Can Real Life be Plotted on A Seed Shape Diagram? 

When I was in elementary school, my sixth grade teacher introduced me to my first ever seed shape in the form of a plot diagram. It’s a simple looking shape: two horizontal lines with a triangle in between them, representing the five stages of a plot. Starting on the left straight line is your exposition. How will your story begin? Where will it take place? Who are your characters? Then, as you start to climb up the triangle, you find yourself embarking on your rising action. Things are getting exciting. You’re building up to something big. Then, before you know it, you find yourself on the very tip of the triangle. The peak. Your climax. This is when things are at their most intense. From here, the only way you can go is down, so you find yourself in your falling action. This is when your story starts to wrap up any loose ends, before leveling back out on a horizontal line, and arriving at your resolution, or end. This seed shape was always very helpful for me. I used it to write my own stories, and to place other author’s stories into points on the diagram. I felt comforted by the seed shape. I knew what to expect, and roughly when to expect it. But what happens when authors tell a true story? Can a person’s real life mold into a predictable shape? When dissecting two slave narratives, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave” written by Fredrick Douglass and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs, I tried to do just that. 

Frederick Douglass’s narrative begins in the way most slave narratives do; “I was born…”. This beginning, or exposition, sets the scene on a young Fredrick Douglass, living in Maryland. Douglass was born enslaved. At this point, I would like to introduce another seed shape. Imagine a dome is drawn over the triangle seed shape. On the left side, at the first point of our dome we have “order”. Then arching over our triangle to the right side is our final point: “order restored”. In the middle is “disorder”. Young Fredrick being enslaved is considered “order” during this time period in the south. Now, as Douglass moves away from his exposition of childhood, and up the triangle in his rising action, we are approaching “disorder”. Douglass’s rising action is when he moves to Baltimore and embarks on a journey to learn to read and write. This was discouraged, since white people were scared that once enslaved people learned how to read and write, they would become “unmanageable”, “unhappy” and begin to fight against slavery. Mr. Auld, Douglass’s enslaver at the time, said in response to Douglass learning to read, “It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” (Douglass 287). This takes us to our climax of the narrative. Learning to read and write empowered Douglass, just as Mr. Auld feared. He wanted to fight, and he did. He fought his next enslaver, Mr. Covey. “I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to that resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose.” (Douglass 302). The decision to fight Mr. Covey is an intense part in Douglass’s narrative, and fits into the “disorder” portion of the diagram because of Douglass’s act of rebellion. Douglass wrote, “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave.” (Douglass 302). We have now reached the turning point on our triangle, which takes us to the falling action. The falling action in this narrative is when Fredrick Douglass puts a plan to run away into action. Douglass’s plan to escape first fails, landing him in jail, thus resulting in more “disorder”. It is not until his second attempt, that he successfully makes it North to New Bedford, which is our resolution and “order restored”. Douglass’s arrival to the North is considered to be “order restored” because the entire narrative leads up to this moment of freedom.

Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative can also be plotted on the triangle seed shape. We start the same as Douglass with, “I was born…”, where Jacobs shares that she was born enslaved, and hadn’t realized for her first six years of life, due to her childhood being a relatively happy one. This narrative (like Douglass’s) starts on the side of “order”, and begins with the exposition of a young Harriet (who calls herself “Linda” in the narrative), born into slavery. Our rising action, and beginning of “disorder”, is when Jacobs’ “kind mistress sickened and died.” (Jacobs 436). After Harriet’s “kind mistress” died, she became enslaved to Dr. Flint’s daughter. Dr. Flint was not a good man, and he took advantage of Harriet sexually. This takes us to our climax. In a chapter titled “The Jealous Mistress”, we see how Dr. Flint’s wife’s jealousy affects Harriet. “She felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband’s perfidy. She pitied herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed.” (Jacobs 442). The watchful, jealous eye of Mrs. Flint, along with the sexual abuse of Dr. Flint eventually led to Harriet having children with a white man named Mr. Sands, due to a desperate desire to be free of the Flints. Shortly after having the babies, Harriet decides to run away. Our falling action is when Harriet runs away and stays hidden in the crawlspace of her grandmother’s house for seven years. Eventually, when the opportunity and help arose, Harriet takes a boat North, thus escaping enslavement and finding freedom, giving readers a resolution and “order restored”. 

This exercise of putting true narratives about real people into plots on a seed shape diagram got me thinking. Can real lives truly be placed so neatly onto this triangle seed shape? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, I can plot an “exposition” to my own life, but there are so many beginnings to choose from. I could start with my own birth, or perhaps my first day of high school or college. Where you start your story changes the trajectory of your points on the shape. Depending on where I start and end my story, my rising action, climax, and falling action are all different. If I start my story at birth and end at my own death, there is guaranteed to be more than one rising action, more than one climax, more than one falling action, some even going on at the same time. It becomes a repetitive, fractal-like pattern that continues to go up and down through the ebbs and flows of real life. Ron Eglash defines fractals as being “characterized by the repetition of similar patterns at ever-diminishing scales.” (Eglash 4). Imagine off of every straight line, another triangle appears carrying the same points: rising action, climax, falling action; repeating infinitely. Life, like fractals, are repetitive. One’s life could not completely be summed up if using just one triangle seed shape. We have multiple seed shapes going on in multiple directions, infinitely, since our lives are long, complex, and can not be summed up perfectly on one plot with only 5 plot points. We need fractals; we need infinity. By saying all of this, I mean to point out that the authors of these narratives picked where to start and end their story, which was their birth to their freedom. Had the narratives continued past freedom, the triangle seed shape would go on, with new rising actions, new climaxes, new falling actions, and a new resolution. Life was not perfect, and order was not fully restored when Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs made it to the North. There were still struggles, there were still obstacles to be overcome. Their lives, stories, and legacies do not stop when their narratives reach their resolution; their hardships are not limited to the ones they chose to share; they go on much further and much longer, with lots more “disorder” in the middle.