Exploring the art of prose




I hope…that thinking about patterns other than the arc will become natural, that evolving writers won’t feel oppressed by the arc, that they’ll imagine visual aspects of narrative as well as temporal, that they’ll discover ways to design, being conscious or playful with possibilities. How can you spread color across a story? Make texture with different kinds of words or sentences or zones of white space? Create repetitions or symmetries to strengthen (or trouble) a sense of movement? Even arcing fictions can be designed, with texture, color, symmetry, or repetitions graphable as wavelike stripes, these elements working beyond or with narrated incidents to create further motion and sense. —Jane Alison

In Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison challenges our notion of the narrative arc as the paragon of form in Western fiction. Alison has created a virtual page-turner. While the structure of this important new entry into the craft book/literary criticism space is familiar—an introduction and epilogue bookending two sections, Primary Elements and Patterns—the content is fresh, with each section comprised of chapters deeply exploring a diverse array of global texts, from Tobias Wolff to Caryl Phillips, Sandra Cisneros to Joyce Carol Oates.

The introduction alone serves as a master class in interrogating our preconceptions, tracing the narrative arc from Freytag’s triangle back to its Aristotelian origins before introducing other ways of seeing, while also serving some delightful shade (“Novels didn’t exist for Aristotle and weren’t Freytag’s subject. [John] Gardner does talk about other structures for fiction, but he firmly favors the causality of the arc and says that Aristotle would, too. I doubt it.”) This introduction (if not the book) urgently belongs in the creative writing classroom and workshop.

Alison first establishes writers as pattern makers: “We writers go about our observing, imagining lives, moving onward day by day but always alert to patterns—ways in which experience shapes itself, ways we can replicate its shape with words.” Then she draws on John Berger and Northrop Frye to illuminate writing and reading alike as ways of seeing: “although we think of narrative as a temporal art, experienced in time like music, of course it’s interestingly visual, too; a story’s as much house or garden as song.”

Alison’s exuberance with the subject matter is contagious, her approach both personal and deeply researched. Just before allowing that the arc, in “its natural form, a wave,” is “elegant,” and establishing a series of other patterns fiction can borrow from nature, she encourages us to notice that “visual elements such as texture, color, or symmetry can open windows and let us design as much as write. Text comes from texere, after all: to weave. Next, we can be conscious, deliberate, innovative, in the paths we carve through our words.” She returns to Aristotle, not for the dramatic arc that has forever aligned form in Western fiction to that of ancient tragedy, but to share that she loves how he “likens specimens of literary art to living creatures, having organic unity—indeed, having souls.”

The Primary Elements section grounds us not in the elements of fiction as “character, plot, place, etc.,” but “down to true elements, the tiniest particles a reader encounters: letters, phonemes.” With plentiful examples, Alison examines texture, color, and narrative speed and flow, drawing our attention to “our elementary particles, the visual, auditory, and temporal units with which we first design,” and laying the foundation we’ll need for the deeper examination of patterns to follow.

[P]atterns other than the arc are everywhere. Here are the ones [Peter] Stevens calls “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.

These patterns aren’t just around us; they inform our bodies, too. —Jane Alison

The Patterns section comprises almost three quarters of the book. In it, Alison puts forth compelling examples from literature alongside a variety of patterns from nature to (accompany and) challenge the arc. Here we will track one novel, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, through its multiple appearances in Meander, Spiral, Explode.

When Alison “first grew restless with…arc and plot,” she turned to The Emigrants in its original German, as explained in the introduction. For her, Sebald’s novel “was the first book to show me a way beyond the causal arc to create powerful forward motion in narrative.” The novel next appears in the Color chapter of the Primary Elements section to show Sebald using color to set tone, “as if he’s poured muddy river-water over the whole, or let it settle in ashes,” as one way the four narratives contained within his book work together.

The Emigrants is most deeply explored as an example of Networks and Cells[*] in the Patterns section. Networks and cells are “repeating shapes that fit together because there are only so many ways geometrically that matter can fill space.” Alison writes, “If The Emigrants were a painting, it would be a quadriptych with charcoal or sepia conté strokes forming oily, smoky labyrinths, each canvas different but sharing texture and tone.” The four pieces share a single narrator, tonal color as already discussed, the appearance in each of a “mysterious” Butterfly Man, and a “thematic system” based on “trauma [that] smolders until finally it bursts out.”

Alison describes Sebald’s book as having the “feel” of a novel, not a collection, and explains that the central questions in a narrative patterned this way should be, “why did this happen” and “what grows in my mind as I read.” She dissects the text with respect and joy, exploring Nabokov allusion, charting the imagery, and teaching the ways Sebald creates motion and “layers his narrative world,” preferring concrete detail to metaphor. She closes the section with a Sebald quote on writing in which he compares the writer to a spider in a web, trapping “bricolage” to construct narrative.

In concluding with a brief epilogue, Meander, Spiral, Explode leaves us as writers and readers in an exciting place, alert for patterns in nature we might see replicated in the fiction we read, or that might serve to support the next story we draft. Alison closes with hope, “that new patterns…might open our eyes to other natural shapes underlying our stories, might let us step away from the arc sometimes, slip under or through that powerful wave, glorious as it can be,” and “might help us imagine new ways to make our narratives vital and true, keep making our novels novel.”

— by Katelyn Keating for CRAFT


Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative is out now from Catapult


[*] List of other patterns discussed:

Waves (“[w]riters can articulate a narrative wave by modeling parts other than the peak—symmetrical moments on either side, for instance”)

Wavelets (the “rippling pattern = waves in miniature”)

Meanders (like a river, “there’s deliberate slowness, a delight in curving this way or that, luxuriating in diversions, carving slow labyrinths of time”)

Spirals (“begin[] at a point and move[] onward, not extravagant or lackadaisical like a meander, but smooth and steady, spinning around and around that central point or a single axis)

Radials or Explosions (“born of a nucleus, kernel, black hole, whether they spoke outward or circle”)

Fractals (“irregular patterns…that roughly replicate themselves at different scales and could go on forever”)

Tsunami? (a special detour to examine Cloud Atlas)