I've been promising a new blog post on Ring Composition for ages and ages, so I'm finally making good on that promise. It's probably been a couple years since I last blogged about it, and it's one of the topics I most commonly lecture on when I give seminars, so it's definitely time.
Ring composition is more commonly known as chiastic or chiasmic structure. I first learned about it several years ago over dinner with the "Hogwarts Professor," John Granger, who was kind enough to share some charts with me he'd drawn up for the Harry Potter books. I was a brand new novelist at the time (you can see a picture of me and some friends with John in my gallery) and instantly captivated by the idea. In the years since, I have put ring composition into practice in every novel I've written--at least to varying degrees--and it has proven to be an effective method of not only outlining and organizing my thoughts, but a fantastic way of producing cohesive stories for my readers. And the more I've studied ring composition, the more I've discovered that it's used with particular frequency in not only books, but television and movies as well.
So what is it and why should one, as a writer, consider using it?
At its most basic, ring composition is a method of structuring a story so the first half and the second half mirror or reverse echo each other (or a combination of the two--some chapters may mirror, some may reverse echo). As a writer, this provides you with a handy framework on which to build your story. Stuck on how your story should end? No problem! Just take your beginning and mirror it (or reverse echo it) and you have your ending. That also, by the way, gives you the center point of your story, because you progress through the story in a ring (hence ring composition), so right away, you have three major scenes figured out. When I'm teaching ring composition, I always say it's like filling in a Sudoku puzzle--the more you know, the more what you know informs you about what you don't know until you have the whole outline filled out for the story, and you're ready to write.
But does it do anything for the reader?
Sure! A book built on a cohesive outline--any cohesive outline--lends a sense of verisimilitude to the story. I really believe the human brain subliminally searches for patterns and rejects randomness, which is why some things feel complete to us and other things don't. Ring composition is the sort of structure that helps the reader feel as though your story is complete. It's like the written equivalent of resolving dissonant chords in music.
Sometimes the best way to explain this sort of thing--since I can't do a live demonstration through my blog--is just to provide an example, and I decided to provide a TV show example instead of a book example (last time I blogged on this, I gave a more technical explanation). My favorite show is Netflix's Daredevil. Now--a quick caveat--this is a TV-MA show, so it's not for the kiddies. It's very violent, and if you're not familiar with the premise of the show, it's about Marvel's superhero Daredevil, who is the alt identity of the blind lawyer, Matt Murdock, who lives in Hell's Kitchen, NY. Although blind, his other senses are heightened to the point where, as he tells a character in episode 2, "There are other ways to see." The writing and storytelling on the show are absolutely brilliant, and I caught on immediately that the writers were utilizing ring composition. My favorite episode so far is Season 1, episode 2 ("Cut Man"--written by Drew Goddard and directed by Phil Abraham). *Spoilers Ahead*
So here's how the ring composition of the episode works...
Mirroring/Flashbacks/Use of "Chis"
Goddard expertly mirrors the first half of the episode with the second half of the episode, and he flashes back and forth between the past and the present, mirroring elements of the past with elements of the present throughout (hence forming "Chis"--where the "Chi"--the Greek letter X--comes from in chiastic/chiasmic structure). While it wouldn't be impossible for me to show you all the places he does this throughout the episode (really, I could. I've mapped out the whole thing--several typed pages of detailed notes), it would be exhaustive and overly detailed to do that here, so let me just give you a few tastes from some specific scenes:
A) Daredevil in a dumpster
B) The Russians are responsible for Daredevil being in the dumpster
C) Daredevil uncovers his face
D) A boy helps carry Daredevil to safety
These elements all happen at the beginning of the episode. At the very end, they happen again in near perfect reverse order.
A1) Daredevil dumps a Russian into the same dumpster
B1) Daredevil beats up the Russians responsible
C1) Daredevil goes to rescue a kidnapped boy--just before getting him, he uncovers his face
D1) Daredevil carries a boy to safety
Now let's get a little more detailed. More mirroring/reverse echoing takes place in the flashback scenes where we learn about young Daredevil/Matt Murdock's relationship with his father. Early in the episode, the following flashback scene takes place:
A) Young Matt watches his dad, Battlin' Jack Murdock, lose a boxing match on TV, despite having his opponent on the ropes.
B) Disappointed, Matt turns the TV off and sits at the table to wait for his dad to get home.
C) Battlin' Jack gets home and the two talk homework while Matt cleans up his dad's wounds.
D) Matt is surprised at how much money his dad got for losing. Jack tells him, "It's not how you hit the mat--it's how you get up."
E) Matt leaves; Jack is clearly disappointed with himself for taking a fall.
In a later flashback, portions of the pattern repeat/reverse echo:
C2) Matt reads from his homework while Battlin' Jack unpacks his new boxing robes for an upcoming match with a boxer named Creel.
D2) Matt and Jack discuss the fight (Matt had overheard his dad agreeing to "go down in the fifth" and throw the fight, but Jack doesn't know this). Jack: “Who says I’m gonna get hit?” Matt: “We’re Murdocks. We get hit a lot.” Jack: “Yeah. I guess we do.” Matt: “But we get up. Right, Dad?” Pregnant pause. Jack is clearly conflicted. Matt: “We always get up.” Jack never responds.
E2) Jack decides not to go down in the fight against Creel, deciding not to shame himself and his son, Matt. "Just once, I want Matty to hear people cheer for his old man. Just once."
And in the final flashback of the episode, the entire sequence repeats/reverse echoes:
A3) Young Matt Murdock is in front of the TV listening* to his dad, Battlin' Jack Murdock, fight Creel. He wins! The crowd cheers! (*listening because Matt is now blind from the accident that has claimed his sight.)
B3) Thrilled, Matt turns the TV off and sits to wait at the table for his dad to come home. Meanwhile, Battlin' Jack flees to the locker rooms, knowing his life is in danger, but turns and pauses long enough to hear everyone cheering his name.
C3) Jack does not come home. Rough cut to Matt waking up to the sound of a gunshot.
D3) Matt rushes outside to the alleyway behind his house where the police are gathered around a body. Matt, although blind, knows it's his dad and tells the police, who let him through. He knows his father has been "hit," and falls beside him to feel his face.
E3) Scene closes with Matt calling, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"
And these are just the most notable examples of the mirroring that is done in this single, 50-minute episode of TV. Imagine what you can do in a full-length novel? (And, as you've probably gotten the idea if you've read down this far, I could go on and on with this single episode of Daredevil, and is it any wonder it's my favorite show?) I'm attracted to good writing like a bee to honey! ANYhow, bravo to you for reading so far, and I hope you were able to make some sense of this. Feel free to comment and question, and look out for ring composition! It's out there, and it makes for fantastic stories.
Here we are again, just one month out from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer's Month, for those of you unfamiliar with the lingo), and the age-old (okay, maybe not AGE-old, but popular, at least) question will soon be upon all people preparing to undertake the challenge:
Are you a Planner or a Pantser?
Now, for full disclosure, I don't participate in NaNoWriMo. There's no need for me to. The challenge is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days (November), but I've written that amount (and more) in 30 days many times over just out of necessity. It's hard. I know it's hard. I don't need to put myself through the paces when I'm not writing to a deadline... so I don't! But I do teach a creative writing course, and I use the month of November to give them in-class time to work on NaNoWriMo projects. And I use the month of October to teach them how to plot and plan their novels.
See, I'm a mean old (not really--I'm only 33) novelist who is a confirmed Planner, and as a creative writing instructor, I won't let my students "Pants" their novels. What is Pantsing? It's a newfangled term for free-writing. Don't get me wrong--free-writing is a great exercise and absolutely necessary at certain stages of the game. But I will always believe a better product comes from a well-plotted story than one written by the seat of one's pants. Can I prove this? No. But I believe there's great evidence for it in what I know of the writing methods of some of the most successful authors of all time. I also know--personally, of course--that I wasn't able to actually finish a coherent novel until I disciplined myself to start learning the craft of storytelling and until I planned them out before writing. I know the evidence is anecdotal, and every author's methods are different, but having a method to organize your mad creative whimsies is important. It would be a terrible shame if they were to all blow away on you!
So if you're planning on participating in NaNoWriMo next month, I encourage you to give Planning a try this year, especially if you've only ever been a Pantser before now. It takes some extra work on the front end, but when you get to actually start writing, you'll find the story flows so much easier, and you'll be more likely to finish that novel. If you don't know where to begin with Planning, check back for my next blog post where I'll be explaining my favorite outlining method (and using an episode of the TV show Daredevil as my example). Or you can check out the NaNoWriMo website HERE for some great tips! Happy Planning!
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