Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Analyzing Plot: diagramming Cujo by Stephen King
As many of you know, I'm a huge Stephen King fan. I'm also a horror novelist. When I was writing the first draft of my debut Novel Night Walk, I decided to re-read Cujo by Stephen King. I hadn't read Cujo in more than 15 years, but I remember that it sucked me right in all those years ago.
This time around was no different. I was amazed by how good Cujo still is. I was hooked before I finished the first page. When I finished, I went back and re-read it two more times. Considering that Dean Koontz claims to have read each book by his favorite author John D. MacDonald four or five times apiece, I figured I should do the same with Stephen King.
The effort was worth it.
I was able to get a deeper sense of Cujo in a way I never had with any other book. Duh. That's obvious, right?
But what came as a complete surprise to me was the diagram you see above. Stephen King's Cujo in triangles. The gist of it popped into my head several months after my fourth reading of Cujo. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I needed to put it down concretely and work out any kinks in my first inspiration. What you see here is the result of thoroughly massaging my original idea.
This analysis in triangles is not an exact, literal duplicate of the book's plot structure. I've cut away some less relevant characters and conflicts in order to emphasize the major triangle patterns I saw emerging.
We start in the center with the Trenton family: husband Vic Trenton, wife Donna Trenton, and son Tad Trenton.
The Camber family, owners of Cujo: husband Joe Camber, wife Charity Camber, and son Brett Camber.
Vic Trenton's floundering advertising business, which includes Vic Trenton, his partner Roger Breakstone, and their main client Sharp Cereal Company, without whom their fledgling ad business would fail.
Donna Trenton's affair with Steve Kemp, a triangle which includes: Vic Trenton, Donna Trenton and Steve Kemp
The Lottery money that Charity wins which includes: Charity Camber, Joe Camber and Brett Camber
Cujo and the Camber "men," who are the primary caretakers of the dog: Cujo, Brett Camber and Joe Camber
The main plot of the book: Cujo's sustained attack on Donna Trenton and Tad Trenton.
Although the entire Trenton family meets the Camber family one year prior to the novel's main action (when the Trentons had driven out to Joe Camber's Garage to have him look at their faltering Jaguar) the two families have little direct interaction throughout the book. Their interactions with Cujo are of a very different nature: Donna and Tad Trenton are assaulted by Cujo while the Cambers main concern is the health of their beloved pet who has been acting strangely; the Camber's know nothing of Cujo's rabid state until the bitter end.
Along with the main plot of the book---Cujo's attack against Donna and Tad---we have the three major subplots. Three points make a triangle of subplots. Is that important? I don't know, but it makes my triangle analogy that much more interesting.
As I endeavored to peel away the layers of Cujo so that I could understand why it worked so damn well, I realized that each of the three sub-plots was in and of itself worthy of any novel.
Money troubles for the Trenton family. Vic's ad business is on the skids and he must take on a Hero's Journey or Hero's Quest to put it back on track. Coincidentally, this Hero's Journey takes him away from his family, leaving his wife and son vulnerable to the disaster awaiting them in the maw of rabid Cujo.
Adultery and forgiveness. Donna Trenton, not so happy housewife, has an affair. But she's decided she's now done with it. Steve Kemp, her paramour, doesn't want things to end. And he's a bastard. Steve sends an incriminating note to Vic's office. Vic struggles with the discovery, pondering whether or not to leave his wife while his business is falling apart all around him. Meanwhile, Steve Kemp is preparing to make things even worse for the Trenton family.
Child Rearing and the domineering husband. The Camber's story could perhaps be considered three subplots, but all three involve the struggle between low-class, low-income Joe Camber and his wife Charity: in one they fight over control of their son, another for control of their marriage, and the final story over the lottery winnings. Joe rules the house with an iron fist. Charity fears Joe's low-brow ways are turning her son into his father, and she doesn't want to see that happen. Amazingly, Charity wins $5,000 in the state lottery (Coincidentally, in the novel McTeague, one of Stephen King's favorite novels by author Frank Norris, Trina Sieppe also wins $5,000 in the San Francisco lottery). This money becomes the central player in the struggle between Joe and Charity as she uses the money to bribe him into permitting her to take their son to meet her sister, who had previously married into a higher social strata and tax bracket.
There you have it. A general breakdown of the Triangle in Cujo, and my diagram to enhance the presentation of the basic ideas.
If you have read Cujo, you will recognize these structures and perhaps my diagram will help you see and remember them in a more cohesive fashion. If you haven't read it, I hope this diagram will still give you some ideas about how to structure a novel with multiple subplots, but to truly appreciate the richness of the many plot threads in Cujo and how they weave together, you should read the book.
If you want to see how Cujo influenced my writing, check out my novel Night Walk. There's even some awful dogs in it. You won't be disappointed. I promise. No seriously, I promise-promise. That's a double promise. ;-)
And oh yeah, if you don't check out my book, I will sic Cujo and his kindred spirit Chopper on you!
Cujo! Chopper! Sic Balls!
And get off my property!
I'm joking, I'm joking. :-) Seriously, come around here any time you want to discuss writing or Stephen King. Just make sure you wear an athletic cup, or for the ladies, a durable chastity belt or equivalent (they offer great protection against dog bites---try it if you don't believe me).