Meander, Spiral, Explode might be my new bible.
It wasn’t always this way.
When I first started writing fiction (which followed on the coattails of years of poetry), I never gave structure a thought, beyond an innate understanding that linearity wasn’t my strong suit.
I wrote a story, and if it suceeded (i.e., survived workshop, got published), I was happy.
If not, I tossed it into the compost pile, in hopes that I’d return to it some day and figure out what went wrong.
Almost none of those stories (or novels) have ever seen the light of day again.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a failed story.
Not everything we write is meant to be amazing.
But, I started to notice, over time, that more and more stories weren’t working – on some deep level – and I couldn’t figure out why.
Structure – the shape a story takes to tell itself – entered my writing vocabulary in grad school. I could write nice sentences. I had a knack for dialogue. My characters were interesting and my plots established. Somehow, though, my stories were only passable. I knew I could so better, but I wasn’t sure how.
Until my advisor at the time dropped the S-word on me. He was using it in reference to the places where backstory popped up in my narratives, and when I started diagramming where I chose to include the information, I started to see some trouble spots. I knew enough to avoid “info-dumps” but continued to lack the agility to weave the relevant pieces of the past into the foreground of a narrative.
Maybe if I’d had Jane Alison‘s brilliant new book, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, I might’ve saved myself some undue frustration. I didn’t. But now I do, and I won’t be letting go any time soon.
Against the Wave & Finding Structure
Freytag called it a pyramid, but Alison likens it to a wave. And while she recognizes its functionality and sensibility as a literary device, she also argues that “fiction can be wildly other.”
Anyone who prefers writing non-linear stories knows this to be wildly true. So wild, in fact, that it can be hard to make sense of, if you’ve got some unwieldy story on your hands that knows its intention but can’t quite get it across.
So, what else is there besides this wave?
Lucky for us, Meander, Spiral, Explode has a few big ideas.
Meander, Spiral, Explode & MORE
Alison turns to nature – beyond the wave – for her patterns. First she breaks down how and why the wave works as a structure (and work it does, which is why its often the default structure). From there, she moves into wavelets, meanders, spirals, radials, networks and cells, and fractals.
Each chapter explores the physical expressions and dimensions of each shape, before looking closely at stories that exemplify each. Alison takes apart these stories, exposing how they function. Not only are her examples useful in studying how patterns take shape in writing, they’re useful in showing how to dissect good writing to see what makes it tick, which is an essential skill for a writer.
Also given space here: point, line, texture, color, movement and flow. From the micro to the macro, Meander, Spiral, Explode gives a refreshing take on form and illustrates, above all else, how powerful structure can be.
These days, I consider the structure of everything I write, often before I even begin. I don’t outline, but considering whether I’m working with a wave, or a spiral, or a frame, or something else entirely, helps me guide the story as it emerges.
Sometimes the structure changes as I go, or during the revision process, but I no longer allow the shapes of my stories to be random – unless, of course, I’m meandering.