Questionable: Patterned Structure

Briana wrote:

I am fascinated by and want more about patterned structures in story-telling. I don’t have a specific question, though . . . .

To understand patterned structure, you have to forget cause-and-effect, chronological order, and time as indicators of story movement. Patterned structure is an entirely different animal, in many ways female to the overtly male linear structure.

So you have a story in mind, but it’s not about how something happened. It’s about how things layer with each other or bump up against each other, and in so doing take on new meanings because of that juxtaposition. It’s structure built on relationships instead of cause and effect.

So here’s a scene:

It’s about Mary who’s arguing with Harold about the danger of acid rain.

Here’s another scene.

Block 2

This one’s about Harold telling Marvin that his meteorological research is crap.

Here’s another scene.

Block 1

This one is Harold and Mary trapped inside an isolated cabin by a bad snowstorm.

These scenes are all separate. Harold’s argument with Mary does not lead to him yelling at Marvin or getting trapped by a snowstorm with Mary. It doesn’t matter when these scenes happened because there’s no cause and effect. But if you look at them closely, you begin to see relationships. The more scenes you have, the more the relationships emerge:

6 Blocks

Just as you see repeated colors, textures, and patterns in the quilt blocks, you see repeated characters (Harold and Mary), repeated subjects (the weather), repeated actions (people at war with each other) in the story. The more blocks/scenes you see, the more relationships emerge: Marvin is Mary’s brother, Mary is Harold’s lover, Harold is Marvin’s boss. When all the pieces are in place, all the scenes are written, the pieces combine into a whole that illuminates what the story is all about. Like this:


The individual pieces aren’t important; it’s the way they combine in the viewer/reader’s perception to make a whole that matters.

Two excellent literary examples are Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (1942) and Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies”. Spoilers below.

McCarthy’s novel at first seems to be a collection of six short stories about different men in the 1930’s, but as you read through the pieces you see the pattern: they’re all about the same woman, Margaret, who changes with the different men she’s with, attempting to define herself each time, trying to fit into a world that defines her by the men she’s been with, what her current husband calls her “bad record: a divorce, three broken engagements, a whole series of love affairs abandoned in media res.” (The subtext is clear that the abandonments were media res because the men weren’t ready to abandon them, but Margaret was.) It’s not until the sixth story, this time with Margaret’s psychoanalyst, that the pieces come together. Margaret’s last words are “Preserve me in disunity,” a promise that she won’t fit in, that she’ll be all of the women she’s been and will be, a multiplicity. There’s no other way to tell Margaret’s story effectively except to tell it in pieces because Margaret is in pieces and is determined to stay that way, refusing to be assembled into a pleasing, linear line that men will understand.

Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies” is a pattern of funny scenes that form a poignant whole. It begins with the narrator, Estelle, telling somebody about talking about rape fantasies with three women at work on their lunch hour two days previously. Estelle explains that the other three told rape fantasies that are really sex fantasies and not rape at all, as she points out: “Rape is when they have a knife and you don’t want to.” Then she tells one of her rape fantasies: she’s walking along the street and this guy grabs her arm, and she says, “You’re trying to rape me, aren’t you?” and he nods, so she piles all the stuff in her purse into his hands (he’s polite) until she finds the plastic lemon juice lemon she keeps there, but she can’t get the lid off, so he helps her, and then she squirts him in the eye.

Estelle feels that was kind of mean since he was being so helpful, so she drops the “I was at work” part of her story and goes on telling whoever’s listening about other rape fantasies she has, and they’re all different, pathetic guys, crazy guys, dying guys, but you begin to see the similarities: in every one of her fantasies she escapes by talking her way out, telling them about herself, recommending her dermatologist, establishing relationships. And just when you think this woman is funny but nuts, Atwood hits you with the end that pulls all the different pieces into the patterned whole. Estelle tells her listener that she’s always careful when she goes out for a drink:

“Like here, for instance, the waiters all know me, and if anybody bothers me . . . I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except that I think it helps you to get to know a person.”

The last thing Estelle says in her story is:

“Like how could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you’re human, you have a life, too. I don’t see how they could go ahead with it, right? I mean, I know it happens, but I just don’t understand it, that’s the part I really don’t understand.”

And there’s Estelle in brilliant detail, all her fantasies given in conversation with a man she’s talking to in the hope that he’ll ease her lonely life and not rape her because she’s talked to him. You can’t tell Estelle’s story in linear structure because her fantasies aren’t linear, one doesn’t cause the next one, they’re pieces in the puzzle that is lonely, fearful, funny Estelle.

Modern movies have done some great things with patterned structure, Pulp Fiction being the real trail blazer there, but my favorite patterned film is Out of Sight, the story of Jack, an escaped convict who falls for Karen, a federal marshall. Except it’s so much more, so the only way to destroy the deadening effect a linear structure would have on the story is to break the linearity and tell it out of chronological order, juxtaposing scenes so their meaning is in their relationships and not in cause and effect. This approach also led to one of the greatest love scenes ever filmed. Jennifer Lopez’s Karen has traveled from Florida to Detroit to bring in George Clooney’s Jack even though she’s half in love with him and he’s besotted by her. She’s having a drink in her hotel, having fended off some terrible passes from guys in suits at the bar, when Jack sits down across from her and they begin to pretend they’re not cop and criminal, they’re Celeste and Gary, normal people meeting in a bar.

Steven Soderbergh, the movie’s director, could have done what follows in two scenes, the two of them talking in the bar followed by the two of them making love in her hotel room. Instead he fragments both scenes and puts them together in a pattern, illuminating both scenes in a way that chronological linearity could never have accomplished:

Now try to imagine that as two chronological scenes. All of that intensity and emotion would have been lost. In fact, watch Out of Sight in its entirety–it’s a terrific movie–and then go back and imagine the same scenes told in chronological order and you’ll see that the story loses all of its impact and becomes just another cop movie. Because the story is about everything both of these people are colliding at this one time, patterned structure is the most effective way to go.

However, there’s a drawback: Patterned structure is difficult as hell to do well and really only works when the story itself demands it because unless the story depends on the fragmentation, the collection of out-of-sync scenes will just confuse readers and viewers who are trained to understand narrative in chronological order. You have to be a master storyteller to make patterned structure work, one of the many reasons I’ll never do it.

[Quilt is by Cath Hall of Wombat Quilts.]

23 thoughts on “Questionable: Patterned Structure

  1. I love Out of Sight and have probably watched it over a dozen times. It’s smart and lovely and different. You’re the first person who’s explained why it’s unique. Thanks.?

  2. I want to burst out with superlatives and exclamation points. This was an EXCELLENT explanation.

    Loved the use of a quilt. And Out of Sight is a brilliant non-linear film.

    I really do wish Ms Lopez would make more like that. But that’s like saying I wish you’d write more …. Insert choice here! – Which I shouldn’t.
    People must grow.

    @Deborah – in the Iast post you replied with reading certain (ahem) books 12 times. Knowing myself and you, I am sure you undersold it, to not seem too crazy. I know that I’ve read Crazy for You about twice a for years. And it’s a library copy.

  3. I loved Out of Sight. Now I want to watch it again!

    I’m reading what I think is a patterned story right now, but it’s slow going. It’s the possible end of a relationship where the hero is struggling to keep it together and the story contrasts their beginning with their ending. I’m at about 70% and it’s only just starting to make sense. While I keep threatening to put it down, the author does have excellent description, and I do connect with the hero, but not so much the heroine.

    However, thinking about it as I read this post, I have to admit there really was no other way for the author to attack this story, because without the past the present story would fall short. But then again, the past is the past, so all of that is just another way of doing a truckload of back story dump. It just appears more clever on the surface.

    1. It really depends on whether the author is doing a patterned story, which depends on the relationships among the scenes, or if she’s doing a linear story with a boatload of flashbacks.
      But either way, it should move. “Patterned” doesn’t mean slow; again, look at Out of Sight which moves very quickly even though the fractured time means the viewer has to work harder.

  4. Love the quilt as an example! (Not a writer, but I am a quilter.)

    Love Actually is another patterned movie story, yes? I really enjoyed Love Actually. However, I think for the most part, I prefer linear story telling. Probably because I’m lazy and patterned does usually require me, the viewer/reader, to work harder.

    1. Nope, that’s linear. It’s a multi-plot story which is often called an ensemble story, but it’s cause-and-effect in chronological order.

      1. Hmm, I do see how it is moving forward in time across the stories, but I guess I was thinking it fell into patterned because of the juxtaposition of the characters, how they intersect, which you, the viewer, aren’t told right away. It gives it that overlapping feel of how a relationship from this story is affecting this other story because of this other relationship. I don’t think I’m saying this well.

        Anyway, I’ll take your word for it.

        I also can see the ensemble label working nicely here.

        1. You’re right, but it’s still linear.
          The thing that’s throwing you off is that there’s no main plot, so everyone in the ensemble is equal.

          Think about Four Weddings and a Funeral. Same idea of the ensemble and everybody has a plot line, but the main plot was Hugh Grant chasing Andie McDowell, and all the other plots were subplots that echoed or contrasted and supported the main Grant plot. It’s easy to see that that movie is linear.

          Now go back to Love Actually and imagine one of those plots is the main plot, Rickman and Thompson or Grant and the secretary. The other plots fall into place in parallel with the main plot, but they’re all in chronological order based on cause and effect. Grant is elected PM and meets his secretary and falls for her but won’t tell her until Billy Bob’s Clintonesque president harasses her and then Grant lets her go only to realize he loves her and chases her down on Christmas Eve and ends up at the recital where he kisses her. Rickman falls because his secretary seduces him and because of that he buys her a gift and because of that Thompson finds it and because of that their marriage is devastated and they’re forced to endure the same recital while they’re in hell. The protagonists of the plots are all connected and related, but the scenes aren’t juxtaposed to make one story whole, the linear plot lines are.

          Does that help?

          There really are very few patterned plots out there because for the most part, there’s no reason for them. You have to have a very specific kind of story to require a pattern.

          See also Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge (patterned book) and then contrast it with Mike Nichols film of the same name, which revised the book into linear structure.

  5. Whee! Thank you, Jenny! That was very interesting and helped me understand the idea of it. I’ll be back to re-read, I’m sure.

  6. There’s a Lisa Gardner book called Love You More that I think might be patterned structure. It’s been a few years since I read it, though; maybe it was a linear story with flashbacks. But there is a point in the story when Tessa’s (main character) previous experience makes you understand why she’s choosing to deal with her situation the way she is – I think the juxtaposition mattered. So I lean toward saying it’s patterned. Now I think I should read it again with this in mind.

  7. There is a Kdrama that I love called Master’s Sun. I always wonder if it is patterned, but now I am not sure. It has a main story that seems completely linear, but in each episode (I think there are about 21) they advance the main plot, but they also tell one complete ghost story. Each ghost has their own plot line that is resolved by the end of the story, but that plot does serve to advance the plot of the main characters. Does that make sense? None of the ghost stories are linked (except for a main ghost story that is connected to the main plot), but they do serve to reflect some general themes in the main story. So is this patterned? These individual stories that are woven into a main plot and they serve to advance the main plot? Not sure.

    1. The key is cause and effect.
      If one story then sparks the next story, it’s linear.
      If they’re completely separated, and the meaning emerges because of the pattern they make, it’s patterned.
      If it’s a series of unconnected stories that don’t affect each other in any way, it’s an anthology series.

  8. PS – When I say that the small unrelated stories serve to advance the main plot, I mean that even though they present these complete stories (each ghost has a problem that gets resolved by the end of the episode), the main characters and the are affected. For example, the genre is romantic comedy/horror. Each of the first three episode ups the fear factor for the audience.

    *Spoilers from this point on*
    The first episode shows the ghosts are scary. The second shows that the ghosts can make small things move, and the third shows them actually grabbing living people, and later we see that they can possess someone.

    Also, by helping each of the ghosts get a resolution to their own story, the main characters must work together and they change. For example, the ghost of a high school student shows shows up at the hero’s mall. He needs it gone. He has to work with the ghost-seeing heroine to get rid of it. He sees her gifts and learns to believe in her even though everyone else thinks she’s crazy. The ghost-girl in the story is able to forgive the mean girls who made fun of her and made her run out of the mall crying (where she gets killed by a car.) the girls all get closure and the main characters have a tiny start to their relationship. By the sixth episode, he is actively helping her, when at the beginning he didn’t want any part of her world.

    So, is this a patterned story? If not, what do I call this linear story with these small stand alone stories that still help the main characters advance their relationship?

    1. Ah. It’s a television series.
      Not being funny. It’s episodic television with an overall linear plot that links them together. Like Person of Interest.

  9. Yes, sorry I didn’t make that clear! Ok, that makes sense. Episodic with an overall linear plot. Thank you! I just couldn’t describe it. I think part of my confusion comes from the fact that Korean TV shows end after about 16-21 episodes. There are usually no seasons 2, so each story is wrapped up at the end of it’s episode run. They are closer to novels in that way – they have an overarching plot and they end. Thanks so much for clearing it up. Obvious, right? *small facepalm*

    1. No, not obvious. This stuff is tricky.

      Your description reminds me of the UK’s Life on Mars, which is about a cop who gets hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1975. The rest of the series is about him trying to get back to 2006, but in the meantime, he’s a cop in 1975 and he has to solve crimes. Many of them end up affecting his attempts to get back by filling in missing pieces of his own history, but mostly they’re just crimes of the week. It’s sixteen episodes and the last one ends Sam’s story. It’s definitely linear storytelling.

  10. How does this interact with Anthologies? Can a “static” procedural TV show use patterned structure across a season? Yes, episodes are normally happening one after the other, but so long as the linking characters don’t develop, there’s no cause-and-effect between episodes. And then they can be linked via thematic connections.

    Bringing this up as I’ve been watching and reading analysis of Doctor Who, and here (the comment by Philip Sandifer) they point out how Moffat used timey-wimey to render causality less relevant than the story being told across the arc, whether that be exploring the complexities of the Doctor, or the themes about his impact on the universe. (Or, as that entire blog project is devoted to, utilizing the concepts of storytelling “alchemy.”)
    But this is non-linear only at a certain macro level of evaluation of the show. (as a look at the implications of the Eleven era) Doctor Who is still linear at most of its lower levels, even in its just out-of-order-linear take on the Time Traveler’s Wife formula.

    1. An anthology show (or book) is usually a collection of unlinked stories, or if they’re linked it’s by theme or topic, not character or plot. You’ve probably encountered that if you’ve bought a short story or novella anthology for one of the authors and then disliked most or all of the rest. They were linked by “Christmas” or “Valentine’s Day” or “Stories with Dogs in Them” or whatever. The stories are entirely separate. TV series like The Twilight Zone are anthologies.

      I’m not sure there are any completely static TV series. Even something like the original CSI had character arcs, as did the original Law and Order (haven’t watched these series in year, no idea what’s going on with them now). Each story was a story-of-the-week, but the characters developed and destroyed relationships, dealt with personal issues, and fought personal battles that arced and that also often affected the way the crime-of-the-week was handled. Any pattern developed in this type of series isn’t there for meaning, it’s to create a comfort zone for the reader and a never-miss approach to storytelling, which of course leads to people making mock because the same damn thing happens every time. It’s the reason that people make fun of Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, and the other long-running series like those, but it’s also the reason those series are long-running. You know what you’re going to get, and that’s more important than characterization or plot (which is why those series can switch out characters without much damage). So if you’re going to run a series like that, not a patterned structure, but a continuing story that repeats a particular story template, you have to find a way to break the repetition.

      Take Leverage. Their stories had a pattern: a Big Bad threatens a Little Good who can’t fight back through legal means and calls in Our Team to right the wrong. That template has a lot of reader/viewer outrage built into it, which is excellent, but it’s also a template and it’s going to get old over time. So Leverage just used that template as a background; the real story every time was the Team, how they were formed, how they slowly learned to trust each other, how they betrayed each other, how some of the team members fell in love with each other . . . the con stories were there to show the real story of how four crooks and an insurance investigator became Leverage, Inc, and–much more important–a family whose members would die for each other. And that story was linear, building over four years. (The fifth year was an epilogue because the only left to do was split up the team and nobody wanted that.) Plus Leverage was smart enough to throw some wild cards into the line-up like the Rashomon Job or the Two Live Crew Job or the Broken Wing Job (the one Parker solved on her own, I’m guessing at the title).

      And then there’s Doctor Who which is still linear because the Doctor is linear. While the Doctor and his companions leap about through time, they still have their own timeline that has cause and effect and linearity. And now I must go read that essay you linked to.

      1. American Horror Story originally was anthology from season to season, but they’re starting to build timeline connections between seasons.
        I suppose certain cartoons might might apply. Not necessarily children’s cartoons, as most of those have a semblance of “lesson of the week” linear development, but something like Family Guy might apply. But those still, as you point out, fall more under creating a comfort zone of long term watching, with any patterns emerging incidentally from the creator/writers’ storytelling habits than a planned pattern.
        So a patterned structure TV series would most likely be a miniseries of vignettes, or perhaps an episode of shorts. (Which would then be sold on DVD/Bluray with a “watch as movie” compilation option.)
        A few anime that may apply would be S1 of Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, which parallels the “origin” story with the development of the two protagonists’ relationship via a non-chronological broadcast order of episodes, (currently not legally available for streaming in the US) and Baccano!, which has been compared by many to Pulp Fiction. (sub on Youtube via Funimation, the excellent dub on Hulu)

        Yes, Doctor Who is mostly linear, especially because the companions are usually linear, (but in an audience-surrogate way, and we the audience are almost always linear, short of catching episodes out of order on reruns) but the Eleven era did mix things up on the causality front. The Silence, Pandorica, Kovarians, River Song and the Ponds, Clara and Trenzalore, even the narrative of the TARDIS, are all intertwining in a mass of non-linear closed time loops and time rewrites and paradoxes, the causes usually presented so (breezing past continuity with a hand-wave of “timey-wimey”) because the causes are much less important than what Moffat intended to focus on in the narrative that week. Which, because of the appearance of linearity otherwise, irritated viewers who kept expecting the causal aspect to matter.
        The Capaldi seasons are back to linear.

  11. I think this would describe Little Altars Everywhere. Which I found amazing when when I read it. Each chapter was a story in the life of the main character. They were not in chronological order. And they didn’t really connect with one another. But by the time you finish the book you had gotten a really clear picture of what this character had gone through. Interesting to then compare that to Divine secrets of the Yaya sisterhoods hitch was about the same character but Told in a traditional linear manner. I never knew how to properly describe it. Thanks. ?

Comments are closed.