J. Robert King

Sex and Storytelling

Sex sells. That’s a truism apparent in every edition of Vogue and Esquire, but perhaps the intelligentsia deem themselves above such tawdry appeals.

Except that sex is the root of all good storytelling.

All right, before you ban your children from reading my site, let me explain. There’s a thing called the plot chart. Every writer knows about it. It looks like a stock market chart in which you buy very low, ride a few ups and downs that are mostly ups, reach a high point, and then slope off rapidly back to the place where you started. Such a chart would not represent a very good stock portfolio, but it does represent the best storytelling–and the best sex.

Exposition, rising action, climax (there’s the key word), and denouement.

Let’s put it another way. When I teach the plot chart–as when I teach anything–I want to start with what students know and move to what they don’t know. So, I draw a standard graph on the board, with the Y axis representing excitement level (from “Blah” on the bottom left to “Hurray!” on the upper left). Then I label the X axis with increments of time (“Beginning,” “Middle,” and “Ending”). At that point, I ask students to think of a terrific experience they have had and to chart the experience.

A great concert, the time they stood up to a bully, the day their sister was born–it doesn’t matter what the experience is. All great experiences follow the same basic plot chart. They rise by jagged steps from “Blah” at the beginning” to “Hurray!” near the end, and then slope off suddenly.

Of course, for adults, one of the terrific experiences that also takes this form is sex. (Hurray!)

I argue that every great experience in life takes this form. Perhaps they all are mimicking sex, or perhaps sex is mimicking them. After all, as Freud would say, sex is the ultimate expression of the life-urge, and so anything that makes us feel we are alive and perhaps immortal–including sex–naturally has the same shape.

For those doubters out there, I’d suggest that you graph a rotten experience. Most begin halfway or fully at “Hurray!” and slope off jaggedly to “Blah.” These are the stories of disappointment. They feel exactly the opposite of sex. In Freudian terms, they feel like death.

So, why should storytellers create a classic plot line? Because they want readers to feel that this was the best experience of their lives. Why should they avoid other shapes? Because no one wants to read a book that feels like dying.

Oh, and by the way, if your sex graph turns out differently than this, you’re doing it wrong.

June 12th, 2009
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2 Responses to “Sex and Storytelling”

  1. Steven Says:

    Great blog post, Rob.

    Man, this makes me miss our long chats. Just the sort of analogy I miss over here in Michigan.


  2. admin Says:

    Thanks, Steve! So, are you saying that the publishers in your neck of the woods aren’t likely to compare the classic plotline to sex?

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