Conflict: A Straight Right Angle

Antoine Chintreuil, Les Rogations à Igny

Antoine Chintreuil, Les Rogations à Igny


Not long after our son was diagnosed with autism* my husband and I attended a workshop for parents of autistic children in which the presenter used a metaphor she called the "straight right angle."

The shortest distance between two points, she reminded us, is a straight line. (She drew two points on the board, with a line connecting them.) And that's how most of us live our lives, most of the time. We see something we want to obtain or achieve, and we take the shortest possible route to get to it--metaphorically, a "straight line." That's not to say it's always "easy," it's just that it's the most obvious, direct route to what we want, even if it's a lot of hard work to walk the road from point A to point B. There are even societal systems and conventions to help people get from standard point As to commonly desired point Bs--for example, the education system, and the conventions of job seeking.

Sometimes, though, there can be an obstruction in the road. Metaphorically speaking, someone has built a wall between point A and point B. (She drew a line intersecting the line connecting the two points.) This obstruction can take many forms. In autism, you might run into communication difficulties, or overwhelming sensory processing quirks, or extreme difficulty understanding and managing the emotions that arise along the journey and the behaviors that accompany them. Whatever the obstruction is, it's real, and it makes it impossible for you to go down that straight line from point A to point B.

Rather than giving up on the goal, however, it's often best to abandon that "straight line" route, and instead find a way around the wall. And this is what the presenter referred to as a "straight right angle." It's not a line, it's an angle running from point A to the edge of the wall, and back up to point B. (She drew this on the board.) But it's still the shortest route from point A to point B for a person with this obstruction blocking the straight line.** The presenter encouraged parents, when they run into difficulty with their non-standard kids, to stop trying to get through the wall by pushing harder and harder at the same spot, and instead to take a step back, and look for the straight right angle. For example, one might teach an intelligent, but non-verbal autistic child to communicate by pointing at pictures.

In writing, the "straight line" is a boring story. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, the end. Who cares? Detective looks at body, detective arrests killer, the end. Yawn. Point A, point B, the end. So what?

No, it's the obstacles that make the story interesting, or suspenseful, or romantic, or whatever it is you're going for. We don't want to see our heroes strolling jauntily from point A to point B, we want to see them hit the wall. And then we want to see them try to climb the wall--and we want to see them fall. And break. And get up and try again. We want to see them search for the end of the wall and figure out how to go around. We want to see what will happen when it turns out to be only the first in a series of walls. Or when they discover that it's not actually a wall after all, but an enclosure that completely surrounds point B. We want to see them hunt for a back door, only to find it locked. We want our heroes to hunt for windows, and when they're bullet-proof, to try to go down the chimney, or dig a tunnel, or make a bomb out of toilet cleaner and gum wrappers.

And then we want to see them triumph!

So, when you're working on a story, and your characters at point A think point B is what they want, build walls. Build them high, and thick, and strong. And then look for the straight right angle, because in it lies the story.

*Note 1: The original diagnosis was Asperger's Syndrome, but in the most recent diagnostics manual Asperger's has been rolled together with some related developmental disorders and renamed Autism Spectrum Disorder, so I call it that now. I found it easiest to just refer to it as autism because even back then Asperger's was recognized by most researchers as a sort of subset of autism, but most of the lay people we needed to explain ourselves to had never heard of Asperger's, and "autism" was a handy shorthand to get us where we needed to be without unnecessarily lengthy explanations.

**Note 2: I have more than once reflected over the years that this idea of a "straight right angle" would be rather grating to the literal mind of an autistic person. The angle she drew was not a "right angle," it was an acute angle--but it could just as easily have been an obtuse angle, or a curve, or a series of line segments forming a path that changed directions several times, such as a W. Furthermore, no angle can be accurately described as "straight;" if it's straight, it's a line, not an angle. Still, the "straight right angle" is useful if it can be understood as a figurative label for the idea of finding some way around obstructions, rather than as a literal description of a shape.