I wanted to talk this week about a trend I find increasingly prevalent in my fiction – the use of symmetry in plot and character. When I sent the book-before-last to my critique group, one of them commented on how clever I'd been in structuring the characters as a series of parent and child pairs. Had I really? I looked back at the book and discovered that I had indeed, though it felt like a happy accident at the time.
I went away and wrote a whole new book, and it was only after it was done that I realised the symmetry had crept in again. This time, it was a series of male and female pairs, and furthermore, it was the female characters who emerged triumphant at the end of the story. I hadn’t intended that structure either, but as the book carries a strong feminist subtext, I’m thinking it’s OK.
For the new novel I’ve just started, I’ve decided to take the symmetry a stage further, to make what was implicit to my process explicit in the structure of the book. Subject to change, it’s going to be a dual close-third-person narrative, with each POV character acting as the antagonist of the other. The few chapters I’ve written so far suggest I’m capable of pulling this off, so now I just have to write the rest!
The novel’s structure has inevitably been influenced by the last book I read before starting, which was Sara Grant’s excellent Half Lives. This has a dual narrative structure as well, although Sara is rather more ambitious than me, setting one half of the story at the point of global apocalypse and the second half hundreds of years later. As the story unfolds, events in one thread impact on the other in subtle and unexpected ways, giving the reader a broader perspective on the action than the characters are allowed. This technique is both clever and fitting for a book whose subtext is about expanding your view of the world and believing in your ability to achieve greatness. As I read the final chapters, I had the distinct impression that Sara had managed to achieve this goal herself, delivering a book that rises effortlessly above the dystopian norm.
I’m very, very lucky to have in Sara a friend who is a) a great writer and b) prepared to tell me about the technique she uses to write her novels. With Half Lives, Sara plotted both narratives chapter by chapter before she began, and then went away and wrote each novel separately. It was only at the editing stage that she brought the two together and fine-tuned how they flowed as a whole.
Why does symmetry appeal to me, or to other writers? Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by plots that are as intricate and finely-crafted as a Swiss watch, and having a symmetrical structure imposes a particular order on the tale. Symmetrical plotting also provides a pleasing rhythm for the reader – while one thread is “up”, the other can be “down” and vice versa. Multiple narratives are also a godsend for the writer who wants to mercilessly drive tension, because you can cut away just before the vital moment. Marcus Sedgwick’s White Crow is the best example I can think of for this – at points, the tension is almost unbearable.
Ultimately, perhaps narrative symmetry is all about imposing order on chaos. But then, perhaps every piece of good writing is about that.