When you think of a novel’s narrative arc, what immediately comes to mind? Perhaps a dusty old memory from high school English class, of the teacher drawing an inverted ‘V’ on the chalkboard to show the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and then the resolution of a book?
As Jane Alison writes in her latest book, Meander Spiral Explode: “Bit masculo-sexual, no?”
Alison’s book is like a cold shower to ward off the standard narrative arc and rewire our mental circuitry to see the patterns of nature in the structure of novels. As she quotes from Sukenick, “Instead of reproducing the form of previous fiction, the form of the novel should seek to approximate the shape of our experience.”
Alison has an enthusiastic and wandering mind, which starts with a book club in Germany where she taught herself German just so she could read W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants.
It seems as though working in a different language made it easier to see a book’s structure than had she read it in English. After reading it, Alison is on the hunt for other non-standard narratives, and discovers that there are many novels that actually follow patterns that are fundamental to nature: meander, spiral, explosion, radial, fractal, and cell. She is keen to spread the word about these narrative arcs because she hopes novelists will naturally consider new structures, and that they’ll play with the possibilities of these various other structures. “Play” being the operative word, as Alison herself is quite playful when defining how specific books fit into these natural patterns.
Alison starts small by introducing the reader to “Primary Elements:” looking at the text close-up. She explores sentences, colour, and texture, the use of white space, the movement and flow of sentences, and more.
But where the book really gets going is in the chapters that each describe a novel structure based on a natural shape.
She starts with the meander, where the author takes you from point to point via a wandering, digressive path in between points. There’s the ripple, where a story is slowly nudged along by each rippling small wave. The spiral, where a story twirls in circles until the main character has made a final decision. The radial or explosion, where all of the action revolves around a major event that has already occurred. The fractal, which is a well-known branching pattern in nature and can form the backbone of a story that can follow a few lines of inquiry at once. The network or cell structure, like a honeycomb or a dry cracked field, which requires the reader to make the connections between people and events because the writer doesn’t make them for us. Finally, the tsunami is like the cell network but mixed with a wave.
Alison digs deep into many books and stories to show the reader how each style works. The outcomes are almost code-like, as she marks, for example, scenes A, B, and C that are then mirrored by scenes A’, B’, and C’. Or she looks at a paragraph or sentence and breaks it into sections: _ _ _ _ – – – – – – •– – (where _ = summary/ – – = scene/ • =- still-spot), etc.
So what’s the point of reading novels closely to discover these structures? Because many books we read don’t fit that standard narrative arc, and the more we know about alternate arcs the better we can interpret them. For example, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is a fragmented, cell-like patterned piece with no immediate through line but many vignettes across timeframes that the reader has to piece together mentally. It couldn’t have been written any other way: it’s up to the reader to put the book in some semblance of order, to interpret what each vignette means, in the context of the story as a whole.
There’s also the question of how we can use these different style of writing to address topics like climate change, which some novelists feel don’t belong in the novel form because they’re too political, too “real.” That may be true of the classic wave structure, but perhaps a novel about climate change works better with a spiral or a meandering structure.
This dive into structure also helps the reader. I have a difficult time reading a book when I haven’t figured out its overarching structure. With Melissa Sevigny’s Mythical River, for example, I had to get into the rhythm of “historical account – personal vignette – science,” to figure out the backbone of the book and understand it from that perspective. Suddenly it all fell into place, and I loved it.
What’s interesting is that several of the books Alison discusses fit into more than one category. The original Sebald book has a recurring minor character and is divided into networks and cells, while Marguerite Duras’s The Lover fits into both waves and meanders. Does this suggest that perhaps Alison’s findings aren’t unique? Would a different person discover the same patterns that she’s discovered in her own exploration?
I suspect that, even though Alison references many books about narrative style and structure to support her arguments, other people’s classification of a book using her criteria might differ. Some readers might see ripples where Alison sees spirals. Others may see an explosion when Alison sees cells. But the key isn’t to be right – it’s to explore these various forms and understand how they might manifest in a novel. The reader is meant to think about structure, but is not required to do exactly as Alison does. She lays out her ideas for the reader, who can then take or leave them.
This is a playful and exciting book that opens up all sorts of new possibilities for narrative arcs. Indeed, in the Epilogue, Alison has an image of a narrative arc that looks suspiciously like a series of tropical storms forming in the South Pacific. Can you imagine a novel written in that pattern?
As Alison writes at the end of the book, “I hope that other patterns might help us imagine new ways to make our narratives vital and true, keep making our novels novel.”
Meander Spiral Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative
By Jane Alison
April 2, 2019
Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations.