Mirroring 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:

1. Keep the second situation almost identical to the first, except (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 sto ry 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.

2. Repeat one or more lines of dialogue in the same or similar form.

3. Repeat a brief description of emotion or action ("He looked his father square in the eyes"; "He felt the old, bitter taste of anger and frustration") in the exact same words you used before.

4. 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.

5. Have the two situations go through the same stages.

6. However they arise, have the two situations come out the same way.

7. 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.)

8. Have the overall dynamic and 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 tojust 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 emotion, plot and character. Though pattern has its effect, 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 rereading 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.

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