Beyond the Narrative Arc


Arts & Culture

Photo: Just chaos (CC BY 2.0 (

In 1926, an Irish designer named Eileen Gray built a shiplike villa on the south coast of France that drove the famed architect Le Corbusier wild. Corbu had declared that a house was “a machine to live in,” but Gray thought, No: a house is a person’s shell, a skin, and should respond to how she lives. To start designing, she studied how she and her housekeeper moved through the day and made diagrams of their motions and those of the sun to reveal natural patterns—loops in the kitchen, deep lines by the windows, meanders through the living room. The house she then built on rocks by the sea expressed this organic choreography. A mouthlike entry pulled you in; screens and mirrors unfolded from walls; windows and shutters opened in all directions for the right air, light, or view. On plans she drew lines showing how you could move, look, and live in this house: natural pathways transformed to design.

I love how Gray made this house, and really love how much it maddened bombastic Corbu. Gray’s way of working from life to art could also describe writing: writers go about their observing, imagining lives, moving onward day by day but always alert to patterns—ways in which experiences shape themselves, ways we can replicate these shapes with words. We then create passages for a reader to move through, seeing and sensing what we devise on the way. And when a reader’s done—levitation! She looks down and sees how she’s traveled, the pattern of the whole.

I’m saying see because we often think of narrative as a temporal art, experienced in time like music, but it’s visual, too; a story’s as much garden as song. Northrop Frye puts it this way: “We hear or listen to a narrative, but when we grasp a writer’s total pattern we ‘see’ what he means.” John Berger atomizes further: “Seeing comes before words.” We first apprehend text as texture—blurry or dense, black on white—and perceive each word as a picture (the part of our brain that recognizes words has a twin that recognizes faces). Then we pass through the words’ looks and into their meanings, absorbing a stream of visual images conjured by the language. Next we might develop another layer of “vision,” sensing elements that give the story structure: a late scene mirrors an earlier one, or a subtle use of color tints the whole. And as we read, we travel not just through places portrayed in the story but through the narrative itself. It might feel like gliding in a bayou, pacing a labyrinth, hopping from block to block: neuroscientists have recorded the inner sensations of reading as “a felt motionless movement through space.” Once you’ve finished reading, that motionless movement leaves in your mind a numinous shape of the path you traveled.

Goethe calls the path through a text a “red thread.” Henry James speaks of this numinous path or form as the “figure in the carpet.” I like best how Ronald Sukenick puts it: “Form is your footprints in the sand when you look back.”

Curiously, for centuries there’s been a single path through fiction we’re most likely to travel—indeed, one that aspiring writers are told to follow: the dramatic arc. A situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides. If you ask Google how to structure a story, your face will be hammered with pictures of arcs, triangles, pyramids. The arc is an elegant shape, especially when translated to its natural form, a wave. Its rise and fall traces a motion we sense in heartbeats, breaking surf, the sun, and there’s real power in a wave’s movement from beginning to midpoint to end. But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses: a little masculo-sexual, no? Why is this the form we should expect our stories to take?

We inherited the arc from drama. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Aristotle dissected tragedies such as Sophocles’s Oedipus the King to find their common features, as he might dissect snakes to see if their spines were alike. He found that powerful dramas shared certain elements, including a particular path. Here’s (some of) what he wrote in Poetics: “A tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself [with a] beginning, middle, and end … Every tragedy is in part Complication and in part Dénouement; the incidents before the opening scene, and often certain also of those within the play, forming the Complication; and the rest the Denouement. By Complication I mean all from the beginning of the story to the point just before the change in the hero’s fortunes; by Denouement, all from the beginning of the change to the end.”

Beginning, middle, and end; complication, change, denouement. Two thousand years later, in The Technique of the Drama, Gustav Freytag examined Greek and Shakespearean tragedies and drew a graphic like the pattern Aristotle described, showing the parts of drama: introduction, rise, climax, fall, and catastrophe—Freytag’s famous triangle or pyramid. John Gardner then helped make the link between tragedy and fiction, recommending to young writers the “energeic” novel: “By his made-up word energeia … Aristotle meant ‘the actualization of the potential that exists in character and situation.’ (The fact that Aristotle was talking about Greek tragedy need not delay us. If he’d known about novels, he’d have said much the same.) Logically, the energeic novel falls into three parts, Aristotle’s ‘beginning, middle, and end,’ which … fall into the pattern exposition, development, and denouement … ”

But shouldn’t the fact that Aristotle was talking about tragedy, not novels, delay us? Novels didn’t exist for him, but if they did, he’d have analyzed specimens to see their structures. The arc is a perfect expression for the movement of tragedy and has created masses of elegant novels, too. But given that the kinds of stories in fiction aren’t as tonally set as in ancient tragedy, why insist that a single shape form them?

Then there’s the arc’s irksome sexual aspect. Here’s critic Robert Scholes: “The archetype of all fiction is the sexual act … the fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation.”

Well. This is not how I experience sex. Critic Susan Winnett says, “Meanings generated through dynamic relations of beginnings, middles, and ends in traditional narrative and traditional narratology never seem to accrue directly to the account of the woman.” And anyway, why should sex—this kind of sex!—be the archetype of fiction? Why should an art form as innovative as fiction have a single archetype at all?

In twenty years of teaching I’ve seen one smart, edgy young writer after another sleepwalk into the arc. They feel obliged to create “rising conflict” and “climax” and “resolution,” no matter how much they’re faking it. And so many instructors, handbooks, and helpful sites—our narrative-based culture at large—insist: a story must have an “arc.”

Now that Gardner’s got me imagining what Aristotle would say of fiction, though, I want to look at one of his core concepts about art forms altogether. I love that he likens specimens of literary art to living creatures, having organic unity—indeed, having souls. “The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of Tragedy is the Plot.” The term soul here is part of his conceptual framework of “hylomorphism.” Hylo or hule = matter, and morphe = form; hylomorphism refers to the compound of matter and form that exists in both artifacts and living beings. Matter has potential that is made actual by form. Imagine a lump of clay that someone wants to shape into a bird. That lump has the potential to look like a bird, but only if, along with clay, there exists the abstract idea, or form, of “bird” (and an artist to shape it). Once the clay has been modeled into a bird, it’s a compound of matter and form: a piece of art. The form that it could be has actualized the potential existing in that matter. In a living being, the corollary to matter is body, and the corollary to form is soul. Soul animates body to make a living being, just as form animates matter to make a piece of art. So when Aristotle says that “plot” is the “soul” of tragedy, he means that plot is the idea of a shape that will turn potential into an actualized whole.

Rather than expect the “soul” or animating shape of fiction to be a plotted arc, why not imagine other shapes? The arc makes sense for tragedy, but fiction can be wildly other. Especially now, when, to survive as a species, it had better exploit all it is that’s not drama. Sukenick says, “Instead of reproducing the form of previous fiction, the form of the novel should seek to approximate the shape of our experience”; Aristotle saw art forms as organic beings. Wouldn’t it make sense for the shape of our experience to be organic? And not necessarily orgasmic.

The causal arc wasn’t a given as Western fiction crawled to life, but gradually became a convention, with writers resisting it often. Other cultures evolved fiction differently from the start: as Ming Dong Gu explains, Chinese fiction grew with an emphasis on lyricism, relying on pattern, repetition, and rhythm, and “organized on a structural principle different from the time-based, direction-oriented, and logically coherent principle of the Western narrative.”

As Nigel Krauth puts it, “If one needs a short cut to understanding the nature of the Radical in [Western] literature, one might think first about concepts related to the singular, the linear, the beginning-middle-and-end structure, and think how a writer can replace them with multiplicity, collage or a rhizome of fragments.” Think of the Modernists’ shift from the “omniscient” narrator toward narratorial consciousness that follows the tangles of human sensibility, or the many multistranded novels that arose early last century, the Oulipo with their fabulous strictures and the possibilities these strictures opened, the Nouveau-Romanist and their experiments with objectivism, and so on.

Writers have proposed other shapes or patterns for narrative, too. Italo Calvino says that in Invisible Cities he was thinking of a crystal’s shape and “built up a many-faceted structure in which each brief text is close to the others in a series that does not imply logical sequence or a hierarchy, but a network in which one can follow multiple routes and draw multiple, ramified conclusions.” Gottfried Benn spoke of an orange-shaped narrative, in which segments radiate from or lean toward a central pith. Ross Chambers coined the (terrible) term loiterature for narratives that can be labyrinthine, digressing extravagantly. And Joseph Frank launched much of this discussion with “The Idea of Spatial Form,” where he describes a kind of fiction in which juxtaposition or association replaces temporal order, sense not arising from linearity but from puzzle-like compositions or networks.

I was looking for ways to create forward motion in narrative that didn’t rely on the linear arc when I happened upon W. G. Sebald, twenty years ago. In The Emigrants, he seemed to work with patterns that yielded connections and meaning, rather than anything linear. Since then, I’ve sought powerful narratives with structures other than an arc, structures that create an inner sensation of traveling toward something and leave a sense of shape behind—not just slice-of-life. I dissected some of the most effective, unusual narratives to see what they had in common, and what I found: shapes recurring in these texts coincide with core patterns in nature.

Matter fills space according to a host of natural laws that again and again yield the same patterns. This I learned only recently, when I read Peter Stevens’s brilliant 1974 book Patterns in Nature while riding Amtrak. I actually went through a cascade of epiphanies as I read, staring out the window at the world Stevens kept transforming. Philip Ball’s newer book with the same name illustrates gorgeously how a cluster of patterns recurs at every scale in our world, atomic to galactic. The wave is one: it’s everywhere. There’s a reason we’re drawn to it, whether watching a drama with swelling and collapsing tensions or gazing as surf breaks on shore: a wave is a clear instance of energy charging static matter until that energy is spent and equilibrium returns, elegant and satisfying. Arcs or waves can create powerful narratives, but it might be more freeing, as writers, if we think not of a story following an arc, but of the reading experience doing so. A tentative entry leads to ever greater involvement until the words stop, and the narrative settles into some kind of sense.

Patterns other than the wave, though, are everywhere. Here are the ones 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 different scale made by trees, coastlines, clouds. Cellular or network 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 fundamental patterns inform our bodies, too. We have wiggling meanders in our hair, brains, and intestines; branching patterns in capillaries, neurons, and lungs; explosive patterns in areolae and irises; spirals in ears, fingertips, DNA, fists. Our brains want patterns. We follow them instinctively: coiling a garden hose, stacking boxes, creating a wavering path when walking along the shore. And we even invoke these patterns to describe motions in our minds: someone spirals into despair or compartmentalizes emotions, thoughts meander, rage can be so great we feel we’ll explode. There are, in other words, recurring ways that we order and make things. Those natural patterns have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn’t they form our narratives, too?

A meandering narrative might digress, sometimes flowing quickly and sometimes barely at all, often looping back on itself, yet ultimately moving onward: I think of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine or Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. A spiraling narrative might move around and around with regular, rhythmic repetitions, yet it advances steadily, deepening into the past, perhaps, or rising into the future. Essayists speak of spiraling form in reflective personal pieces; reflective, lyrical novels might be similar: think of Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter. A radial narrative could spring from a central hole—an incident, absence, horror—around which it keeps circling or from which it keeps veering, but it scarcely moves forward in time, like Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold or Joyce Carol Oates’s Black Water. A fractal narrative could branch from a core or seed, repeating at different scales the shape or dynamic of that core, possibly branching on indefinitely: I think of Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River. And cellular narratives come in like parts, creating meaning through juxtaposition and links: Sebald’s The Emigrants.

Meander, spiral, radial, fractal, cell. Maybe there are even correlations between kinds of stories and certain natural patterns, like tragedians following the arc. A feminist approach to writing? Or just more naturalistic? Or Aristotle’s hylomorphism all over again: shape informing life.


Jane Alison is the author of a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes, and four novels—The Love-Artist, The Marriage of the Sea, Natives and Exotics, and Nine Island—and is also the translator of Ovid’s stories of sexual transformation, Change Me. She is professor of creative writing at the University of Virginia and lives in Charlottesville.

Copyright © 2019 by Jane Alison, from Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. Reprinted by permission of Catapult.