Columns > Published on April 26th, 2012

The Spiraling Narrative

A good story says something new about the world. An excellent story says something new about the world in a completely new way. Ideally, a narrative’s theme or principle meaning should be enigmatically original. More importantly however, it should be pervasive: it should haunt the story, taking so much residence that it becomes a fundamental cog in its internal logic, a presence reflected in every component of the storytelling process: structure, characters, plot. The power to do so is what ultimately separates great works of fiction from facile entertainment.

Events in stories should be linked by symbolism and theme, not necessarily cause and effect. The reason is this: the world of narrative and the world we live in are two vastly different ontologies. The “real world” offers plenty of disparate, anomalous occurrences, many of which have no meaning and almost none of which offer any substantive symbolic merit. Sadly, most of our universe is wholly indifferent to significance, the result of mere happenstance. Fiction however, is a place where occurrence implies emphasis. It is a place where everything that happens does so necessarily.

If your plot relies too much on real-world effects following real-world causes, you’ve left readers with the pedestrian task of essentially watching the inevitable being carried out. In terms of a thematic take-away, the stakes fall low. If you express an enigmatic meaning or prevailing theme in the work however, and if you use repeated patterns to reiterate that theme whenever and wherever you can, you’ve left readers with the task of decoding the implications of the world you’ve created. It offers an unmistakably unique and more rewarding experience.

The more you spiral a symbolic idea — through metaphors, perspectives, visual cues — the more its message will be felt. 

One way you can employ thematic repetition is with a technique commonly referred to as "spiraling." Essentially, spiraling is the idea of exploring a story’s prevailing theme from as many different angles and perspectives in the narrative as possible. Spiraling is an issue of emphasis. It’s the idea of repeating a story’s thematic meaning by taking occurrences in the foreground — in plot, dialogue and characters — and mirroring them in the background: in symbols, imagery, and suggestions. Done correctly, spiraling can lend the work a thematic richness and structural resonance by having its parts exemplify qualities in the whole.

You see this practice in film all the time. A couple having an argument, for example, might be facing each other, arranged in medium-shot, with their bodies or heads framed by an object in the background: two windows, or separate doorways. Their physical juxtaposition isn’t obvious but the director has deliberately added a background visual to further suggest the point being made in the literary aspect of the story: that both parties are occupying separate, opposing spaces. The artist is using an inanimate medium to make a gesture toward the elements explored in the literary leitmotif. The idea is to invoke the literary theme of the story as many times, and from as many positions as possible, in an otherwise static landscape. Done correctly, these visual cues can imbed a depth and thematic resonance that appears to serve as the essential cause, the raison d'être, for everything.

Literature can do the same thing. In fact, fiction writing has an unprecedented advantage in spiraling endeavors, because the medium offers a limitless range of vantage points from which the author can reiterate the theme of his/her choosing. Let’s say we’re writing a story about a man who’s recently lost his wife to cancer. It would behoove the writer to invoke the newfound void in this character's life as much as possible, not only in the more obvious venues of dialogue and plot, but in the litany of objects that surround him, so his specific disposition avails a larger thematic disposition. For example, he lays on one side the bed, while the other remains untouched. Her half of the closet goes unused, remains empty. He goes to the movies and sits next to an empty seat. He sits at a table for two, yet eats alone. He gets envelopes addressed to her in the mail. You get the idea. The greater world reflects the specific, pervasive loneliness facing the character. As a result, the reader is not only subject to a compelling plot, they’re bearing witness to an idea unto itself.

The more you spiral a symbolic idea — through metaphors, perspectives, visual cues — the more its message will be felt. Repetition is simply one of the most powerful tools a writer can use. The human mind loves to form patterns — it doesn’t matter if it’s in the micro elements like the repetition of syllables with alliteration, repetition of dialogue, or repetition of occurrence in plot — any time you can lead readers to see and form patterns, we’ll take the bait. It’s for this reason that spiraling should happen in writing whenever possible. Ultimately what you’re doing when you spiral is you’re moving from the specific to the abstract. You’re taking an anomalous incident that affects one person at one point in time and you’re transcending that idea so it becomes part and parcel of the grand fabric that comprises the greater human experience. 

Given everything I’ve said about this technique, it bears mentioning: spiraling should be performed with the utmost subtlety and tact. Anytime stories begin wearing their symbolism on their sleeve — or, in other words, anytime it becomes apparent there’s a self-conscious effort by the writer to explain the metaphors at work — the story begins to take on the appearance of a novelty. Regardless of the props you use to imbue meaning in a story, writing should take readers to the symbolic from the literal; fiction should only take residence on a metaphorical plane after it’s taken residence in a motivational, character-based plane. In other words, give us a meat-and-potatoes story, but make sure its meaning and thematic presence take root everywhere.

About the author

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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