Contemplating the structural symmetry of a narrative frame leads to the more general question of pattern in plot. To the extent that all art forms have been deconstructed to the point of pure abstraction it’s fair to allow for any pattern on a theoretical level. But as with all the other elements of fiction, the test is not what’s possible, but what’s appropriate to the whole of a work.
Here’s Hills defining the phrase:
What I mean by pattern in plot is the effect achieved by having the sequences of the action arranged in a way that establishes a certain “order” or “architecture — of balance, of symmetry, even asymmetry — in the narrative structure.
Hills gives a series of examples and they’re all worth considering. But the appropriateness of any particular approach relates not to pattern itself, but to the story you intend to tell:
…an author could pattern his plot, for any wild reason of his own, on the shape of a tree, or imitating the layout of a formal garden, or according to the episodes of Cold War, or following the same sequence of episodes as Homer’s Odyssey. Any pattern is possible, and it’s equally possible that a story’s plot have no pattern at all. Pattern in plot is probably not a subject for a beginning writer to concern himself with much, but he should certainly know that it exists.
It’s easy to see the appeal of introducing a pattern: it provides a framework that defines itself. If you’re not sure what to do in scene three, or chapter twenty-seven, the right pattern may handle some of the decision making for you. But without fully integrating the pattern into your story it’s really only another way of sneaking formula into your fiction.
For Hills, pattern is meant to be fully integrated if it’s used at all. And as with most other aspects of fiction, Hills sees pattern as most easily realized not in the novel, but the short story. From the point of view of art I agree with Hills. From the point of view of authorship, however, I see pattern as having practical utility in longer works. (This echoes my views on theme, which I see as a useful editorial tool and an almost worthless analytical tool.)
Because of the craft complexity of my short story collection, The Year of the Elm, I used multiple patterns during the writing process to keep myself on target. Without those patterns to reference I would have been adrift in ways that may have negatively affected the whole of the work. I did not intend, however, for those patterns to be observed by the reader, even as I hoped they would have a subtle positive effect.
Hills gives an example of pattern in Anna Karenina, but it’s a simple example that relates more to analysis than conception. (He doesn’t claim Tolstoy engineered the story to fit a pattern; only that it can be read that way.) A better example of the practical utility of pattern is Hills’ example of the Parthenon, and how subtleties in its design affect the eye. Using a pattern (or patterns) in your fiction should produce the same benefits, even if most readers will never specifically notice those effects. Otherwise what’s the point?
Next up: Choice as Technique.
— Mark Barrett