Mosaic Structure

The first strategy depends on selection and recurrence, as discussed in Chapter 8. Things repeat, and that repetition can be seen as a kind of motion. Patterns of images, of symbols, of repeated situations and attitudes, have a cumulative impact. Detail adds to detail, each clarifying the adjacent details, like putting together a puzzle. Not until all the pieces are in place is the whole picture at last revealed.

Each piece is complete and has a shape of its own, but its fascination is in how it relates to all the other pieces, the picture slowly emerging that's not contained in any one piece but is the sum of them all.

This strategy is like that of the Impressionists, who built up pictures out of colored dots. If you don't have any Seurat handy, look at a newspaper photo through a magnifying glass to see the clusters of tiny spots that, at the proper distance, resolve themselves into a face.

Let's call this technique "mosaic structure."

It comes in five major formats: mood piece, character study, slice-of-life, theme and variation, and allegory. All depend on the accumulation and arrangement of carefully selected detail. Although the individual pieces may be static, the energy comes from seeing how they relate and make a whole, and from guessing toward the final picture as each piece is added.

Mood Piece

Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is primarily a mood piece. True, things happen in it—the house does fall down, and Usher's sister does apparently rise from her crypt—but these events aren't related in a linear, literal, cause-effect way. Horrible revelations don't normally affect one's architecture. There's a strong element of surrealism and perhaps even loose allegory (of which, more in a minute) in this story, but the descriptions of people and setting serve less to characterize Roderick Usher, his sister, or the narrator than to create a mood of feverish foreboding which comes to crisis for dreamlike reasons, not literal ones.

A lot of horror fiction—"tales of terror" and of "lurking dread"—and atmospheric gothic fiction are structured more to build and sustain a particular mood than to develop plot. At the other end of the spectrum, inspirational and religious fiction does the same thing in terms of uplift and reassurance that all's well with the world. A mood has to be a strong one, to sustain even a whole short story, with minimal or no help from plot.

Mood pieces tend to be closed and rather claustrophobic worlds in which the major objects become luminous, significant to each of the major characters. There's much opportunity for symbolism. This often takes the form of some object standing, either for the whole spectrum of attitudes being considered, or for one particular element in that spectrum. Roderick Usher's house is more than a house—it's a kind of emanation of his personality, a larger skin his spirit inhabits. When the spirit fails and Roderick dies, the house falls down as one's body collapses at death. It's perfectly reasonable, given what the house has come to represent by the end of the story. An inner fact or process is made literal—the basis of most surrealism.

It's important, in a mood piece, to pick a strong mood and to choose appropriate characters, settings, and objects to represent and reinforce it. Using mirroring characters, each demonstrating some facet of the story's central attitude or situation, is a common technique. Another is making the landscape and physical surroundings appear nearly alive, so that they can seem imbued with menace or hope, haunted for either good or ill, to project the inner state or mood onto the world at large. When you feel gloomy, the whole world looks drab; when you're anxious, the world seems bright-edged, sudden, and threatening, as though it were about to pounce. A phone's ringing can blast like a fire alarm.

This kind of projection, sometimes called "the pathetic fallacy," serves to make a story's mood seem part of reality itself, not just a personal and idiosyncratic quirk of the protagonist. It's no accident that the house of Usher is located on the precarious edge of a menacing and oily-looking tarn.

Moods are fragile things. If you strike one wrong note, the mood will collapse and dump the reader back into hard-headed rationality. Don't let into your story any character, situation, or object that doesn't contribute to and share the chosen mood. In gothic romance, nobody has an itch or visits the orthodontist. In horror fiction, nobody Has a Nice Day. Except for the briefest of comic relief that ends up reinforcing the mood (the orthodontist has fangs; the Nice Day is a sinister mask for Something Else), keep to your mood from first to last.

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