I’VE SAID THAT EVERY STORY makes promises to its readers, promises the writer has to take care to keep. Mostly, those promises are unspoken ones. And some are made indirectly, through pattern.
Just by writing, you’re choosing what happens and what doesn’t, what’s possible in your little world and what isn’t. What your characters are concerned about becomes, automatically your story’s concern as well. The kinds of people whom you select as your characters – their attitudes and capacities, the kind of relationships they get into – all are going to add up to something.
Detail on detail, incident on incident, character on character, the pattern begins to form: the implicit rules and realities of your fictional world. A reader may not notice the patterns at first, at least not consciously; but if they’re carefully orchestrated and controlled, they’re what hold your story together, give it both diversity and unity, and make it specially your own.
With enough accumulated detail, a shape starts to form. Any two dots define a line: any three, a triangle. Even yarrow stalks, tea leaves, and random Tarot cards fall into patterns from which people attempt to read meanings. It’s part of the way the human mind works: finding faces in clouds, seeking shape, seeking meaning. So how could your story, which certainly has more intrinsic significance than a few soggy tea leaves, hope to escape?
Patterns are going to happen. The question is whether you’re going to guide them into symmetry and significance, or whether they’re going to spring up, sprout branches in eleven-teen contrary directions, and then slump like weeds.
The problem, at its simplest, is recognizing your tentative, partial patterns as they accumulate and strengthening them, making them coherent, getting other things out of their way to let them stand straight and tall. The next and harder stage is going beyond basic weeding to cultivating: creating patterns deliberately, to gain for your writing the immense but subtle power of recurrence, the second level of meaning that can only be spoken in echoes.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
In school, you were probably taught, as I was, to avoid simple verbal repetition – using “however” or “interesting” too often in a single paragraph.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
The kinds of repetition that work in fiction, that make buried but not-quite-hidden connections that can hold a story together, aren’t a matter of single words. They’re part of a writer’s larger vocabulary: image, incident, situation, character. Narrative structure. Plot in the largest sense – not just what happens, but precisely how the incidents are presented and the patterns they make.
Return with Us to the Thrilling Days of a Galaxy Far, Far Away
I’ll ask you now to flip back to Chapter 5, near the end, where I did a bit of commentary on the structure of The Empire Strikes Back. Reread that section, then meet me back here.
OK? You’re back?
There, I was talking about parallel plots, and how they can be held together with echoing incidents. Now, the focus is on the incidents themselves.
A threat of freezing, in the beginning of that story, mirrors a threat of freezing at the end. A cave in one of the parallel plot lines is mirrored by a cave in the other. A meeting with an old friend or with a terrible adversary, a buried truth finally spoken and acknowledged (Leia: “I love you” and Han: “I know” the counterpart of Darth Vader’s disclosure of paternity) – each has its match, its echo. And there are even more connections than I have space to list. And that was a movie for the widest possible audience, aimed primarily at teenagers, for heaven’s sake – not a story built with the intricate craft possible in literary fiction, for a readership of discerning adults.
Yet look at the number of connections there, if you stand back from the story a little and take the time to notice them. Look at how thoroughly all the threads are gathered into neat knots, how thoroughly the story belongs to itself.
Lots of fiction uses that kind of internal riveting. If you stop thinking in terms of things and start thinking in categories of things, you’ll see more resemblances, echoes, and outright repetitions in your favourite fiction than you’d ever have suspected. Start thinking categories rather than individual, isolated pieces, and the family resemblances start showing up – an author’s characteristic concerns, the larger elements of style that connects diverse fictions as the works of a single guiding consciousness.
That’s what you need to start doing with your own fiction. Start noticing the patterns your initial scenes and set-pieces have set up and think of ways to echo and reinforce them in other scenes, later on.
A Case in Point: What’s in the Living Room?
To illustrate, rather than cite a finished, set story, I’ll use my experience with one of my own short stories, so you can see how the method works.
The protagonist of “A Sense of Family” is a lanky middle-aged woman named Val, a sculptor. The initial scene shows how Val tends to lose track of the hours and the days, absorbed in her current project, a block of marble – a tombstone discarded for commercial use – that she’s turning into a bas-relief horse. That first scene is Val alone in her drafty loft wandering vaguely around after a concentrated session of carefully carving and smoothing, as she reconnects by degrees with the realities of time, neighbours, weariness, not having eaten.
In the middle of the floor is the half-carved horse and the intense personal silence around it.
That dark quiet room, of which Val is barely aware except for the horse, seemed to me a good image of what and who Val was. So I repeated the pattern in the story’s other two major scenes – one with a cheerful busybody of a neighbour, one with a man she seeks out to collect an almost-forgotten debt. Both men are sculptors too.
A week-old letter Val opens turns out to be a wedding invitation from her stuffy younger brother, who lives across the country. Nudged by her neighbour, Jerry the Welder, Val makes up her mind to reclaim the lapsed family connection and go, but lacks the money for bus fare.
Jerry’s whole apartment is filled with a metal and neon construction with lots of sharp edges, reflective surfaces, and flashing lights, which he proudly calls “a social construct”; Val’s terrified of it, but braves edging through it to use his phone (naturally, she doesn’t have one: she’s cut off from people and has just begun to notice it). Platz, the man she tries to phone and then crosses the dark city to confront, owes her money. In the centre of Platz’s room a slatternly woman repeats, “It’s got nothing to do with me,” several times, echoing Platz’s refusal to pay what he owes, since Val got nothing in writing, no security, at the time she lent him the money. It was a loan of unconsidered but real trust, as one member of the artist “family” to another, which Platz has no qualms about betraying. He refuses to acknowledge either the responsibility of repaying the debt or the implied relationship that prompted Val to give him the money in the first place.
The first image (Jerry’s “social construct”) is one of involvement; the second (Platz’s wife or lover) is a refusal to be involved. Val’s reaction to each helps to show who she is.
The pattern was that each of the major people was characterized through what was in the middle of the room, mirroring situations that brought out what I felt to be the central truth of the people in this story’s context.
The story’s end returns Val to her loft with a bad cold, fussed over and nagged by assorted hippie neighbours who do, after all, supply something like a sense of family.
I think this basic method will work for you too. Look at your initial scene and what’s important in it. Try to identify what the basic emotional dynamic is and how it’s shown: what objects, what ideas, what words. Then repeat the pattern through the rest of the story – once, or more than once – to show what the meaningful differences are, scene by scene.
Alternatively, think of ways to contrast the initial scene and situation in what follows. Setting up pairs of opposites, or the continuum that connects such a pair, is also a kind of connecting, even when it’s not repeating the identical pattern. The road to Rome is still the road to Rome, whether you’re headed toward the city or away. The emotional connections continue.
That’s the first thing to realize. Although the individual situations in your story may be different, even vastly different, from one part to another, if the emotional resonances of the scenes are at all similar or contrast on the same continuum, there’s a way to build in even stronger mirrors and echoes so the reader will see the scenes as linked.
Heightening what’s there – that’s the beginning.
MIRROING SINGLE SCENES
Once you’ve got two situations tagged for connection, how do you go about building in recurrences?
You do it by continuing some specific element(s) of the first situation in the second. Going from simplest to most complex, you can:
- Keep the second almost identical to the first, expect (perhaps) for one crucial element. The characters involved, the place where it happens, the props mentioned, the nature of the confrontation itself, can all continue. Simply because the story will have developed since the first incident happened, the second one won’t be seen as a simple (boring) repetition of the first unless it goes on too long – it will be in a new and richer context; the reader will know the characters better and know more clearly what’s at stake. It will deepen emphasis, like saying “No. NO!” The second time, your hearer knows you really mean it.
- Repeat one or more lines of dialogue in the same or similar form.
- Repeat a brief description of emotion or action (“He looked at his father square in the eyes”; “He felt the old, bitter taste of anger and frustration”) in the exact same words you used before.
- Make sure the subject or the terms of the second situation are the same as the first. For instance, two disputes about money, or coming home when he pleases, or doing his homework; or the situation arising unexpectedly, when the protagonist didn’t anticipate trouble, and reacting with anger: the way the situation develops being the same.
- Have the two situations go through the same stages.
- However they arise, have the two situations come out the same way.
- Use similar imagery to connect the two scenes. For instance, in our hypothetical argument, the person the protagonist is arguing with could be described with animal-like words (growled, pawed at the air, whinnied, bellowed, etc.) in both scenes. Or you could focus on a feeling of constriction (mentioning walls, or that the protagonist is finding it hard to breathe, is pulling at his collar, is getting red in the face, is gasping, feeling weighed down, etc.) Whatever imagery is used in the first scene is repeated in the second. By imagery, I mean the implied comparison between the present situation and something else, in terms of the wording you choose. (Saying somebody “burst into a rage” suggests explosion; saying they “smoldered with anger” suggests fire. The two are not the same thing. The precise words matter, and have distinct, separate meanings. Getting conscious control of imagery is one of the very hardest and most delightful chores a writer tackles: it requires you to make friends with words and use them with a diamond-cutter’s precision.)
- Have the overall dynamic polarities of the two scenes be the same – the same emotional content, the same basic opposing forces. For instance, rebellion against authority; a plea for understanding and love refused; an attempt to be rational defeated by strong emotion. The opposing forces in the scene, rather than the individuals involved, are continued from the earlier scene to the later one.
You can mix and match any of these techniques, depending on how strong and plain you want the connections to be. (In “A Sense of Family,” I mostly used methods 4, 6, 7, and 8. Each scene involves Val deciding to make contact and being defeated, and both attempt and defeat are represented by whatever is displayed in the middle of the room.) And there’s no need to limit the number of mirrored scenes to just two: three is a good number, as I’ll explain in a minute.
As you move up the list, away from direct repetition of words and toward repetition of patterns or ideas, the connections will be less noticeable – but they’ll still be there, and the reader will be affected by them, even if the recurrences aren’t consciously noticed. As I said before, we like repetitions, coherent shape. The reader will feel the story’s unity, even if he can’t at first, point to what made him feel that way.
But, you may be saying, if I do repeat some elements of one situation in another, isn’t a reader going to notice and be bored? And I assure you, not unless you go about it in the most heavy-handed way possible and repeat the earlier scene virtually word for word and at length. On first reading, readers are absorbed in details and emotions, plot and character. Though pattern has its effects, it’s just about invisible to a reader, at least the first time through.
Think back to something you read in which, after repeated readings, you can now see narrative patterns the author set up. And honestly think back to that first reading. How many of those patterns were you aware of? Any? One? But weren’t the patterns, the kind of events that happened, truly one of the reasons you cared enough about the story to read it a second and maybe a third time?
You already knew the plot, so you certainly couldn’t have been reading the story to find out what happened. You knew the characters, so it wasn’t discovering them, though you may have liked visiting with them again for a while. No, I strongly suspect that when we reread any fiction out of liking, rather than on assignment, it’s because of the kind of thing it is, the shape it makes in our minds, the growing discovery of how it belongs to itself and is one connected thing. It’s the patterns that the incidents and the people make, not the incidents and the people themselves, that give stories richness the second and twentieth time around.
Patterns may seem abstract at first, compared to crises and characters, but it’s the patterns that last.
The Experiment, the Variable, and the Rule of Three
In item #1, above, I suggested you could repeat virtually the whole situation with just one significant change. I’ll explain a little more what that involves.
In a scientific experiment, a researcher will generally have two groups: the test group, and the control. Both groups are as identical as it’s possible to make them, and they’re treated exactly the same, except for one item – the thing that’s being investigated, altered with the test group to find out what effect that single change will have. Whatever difference there is in the two groups at the conclusion of the experiment will presumably be caused by the one thing that was different – the variable.
This is the basis of countless folk tales involving three related individuals in similar circumstances. The first one leaves home, is rude to the ugly old witch, and is turned into stone. The second one leaves home, is rude to the ugly old witch, and ditto. But the third one leaves home, shares his baloney sandwich with the old witch, and gets tons of gold and jewels, a magic ring for warding off dragons, and makes a royal marriage.
Recognize the pattern? It’s Cinderella and her wretched stepsisters. It’s three little pigs, building houses of straw, sticks, and sold wolf-proof bricks. It’s the three bears.
Why all this fuss about three?
One is an incident. Two is a pattern. Three breaks it.
One tells us what the risk is. Two confirms what wrong behaviour is. At three, we know the rules, and so can appreciate what the smart third person is doing differently, to break the unsuccessful pattern and win.
If that folk tale was about just one pig who built a house of bricks in the first place, and the wolf couldn’t get in no matter how he huffed and puffed, where would the story be? Conflict, but no drama, just stalemate. Success for the pig, but no suspense. Anti-climax. No story.
Three is suspense, pattern, and contrast, all in one nifty little technique as old as storytelling.
It’s the scientific technique of the variable, with third time lucky.
If somebody fails twice, in similar circumstances, there’s going to be more tension and drama when he tries the third time because we’ve already seen him fail and know it can happen. We know what doesn’t work, we know the situation; now we’re focusing on what he’s doing differently this time. We’re aware of the pattern, the apparent rules, and are concentrating on the one thing that changes.
Instead of two repetitions, you can use the Rule of Three. The first time the bell coincides with the painful electric shock, you’re too busy being shocked to notice. The second time, you think uneasily that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence. The third time, you’ve started jumping before the bell is even done ringing.
If you want your reader interested and involved in the scene before it’s fully begun to happen, there’s nothing like a triple setup to get things rolling. It gives added drama. It directs the reader’s attention where you want it directed. And it makes the scene’s meaning clear in a way it could not have been in isolation.
Choose and control the variable with care, keep the situations visibly comparable so the reader will be aware of the bell/shock pairing and be anticipating the outcome, and all three scenes will gain in impact and effectiveness.
Or, in Henny Youngman’s memorable phrase, “You had it before? Well, you got it again.”
Patterning for Contrast
Taking the concept of the one variable a little farther, it’s possible to set up scenes as contrasts with one another. Repeated elements let the reader know the two situations are similar; but something in the situation has radically changed.
This is the basis of then/now, before/after pairings.
Consider Scrooge, early in A Christmas Carol, nagging Bob Cratchit about using excess coal and requiring holiday pay for no work. Watch him show no interest whatsoever in Bob’s family or personal problems. Then consider Scrooge, after his experiences with the spirits, anonymously donating a large holiday goose for the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, raising Cratchit’s wages, promising to help Bob’s struggling family, and commanding Bob to go out and buy a new coal scuttle.
Not only is Scrooge a kinder man: he’s kinder in the very same terms, on the very same subjects, and to the identical person in the identical circumstances as he was callous and selfish before. The basic situation and terms of the two scenes are repeated, step by step, so that the degree of Scrooge’s change of heart is put into the clearest possible focus and contrast.
The same correspondence of scenes is used with Scrooge’s initial refusal to contribute to the poor and to go to his estranged nephew’s home for Christmas dinner. At the story’s end, Scrooge has accepted his nephew’s invitation and has made a substantial contribution to the poor. The whole of the initial situation is played out again, point for point, at the story’s conclusion.
At the beginning, the succession of Scrooge’s confrontations demonstrated the norm, as I discussed earlier; the identical succession, with changed results, demonstrates the new norm at the end.
If you want to set up any strong contrast, whether it’s a then/now, a before/after, or something more complex – how a character treats his dog (with perception and compassion) and his child (with difference) – there’s no stronger way to do it than by setting up mirror situations which echo each other’s terms and conditions as closely as possible, so the one crucial difference stands out in sharp focus.
Two children, one rich, one poor, who look just alike, change places. That’s the basis of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. He uses the boys, alike in everything but expectation and upbringing, to show and satirize the conditions of both rich and poor during the reign of Henry VIII.
Two men, alike enough to be brothers, love the same woman. One goes to the guillotine in the other’s place, because the other is a woman’s husband. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
Two men inhabit the same body. One is a monster loving pleasure and cruelty, the other an altruistic physician trying to destroy the evil in the human psyche – Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.
It’s like the experimental variable I just discussed. Two characters who in some meaningful sense are reflections of one another can highly either the differences or similarities between them. Or, with foreground figures who are almost alike, contrasts in the backgrounds – their societies or circumstances – are demonstrated more clearly.
Sometimes, though, the resemblance isn’t one of appearance but something more subtle: attitude, upbringing, or experience.
I mentioned some Chapters back that Marley was Scrooge’s mirror. By that, I meant not only that Marley was Scrooge’s partner; more importantly, he shared the materialistic values which are Scrooge’s central characteristics. (“You were always a good man of business, Jacob,” says Scrooge in an attempt to placate the ghost, rousing an irate howl from the spectre.) This qualifies, I think, as a legitimate and significant similarity between the two.
Therefore, we can assume Marley’s warning is valid: what’s happened to him, dying unrepentant in his businesslike, uncharitable attitudes, will also happen to Scrooge if he dies without a change of heart. Marley, in some meaningful sense, what Scrooge represents seen from a different angle, in slightly different circumstances, inasmuch as Marley is now dead and Scrooge isn’t – yet.
Accepting the resemblances, we accept the implications. The visible (if ghostly) chain Marley bears does, indeed, correspond with the even heavier, longer chain Scrooge has forged for himself, even though neither we nor Scrooge can see it. What Marley is, Scrooge may become – will become, if things continue unchanged.
Finally, their attitude (their chief point of similarity) sets them apart from the story’s other major characters, who are typically models of good-heartedness, cheer, and selfless concern for others. Scrooge and Marley are more like one another than either is like anybody else in the story.
Those are my rule-of-thumb criteria for an effective mirror character. There must be one or more points of plain connection or resemblance; what happens to one must have an effect on or implication for the other; and their similarity must be a unique one, not shared by other characters in the story.
That’s why I call Marley Scrooge’s mirror.
But there are other mirrors than Marley. Scrooge, we are shown, had a deprived, loveless childhood and felt set apart from others. His life was stunted; he became an emotional cripple. What was true of Scrooge inwardly is true of Tiny Tim in physical fact. Tim’s childhood is deprived by poverty (unlike Scrooge, who apparently was born into middle-class circumstances); Tim’s materially poor but emotionally rich. So Tim echoes Scrooge’s combination of poverty and wealth, but with reversed meanings. Tim has a crippled leg, and is thus set apart from other children – a different cause from Scrooge’s isolation, but a comparable result. Tim’s condition is deteriorating, and he is likely to die. Scrooge’s emotional isolation is also hardening, he also is likely to die, as the story proceeds to demonstrate.
Those implicit connections are important if Scrooge is to believably identify with Tim and take Tim’s life and death to heart as having implications for himself.
The visions of Tim’s much-mourned death and of Scrooge’s miserable end, his only attendant filching his bed-curtains and even his shroud, unmourned even by his daily associates, constitute the plainest possible case of two scenes deliberately set up to contrast with one another. They show the difference, in this case, that being a lovable and beloved person can make, as compared to being “a good man of business.”
Tiny Tim, in his way, is also Scrooge’s mirror – a contrasting one.
The whole story is full of echoes, showing many examples of harsh business callousness contrasted with gentle fellow-feeling – situation after situation, with a consistent emotional dynamic which increases in power as the story progresses.
That’s what can happen when a writer is really in control of his fiction and its patterns.
But you’re not writing about Scrooge or Marley. What can mirror characters do for your fiction?
They can highlight some central thing about a main character you want to bring out, as Scrooge’s mirrors focus attention on the conflict between materialistic selfishness, however socially acceptable, and emotional involvement with others, however profitless. Is there some one trait of your protagonist you want to make plain in a way that’s showing rather than telling? Then set up a mirror character who shares that trait in even more visible form and let the reader draw his own conclusions.
Is there something about the protagonist’s present circumstances that’s specially helpful or destructive? Then show somebody more or less comparable, but even more able (or more desperate) being helped/destroyed by it. That will underline the threat or hope as it relates to the protagonist. In the very simplest terms, sidekicks get bumped off right and left in detective fiction so that the author can maintain a sense of threat without ever having to really kill off his detective. (Doyle killed off Holmes, but only because he was sick of that insufferable know-it-all, and he was sorry afterward and wrote him back to life.)
What you can’t afford to do to your protagonist, you can do to the mirror characters in fiction for just that reason. Like Marley, they can very suddenly become “dead as a doornail” or, like the foolish younger sister in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, they can marry most unsuitably to show the protagonist the way to a better, wiser choice.
If you don’t want to go into your protagonist’s background, or want to keep some other element of the protagonist’s life a secret, set up a mirror who’s explained in more detail and again let the resemblance carry its own implications.
Things you let readers figure out for themselves are sometimes more powerful than those you spell out in so many words.
We’ve already discovered several examples of plots which are parallel, in whole or in part. In addition to The Empire Strikes Back, I’ve talked at least a little about Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (which splits awkwardly in two, between the Amelia Sedley plot and the Becky Sharp plot) and Wuthering Heights, with its parallel love stories involving Catherine and Cathy, the wild older generation and the tamer, younger one.
Developing two independent main plot lines takes quite a lot of narrative space; it’s mostly done in long – and I do mean long – fiction. Family sagas provide more than a few instances. For instance, Steinbeck’s massive East of Eden involves two stories of conflict between sets of brothers over a single, wicked woman. In the first, one brother eventually marries the woman and fathers the two sons who are the protagonists of the book’s second half, with the wicked mother as a pivotal figure if no longer the romantic interest. This book was arguably improved for the movie version by cutting the entire first half.
A contrasting and generally more successful technique is shown by Stephen King’s It. Like East of Eden, it has a double plot line, one past, one present, basically concerning the same characters and the same situation. In one plot, the protagonists are children; in the other they’ve become adults. The stories are intercut – the narrative line switches back and forth between them, rather than handling them in sequence, one after the other. That helps maintain the whole novel’s unity. Both stories rise to generally similar climaxes near the book’s end.
So it’s not just space that’s required: quite a lot of narrative muscle and control is needed, too, to bring off so complex a plot structure successfully without the book’s breaking in half. Double stories that run concurrently or through alternating flashback narration tend to be easier to handle than those that run in sequence, one after the other with no intercutting. It’s easier to build in connections and convergences among people and events existing in the same fictional time – both present at any given section of the story, even though in alternation – than when one set is dead and gone and over before the other set takes up.
The plots must be very carefully balanced to keep one from taking over and making the other seem weak and boring by comparison. Pacing has to be very carefully handled so one plot doesn’t get lost while you’re dealing with the other. Connections between the two plots have to be riveted in brass, using every kind of echo and mirror I’ve described in this Chapter, and likely others nobody has even thought of yet, to keep the two plot lines from splitting the story completely apart.
If you intend to embark on a double, fully-mirroring plot line, remember these techniques of compensating – they may help.
Watch The Empire Strikes Back a few more times. Read Wuthering Heights or The Lord of the Rings. (Speak about parallel plot structures! It’s got at least three, maybe four!) See how ambitious and able authors have kept strong, complex stories together with carefully chosen and positioned repetitions of scenes, people, and even whole plots.
BEYOND FORMULA AND INTO LITERATURE
There’s another advantage of looking hard into your story’s heart and bones to create mirrors and echoes based on what’s gone before. It can help you use but transcend formula, if you’re working in one of the genres with a fairly rigid and restrictive set of rules about how stories can acceptably be shaped. Detective/mystery fiction is one; gothic and romance fiction are others. Gothic, for instance, absolutely requires a female protagonist menaced/wooed by a dominating male. Yet within this restriction, wonderful and individual fiction has been written. The same is true of the other formulaic genres.
Finally, formulas are only as limiting as you let them be. There are few formats as rigid as sonnet form, but great diversity is possible within it.
You don’t (and shouldn’t) violate or ignore the formulas – not if you intend your work to be published. Instead, fulfil and go beyond them, making your stories uniquely themselves.
One way to seek and create that specialness is to look to your story itself, stage by stage, for its shape, its proper development. Use it as your crystal ball, to see the shapes of what’s to come. Make your story grow from what it, in part, already is. Then no matter what restrictions you’re working within, your story can’t possibly turn out to be like a hundred others.
Look in. Also look out – to the world of literature, myth, and legend. Many stories are structured as quest/adventures. That too is a kind of formula, even if it’s one you choose. Other stories hark back to the classics – West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet, for instance – and embody their essential truths in new flesh, new events. Other stories draw on myth and religion – the Greek story of Pygmalion is the foundation of My Fair Lady; Paradise Lost and East of Eden draw on Biblical sources. John Cheever’s “Metamorphoses” translates legends from Ovid into Westchester settings. The travels of Odysseus are one foundation of Joyce’s Ulysses, with specific events and characters reappearing in fresh guises. But I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Ulysses referred to as “formula fiction.”
Sometimes what’s mirrored in your story won’t only be what’s in it: you may, like Joyce, choose some external source as the formula to honour in the way your fiction is constructed. For instance, I patterned a science fiction novel concerning a husband’s attempts to revive a dead wife on the myth of Orpheus’ attempt to rescue Eurydice from the underworld, which seemed to me a natural connection that might give my imagined world greater power, significance, and emotional depth. If readers notice the implicit connections, fine; if they don’t, still fine: the “Orpheus formula” had already done its job in guiding and helping me in making tough narrative choices as the book was written. Such a formula isn’t a code to be broken but a set of guidelines, a shape to reflect in a new mirror.
Formula, choosing or accepting some external guidelines for the shape or content of fiction, has been the basis of everything from the worst hokey imitative junk to the finest and most subtle literature. It’s all a matter of technique, insight, and craft. The formulas are all there for you to breathe fresh life into, if you choose.
Learn to recognize your hidden, implicit fictional promises and do your best to keep them. Look hard and long into your mirrors, and fulfil and reinforce the recurrences you see there. Because in them, you can begin discovering the power beyond plot: pattern.