Resource Review: Meander, Spiral, Explode
Breaking Up (and Getting Back Together) with Story Structure
By Katie Zdybel
What’s your relationship with structure? All writers have one—dysfunctional, on-again-off-again, superficial, optimistic, topsy-turvy. For most of my writing life, I’ve avoided structure, denying that a relationship even needed to exist. I felt wary of the word “plot” and turned up my nose at outlines. Any talk of structure felt too formulaic to me; I leaned toward feeling my way through a story and, to a large extent, I still do.
But editing has taught to me love structure. It’s so much easier to assess structure from the outside—which, of course, makes sense. Imagine plunking a person down in the middle of a house they’ve just built—in the dark. Ask them to draw a complete blueprint and it’s likely that map will be confused, forgetting the laundry room closet, or not knowing why it includes a third-floor balcony, completely mis-remembering the shape of the attic window. But bring in a fresh pair of eyes to assess the foundation and struts, a person with a measuring tape who notes the angles of every corner, whose sole purpose is to calculate the curves and pockets of the house, and suddenly you appreciate the beauty of sound structure. And you also begin to see how every story must approach structure uniquely.
A lot of writing workshops, books, and instructors teach the classic Aristotelian arc—that familiar inverted check mark with rising incidents leading us to a peak of dramatic tension and the subsequent denouement.
Alison writes, “For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel—one we’re actually told to follow—and that’s the dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides… But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculosexual, no?”
Indeed. Recently, while speaking with a writer about her story’s structure, I kept noticing myself trying to avoid vaguely sexual phrases: “You need to guide your reader to climax. Tease them a little. The climax will work better if you can prolong a bit.” Sheesh.
Working with another writer, I kept hearing her say that she felt her structure was too circular—her narrative kept looping around past trauma felt by generations in a single family. The protagonist dug into the family history, constantly uncovering a reoccurring pattern and the writer worried that this series of events did not produce a dramatic peak.
I saw it another way: I felt her structure reflected the way women and their female ancestors often tell and retell (and retell and retell) stories in an attempt to protect and inform the younger family members. It also exemplified how unresolved trauma often plays out again on successive generations. In this way, the reader reads the same relentless re-playing of crucial events, experiencing the frustration (in a very effective way) of unresolved conflict. And the resolution of this story arrived as a gradual illumination and understanding, rather than as an explosive moment. This felt true to life; it made perfect sense for her story to look more like the spiral of a snail shell than a pyramid.
It occurred to me that there must be more forms of structure out there and I started looking for craft books that explored alternatives.
Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode goes far beyond the few alternative forms I had begun to imagine. Alison begins her book by reviewing the dramatic arc and agreeing that there’s no doubt that Aristotle offered us a very good model, based on one way that the unfolding of events can bring us to a satisfying conclusion. But there are many ways to reach an epiphany, a resolution, a closing.
After all, “patterns other than the arc are everywhere,” Alison writes. “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.” Each of these occurrences in nature offers us an intricate, elegant, or powerful structure to consider when shaping our stories.
If it sounds daunting to try to unlearn what you may have been taught in every creative writing class you’ve ever taken, take heart: Alison does not disregard the traditional arc and notes that many great works have followed it to the letter. She also encourages you to explore story for other shapes. Alison refers to her book as a “museum of specimens”, in which she deftly navigates classic and contemporary works of literature, breaking them down into various structures—all of which echo forms found in nature.
She considers Vikram Chandra, Sherman Alexie, Marguerite Duras, Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, Tao Lin, Luis Salvador Efrain Salazar Arrué, among many more. What I like about this list is that it contains stories from a multitude of cultures, traditions, countries, times, sexual orientations, and genders. Surely, the time and place in which we find ourselves, the bodies and relationships we inhabit, as well as the cultures and languages we learn in shape the way we live and express our experiences.
Reading Meander, Spiral, Explode has opened my mind to a plethora of structures. It has encouraged me to consider where my clients are writing from and to support them in experimenting with form, so long as it serves the story.
In my own writing life, I find that I no longer veer away from plot. Rather than feeling as though it’s a box in which I could never squash my stories into, I consider, instead, how plot might bend, twist, undulate, radiate, or curve to fit the shape of my experience. The structure, I now realize, must reach across for the story, and the story much reach back; the two inform each other, working together to produce a vessel and content that are unique, strong, impactful, and maybe even beautiful.
That sounds to me like a relationship I’d like to be in.
Katie's first collection of short stories, titled Equipoise, was shortlisted for the 2018 HarperCollins | UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. She is the recipient of a 2019 and 2021 Canada Council for the Arts award, the Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction award, and was publisher-nominated for a Journey Prize as well as two National Magazine Awards in fiction. Katie is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and has worked on PRISM International’s editorial board. As a manuscript editor, she enjoys working with character, theme, and imagery.