Linear Vs. Patterned: A Brief Discussion of Structure

I just listened to Lani/Lucy and Alastair’s podcast on Out of Sight, one of my all time favorite movies and now one of theirs. But we differ radically on how we read the movie, which I pointed out in the comments and then realized that saying, “This is not a fragmented structure, this is a patterned structure” was probably not helpful unless I defined my terms in discussing structure. So this is the Crusie Theory of Structure, not necessarily anybody else’s theory of structure.

The important thing about structure in storytelling is that you have one. It doesn’t really matter what plan you choose, just have a damn plan. Any plan. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote a short story of twenty-six sentences in which the first sentence began with “A,” the second sentence began with “B” . . . I know this because Ron Carlson talked to her about it and then assigned it to me as a writing exercise, at which point I discovered that structure can be an amazing, fluid thing. There are limitless possibilities for structuring a story, which is where the trouble starts.

The problem in choosing a structure is that you have understand the story you’re telling because structure has meaning. If you use the wrong structure to tell your story, you distort its meaning. Case in point: Out of Sight. For those of you who have seen this film (and if you haven’t, go see it right now), imagine rearranging the scenes in chronological order. See? It’s a different movie with a different, weaker, much less interesting focus. On the other hand, Pulp Fiction was followed by several movies told in fragmented structure that were knee-capped by not being told chronologically. Generally speaking, chronological, linear plotting is the writer’s friend because viewers and readers are used to it. But if your story wants to be something other than the unfolding of events, you need to listen to it. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to stick to linear and patterned structures, but really, you can do anything you damn well want as long as your story consents.

Linear structure is as old as Aristotle (and he’s old, isn’t he, Bruce?). [Sorry, couldn’t resist. It’s one of our go-to movie quotes, from His Girl Friday.] I’d say older, but a lot of the really old stories are more picaro than focused linear, and I don’t want to get into that. Why is linear structure so old and so ingrained? Because it reflects the male life experience. It begins with the birth of an idea/event/problem/struggle, rises through the ranks accumulating power and tension, and then achieves the climax of its path/career, after which it retires. You may also notice that that’s the trajectory of the male sexual experience. People tell stories that reflect their experiences and for a long time, patriarchal power was so entrenched that acknowledged storytellers were predominantly male.

But of course back in the kitchen, women were telling stories, too. The difference was, they were telling patterned stories, stories that emphasized detail and repetition, that built up meaning through the relationships of events, recurring climaxes that achieved meaning through their juxtaposition with each other. That structure replicated their traditional lives of doing the same thing each day, over and over, so that detail and subtle change took on huge meaning because of the repetition. Each day was its own story, part of a bigger story formed by the pattern of those days. And if you really look at that, it’s the female sexual experience. (You guys think we can’t focus? That’s why we have multiple climaxes, suckers.)

The next part of this is sexist because it implies that men tell stories one way and women another and that’s clearly wrong. Scott Frank (writer) and Steven Soderburg (director) did a masterful job of telling a patterned story, and women writers have been telling razor-sharp linear stories for centuries. But for the purpose of this argument, let’s stick with the male-vs.-female bit for a while.

So imagine a man coming home to his wife and saying, “I saw John today. He’s getting married.” After which his wife asks who John’s getting married to, how they met, how he looked when he talked about her, when the wedding is, how her mother feels about it, how his mother feels about it, how John’s ex-wife feels about it . . . The husband can probably tell her who John’s getting married to, but after that he just thinks she’s crazy: he gave her the important info, what’s her problem? She thinks he’s hopeless: he’s left out all the stuff that matters.

Or if you will, a man tries to tell a woman a joke.

Man: “This traveling salesman meets this farmer’s daughter . . . ”
Woman: “How old is she?”
Man: “What difference does it make?”
Woman: “Is she sixteen and innocent or forty and jaded?”
Man: “I don’t know. She’s . . . twenty.”
Woman: “What’s he selling?”
Man: “How the hell should I know what he’s selling?”
Woman: “Is he selling pots and pans or condoms?”
Man: “Can I just tell this story?”
Woman: “Evidently not. You don’t know the important stuff.”

Meanwhile, when a woman tries to tell a joke, she has a hell of a time because most jokes only work if they’re told in a strict linear fashion. You tell a joke out of order, there’s no joke. I make speeches all the time, I tell jokes all the time, and it’s HELL because I desperately want to embroider the story with details and character; the joke just wants to get to the punch line.

And that’s what a linear plot wants to do, it wants to get to the punch line, the big obligatory scene, the climax, after which it rolls over and has a cigarette in the denouement. A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads to D . . . It’s chronological, it is above all logical, and the build to the great climax leaves the listener/reader/viewer satisfied. It’s also the way 95% of modern stories are told, so it’s your safest bet.

However, sometimes your story isn’t about what happens next. Sometimes it’s about the pattern of events, the accumulation of small crises, the juxtaposition of character reactions, the layering of behaviors that make a character deeper and more faceted and the release of the information about that layering in juxtaposition with other characters (how her mother feels about it, how his mother feels about it, how his ex-wife feels about it). It’s not the cause and effect that matters, it’s the pattern.

A brilliant example of this is Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies,” which begins as a woman talks about listening to her co-workers talking about rape fantasies at lunch and then begins to tell about her rape fantasies, although not to her friends, that lunch is over. She tells the short (and very funny) stories without escalating in any way, they’re just fantasies that have no cause-and-effect relationship to each other, they don’t lead to each other, they just exist, stories she pulls off the shelf of her imagination and retells to comfort herself. It’s only when you see the pattern among the stories that you begin to understand who this woman is, what she desperately wants (fantasizes about). And then Atwood delivers a knock-out of an ending that makes you look at all of the stories as a whole. That story cannot be told in chronological order; it requires patterned structure.

So in a patterned novel or film (damn hard to pull off), you need to construct pieces that are complete in and of themselves, scene sequences that form complete stories, and then juxtapose them with other pieces to make a pattern so that at the end, the pattern is the meaning of the story. Think of the scene sequences as quilt blocks, beautiful on their own, and the story as the finished quilt in which the blocks disappear when it’s finished to form a patterned whole. The blocks are beautiful, but it’s the quilt as a whole that’s the finished design.

So if you put Out of Sight in chronological order, it’s the story of a charming but hapless bank robber, a trickster who gets caught three times because of the people he cares for. And, I think, you’d get a little impatient with Jack for not being smarter about people; if you’re going to be a top-notch bank robber, you need to be ruthless. C’mon, Jack, get it together.

But that’s not Jack’s story. Jack is a trickster with a problem: he likes people so he’s loyal to them. Big flaw in a trickster who has to stand above the action while manipulating reality. Jack’s a genius at shifting reality, but then he connects to people and it all goes to hell. So Jack’s story is a pattern of events where he shifts reality brilliantly and then has reality shifted back on him by people he cares about; his struggle is that the two halves of his nature–trickster and caretaker–are at war with each other. Even so, he’s doing pretty good until he meet Karen. Karen’s problem is that she’s a born trickster, her instincts are to move outside the law, but her daddy is a lawman, and she wants to please her daddy (who, to be fair, adores her and is a great father) so now she’s a marshall out to get Jack. And her story is now a pattern of events where her two sides–trickster and lawkeeper–are at war with each other. Either story is interesting by itself, but when the two stories are placed in juxtaposition with each other, they’re both intensified, not just because Jack and Karen fall in love, but because they fall in love with the thing in each other they’re fighting every day. Their love story becomes part of the pattern of their main story, Jack’s attempts to escape and Karen’s attempts to bring him in. That description sounds boring, but as patterned plot of two tricksters in an intricate dance, it’s fantastic. Then add the quilt blocks of the supporting cast–Snoop the genial psychotic, Buddy the honest crook, Ripley the cowardly man of power, Glenn the innocent murderer–and you have a pattern of stress and paradox, each piece increasing the tension in the next. You can’t tell that story in chronological order because what happens next isn’t important. It’s what happens when you put this scene sequence next to that sequence, the pattern that forms when the quilt blocks of scenes are sewn together.

Needless to say, patterned structures are a bitch to make work, particularly in long form. The story has to really need that structure to pull it off. But when it works, it’s amazing. How amazing? Watch this patterned, detailed love scene sequence between two tricksters. Then imagine it done in two separate chronological sequences. The patterned version is about character, about relationship, about fantasy and connection and desire; the linear version would be about a pick-up in a bar followed by sex. Nothing wrong with that second one, it’s just not the way this story needs to be told.

Structure isn’t just a way to tell a story, it gives meaning to the story, it informs and intensifies the story, it says “This is what is important here, this is what you need to pay attention to.” Most of the time, most stories need linear structure, but when a story says, “I don’t care what happens next, I care what these things together mean,” you’re looking at a patterned structure.

112 thoughts on “Linear Vs. Patterned: A Brief Discussion of Structure

  1. No serious, Julie’s right. That sound you hear is palms smacking foreheads: “Oh, now I get it.”

    This is like the time where you said that what Character A says about Character B says as much or more about Character A than B. The story’s structure is a multidimensional tool.

    Thanks for that “wow I coulda had a V-8” moment this morning.

  2. So thats why I can’t tell jokes.

    It also explains why a man was able to inform me that some of our friends had broken up, but not tell me why because he hadn’t asked any questions. How can you not be interested in why? Thats the first thing I’d ask anyone when they say they’re breaking up!

  3. Could you link to the podcast please? I’ve read your article, watched the youtube link and now I’m really curious about the podcast discussion. My mind it is a turning and churning and looking for more input.

    Thanks for the insightful post.

    1. Popcorn Dialogues

      It’s Alastair and Lucy/Lani talking about it. Alastair, I think, is trying to analyze it as a linear plot because he talks about prologue, flashback, climax, denouement, all aspects of linear plot. And that scene with Ray that he and Lucy both think is irrelevant is crucial to the pattern but would be irrelevant to a linear plot. OTOH, they did the podcast when I plotzed on them, so props to them.

  4. Great piece and aspects of storytelling I hadn’t put a name to until today. And yes, it sounds incredibly difficult to do well.

    1. It’s really difficult. Every time I’ve tried it, I’ve ended up doing linear episodic fiction which is probably the worst of both worlds. I do have an idea for a patterned novel, but my brain goes into the fetal position whenever I think about starting it and I go back to linear structure.

          1. That only gives you the ability to crush your enemies like empty soda cans, not to write in a pattern. Sheesh. It’s like you don’t even READ your astrology books!

            (This was meant to be funny. Don’t hurt me. I have Asperger’s so it wouldn’t even be the righteous slaughter of those-who-deserve-it. Plus, I am a liberal. Meep. Look over there! *runs her Pisces butt away*)

          2. Now I’m curious. What would an Aquarius with Leo (or was it Aries? one of those two fire signs) Rising write? Cuz i’m having a hell of a time trying to figure that one out. You guys could do a “writing style by zodiac” article. ๐Ÿ˜€

        1. So Fokker, does that mean I should try and write patterned structure? I’m a Gemini. I can barely write linearly (is that a word?) I can’t imagine making a pattern work.

          On the other hand I’m really good at visual patterns, so maybe I could…

        2. Fokker, that would totally explain my difficulties in trying to write a normal romance. Or a normal anything. I may have some difficulties publishing however …. (Leo rising, Aries moon; not like my charts say stubborn or anything.) Oh well, maybe I should just burn things, what with all the fire and air sign stuff. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. You know those pictures that, when you look really close, are actually made of words that have been shaded darker/lighter or out of a bunch of separate little pictures of other things? That’s how I see patterned stories … the little stories make a bigger picture. I think Maeve Binchy does this exceptionally well.

  6. “I tell jokes all the time, and itโ€™s HELL because I desperately want to embroider the story with details and character; the joke just wants to get to the punch line.” – I used to suck at telling jokes until I learned to get to the punchline but this is the first description I read that explains what I used to do (and still do but not say.)

    As for structure – its like any method of organising. It will look intidy to someone who has a different way of looking at things. I order my books by what I love to what I like. But others need a perfectly alphabetical system. But should it be alphabetical by author or by subject if non-fiction? See, its going to be different for everyone.

    Storytelling structure is not the same as neatness structure but I think I said what I meant to say.

    What I do know is your Crusie theories are awesome.

    1. I heard someone talking about joke telling – he said the only way that you can remember a joke is to remember it backwards. If you can remember the punch line and how you got there the joke works. I suppose if you remember it backwards you can figure out what to embellish at the start that won’t ruin the joke.
      My husband ebellishes and when he stops talking – it’s supposed to be a punchline and I frustrate him because I don’t laugh or I tell him I don’t get it.

    2. I’m waiting for her next phase, when she starts writing her books for writers. We’ve got plotting and conflict and character and … enough for several books and a few articles on the side!

  7. you know, i’ll come here and read the grocery list. i will. i might even comment on it if it’s one those days, because i love posts like that. i love the chat and the banter.

    and then you write a post like this that makes something that is so difficult for me to name and describe sound so clear and tangible that I want to print it out and frame it. if it wasn’t going to detract from writing us more books i’d ask for an online lecture series because this was freaking brilliant, comprehensible, and fair.

  8. I love that movie, to the point where shortly after, when I heard that Jennifer Lopez was releasing an album, I bemoaned, “What is with these talented actresses wanting to become pop stars. Why don’t they stick to the acting they’re so good at?”

    What the hell did I know?

    Clearly not much. J Lo’s done okay with that whole music career.

    1. No, I’m with you on that – I liked J Lo right up until she started ‘singing’ and she lost me. If she had Celine Dion’s voice or Adele’s voice, go ahead…but she doesn’t.

      And after she wore the infamous green dress to the Grammys, I started calling her J Ho.

  9. This is interesting because this is exactly how I write fanfiction (my guilty pleasure of choice and much like Romance, a genre with quite a few female writers). I start out with a few images jotted down. The story spreads out in both directions. I go back and layer and layer and layer and try to get a rhythm going. The scenes are short and choppy and linked by pattern and theme more than by cause and affect. I can do this in short little bursts of a couple thousand words. I’m not interested in taking the characters on a brand new adventure. I’m interested in filling in everything that you can’t get from a 45 minute TV show. More of the why, more of the emotion. The little pauses between the big moments. Also I’m interested in a lot more romance than most TV shows provide.( Shrug.) Hey, it’s my thing.
    But when I sit down and try to write even a 50,00 word novel, I’m trying to write a linear structure and I can’t see that well. Just my few images that don’t go together yet and don’t have an obvious cause and affect. But I don’t think I could pull off a patterned novel either! I think that’s what I was trying to do subconsciously why I would try to pants novels and it never worked. I never finished them.
    No one said this writing thing would be easy.

  10. I agree; I learn so much from your posts like this! And, I’m totally down with the online lecture series. Or the She Writes book. Or both, honestly.

  11. Amazing essay, truly. Thank you. Just thank you.

    I wonder if music (Jazz not Wagner– who definitely follows your male pattern linear build/collapse) is a possible entry point to patterned structure– after agreeing on key and basic melody, they all contribute their own flavor to creating the experience. The structure is known (trading fours, for instance) so the audience can nod and smile along with the players, enjoying the change-up in order and the way each player moves off the melody. It can sound disorganized at first, but the more you hear, the more that pattern becomes clear.

    Also, The Iliad has more of a jazz than a linear structure (those repeated motifs and intermittent builds with small familiar details to pull the audience back into the story– I hear he even would vary the details to include those that would be more familiar to various local audiences in order to hold their attention) so I’m wondering what happened (and thinking about Homer and Marvin Gaye, if you know what I mean.)

    1. I’ve been thinking about this comment…I get what you’re saying about the patterns. The deep knowledge jazz musicians have, and the connections they make among motifs and keys and harmonics, blows me away. One thing that makes jazz *seem* more linear to me than, say, a mosaic, is the return to the first theme statement at the end of a piece. That loop back gives me a feeling of directional movement, instead of apprehending a greater whole from seeing smaller pieces.

      OK I can’t really talk about this coherently but I am drawing pictures and gesturing like crazy. Anyway, thanks for inspiring me to think about this.

      1. It’s more circular than linear, no straight lines. I think the feeling of coming full circle is important in stories in general, the idea that when you get to the end, you see the story as a whole (no matter what structure you’ve used).

        1. I cannot cite this because I heard/read it long ago, but supposedly matrilineal cultures (and the “fabled” matriarchal) built their cities in circular patterns, rather than linear ones. I have no examples either, but the patriarchal/patrilineal ones are everywhere: think of the Atzecs and their long, long straight roads leading to a huge step-pyramid. Phallic anyone? Anyone have any examples pro or con?

          1. Thinking about circular cities… some of the old ones I’ve walked around felt circular– Jerusalem, Paris. Very subjective recollection, though. (Might have been that it was me walking in circles :D) Interesting about the Aztecs and the Egyptians created long boulevards, too. And the Great Ziggurat of Uhr has those demanding, vertical and rectilinear lines, too. An indicator of centralized power vs. looser confederacy of peers?

            I’ve been thinking about Homer, too, and the fact that if he wanted someone to know his story he’d have to personally recite it to them. It was probably never the same twice. And, what, it was recited for 400 years before it was written down. So who knows what the original was really like, or how many individuals lent their words to the rendition. The bible, too, right? What a different world that would have been. I can’t imagine my life without the movie and book quotes and personalities keeping me company, molding my thoughts. When you compare that to the centralized power of the print industry in which every single copy is the same, and millions of readers receive the exact same story, it’s such a different world experience. I guess everyone had their own stories– humans wouldn’t not have stories, right?

          2. Nope, humans would never not have stories.
            I found when I was doing my MFA work that I’d always change a story after I’d read to a group because their reactions would be so telling.

  12. Wonderful post Jenny, thank you! But now I really want to read that Joyce Carol Oates story and Google is letting me down here – do you happen to remember what it’s called?

  13. I’m amazed that a college educated woman, such as myself, can be so totally ignorant of things. I examined the Kuna to the nth degree, but I couldn’t begin to explain any kind of structure.

    Jenny your clarity of communication is awesome!

  14. You just managed to explain to me the thing I have been banging my head against for the past decade. How did you do that? I’ve read lots of writing books (LOTS!) on plotting and structure and blah blah blah. And none of them has been as clear, focused and sensible as this short essay. If I could, I would send you seven dozen roses for this essay.

  15. Thank you all very much. I love the compliments (g).
    About twenty years ago I was working on my dissertation on the impact of gender on narrative strategies. My plan was to read 100 romances (female) and 100 adventures (male) to see if the romances were more patterned and detailed than the adventures. But I stopped after I read the romances and started to write them. Never got to the adventures until about fifteen years later when I wrote three books with Bob Mayer. So this is a summary of a part of my dissertation. Good to know all that research is finally of use to somebody.

    1. Seriously, many people have great ideas; few people can explain them. Many people have great stories inside them; few master the art of sharing them. You are an excellent teacher.

  16. Great post.

    I think this blog on the whole shows your ability for patterned storytelling. Each post is complete and engaging. Yet taken in its entirety, the blog tells a much bigger story that gives each individual post all the more meaning.

    You have, after all, mastered the art of patterned storytelling. It’s just not in a novel. Yet.

  17. I haven’t seen this movie. But I will.

    You know what I got out of the video of that love scene was that it played on their memories. In a novel wouldn’t that be the internal monologue/thoughts/memories of the character? He touches her hand and thinks about how soft her skin is and flashes back to the last time they made love, and how soon he can get her back into bed. She watches his mouth as he talks and moves closer and remembers the first time they kissed, and so on. They each have their own side of the story, how they recall it happening. In a movie you can’t show the characters internal monologue so you do that patterned structure to make the characters thoughts known to the audience, like a montage, instead of doing a complete flashback scene.

    But in a novel, especially a romance, it’s already there, isn’t it? Or am I crazy in thinking that? I have been called crazy before. : )

    1. Those aren’t flashbacks. When they meet in the bar they’ve never kissed or made love. They meet in the bar and then they go up to her room, but instead of playing it chronologically, it’s structured as a pattern.

      1. I haven’t seen the movie. But they were so intimately involved, I’d assumed they’d made love some time in the past. My bad.

        But once they get to her room, aren’t they mini flashbacks to their time in the bar? Their conversation in the bar? It’s almost like the writer foreshadows the love scene with the bar scene, then takes us to the room, then flashes back to the bar scene with remembered snippets of conversation as they’re talking, undressing, and all of that builds toward the final love scene.

        Whatever it is, I like the structure, it’s more interesting than a linear structure because as the viewer I’m more connected with the characters. I should stop talking and just see the film and then analyze it. Hah.

        1. You can’t flashback if there’s no “back.” The movie isn’t told in chronological order, it’s told in patterns.

  18. The story I’m going to be working on this summer is patterned. At least, that’s the way it seems to have to be told. I have no idea if it will work or not, but I’m going to be giving it a good shot. (Actually, I think I really lean towards the patterned structure, but doing it WELL is a different matter!)

    Thanks for the info about the movie. I like Clooney, anyway, so I’ll be watching it.

    It does make it hard for analysis, though, doesn’t it, when we’re so well-versed in one kind of structure (linear) and we encounter something else? It makes the “something else” seem broken, even when it isn’t.

  19. Do you know what Jenny Crusie is brilliant at? I mean besides writing fiction? Explaining things.

  20. You’re talking about Fractals and the Fibonacci Ratio here, genius lady.(I think.) I only have a glimmering of a glimmering about them but they are a fundamental part of all art, nature, science human behaviour and the universe.
    It’s a mathematical (don’t go away–you don’t have to understand it, just admire it) model of patterns that underly everything. A preschooler level explanation (to which I aspire) is that whole form replicates its parts in a pattern. ie smaller patterns make up a larger version.The only example I can ever hang on to is the way ferns and snowflakes have the same form at a micro level as at a large. If you’re interested, try

      1. Pretty much. My favorite example is shorelines. Their structures look similar at all scales. The story/image/structure of an inch of coastline relates to a mile of coastline relates to a thousand miles of coastline. Keep zooming in with google earth and you can see it too.

  21. Yes. You–or one of the other commenters –said something about small stories making part of a bigger picture–and I’d already started down the fractal/fibonacci path with your fascinating description of female story structure reflecting female linguistic behaviour so I hied me off to google to make sure. I can barely do my budget without taking my shoes off, but I find the whole idea almost too big to encompass in its wonderfullness. (I’m a simple soul.) And I can’t see any reason why female language/story telling shouldn’t follow the same pattern as the rest of the universe.
    Amazing stuff, J.C

  22. You’re a genius, Jen.

    I’ve often thought the difference between masculine and feminine storytelling is the focus on the what rather than the why. I think the argument can be made that patterned storytelling reflects that difference, in that it prioritises the latter over the former.

    With that in mind, I’m not at all sure what I think of Out Of Sight. We’re dealing with a patterned structure, certainly, but it’s also — if memory serves — strictly linear in its third act. That might be part of my problem with the structure; as I mentioned in the podcast, I expected a final twist of the structural knife, a final piece of puzzle that forces us to recast not only the “heist”, but all that has gone before. It feels, to me, that the patterned structure resolves — or collapses — into a linear structure which still carries the depth and weight of what went before, but fails to build upon it. I’m not talking about giving the audience its Happy Ever After, just a final note that changes our perspective on the last act. That’s not to take anything away from the movie; it’s a hell of an accomplishment, any way you slice it, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s somewhat incomplete.

    The failing, of course, could be entirely mine. I certainly need to watch it again; if anyone would like to join me in a follow-up PopD chat, let me know!

  23. Jenny, in light of the (clever!) links you’ve drawn between gender and storytelling modes here, I think it’s important to point out that the crucial and brilliant intercutting that makes this scene so spectacular was the contribution of the film’s female editor, the great Anne Coates. Here’s an excerpt from an article reporting on an Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences event where she discussed her role in the development of the scene:

    Coates began the evening showing a rough cut of a romantic scene from โ€œOut of Sight,โ€ for which Coates received an Oscar nomination. The scene was cut in the order it appeared in the script. This clip was followed by the final cut, that took two different scenes and intertwined them. Coates explained when she observed the audio from the two scenes, she noticed how the audio from the later scene provided extra sexual tension between the characters when introduced into the preceding scene. After watching the clip, director Steven Soderbergh loved the dynamic provided in the mixed edit, and encouraged Coates to continue. Coates defined her experimentation as a way the editor “can shape the outcome of the final film.”

    (source: Notice that the reporter got confused about the sequence of scenes in the movie (e.g., “audio from the later scene” should read “audio from the earlier scene”)!

    So in this case, the beautiful patterning of this scene was in fact the work of a female storyteller.

    I wonder how the collaboration between the key creative parties involved (Soderbergh, Coates, Scott — and then also Elmore Leonard who wrote the source novel) plays into the relative linearity/patternedness of the movie as a whole, and how each party’s contribution might relate to “male-type” or “female-type”* storytelling trends in their larger body of work. Any film studies/feminist lit polymaths out there? Sounds like a fascinating topic for a paper (if nobody’s written it already). ๐Ÿ™‚

    * scare quotes because I’m using these terms as Jenny did, for argument’s sake, not because I think all-(real)-men-do-it-this-way or any such nonsense

    1. Yeah, we have to be careful about gender stereotyping because of course men can do patterned structure and women can do linear. But there is a difference in the way men and women think because our brains are structured differently so there is a definite gender impact.
      That’s great info about Anne Coates, too. If you want more evidence of male/female storytelling, look at the novel Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher (patterned) and the movie made from it by Mike Nichols (linear). I liked both a lot, but one is very male and focused and one is very female and seemingly scattered.

    2. Ah. Thank you! Such a great concrete example of the influence an editor can have on a movie. It was such a mesmerizing, intimate, believable sex scene this way– it wouldn’t have had half the impact done sequentially. I looked her up on IMDB, and wow, what a life. So many great movies.

      Incidentally, a well-edited movie that I think used some of these techniques (the interlacing of immediate past and present to heighten emotion– in this case bewilderment, shock, panic, fear) is The Fugitive. It’s used twice in the movie, the instigating incident and the denouement and it makes you completely understand exactly what the protagonist is feeling. It must be so satisfying and challenging to be in the editors chair– the power, mwahahaha.

  24. So, would The Time Traveller’s Wife be patterned, then? Actually, IIRC, the story is told chronologically according to one character, but because of the nature of time traveller, the other character is seeing bits and pieces of things that will/have been/willhavebeen important. So it’s a hybrid.

    I can’t even begin to understand how one writes like that. It all seems so random, and then you suddenly look at it, and it’s . . . Wow. a brilliant whole. But that kind of writing does take quite an investment to read. You have to remember what you’ve already read, and I don’t think you can take too long to read it, or you’ve forgotten important bits.

    That’s one thing about a lot of writing — it fits into some Grand Meta Narrative, and even if you miss the first 10 minutes of the TV drama, you quickly pick up what’s come before, because you’ve heard this Story before . . . not with the same characters, but maybe the same Characters.

    Is there some sort of exercise a teacher would put forth for students to practice patterned writing? I wouldn’t mind giving it a try . . . .

    1. Haven’t read The Time Traveller’s Wife. (I know, I’m the only one who hasn’t.)

      The easiest way I know to teach it is to use analogies like the quilt. Each piece of the story is a quilt block, important on its own, that disappears into the larger quilt of the novel. After that, you’re on your own because you can pattern any way you want.

        1. Re: Time Traveller’s Wife: I was very leery of it, but I like time travel stories, and a friend recommended it, and it was Very Nice. Not hoity-toity, and I had no trouble following the two chronologies — a little temporal disorientation, but it was a good read.

          I’m feeling very dense about this whole patterned thing. I know about TEXTURE — for example, if you’re reading Georgette Heyer, you are getting food, and accent, and clothes, and buggies and all sorts of rich layers to the story that provides hints, but the story itself moves in a linear fashion for the most part.

          But a pattern has got to have a pattern; otherwise it’s a gloppy mess. What do you do? Put a sad bit first, then the happy bit, then a sad bit, then a happy bit? Or all the parts with babies go in the first part, and then you mix in a little old person, then some middle-agers? Or all the outdoor scenes with rivers together?

          I’m going to play a rather inept devil’s advocate here, and suggest that maybe it’s not an ancient pattern, but something very new that is coming up. My kid doing her homework has the TV on, and may be reading a comic book on the side. When I read through an article on the internet, I can be listening to YouTube, and clicking on links and finding out what words mean as I do it. Maybe we’re more able to do something that deals with various impressions, and it’s the artist’s job to make all these impressions actually have links with each other?

          I feel like I’m looking at a very interesting concept that’s on the other side of a busy street, or a dark glass, and I just can’t *see* it.

          Maybe I’ll have to see Out of Sight . . . the clip just left me very confused (and YouTube was pausing and skipping bits, too, which made it even more surreal). Or wait, is Lost in Translation a movie that uses patterns to tell the story? Pulp Fiction is for sure, right? But I haven’t the stomach to watch Pulp Fiction again . . . .

          Sorry to be a bother about this . . . .

          1. The theory is that it’s a female thing. To put it way too simply, men’s brains are wired so that they focus on one thing, women’s brains are wired for multi-tasking. Men’s brains are wired to pursue something to the end (hunting). Women’s brains are wired to notice detail and repetition (gathering). Men’s brains are wired for cause and effect (defense); women’s brains are wired for synthesizing details and small movements (nurturing). That’s a gross over-simplification, of course. Think of it this way: You go to your dad who’s working on the computer and you say, “Where are my socks?” And he says, “Wait a minute,” finishes what he’s doing, turns around to you, and says, “What?” He can only handle one task at a time, but he does that task well because his focus is total. Now you go ask your mother who’s cooking with the radio on and talk to her best friend on the phone, and you say, “Where’s my socks?” and she says, without missing a beat, “Your clean socks are in your drawer, but your Tardis socks are under your bed.” She can handle many things at once, but she doesn’t have the focused concentration that your dad does. I think those lines are blurring a lot, but the theory is that eons of division of labor in gender roles shaped our brains that way, and I see evidence of it all the time. There a hundred things that can change that so that you have multi-tasking men and single-minded women, but if you’re looking for a generalization about the way the male and female brains work, there you go.

            Patterned structure is anything that makes a pattern. Four wedding stories. Three tries at something. Four women with problems. Five stores about one woman, each story about a different man. Three bank robberies. The long the story, the more difficult the pattern, but a pattern is something with elements that repeat that are placed in juxtaposition with each other, and that juxtaposition creates meaning, changing the elements into a new whole with a new meaning.

            Yeah, it’s difficult.

  25. I’ve been reading this blog for a while and thought about posting a lot, but never quite got round to it. For me this post wasn’t so much a palm hitting head slap more of a giant floodlight illuminating something important.

  26. So when you pen “Jennifer Crusie’s Guide to Writing, Life, & Daschunds”, this is going to be a whole chapter, right? Because this was the most brilliant, coherent thing I’ve ever read about structure and I’d love to get more.

  27. Stuff like this gets me thinking of things I’ve written or tried to write. Three of my pieces come to mind as maybe wanting to be patterned: my failed romance novel that is mouldering on my Mac, a short story that i had half-written as a patterned piece without realizing it and could go back to fix it maybe or just rewrite, and a fairly juvenile and dramatic long story I wrote in college because I keep seeing that story in my mind and it’s overlain with day to day scenes that seem to build. Jenny: you kick-started my brain!

  28. Reading this post reminded me of something I noticed about the books you wrote with Bob Mayer. The scenes that were about the female characters felt “full” or “dense”, almost like moving through water. There is so much going on besides the story. The male scenes feel “hollow” – just a lone guy with his big gun stalking someone through the swamp/forest/underground passages. The scenery is still there, but the fullness disappears. Of course, stalking is a quiet activity. Once I started looking for it, the difference between the fullness/density/chatter and the silence/hollowness is very distinct.
    My long-term favorite books are all full of fullness. I can read them over and over and there is always something new to think about in them. Even the ones that I have read so many times that I practically have them memorized. These books are my old friends.

    1. Everything I speculated on in my diss proposal was proven true when I wrote with Bob. His strengths were my weakness and his weaknesses were my strengths. We broke exactly along gender lines.

      1. Hm, arguably because you were both raised in a time in our culture when society was still operating under the typical gender roles of male hunters and female gatherers? Or just the fact that Bob comes from the military and military people couldn’t really be patterned-type thinkers and still be efficient killing machines. I mean, Special Forces should really just have giant tattoos that say HUNTER, right?

        1. Pretty much. I think our upbringings definitely emphasized traditional gender roles and then we went into careers that further emphasized them, him into the military and me into teaching (starting in pre-school and elementary). The struggles we had writing together were always really interesting. We never fought about writing although we’d get exasperated with each other, and then the longer we wrote together, the more we recognized each other’s patterns. Bob always wanted to go global; he’d send his characters all over the world, trying to get the picture. I always wanted to go local; my characters would stay in one place and learn the details. The obvious example of this is Agnes and the Hitman: Agnes never leaves her house and yard; Shane goes all over the place. The biggest argument we had about Wild Ride is that he wanted Shane to leave the park; I finally talked him into keeping him inside the park by arguing the unities. Even so, Shane starts his story outside the park and comes in. Mab is in the park and never leaves. Shane patrols the entire park and explores all of it. Mab focuses on whatever detail of it she’s working on. It was ludicrous how strongly we broke along gender lines.

  29. It’s like “(500) Days of Summer”. Had that been told chronologically, it wouldn’t have been as good or as powerful a story.

  30. This was a great, great explanation of structure. Thank you for sharing. I am working on a dissertation and now I desperately want to relate the patterns of my study to multiple orgasms… I don’t think my committee will approve, but it sure as hell sounds like fun.

    1. Lol. One day, time permitting (and I know how busy you are so, no pressure), I need you to write that proposal. I *need* to read it.

  31. The Bible is written in patterns, btw. That’s the purpose of all the “begats” in Genesis – to create structure. Or, if you look at Genesis 19 (Sodom) and Judges 19 (the murdered concubine), you’ll see entire phrases copied over – it’s the same pattern. And then the similarities highlight the differences. (At least in the original, I can’t speak for the translation you might be using)

    1. I think this is what one would expect in the Bible for two major reasons (and probably others): (1) it is a multi-authored and multi-edited compilation and (2) repetition plays a very specific poetic role in Hebrew. However, this is way beyond my academic competence, so I shall say no more.

      1. Repetition plays a role in oral storytelling, too. I think that’s where a lot of it comes from but it’s just as effective in written.

  32. Jenny, your analysis is very appealing, and I think it has applications that go way beyond storytelling. As it happens, an intriguingly parallel discussion has just been taking place on another forum that I frequent. Arising from a comment from one contributor contrasting the tendency for American towns and suburbs to be laid out on a regular grid, as opposed to the ‘disordered’ pattern of streets in many European cities, I leapt to the defence of our town-planning on several fronts. He wasn’t actually being rude or dismissive, but I feel that the contrast was not between order and chaos, but between two different kinds of order: simplicity and (yes) linearity, as opposed to complexity and multi-layered patterning. There is no clear masculine/feminine dichotomy here though (although to be fair, the dispersal of Hippodamian town-planning throughout Europe in Antiquity was linked with the Roman Empire, itself a very masculine, military, goal-oriented organisation, and its popularity in the USA depends in great part on the legacy of the Enlightenment and neo-Classicism). Rather, the basic differences stem from sheer age and change and the exigencies of geology and topography. The Hippodamian ideal (towns planned on a grid) consists of single-minded human purpose imposed upon the landscape, while the prehistoric and medieval approach to settlement was derived from the landscape and tended to grow organically, in all directions, not without an objective, but without a single objective. Textured as all get out.

    My first post on the topic was pretty long, so I won’t take up space quoting it here, but if anyone is at all interested, go to this thread on Dictionary com:,
    and scroll through to where the town-planning discussion starts at post no. 27.

    (And if you feel like some really terrific old-fashioned rock music as well, go back to the YouTube link in my post no. 16, the Catalan band Sopa de Cabra, who are/were awesome, and make me wonder if I should try to learn Catalan). I digress. We digress a lot on Dictionary com. Here too. No wonder I love both these forums.

    1. Your commenter is wrong about American towns anyway. Once you hit older, small towns, they pretty much grew any which way, depending on where the next farm was and what the geography was.

      1. That’s true, but it was all in very general terms. Any kind of strict grid layout over a fairly extensive area is comparatively rare in Europe, to the extent that ‘a block’ doesn’t have much meaning for us. You need to design the settlement from scratch, and have a flattish terrain on which to do it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  33. And of course, digression is part of what we are talking about. Connections, layers, and sometimes unexpected directions.
    One of the things I enjoy about the kind of writing I do, even the most sternly academic, is that I use a strictly ‘masculine’ traditional underlying structure — and have fun using it — but I still subvert it regularly with ‘feminine’ speculations and multiple possible interpretations.

    This actually takes one to the Effects of Feminism on Academic Writing. When I was first writing for publication in the 1960s, I was obliged to write things like, ‘it seems probable that…’ ; now I (and male scholars, too) are allowed, indeed encouraged, to say things like ‘in my opinion…’. The scholar is permitted to emerge as a person, an individual with views and opinions, which may be right or wrong. And paradoxically, this allows the reader to judge subjectivity/objectivity much more easily than in the days of masculine pseudo-objectivity, when personal opinion was presented as received fact.

    1. When I did my general exams, one of the profs asked the others on the committee if they could pass given my non-academic writing style. The others said yes, so she went with it, but I always thought that was odd, that she’d judge the quality of my work by style and not content.

      1. “I always thought that was odd, that sheโ€™d judge the quality of my work by style and not content”.

        I think that’s odd, too. Personally, I think I would be inclined to give extra marks to any student who wrote in a distinctive, unselfconscious, personal style, rather than trying to ape what they imagined to be the accepted academic norm. The very worst academic writing is usually perpetrated by young people who think that it is style that matters rather than content, and very often they have nothing of any interest to say.

  34. Sorry about typo. Checked it twice, didn’t see misspelling of ‘academic’. Hah!

      1. Thank you! ๐Ÿ˜€

        I do think it is interesting how the issues you have raised can be considered in many contexts other than storytelling (and everyday living). I need to think about it in relation to the visual arts. (Why haven’t I done so already, I ask myself?)

        Another point that occurs to me — by no means a new insight, of course, because it has been extensively studied in relation to spoken language and communication — is that the traditional position of women as well as their own multi-tasking skills may make it easier for them to be ‘bilingual’ in masculine and feminine approaches than it is for many males to function in both masculine and feminine modes.

        I think there is still so much to understand about these matters. Even as a complete dilettante, I can see what a lot needs to be studied. The issues of verbal, visual and abstract thinking are intimately connected, and they actually cut across the masculine/feminine and also the linear/patterned modes. It’s one of those classifications that needs a three-dimensional grid even to approach it.

        There is material for multiple dissertations here.

        1. Visual art: One of the things that came up in my research is that patchwork quilt is the only intrinsically female form of art. I think that’s a little dicey since pieced work goes back to early African cultures and wasn’t necessarily all female, but the patterned, use-up-your-scraps block quilt was pretty much entirely female for a long time.

          Bi-lingual: The sociological idea of The Other reflects that. There is one ruling group in a society and the rest of the groups are the Other(s). So read that as women, children, people of color, etc. The Other always knows both her own world and the world of the One, whereas the One only needs to know his own group to function. For a long while in this country that was white males (and if you look at government, it’s STILL white males). The theory of the uni-lingual One explains why so many politicians are so completely tone deaf in their dealings with the public. They literally cannot translate what the rest of the world is saying to them because in their world, what they’re doing makes perfect sense. It also helps explain why there’s always such backlash against the advance of The Other: even The Other was born in the same country, to the One they’re immigrants, speaking a different language. That’s where you get all those people saying, “I want my country back” as if it’s been over-run by non-Americans, stolen by foreign-speakers. The people who “took” that country are all Americans, too, they’re just not part of that ruling group.

          I used to be an academic. I can do this for days. Fortunately, I’m up to my ass in alligators here, so I won’t. (“Up to my ass in alligators” is an academic term.)

  35. I think the question of the visual arts gets tangled up in the art-versus-craft problem as well as the male-versus-female one, and I think the quilt classification is a bit of a red herring. Art created by females has tended in the past to be functional (because they are less likely to have the leisure time available to make something that looks nice but doesn’t do anything obviously useful), and functional art has often been downgraded with terms like ‘the minor arts’, ‘the decorative arts’ as opposed to ‘fine arts’ — paintings and sculpture. ‘Crafts’, like working with textiles and fibres (let alone food!), are put even lower on the scale of creativity. Even male artists who make gold jewellery, silver tableware, ceramic vessels, have not been regarded in the same light as painters and sculptors in modern Western art-historical terms till very recently. This was not the case in antiquity, where all artisans, everyone who made beautiful things with their hands, were at least placed in the same social class, whether they painted pictures or made artefacts, and admired according to their degree of skill and competence.

    Our whole modern art-historical classification is completely up the spout, and needs to be sorted out before one can begin to analyse some of the male/female issues within it.

    Yes, the One and the Other actually does explain an awful lot, and it works in all gregarious species, not just humans, shown by the caution and often aggression exhibited by animals towards interlopers or those that are different from themselves in certain ways, as well as the more detailed hierarchical structuring within communities. I always go on the basis that if some sociological explanation applies broadly to dogs too, it’s probably right, because human communities are extraordinarily similar in their workings to canine packs. Which is also a reason why dogs domestcated us perhaps as long ago as 100,000 years (and certainly at least 14,000 years), far, far longer ago than any other animal.

    This thread has slightly run out of steam, so I’ll quote this from one of my own books, even though it is long:
    “A significant factor in the ancient canine-human association is that dogs and people organise and structure their social communities in broadly similar ways. Dogs are gregarious creatures that like to live in groups of both sexes and all ages; their communities have a clear and strong social stratification, and they respect the authority of high-status individuals in the group. Their communication skills, based on body-language and vocalisation, are complex and highly developed, and they can express every shade of anger, aggression, friendliness, pleasure, fear, submission and ingratiation in ways that other dogs read and respond to in a predictable manner. But though they accept as a fact that some individuals are more powerful, more important, than others, their social system is not rigid and immutable; dogs are competitive and devious, and can move up or down their social scale; every dog is always watching for an opportunity to improve his or her own standing in the hierarchy, and to acquire more power and respect. Predators rather than prey, dogs are intelligent, inquisitive and highly adaptable, able to deal with new, unknown situations as well as familiar ones, and, in spite of their social structure, they will readily act co-operatively and even unselfishly to achieve ends that benefit the whole group. Unlike wild wolves, they retain many juvenile characteristics throughout their adult lives, for example, curiosity and playfulness, and they are capable of feeling deep and lasting affection towards their friends and companions.

    Now re-read the paragraph above, substituting โ€˜humanโ€™ for โ€˜dogโ€™. No wonder people and dogs understand each other.”

    Digressing again.
    And as you say, this stuff is addictive, which is why some academics are a bit mad. But then, so are some artists, and maybe it’s not a bad thing.

    1. Totally agree about the dogs.

      The art vs craft thing is just another aspect of literature vs. popular fiction. It’s all art, and it’s all fiction, or if you will, art should be well-crafted and fiction should be popular with its readers. Those distinctions are almost always class-based and often gender-based; there’s something called “feminization” that’s reflected in plummting salaries when a career becomes female-dominated (think teaching and nursing). The whole “porn for women” description of romance fiction is based on the idea that sexual material for women is both inappropriate and laughable, while men used to read Playboy for the articles.

  36. Wow. Brain blown.

    I’m wondering if literature — even literature by men — is more likely to be patterned than popular fiction is. Am thinking of The English Patient, which in book form was non-chronological and more meandering, and in movie form had a straightforward flashback structure (the end of the flashback storyline was the first scene in the movie). Maybe I need to reread it with this post in mind.

    Also, now I know why at least two of my story ideas — and maybe more; further thinking is required — were non-starters: I didn’t have the tools to think about them as anything but linear. Now I do. Thanks!

    1. You’re welcome. And yes, I think most producers and directors stick to linear story-telling whenever possible, probably for good reason.

  37. This is quite interesting, thanks for sharing.

    How do sequels (movies or books) and series novels fit into this structure? Is the structure fractal like in that it repeats for larger elements like extended storylines? Are the sequels/series linear becasue they necessarily take place later? Or patterned because they use many of the same characters, settings, or motifs? Or some combination. Does the structure of the novels with respect to each other (if the novel is mostly linear but the relationship to the first is patterned) affect the enjoyment of the second book?

    Also, how do the (generally negative) claims of “writing the same book over and over with tweaks” stack up against a series with patterned structure, and why is that claim necessarily considered negative, when people clearly want something like that?

    1. All structure depends on the person telling the story. So, for example, this four book series I’m working on is planned as a four-book series only. I know what the plots of all four books are and I know the patterns they make together even though they’re individually linear. A lot of series are open-ended; the authors just keep writing them, like adding rooms on to a house. They may pattern as they write, but they’re not planned that way and a lot of times you can’t make a pattern from them which is why series books are often all over the place.

      The enjoyment of subsequent stories in a series depends on what the listener/reader wants so it’s entirely subjective. Some people want the same thing all over again (see Hangover II, from what I’ve heard). Some people want to see growth and depth (see The Empire Strikes Back and the Godfather sequels). So while structure depends on the writer’s plan, enjoyment depends on the reader’s expectation.

      Re the writing the same book bit: This comes out of the popular misconception that originality is always better than repetition. Shakespeare pretty much stole every story he ever wrote, he just wrote them better than anybody ever had. There are some stories that are radically original and really boring/terrible/incomprehensible. There are stories that are very similar to the stories an author has produced before that are wonderful. There is no inherent value in being original any more than there is inherent value in being outrageous; the value comes in what you actually DO, the story you actually tell.

  38. Thank you for your awesome discussion about structure. I’ve written a young adult novel that uses patterened structure using multiple text types. I’m an Australian author who has published nearly 30 books following linear structure but can’t get any interest from traditional book publishers in this more experimenatl way of telling ‘story’. Can anyone direct me to other sites or people publishing this type of story. Any suggestions hugely appreciated. I am fascinated in this new way of telling story! Thanks so much.

    1. Publishers generally buy books based on how they’ll sell, not on any particular structure, so there isn’t a publisher that’s publishing patterned stories in general. You just have to find one that likes your story.

  39. Wow! I love reading this (and discovering your site). I will definitely link to this article when I post about male/female structure in the near future. My writer friend and I almost came to blows discussing the “true” protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird. I, of course, maintain it’s Scout; he, Atticus. Just goes to show…Thanks for a great post!

  40. FWIW, I haven’t seen Out of Sight, so I went to Wikipedia and looked it up. In one of the reviews, referring to Clooney it says, “…his performance is slyly two-tiered: Foley is all charming moxie on the surface, a bit clueless underneath.” Which made me think of Clooney, himself, and many guys who grow up too good looking with the burdens that places on them. They may have a strong, decisive outward persona, but they are still kids underneath. Isn’t that kind of tricksterish?

    Jenny said, “Jack is a trickster with a problem: he likes people so heโ€™s loyal to them.”
    This could be Davy in WTT and FI, once he’s started to mature a bit and can see beyond his conflicts with his father. Although he was always loyal to his sisters…mmmm, insofar as it didn’t inconvenience him too much. ๐Ÿ˜‰



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