Story Structure & Symbol

The human brain, they say, is built to recognize patterns. Looking back, I think I have always had a penchant for this activity, or activities that, without my necessarily being aware, embody the recognition and analysis of pattern and symbol.

This is, I suppose, what scientists and mathematicians do. It is also, whether consciously or not, what artists do. And it is what writers do. Language is, after all, a system of symbols, arranged into certain recognizable patterns: words, sentences, paragraphs, rules of grammar, and stories.

Storytellers have these basic tools, arranged into narrative, action, dialogue and internal dialogue. They also have character and plot structure, which gives me endless pleasure. And there is yet more: metaphor, simile, symbol and leitmotif.

I can still remember when we were obliged to disassemble The Great Gatsby in English 100, being fascinated by the very existence of a leitmotif as we chased the reference to the colour green across the pages with a highlighter.

In my former iterations, as an architect and a gerontologist, I was as fascinated with pattern and symbol as I am now.

As an idealistic student of architecture, although opportunities in the real world practice of architecture are not so often afforded, I was keen to infuse my designs with patterns and symbols, and their associated meanings of course, and was fascinated by architects that did this. Like the Greeks, I can still remember conceiving atria that represented education and enlightenment spanning like a bridge between solid pillars representing physical strength and community. We were taught that buildings in which walls and roofs and doors served more than a simple physical function, or even a purely aesthetic one, but rather spoke through essential archetype to a deep, almost primal aspect of the human heart and mind, connected us through some kind of Jungian collective conscience.

Later, in my career as an environmental gerontologist at the Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre, I was still drawn to this relationship between human beings and their environments through symbol and pattern. In exploring the role the designed environment has on the elderly suffering from dementia, we manipulated space using these same kinds of archetypal symbols: hearth, kitchen, garden, threshold, We wanted to see if they would speak to a part of the human mind so deep, so fundamental that it survived even the ravages of a memory-consuming disease. We observed the tragic residents of facilities as they responded to these interventions. Although I didn’t stick around long enough to wait for the number crunching the massive amount of data generated required, my own anecdotal observations led me to believe that we were onto something.

I was also interested in the experience of the city, and the mental maps and meanings we create as users of the city, also tying into semiotics and architecture. Neil Leach writes about Roland Barth in his Rethinking Architecture: a reader in cultural history, and refers to the writings of Victor Hugo, “expressing himself in such a s way [as to] give[s] proof of a rather modern way of conceiving the monument and the city, as a true test, as an inscription of man in space.”

An inscription of man in space.

All of our leavings, as a species, seem to be part of an ongoing dialogue with ourselves, past, present and future. An attempt to understand ourselves. We want to see ourselves in a mirror.

So the connection between human beings, art, architecture, writing and pattern is well established. Perhaps, in another life, if I were not so lazy and undisciplined, I might have gone on to study semiotics.

Instead, I am doing what I can do, (and enjoy the most) and writing stories. Stories that explore the relationship between the human experience and this idea of archetype. The work of Maureen Murdock, Christopher Vogler, and before him, Joseph Conrad, take these ideas and apply them to storytelling. While on the one hand they demonstrate that there are recognizable patterns to the stories we tell, on the other they provide us with tools to guide our craft and creation. Within these patterns, we are free to explore any aspect of story, any type of character or circumstance, even romance. And through this repeated activity, we can learn and reflect and perhaps deepen our experience of being human.

Back to the human mind and its propensity for recognizing pattern and symbol. Whether we mean to or not, we are connected by this ability and preoccupation, and our history is filled with its manifestations, not only in the built environment, and in our art, but also in literature. Without being taught, necessarily, we can and do recognize these patterns and symbols and their inherent meanings. And consequently we can use them to communicate with each other.

I do not claim to be any great manipulator of words or ideas. In fact I’m a mere beginner. But still I like to play, and despite myself, I like to use these tools to conceive and organize the stories I write. Sometimes I think these games are for my own edification and entertainment alone, but maybe someday, someone will recognize and appreciate my efforts. In the meantime, they help me make sense of what I’m trying to do.

In my first novel, Reconcilable Differences, for example, I had some fun playing with a leitmotif of red gashes. These took the form of smears of a mother’s red lipstick on a child’s cheek, or the frame of a red tricycle exposed under a layer of fresh snow, slowly being obliterated over time, like skin regenerating, healing over, yet leaving a mark. They represent wounds, naturally, and their healing, a theme that ran through that particular book.

In my second book, The Aviary, I played with the idea of birds in cages,  as a symbol of freedom and captivity, again to echo the themes explored in the book and the relationship between parents and adult children leaving the nest. Perhaps readers will notice. Perhaps not. But these motifs help me write the stories, and mean something to me. Perhaps their very existence in the manuscript lends it a shape that readers perceive and appreciate on a subconscious level, not unlike the patterns in a painting, a building or a cityscape.