225 – Fractal Plots

The Mythcreant Podcast

This episode is a podcast within a podcast within a podcast about plots within plots within plots. That’s right, today we’re talking about fractal plotting. What is fractal plotting, you ask? Listen and find out! We talk about the most basic parts that make up a plot, how those parts fit together, and what happens when you take them to the next level. Plus, did you know Harry Potter is basically an example of everything we ever talk about?

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:


Your Plot Is Fractal

The Hero’s Journey

Harry Potter

Deep Space Nine


The Expanse

Orphan Black

The Collapsing Empire

Wheel of Time

The Gentlemen Bastards

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Generously transcribed by Danita. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Intro: You’re listening to The Mythcreant Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

Intro Music

Chris: This is The Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…

Oren: Oren.

Chris: This time we are having a podcast within a podcast within a podcast within a podcast.

Oren: What. No stop. It’s gone too deep.

Chris: It’s going to make the most podcast of podcasts.

Oren: Too many layers of podcast like the quantum realm and now we’re time traveling into Avengers End Game. Why would you do this to us Chris?

Chris: So this time we’re going to be talking about fractals and in particular fractal plotting which sounds very strange, you might wonder why are we talking about fractals. Isn’t that for mathematicians. Sounds kind of overly nerdy, I know.

Oren: Actually this is a math class. You’re trapped. The doors are locked. Deal with it.

Chris: I know a lot of writers when it comes to plotting, they just want to know. Just tell me how to plot the thing. Just give me directions. Give me a road map, tell me what to do now and then next and all the way to the end. But looking at plots as fractals tells us why it’s so hard for anyone to tell a writer how they can just plot the thing particularly when that thing is as big as a novel is.

Right now there’s a big struggle because any plot structure for a novel that seems anywhere near universal is also incredibly vague. Too vague to be helpful. And we’ve talked about the hero’s journey a little bit where the hero’s journey is really funny because people seem to want to have it both ways. It’s both incredibly specific and also very vague depending on who you ask.

Oren: Yeah the hero’s journey is just like, if you take every point in the Hero’s Journey at its vaguest level and squint really hard most stories will have them in some version, somewhere, maybe.

Chris: I honestly I think even at its vaguest the hero’s journey is never going to be universal.

Oren: Yeah I would agree.

Chris: So anyway, first let’s talk about what is a fractal for people who are not familiar with that concept. Basically, a fractal is a repeating pattern found frequently in nature. Often it’s the same shape that repeats but gets smaller and smaller and smaller as it does. So if you have a triangle and it’s made up of four smaller triangles and then each of those smaller triangles is made up of four tinier triangles and each of those has four teensy weensy triangles inside.

Oren: I’m not ready.

Chris: Snowflakes are fractals. They grow via repeating patterns. They look different but they are all fractals. So that just means that our plots are unique and special snowflakes. All of them.

Oren: Oh is that what it means. OK. All right. Tell me what this means at a book level. Where does the book fall here?

Chris: Yeah, what does it have to do with books? Well I think the big problem that we have when communicating about plotting and plots is that conventionally we’ve been thinking about plots and especially the novel size, as one big complex shape or pattern.

When I think that what it really is is more of a repetition of a much simpler pattern. So any plot that you see, and this is why plots can take so many different forms and it’s hard to give people specific directions, is because again they’re a repetition of something much simpler that ends up looking complex because of the repetition.

Oren: OK. So the biggest level would be the series so if we were to take Harry Potter as an example.

Chris: Yeah let’s go ahead and use Harry Potter as an example.

Oren: Harry Potter is just a great example for so many things. So Harry Potter the series is theoretically the biggest level. Right. That’s the biggest version of this.

And then you zoom in one level and then you get the books and the books make up the series and then you zoom in on the books and in the books you get the different chapters.

Chris: I mean, it doesn’t have to be chapters. It can be a can be half story structure in themselves but they don’t necessarily-  OK, so let’s let’s define what this pattern is again. And it’s something  we’ve talked about a lot so it should be pretty familiar but it’s basically you start with a problem. Then you have a turning point and then you have a resolution to that problem.

At Mythcreants, that’s how we define plot structure. It’s very simple. Simpler than again, a lot of other people define plot structure. You can even think of it as a triangle. If you’ve ever seen one of those charts where it’s rising tension and then climax and then falling action and it looks like a triangle, that’s basically it.

Oren: But it’s not an equilateral triangle, usually.

Chris: It’s not an equilateral triangle.

Oren: Yeah usually the majority is rising action and then the climax happens and then you have a much shorter third leg which is falling action.

Chris: Right. The turning point happens shortly before the resolution. And the problem is usually significantly before that but, again, at the end it’s just, you know, I am out of Cheetos. Then I go to the store. Oh no somebody has the last bag of Cheetos. I’m going to fight them for the Cheetos, is our turning point, and then I either do or don’t get the Cheetos. That’s our resolution

Oren: I’m on the edge of my seat. Did you get the Cheetos? Can’t just leave me hanging like that.

Chris: We’ll say I got the Cheetos in this example.

Oren: Woo, happy ending.

Chris: Right. So that’s extra incredibly simple, right? A novel is way more complex than that but a novel is a very long story that has that repeated many, many times in different ways.

So anyway, let’s go back to Harry Potter. We have the problem of Voldemort and the rise of fascism and our turning point is the battle with Voldemort in the last book which is also the turning point for the last book. And the resolution is Voldemort is now dead and Harry has won and fascism has been defeated.

OK now we can go to each individual book and see that there’s that same pattern there. We can see that in book 1 Voldemort is trying to get the Sorcerer’s Stone. We have the turning point. The battle between Harry and Voldemort at the end of that book, the climax of that book and then the resolution for that book. Voldemort did not get the Sorcerer’s Stone and he’s off by himself again having lost his minion. We’ve resolved that plot but it is part of the bigger plot of the struggle against Voldemort.

Oren: OK. And then within the- do you remember the first book well enough to give us an example of this going even smaller?

Chris: I have one in my post, I think I remember. So what Rowling does during each of her books is she has usually the big plot against Voldemort or for the big plot for the book kind of happening building up in the background and then she has smaller stories about school happening in the foreground and those are shorter so they don’t have to be quite as epic in scope. But for instance, one chapter, it’s Harry is really nervous about this Quidditch game, it’s his first Quidditch game ever. But we have the Quidditch happen and Harry at the pinnacle turning point races after the snitch and manages to catch it with his mouth.

And then he- and then we’ve got the resolution. He wins the Quidditch game. So you can keep going like this. Each scene oftentimes it’s a little unclear where the structure fits in, you know it could be potentially stretched between two scenes but oftentimes scenes have this structure themselves in them. Each individual scene. This is the scene where you know Harry tries to get information out of Hagrid, right. And they have a turning point that’s involved somewhere in their conversation. He’s trying to convince Hagrid to give up information and then Hagrid probably gives it up because that’s what Hagrid does.

Oren: That’s his job. Don’t ever tell Hagrid anything if you don’t want Harry, Hermione and Ron to know it.

Chris: So one scene might be, ok, we need this information. Have a turning point with Hagrid. We got the information and that’s our scene. So the only thing that makes this- really the biggest thing that I think makes this different from the fractals that we see a lot of times in nature is that you can only get so small because you can’t divide a word.

Oren: It’s hard anyway.

Chris: We have an indivisible unit at the bottom and so it’s not an infinite fractal the way a snowflake might be.

Oren: And then when you split a word you get like a giant explosion. We’re just not ready for that kind of technology yet.

Chris: But anyways do you want to talk about more examples? I think Deep Space Nine is another good example of a plot that has easy arcs that you can see at multiple levels.

Oren: Yeah and TV shows in particular tend to do it. They tend to have a season arc which if the show is really good splits and goes up into an even bigger series arc. Like in Deep Space Nine the series arc is the Dominion War. It takes them a little while to introduce that but it happens pretty quickly. It’s within the first season they’re planting hints of the Dominion War.

Chris: And we also have the fate of Bajor and the space Jesus plot that are tied into that.

Oren: And then they have the first season’s plot. It’s especially strong. But then by the time you get into the fourth season it’s now you have to Klingon war that is the arc of the fourth season and then they have smaller sub arcs within the Dominion War.

Chris: So this is a thing that’s been increasingly aggravating me. I’m at the cusp of making up another word. Someday I won’t be making up more words but when we’re talking about all of these stories within stories within stories, having the correct language to talk about them is important and it really bugs me that subplot does not mean what it should mean. Because a subplot does not mean, oftentimes, doesn’t really fully mean a story that is a part of the bigger plot. It means it’s another story that’s layered on top of it. That’s usually less important right.

Oren: That’s not really related.

Chris: Right yeah. So you would say that Harry wanting to win the Quidditch tournament would be a subplot of the Harry Potter series but Harry’s struggle against Voldemort in book 1 is not a subplot even though it’s a piece of a bigger plot about the struggle against Voldemort.

And I don’t think we have a word for that. I’m gonna have to make one up.

Oren: Uh oh.

Chris: I know but it bugs me because a lot times when we’re plotting a novel we have to do that. We have a big arc where you have an epic battle of the hero versus the villain for instance. And then we have step one the hero needs to go journey to some place to get some magic item for instance. And that’s part of the struggle against the villain the hero is doing that because if the villain gets the magic item first they’ll become more powerful for instance.

And that by itself forms a story structure where we have the problem and the turning point and the resolution to that. And it’s a piece though of the larger story structure against that villain, right? And so this is a lot of times when you’re looking at a novel and you want to plot a novel this is how you fill in that muddlesome middle. And this is why we have the muddlesome middle because that internal structure is lacking because we know how the story begins and we know how it ends. But what do we do with all that stuff in between where the overarching story doesn’t inherently put something there. It’s because we need more smaller stories that fit inside the bigger story.

Oren: Yeah. And you can’t always just jump to the end right. That’s the automatic thing I think of when, it’s well what’s the solution to the muddlesome middle? Well maybe just do you need to have all that?

Maybe you can just cut it out and you can but then first of all that means your book is going to be very short but it also just means that when you get to the end it very often doesn’t feel it has the proper scope. You know when you get to the end of a long series, the ending has to be good in itself but there’s also just a feeling of inertia that you’ve built up over the series that is all going to come to a head right. And it’s all building to that moment and just having that inertia is a very powerful feeling.

That’s why even though the ending of the Temeraire series was pretty mediocre in my opinion, I still read it and was still really into it because I’d read twelve books to get there. And I had enjoyed most of those books individually. Now that’s not worth putting in a bunch of crap which some people seem to think it is but, there is definitely something you get from having a longer story with a lot more content in there.

Chris: I think attachment is really big because the longer you spend with the same set of characters, assuming that you like them, the writer has been successful at making you like them, the more emotionally attached you get to all the elements of the story and then the bigger the payoff when they succeed the bigger the emotional payoff. Short stories I think have a much tougher time with that attachment aspect because they’re so short whereas with a novel you have time for that emotional investment to build.

Oren: Shall we talk about some things that can disrupt the fractal? So I feel like this might be one of the reasons why big exposition dumps are a problem because it’s it doesn’t really feel like these exposition dumps are related to a problem that the character has.

I’m using “problem” in two different contexts here because you know the basic fractal unit is a problem, rising action, turning point, resolution, right. And if you have a bunch of exposition, where does that fit in there? Right now it just feels like we put the put the story on hold, on pause while we read all this world info right.

Chris: Well I think any form of putting the story on pause becomes a problem. One thing we’ve seen a lot is character takes a random side trip somewhere. It has nothing to do with our overarching plot. We’ve just abandoned it for a whole long time. But the overarching plot is kind of what supplies the tension for the overall story.

So in Harry Potter, go back, because again most of the early Harry Potter books are really well plotted. We have the little subplots about Quidditch but Rowling keeps hooking it back in to the overall plot about Voldemort or, whatever the book’s villain is, as a way of keeping tension up. So in my example about Harry winning the Quidditch match, when Harry has a victory when any character has a victory. The tension naturally drops in so it’s important to then put in another hook another problem to keep the tension going up towards the climax. Again there can be some ups and downs. It’s not like it has to be a relentless shooting into the sky.

Oren: Right. You want a minute to catch your breath.

Chris: But at the same time we have the victory, we enjoy the victory but then we need another hook. So then we have a reminder about the Sorcerer’s Stone at the end there. That puts us back to that central mystery that we know that is important. Whereas in balancing that out keeping it so that that overall hook because usually the story that’s holding the book together is the one with the highest stakes and is the most capable of drawing somebody through the story.

And so we don’t want to go too far away from it. It’s different though in more episodic works. I talked about this recently. I had a post on travel stories and the thing that defines a travel story is that we’re appreciating the moment more than we’re going to the end. We want to experience the actual travel itself. That’s supposed to be the heart of the story. And the thing that makes it different in structure is because then our episodes, our smaller stories need to be stronger and more compelling than the big story that is encompassing them.

Oren: I can see how that could be a problem.

Chris: Right. And we see that a lot where you know people will come to us for editing they’ve watched a TV show which usually are more episodic in structure or they’ve read Voyage of the Dawn Treader and they usually come to us and they have been inspired by that and then their plot doesn’t look great because they don’t understand that difference. That that worked because it was episodic. Whereas the conventional novel is not very episodic.

Oren: What do you think about the difference between a series that starts off with the with the big overarching plot, the biggest fractal layer, as a known entity versus one that kind of discovers it as it goes?

Like for example both Harry Potter and Temeraire series start off with the big overarching plot known. In Harry Potter we know it’s Voldemort although technically the book doesn’t tell us “Hey Voldemort is still gonna be the bad guy in book seven.” But you know it’s pretty clear. And then in Temeraire it’s Napoleon. The defeat of Napoleon is the point of the Temeraire series and you know he’s already the bad guy in Season 1 as opposed to something like the Expanse.

Where the Expanse starts off, each book is fairly self-contained and then usually they’ll introduce at the end, some hook for the next bad for the next book. So each book is sort of an incubator for the next plot and it kind of chains together as it goes. And I guess at that point you sort of discover that the largest fractal is actually what’s the fate of the solar system. But that wasn’t obvious that that was gonna be the big ending point at the end when the series started right.

Chris: I mean I think that could potentially work. So the advantage of something that we call the sort of fractal shape, the very clear fractal shape where we have a series arc and then a book arc and then maybe a chapter arc and the scene arc, you know where it’s all neatly layered, is that it’s easy to give the reader satisfaction of finishing an important arc.

When they finish a book but they also have a compelling reason to keep reading the series because they have that larger arc to motivate them. So if you have a series of books and the big arc doesn’t appear until later one of the biggest things is that, you know, how are you going to keep people reading?

But in the Expanse if each book hooks up to the next one then there is a solution for that. I do think that a lot of times it can be fun and satisfying to have the big arc at least present in some form in the beginning because that allows you to spend some time in each book investing in that so that it matters more when it appears. But there’s other ways to do that like maybe a character that actually appears to be a sidekick in the beginning ends up feeding into the big bad.

Oren: It also gives your book a more natural end point. The Expanse worked pretty well for a while but towards the end it starts to get like “and the next bad guy is this dude”.

And it’s, like, who? “You know this dude. We all know about this dude.”

And it’s like, I don’t. It does start to feel lopsided where I’ve been with these protagonists for like 10 books now, or maybe not 10. Not that long a series. But you know for like six or seven books now and this new villain has only just shown up and he feels kind of like he doesn’t belong. It’s like, where were you this whole time?

Whereas with Temeraire and Harry Potter it’s like I was interested. I had plenty of time to get to know the villain in addition to the hero.. So when Voldemort is defeated or when Napoleon is defeated it’s like yeah those guys I knew about them for like the whole time. I was paying attention.

Chris: Yeah. Again having that big overarching shape makes it easy for you to get the reader invested in it and build towards it in a way that it’s harder if you give it less time. Right. But then again there is a- There’s a pretty unusual shape for plots to take. I have mentioned it before. And it does work OK but it’s a little more unusual where the way the plot works is every time you solve a problem it creates an even bigger problem.

There’s no time to rest and it’s still kind of builds up. I think that having it thematically tied together can be kind of an issue at that point. And it’s good if you can find a way for it to loop back on the original problem right at the end. Keep it tied together. What it does, when it comes to enjoyment and satisfaction, doesn’t work pretty well for that to do that. But there’s also an advantage of just having that additional emotional investment for something that you’ve put a lot of work into building up from the start to the finish.

Oren: So it sounds like you could have your fractal structure be on an individual scene level. It’s like, all right we have to solve this problem in this scene that happened and OK we solved that but there’s still the big overarching problem that we know about. And that’s what’s giving us the tension.

Or if there isn’t a big overarching problem it could be we got to solve this problem and we did. Uh Oh. Solving that problem created a bigger problem and then you could do that in a book too like you could have that at the end. And that’s actually I think what the Expanse does. That method is at the end of each book. It’s like oh man you guys solve the problem but are you ready for this new problem? And it’s like no no no I’m not ready.

And this is a lesson I think you can learn because for the same reason that in a scene you know to leave a hook to keep the reader reading whether it’s a new problem or the overarching problem that’s unresolved because otherwise they might be just like “OK well I’m finished with the book for tonight I will put it away and I don’t really have any desire to go back to it because it feels like everything’s wrapped up”, right.

And you’re like “No I was going to start a new problem just like in the next chapter. Please go back. Please keep reading.”

That’s what authors sound like. And you can have the problem at the book level too right where it’s like hey we wrapped everything up. It’s like Oh. OK good.

And then it’s like hey a new book for that series came out. It’s like oh really a new book huh. I don’t know should I- should I get it? It doesn’t really feel like there was anything left to happen at the end of the last one. And it’s like the authors like “no please please buy my book”.

Chris: Yeah it’s a really hard balance because on one hand I think it is overly tempting for a lot of storytellers to end everything on cliffhangers. I do think a certain amount of courtesy to the audience requires giving them a place that they can actually walk away and hopefully, if they enjoyed your story on multiple levels, they will still want to read the next one.

I do think that having some level of overarching plot is a good idea for giving them a reason. At the same time sometimes I do think with the whole “Oh we solved this problem but we caused a bigger one”, it can be hard for the audience to rest in there. And you know having that balance where we give them a reason to keep going but we’re not just being mean I think as long as you are actually ending an arc and so they get some satisfaction for plot threads that are already resolved, I think you’re doing pretty good.

One thing that really bugs me. I’ve talked about this show, Orphan Black. I’ve just watched the first season. It’s a pretty good show but I stopped watching it because I felt that at the end of the first season that the thing that was the threat, that was driving the whole season, that was motivating the main character ended up just going up in tension and never actually got resolved at the end of the season. And when that happens when there’s no threads that are actually neatly tied off, you know, I don’t know when they ever will be. Will they ever be?

So closing a work and tying off some of those threads and actually having that internal story structure for one book does show the audience that you will actually give them satisfaction and closure to some of the problems that you’re raising and does help to build trust in that area.

Oren: Yeah. That was the issue that I had with the Collapsing Empire was that it started with this really interesting plot of the hyperspace lanes are collapsing. We really need to figure out a way to deal with this problem on a galactic scale and then a big book later that problem is exactly where it started. It’s like hang on. What. There was no movement on that plot and then it’s like well maybe next time there will be.  And then it’s well you already lied to me once.

Chris: Yep. It doesn’t help that so many writers sort of underestimate how much plot they have and how many books it’s going to take to complete that plot and keep this going forever and sometimes don’t finish their series. So the problem is real. Struggle is real.

Oren: OK. So what about if I just keep adding characters because if the plot is fractal the characters are fractal too right. So I can just keep adding them. Yes?

Chris: If you’ve got a lot. You definitely have chronic series bloat.

Oren: Why would you call out Wheel of Time personally like that?

Chris: This is something that we talk about. The tendency in a series to become more and more complicated as it goes and involve more point of views, more characters, more places to the point where instead of having rising action and getting that nice excitement in the climax and turning point it just gets slower and slower as it goes on until it’s too boring to continue and you just have to put it down.

Oren: I was going to say I really like the Gentleman Bastard series for having almost whiplash in this regard because, so some spoilers for the Gentleman Bastard series ahead.

But the end of Book One is very final. It doesn’t really feel like there’s anything big happening. It’s “hey you know we had this big adventure, a bunch of our friends died, and now we’re going to leave the city and I guess go steal something else.” It’s like the biggest hook for the second book is that “oh well we’re gonna go and steal more stuff”.

So it’s like OK you know if you like that book you might pick up the second one. It’s a fairly successful series. So a fair number people did but it isn’t really pulling you to pick up the next book. There’s no indication what the next book’s gonna be about.

And then Book 2 goes hard the opposite direction. In book 2 they’re like “oh man the whole plot of this book is we need to outwit this villain because he poisoned us and if we don’t do what he says, we’re gonna die of this poison. And so we need to outwit the villain.” That’s the whole book. And then at the end they do a cliffhanger where only one of the characters gets cured of the poison and the other character is just gonna die. And that’s where the book ends. And it’s like whoa whoa, OK.

Chris: Right. There’s obviously not a resolution to the big problem of that book right.

Oren: It’s like OK well now I guess I need to read the third one to find out if he dies.

Chris: But I’m too mad.

Oren: Ironically even though the third book is easily the worst of the series it actually ends with what I would say is a pretty decent hook because it ends with the now three main characters being like “Yeah we won and then it’s like oh but also the evil wizard you thought was dead is actually alive and doing bad things.”

And it’s like OK well I guess the next book is gonna be about the evil wizard then let’s go get him. I mean I’m not going to buy it because the third book was bad but if it hadn’t been that would’ve been a strong ending hook.

Chris: Mmhmm yeah. And to make an ending hook feel like an ending hook and not an unresolved problem, the timing matters. Generally you want to make sure that the resolution is complete for the initial story and then you open up the problem to the next story. Just to clarify because sometimes it’s a little hard to tell the differences between that ending hook and just leaving a plot thread unresolved.

Oren: All right. Well I think we’re just about out of time but before we go I just want to thank two of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson, a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Second is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. Those of you at home if anything we said piqued your interests, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com and we will talk to you next week.

Ending Song

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  1. Adam Reynolds

    I absolutely love this concept. It is an elegant way to turn writing a book into a series of small challenges instead of one big one, as well as to make sure your series works as a series of stories instead of merely as one large story. It also appeals to my mathematical side, which writing doesn’t do often enough.

    With respect to stories that have all buildup and no payoff in the short term, I really like a term borrowed from the fictional blog of Richard Castle(from the titular series). He mentions the term Ponzi storytelling to refer to a series that does nothing to resolve its initial hooks and only gives more and more hooks instead of properly resolving any of them. I think Orphan Black suffered from this a bit as you noted.

    I think The Expanse also suffers from this problem to an extent, in a different way as you note. There is never a sense that they are resolving the big problems in their solar system, they are merely putting out fires. It does little to set up how things could end. The TV series also has the odd problem that the books and series don’t line up properly, as the series if half a season off from the books. TV should really have more true episodic storytelling, with arcs build up more slowly. Person of Interest was one I rather liked in this respect.

    In a slightly divergent train of thought, the point about the middle of stories also left me thinking about how you could plot a book in a similar fashion to playing chess, with parallels between the opening, middlegame, and endgame. Like with writing, the middlegame of chess has the least theoretical understanding, and is largely about exchanging pieces to set up the endgame with less pieces and so is less dramatic. So the parallel to writing is that the middle of the story should be about resolving minor elements(subplots) to properly set up the finale with less factors at play. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it sort of works.

  2. Em

    Quick feedback: You have to do quite a lot of scrolling to get through the transcript and down to the comments, at least on mobile. Maybe put a “read more”-button?
    Other than that, great to finally see some transcripts!

  3. Brandon Harbeke

    An excellent example of fractal plotting in TV is the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who (Eccleston and Tennant years). Each episode is relatively self-contained, but there is a series-long sprinkling of clues that leads to the series finale’s big problem. There are also elements of growth and referencing across the series, and the final special wraps up all of the revival series to that point.

  4. SunlessNick

    Regarding Orphan Black, seasons 2 and 3 all end with resolution/hook combos – season 4 is more of a cliffhanger, but season 5 is the last, so it gets to. It’s worth revisting.

  5. Fay Onyx

    Since subplot is taken, how about subarc?

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