To move your story forward, think about oppositions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about change lately—both how it works and what it looks like. As a former therapist, I know it’s not a straight line. Yet, when I’m the one being examined, I want my changes to be served straight up. So far, that’s yet to happen.

Often, change happens in opposition. We want black curtains, but we’re always buying white ones. Seeing the pattern, we buy a few black shades. But that feels too harsh, so we revert to white and so on, until finally we find a gray pattern we love. While many stories follow the three-act structure, which rises to one large crescendo, some are more like our curtain conundrums, where change happens in smaller increments.

Last month, we began our exploration of Jane Alison’s book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by exploring her take on symmetrical scenes. In her chapter, “Wavelets,” Jane compares the movement in quieter stories to low tide, where “repeated ripples create gentle ribs in the sand.” She wonders if this “dispersed patterning … of little ups and downs, might be more true to the human experience than a single crashing wave.”

To illustrate her point, she explores Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From,” a short story about an alcoholic living in a rehabilitation facility and his attempts to call his estranged wife and current girlfriend. The story, which takes place in the desert, is about loneliness and our need for connection. Alison writes, “It’s through the tiny ripples that alternate between wet and dry…that Carver maintains the story’s main tension and movement.”

We see this wet/dry tension in the opening lines: “J.P. and I are on the front porch of Frank Martin’s drying-out facility. Like most of us at Frank Martin’s, J.P. is first and foremost a drunk. But he’s also a chimney sweep.”

As Alison points out, “In this bone-bare opening, Carver begins to lay out the pattern of the story’s oppositions: drying-out/drunk/chimney sweep. Dry/wet/dry.” This is a pattern he maintains throughout the short story.

A page later, main character, N, talks with J.P. about falling into a dry well as a child. “[J.P.] hollered himself hoarse before it was over…He’d sat there and looked at the well mouth. Way up at the top, he could see a circle of blue sky. Every once in a while, a white cloud passed over… He heard wind blow over the well mouth, and that sound made an impression on him.”

Here, the dry well, like a dry life, are “seen as a drunk sees it—a threat … Yet at the same time, there’s the blue sky,” which suggests the promise of hope, even in such a barren place. Scene by scene, we see the wet (drunk)/dry (sober) dichotomy play out. Early on, dryness is seen as a desert wasteland. Later, it becomes salvation. Throughout it all, we are immersed in the paradox the “wet brained” character experiences. “Part of me wanted help,” he says. “But there was another part.”

To see how this works at a paragraph-by-paragraph level, click here to read Carver’s story. Then, if you haven’t purchased a copy of Jane’s book, buy one, so you read her full analysis of Carver’s short story, as well as her take on the novella The Barrack’s Thief by Tobias Wolff and Hôtel Splendid by Marie Redonnet.

Jane sees Hôtel Splendid, a novel about the lives of an unnamed narrator and her two sisters who live in a hotel situated on the edge of a swamp, as “a critique of the masculo-sexual arc, which favors many small wavelets over a single one.” Little happens in the female characters’ lives, though oppositions can be found everywhere—sometimes explored through metaphor, language, or tone.

As I read this chapter, I thought about how wavelets of opposition worked in the books I’d recently read.

In Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s novella My Monticello, Da’Naisha Hemings escapes a brutal race-motivated attack along with several black and brown residents of her neighborhood and her white college boyfriend Knox. Johnson uses the relationship with Knox to explore wavelets around race. At some points, her relationship with Knox offers her safe passage and seems like proof that a hopeful future could exist. But at others, it reveals the barriers they face and the chasm of understanding between them.

In Jennifer Neisslein’s essay collection, Dreadful Sorry: Essays on an American Nostalgia, she uses certain essays to wander through nostalgic memories of bootlegging family members and the blue-collar town she grew up in. In others, she explores the trap of clinging too tightly to such memories. On one side, nostalgia is about connection, on the other, it’s a blindfold that prevents us from seeing the past clearly, which damages our view of the present.

Between horrific moments of violence in Krystal Sital’s Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad, the narrator prepares traditional Caribbean dishes with her mother or grandmother. In this way, food, which stands in for her beloved homeland, is complicated. In the kitchen, it represents nourishment, love, and safety. But cooking can’t untangle these recipes from the violence perpetuated by the Trinidadian culture she loves.

While Meander, Spiral, Explode advocates for more nuanced, slower-paced stories that don’t follow the traditional three-act structure, you don’t have to write character-driven, literary novels or memoirs to employ this concept in your manuscripts. As you revise, try to identify scenes that are working in subtle opposition within your story. Is there a concept, metaphor, or bit of language that repeats? As it repeats, does its meaning change? If so, how do these changes quietly move your story forward?

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