Week thirty: Experiment with pattern

It is week thirty of 2019. How did the writing go this week? It’s midsummer, a time of year that isn’t always good for brain work. You may be smothering under a blanket of heat (come to San Francisco to cool off!) or distracted by a vacation or a different schedule. If you need a refreshing tonic to wake your creative brain, then this week’s book might be the one for you.

In Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison sets out to explore patterns other than the classic wave or arc structure. Why, she asks, has the dramatic arc, which has its origins in Greek tragedy, become the dominant form of the novel, our most flexible and “cannibalistic” genre? Her hope, summarized in the final words of the book, is that “other patterns might help us imagine new ways to make our narratives vital and true, keep making our novels novel.”

Before exploring these patterns, Alison gives us a tour through what she sees as the elements of fiction: point, line, texture; movement and flow; and color. These early chapters will wake you up right away and make you alive to alternate ways of experiencing a text. Here, for example, is Alison on texture and white space: “Glancing at a page, we first see text as texture: marks in a white field leave enough space to feel airy or form dense blocks, even weighted with a sludge of footnotes.”

Even grammar can encode pattern, as Alison shows in this beautifully clear explanation of parataxis and hypotaxis: “If you think about the difference between parataxis and hypotaxis in sentences you’ll see what I mean. Parataxis is linear and sequential: he got up and walked to the window and looked down and decided to go out, etc. Hypotaxis is more spatial, foregrounding some parts of the sentence and letting others recede, more interested in comparative relations among elements than in straight temporality: It was only after he’d woken up and lain in bed awhile, wondering whether he’d look out the window or instead ignore the world outside and step into the closet, that he finally decided to get up. In this sentence you have to wait until the end for the next action: the rest is a mental suspension, considering possibilities, not just watching what happens next.”

Alison’s choice of patterns follows those identified by Peter Stevens, in his book Patterns in Nature, as “nature’s darlings”:

“SPIRAL: think of a fiddlehead fern, whirlpool, hurricane, horns twisting from a ram’s head, or a chambered nautilus. MEANDER: picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat grazing the tenderest greens. RADIAL or EXPLOSION: a splash of dripping water, petals growing from a daisy’s heart, light radiating from the sun, the ring left around a tick bite. BRANCHING and other FRACTAL patterns: self-replication at lesser scale, made by trees, coastlines, clouds. And CELLULAR patterns: repeating shapes you see in a honeycomb, foam of bubbles, cracked lakebed, or light rippling in a pool; these can look like cells or, inversely, like a net.”

Alison describes her book as “a museum of specimens,” and that feels exactly right. We move through ‘rooms’ of texts, grouped by pattern, with Alison as our delighted and appreciative guide. She quotes, for example, an impossibly long sentence from Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine and then declares, “This is its own cosmos! Truly designed—and look at that menu of punctuation. (Try writing a page-long sentence using every kind. And why not every letter?) Even though the main action’s over in the first line—from the men’s room came the roar—you’d be missing an amusement park of a sentence if you didn’t read on.” Alison herself is an inventive prose stylist, and I found this book a pure joy to read.

I also had the pleasure this week of participating in a discussion about the book with a group of smart, insightful women and was reminded of how much a good discussion can wake up your brain and make the sparks fly. If you have a writer’s group (or want to convene an ad hoc group), Meander, Spiral, Explode will generate a vigorous discussion.

Our group spent a lot of time considering how to entice readers to engage with experimental forms. One participant pointed out that curiosity – keeping the reader wondering – is key, and this answer was echoed by Alison herself, who sent in taped responses to the group’s questions. Writers, Alison pointed out, “are going to engage the kind of reader they want” – readers who want to know Who is this person? and What is the language doing?, not just What happens next? All writers want readers who “have respect for another person’s brain,” readers who will follow you as you figure something out in your work. (Shout-out to newsletter reader Elizabeth Browne for alerting me to this event!)

Even if you plan to stick to the classic arc form in your own novel, reading Meander, Spiral, Explode can help enliven your writing by showing you opportunities to construct meaning that you hadn’t seen before. It will give you ideas about how to speed up and slow down, about how to use color as a pattern, about how to use words to pull your reader through your book.

I think Alison’s patterns could also be used as a creative playground of sorts. What would happen if you recast your story as a spiral or an explosion? What would be at the center of that spiral? What would be the energy driving the explosion or the match that ignited it? If you took one of your characters and sent them off on a meandering path, where would they go? Doing these experiments, in thought or in writing, can help you get to know your characters and your plot better and help get the creative juices flowing again when you are feeling stagnant.

Here’s to experimenting, y’all,

Next week’s book: Dean Wesley Smith, Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline

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