – invention. It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information. Event, elaboration, denouement; thesis, antithesis, synthesis; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl; act one, act two, act three.”

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

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