Key Concepts: The Theory of the Rope

Frank_McConnell - cropped

Frank McConnell, UCSB English Professor

A little background first.  When I was attending UCSB in the late 1980s, I first crashed, then attended, upper division English classes taught by the wildly popular professor Dr. Frank McConnell, who died in 1999.  McConnell drew big crowds to the grand lecture hall, his classes popular as much among non-English majors as those in the discipline — all the more remarkable given his classes did not meet the breadth requirement.  He was quite a character, a sort of grown-up counter-culture kid whose briefcase had a bumper sticker slapped across it that read “card carrying member of the ACLU”  He was completely engaging and often very funny.  From the University of California publication In Memoriam (2000):

…the UCSB Department of English lost its most popular undergraduate teacher. With lectures at once passionate and irreverent, often ribald, he held classes of five to seven hundred students spellbound on subjects as diverse as science fiction and Shakespeare. His colleagues knew him as prodigiously wide in his learning–as well as brilliantly witty, always ready with a comic story of sharp quip.

* * *

I attended two of Frank McConnell’s classes, The Art of the Narrative and Science Fiction.  It was in the Narrative class that he had us read a Batman comic book, and where he taught the Theory of the Rope, a key concept in storytelling.  And it is explained by a Garfield comic strip, which I have searched for in vain.  So, as a refresher, a different “Garfield”:

Garfield - Lasagna Day

Now picture a Garfield comic:

Frame 1: Jon is standing at the counter preparing to dive into the lasagna dish in front of him

Frame 2: Garfield swings by on a rope (à la Tarzan) and snatches the lasagna – the entire dish

Frame 3: Jon asks, “Where did the rope come from?”

There is no better way to explain the idea that sometimes a story requires sudden, unpredictable and often improbable elements in order to be moved along or turned a certain way.  It’s an idea that writers use all the time, and is a constant in movies.

I cannot confirm that the comic exists, but it was such a pointed and succinct lesson that I remember it as clearly now as the day I listened to Frank McConnell lecture on it.  I am relaying the Theory now for future reference.  Up first: the following post on Gone Girl.


4 thoughts on “Key Concepts: The Theory of the Rope

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