Create symmetrical scenes to strengthen your story arc.

I consider the ocean my second mother. Every time I visit her, it feels like home. So when I saw a chapter on waves in Jane Alison’s craft book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, I knew it was the first one I wanted to explore.

Jane’s book begins with an argument against the masculine three-act structure, which she compares to the sex act. She follows this with a series of chapters devoted to more feminine structures in hopes of expanding your storytelling repertoire.

Many writers I know see Jane’s book as the nonlinear storytelling bible. 

In Waves, she encourages us to envision our writing not as a tsunami of story, but instead as a series of smaller waves. She writes, “Writers can articulate the narrative wave by modeling parts other than the peak—symmetrical moments on either side, for instance. A late scene might reflect an early one, with similar objects or places, but now in a different light, clarifying what’s changed.”

She shares two examples to illustrate her point—one from Philip Roth’s novel Goodbye, Columbus, and another from Marguerite Duras’ novella. The Lover.

Goodbye, Columbus is the story of a summer love affair. It begins with an initial meeting between suburban, college-bound Brenda and a public librarian named Neil who lives in a cramped New York apartment with his grandmother.

Here’s an excerpt from their initial daytime encounter.

“The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses…. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though she were a rose on a long stem.”

A few chapters later, their love affair begins.

“We had to take about two too many steps to keep the approach from being awkward, but we pursued the impulse and kissed… I felt the wet spots on her shoulder blades, and beneath them, I’m sure of it, a faint fluttering, as though something stirred so deep in her breasts, so far back it could make itself felt through her shirt. It was like the fluttering of wings, tiny wings no bigger than her breasts.”

Jane unpacks these densely detailed paragraphs then moves on to a late-night scene in Harvard Yard where Neil reflects on the now-ended affair while looking through a library window.

“I came up behind her and put my hands around her body and held her breasts, and when I felt the cool draft that swept under the sill, I realized how long it had been since the first warm night when I had put my arm around her and felt the tiny wings beating in her back and then I realized why I’d really come to Boston… I was sure I had loved Brenda, though standing there, I knew I couldn’t any longer… I looked hard at the image of me, at that darkening of the glass, and then my gaze pushed through it over the cool floor, to a broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved.”

Elements of the earlier scenes—a piece of glass, the tiny wings—show up again, but this time Jane points out that instead of seeing Brenda through the glass, Neil sees himself. By shifting from day to night, light and tone change, turning the tiny wings, once so vital and exciting, into items to be grieved.

Jane examines The Lover with the same careful detail—this time, beating out the setup using an A/B/C format and then a C’/B’/A’ reworking as the novella resolves.

Well-written memoirs also include waves. When executed masterfully, they can replace the retrospective voice.

Consider this example from Jeannette Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle.

Early in her memoir, Jeannette’s father is seen as the family hero—a rapscallion adventurer who always saves the day. On page 24, after a series of bedtime stories about Rex’s early life, we learn about the greatest story he’s told the kids—the story of The Glass Castle.

“When dad wasn’t telling us about all the amazing things he had already done, he was telling us about the wondrous things he was going to do. Like build the Glass Castle. All of Dad’s engineering skills and mathematical genius were coming together in one special project: a great big house that he was going to build for us in the desert.”

The scene ends with a rich description of Rex’s plan. The Glass Castle is mentioned several times throughout the book. Each one amplifies the commingling of hope, love, and disappointment at the heart of Jeannette’s internal conflict. The final wave arrives at the end of the book, during her last visit with her dying father.

“Now, no snot-slinging or boohooing around ‘Poor old Rex’,” Dad said. “I don’t want any of that, either now or when I’m gone.”

I nodded.

“But you always loved your old man, didn’t you?”

“I did, Dad,” I said. “And you loved me.”

“Now, that’s the God’s honest truth.” Dad chuckled. “We had some times, didn’t we?”

“We did.”

“Never did build that Glass Castle.”

“No. But we had fun planning it.”

“Those were some damn fine plans.”

We talked about the old days and, finally, it was time to go…at the door I turned to look at Dad one more time.

“Hey,” he said. He winked and pointed his finger at me. “Have I ever let you down?”

He started chuckling, because he knew there was only one way I could ever answer that question. I just smiled. And then I closed the door.

Because this wave has been established so clearly, further reflection isn’t needed. Instead, we can immerse ourselves in Jeannette’s complicated grief, which connects us to our challenging relationships. In the process, the memoir becomes a mirror for our own lives rather than a tale about someone else’s. 

To make the most of these waves in your own work, first find them in your favorite books. As you do this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What symmetrical moments have you discovered?
  • What did the author set up in the early moment? Is there a key detail, a situation, or something else that helped you identify this point of symmetry later in the book?
  • How do the meanings or emotions change when these images or scenes reappear? What opposites has the writer employed—such as day or night—to shift the tone?

Now turn to your own work. In early drafts, simply note any moments of symmetry, but don’t worry about capitalizing on them just yet. In later drafts, after you know what your book is about, look for ways to make the most of these situations. Here are a few questions to guide you:

  • Do any images or situations in your work reappear?
  • Have you assigned them a meaning?
  • If you have, do these repeated moments relate in some way? If they don’t, could they?
  • If you haven’t assigned them a meaning, what story is embedded in the first moment? How does that story change in the second one?
  • If you’re writing a memoir, could that change stand in for some retrospective voice?

Identifying and capitalizing on these waves will strengthen your project, regardless of the structure you choose. To do this, pay attention to not just the big moments in your work, but the smaller, subtler ones that could serve as building blocks for a stronger story arc.

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