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Saturday, June 8, 2013

"There and Back Again"...

...The Beauty of Ring Composition in Life and Literature.

As you know if you read my previous blog post, when I was in Sydney, Australia a couple weeks ago for the Sydney Writer's Festival, I had the opportunity to speak with a 9th-grade literature class regarding my books and how I write them. I ended up speaking primarily about literary alchemy, but I started the discussion with ring composition. Ring composition, otherwise known as chiasmic/chiastic structure, is an ancient literary device named for the Greek letter Chi: X in which a poem, passage, or entire text builds up to a central point (what I usually call the axis when I am teaching it to students) and then builds down to the conclusion, stressing the same points in the reverse order. So, for example, the text could look like this:

A (beginning)
                              D(middle/central point of the story)
A (conclusion)

                              A (middle/central point of story)
                    D                 D
          C                                     C
                    B                 B
         (beginning) AA (conclusion)

And there are other variations. In my books, I tend to follow the second example I gave, but the basic principle is the same - the second half of the story mirrors the first half of the story either by comparison or contrast (ie. D2 could either mirror D1 or be a reverse echo of D1).

Okay, this is all getting a bit technical, so let me get down to the why of the matter. Why bother doing this at all? This is what one of the students in the class asked me, and it is more than a valid question, in fact it is at the heart of it all. Doesn't this make for a lot of work? Isn't writing just about self expression? Isn't it more important that I just get words on the page? Stop! You're stifling me with your compositional restrictions! The answer to these questions, in order, is: Yes. No. Kind of. Let me explain...

I don't think any serious writers want their works to be irrelevant, and in order to prevent irrelevancy, one must take steps to write works that subconsciously lodge themselves in the reader's brain. Ring composition is one way to do that, and it is tried and true. It is subconscious for the reader because, unless they are purposefully studying the text to look for it, they won't see it, but they will feel it. The human brain responds to patterns, and especially to repetition and mirroring, so if you use a chiasmus in your writing, it lodges your story more firmly in the long-term memory of the brain, and if you've written a good story, it should end up being something that readers relate more easily to and want to go back to for more. But yes, it makes for a lot of work! In fact, it's down right hard to do. Many a sleepless night have I spent pacing my living room, trying to puzzle through how to make this structure work with my stories, but in the end, it is always worth it (and it's gotten me out of more than a few writer's-block binds!). Besides, anything worth doing ought to be difficult in some degree. Who ever said rewarding work should be easy? And no, writing is not just about self expression, and if you use a structure like ring composition, you can ensure that your work goes beyond you and hopefully becomes something that is relevant not just for you and your time, but for others and times to come. How do I know this? Let me name a few of the texts that have utilized ring composition throughout the ages and let the examples speak for themselves: The Histories, Beowulf, the works of Aristotle, the Bible, Dante's Inferno, all the works of Shakespeare, Aquinas's Summa Theologica, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, and many more. And yes, while it is important for a writer to "just get words on the page," it is also important for a writer to think about the order in which those words will be presented. All literature is instructive; all authors have some point to make. Ring composition can help you make that point subconsciously without wasting your words.

There are other benefits to using ring composition beyond what I have already mentioned. It lends a sense of purpose, permanence, and completion to a text or story. Have you ever read a book that, if it were a building, it would look like a Jenga tower with odds and ends sticking out here and there, dangerously close to falling over? I have, and usually these sorts of stories feel unfinished or unsatisfying when I get to the end, and I'm left with dangling story elements that were never resolved. I usually chalk this up to poor, or no, planning on the part of the author, and I rarely return to these stories for a second read. If you successfully use ring composition, this should never happen in your own work. Your story will not only make a point, it will lodge in the readers' brains, and when it's finished, it will feel finished. Lastly, ring composition imitates real life and the journeys that all of us take. I thought about this as I was winging my way over the Pacific Ocean coming back from Australia. The same journey, in reverse order, that I took only a week before. When I got back to the Dallas airport and waited for my connection to Birmingham, I even saw some of the same security personnel I had encountered on my way out. This may seem trite to you, but it put a contemplative smile on my face as I pondered its relevance to my writing, and to the greater story of life (ashes to ashes, dust to dust, naked from my mother's womb and naked I return, etc...). There is something beautiful to me about the chiastic structure in life and literature, and it will always be a structure I come back to in my writing. After all, who isn't moved by the deeper implications behind Tolkien's simple words? "There and Back Again." 

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