Interested in writing a story with a spiral structure? Learn what makes one successful.

Last weekend, my husband and I made our annual cherry-picking trip to Seamans’ Orchard, a local fruit farm in Nelson County. Earlier that week, the farm had warned that pickings might be slim given our freeze-swelter-freeze of a spring, but we decided to make the trip anyway.

Round and round the trees we wound, brushing past split or rotten fruit as we searched for the sun-ripened cherries at the peak of ripeness. By the end of our trip, we’d harvested five buckets from a single row. Then it was off to the house where I washed the cherries in my salad spinner.

The activity was the perfect segue for this week’s chapter from Jane Alison’s book, Meander, Spiral. Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative.

Over the past two years, I’ve heard countless writers talk about the spiral-structured books they’re working on. Many are attracted to this and other alternate forms, because on the surface, they look like they break all the rules, which makes some writers believe they can do as they please. But as Jane Alison reveals in her chapter titled “Spirals,” this elegant structure is also a rule-driven hard worker.

Mid-chapter, Jane shares the risks and rewards of the spiral structure through a quote from John Gardner: “The mode runs the risk of overrichness, the writer’s tendency to push too hard, producing an effect of sentimentality. The great advantage, on the other hand, is the necessary focus on imagery whereby repeated images accrue greater and greater psychological and symbolic force.”

Pay attention to two words here: repeated images.

Jane’s first example is the very short, short story “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek, which you can find by 
clicking here. (Scroll down the page to find it.) Dybek uses imagery to set up the spiral form at the beginning of the piece, through coffee, sky, and drinks. “I like the way Pet Milk swirls in coffee,” “and noticing outside … the sky doing the same thing,” “much later seeing the same swirling sky in the tiny liqueur glasses containing a drink called a King Alphonse.”

Once he gets to the drink, Dybek immerses us in a specific moment between two characters, but even then, he swirls around their quick and steamy affair, which in the end isn’t about the relationship, but about one of the protagonist’s memories. The way he sets up the story, “preserves that final moment just as the Pet Milk has been preserved,” subtly linking the two concepts.

In her second example, Jane explores The House on Mango Street, a novella by Sandra Cisneros about a girl named Esperanza who grows up in Chicago. The novella, which is composed of forty-four titled vignettes, is “both [a] fragmented coming-of-age story and portrait of a place.” At first glance, the placement of stories might feel random, and therefore nothing but a collection of moments about place, but the novella contains patterns that drive the narrative forward and allow readers to make meaning without the writer having to spell everything out.

First, the book contains a throughline, “E’s desire for her own ‘house,’ her self.” We watch her desire her own house, develop a more nuanced understanding of what house really means, and then we see her leave the neighborhood.

Second, Sandra includes characters we circle back to, and characters who are paired together to create the kind of wavelike symmetry that reveals how meaning in the book changes and grows. She also circles back to certain situations that serve as key incidents which pull the narrative along. “In ‘Our Good Day’ E and her girls wildly ride a bike around the neighborhood, which is reflected by ‘The Family of Little Feet,’ where the same girls madly tour the neighborhood, but now a bit older and in high heels—and this time it’s dangerous when a ‘bum man’ tries buying a kiss.”

Sandra has also organized the linear story into a series of seven movements that each contain the same pattern of themes: self, neighborhood, and threshold. Jane maps this expertly in her book and shares the pattern (A/B/C, A’/B’/C’ A”) that “gives the novella a far more articulated structure.”

A memoir version to study is The Part that Burns by Jeannine Ouellette, a book that explores what happens when motherhood brings you back into a body abandoned after childhood sexual abuse. While House on Mango Street is a true spiral that winds deeper and deeper along the same themes, Jeannine’s book is an ellipse that winds around motherhood and trauma. To read a great interview that describes Jeannine’s structure, click here.

There are many reasons to pursue an alternate structure for your book. Some authors, like Lilly Dancyger and Alex Marzano-Lesnevich. knew right away that their stories didn’t fit neatly into the three-act structure. Others discover this through the drafting process. But sometimes we choose what I call fancy structures because they’re in vogue or easy because they don’t follow any rules. 

 If you’re interested in pursuing an alternative structure, Jane’s book is an excellent primer. But having a primer isn’t enough. You must study and map the books that execute these structure well, not so you can see which rules to break, but so you can see how these writers are upholding the rules of good storytelling and imposing order so elements like character and theme do the kind of meaning-making work that lets readers to bask in the richness of moments that together mean so much more.

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