The Power of Chiastic Story Structure

From Helping Writers Become Authors:

When writers put on their story theorist caps, nothing is more exciting than those moments when you get to recognize consistent patterns emerging within obvious story forms. This is the basis of all of our understanding (and musing) about story, including the chiastic story structure we’ve been studying these past few months.

Although writers sometimes think of story structure as something external (and therefore rather arbitrary) that we impose on a story in order to make it look a certain accepted way, it is actually just the opposite. Story structure, in all its many posited forms, is simply a record of the long-recognized patterns that have emerged from humankind’s millennia of stories.

By a certain point in the pursuit of story, most writers become familiar with what is now considered the “standard” Three-Act Structure. But as we’ve been exploring in this little series, another lesser-known pattern that emerges from this foundation is that of chiastic story structure. Sometimes called “ring structure,” a chiastic structure is one in which the two halves mirror each other in reverse order—in essence coming full circle.

In the last five posts, we’ve explored how all the major beats recognized in the Three-Act Structure are in fact inherently chiastic. We find important structural and symbolic links between all the following:

  • The Hook and Resolution
  • The Inciting Event and Climactic Moment
  • The First and Third Plot Points
  • The First and Second Pinch Points

And we also find a linked or mirrored structure inherent within itself at the story’s central pivot:

The Midpoint

. . . .

What Is Chiastic Story Structure?

As stated, chiastic structure is a literary technique of repetitive symmetry, designed to create insight and resonance through both comparison and contrast. We can witness chiasmus as a common technique in poetry, employing the pattern of “A, B, B, A” (and so on). It can also be used most simply on the sentence level, as we see in such famous sentences as:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.“–John F. Kennedy

“We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us.”–Winston Churchill

“All for one and one for all!”–Alexandre Dumas

“Man can be destroyed but not defeated. Man can be defeated but not destroyed.”–Ernest Hemingway

Chiastic structure is perhaps most famously recognized from ancient religious texts, including the Bible. Wikipedia shows the Genesis account of the flood to be structured like this:

Link to the rest at Helping Writers Become Authors

PG notes that there are a great many links in the OP that lead to more extensive exploration of chiasmus. As usual, this post provides an overview of the OP, but may be confusing to some because of the omission of the links.

Chiasms and Chiastic structure have been around for a long time and, as mentioned above, the Bible (at least in its English translations) includes what may be some of the earliest examples.

From Bible Discernments:

Several European publications in the 1700’s and 1800’s discussed the symmetric arrangement of Scripture, the most notable being John Jebb and Thomas Boys. However, it was not until the 1920’s that Nils Lund published articles about the chiasmus in the United States. Since the 1980’s, there has been an increasing interest in the chiastic approach.

. . . .

One of the most comprehensive reviews of this writing style was prepared by Dr. David Dorsey in 1999. In that book, Professor Dorsey described the structure and meaning of each Old Testament book using this chiastic approach. Dorsey found that the chiastic approach is particularly frequent in Genesis, but he shows examples from every book in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Bible scholars have also found examples of the chiastic approach in every book, but some books are more known for them than others.

Rather than using the term chiasm, some scholars refer to this structure as a “chiasmus.” A few people refer to it as “inverted parallelism”, and still others use the term “symmetric parallelism.” No matter what it is called, this structure was widely used during Bible times as it appears to add emphasis.

Those who first identified this literary structure chose the word chiasmus because in the Greek, the letter chi looks like an ‘X’. In this illustration from Matthew 23:12, we see one line of the ‘X’ which relates the word “exalt” in the first and last; likewise, the word “humbles” is connected by the other line.

The 'X' shape of a simple chiasm

Chiasmus literally means “placing crosswise, diagonal arrangement.” Wade White gives this simple definition: “chiasmus is the reversal of elements in otherwise parallel phrases.”6 Simply put, each chiasm is a structured repetition of themes starting at the outside and moving to the center.

Many attempts have been made to define and redefine chiasms over the years: some see a very simple structure while others provide a wide number of exceptions that becomes very inclusive. In Joshua’s Spiritual Warfare, we will see that a chiasm achieves its importance when the central point provides profound insight into the verses; therefore, the general focus is on those with a more simple structure. Where the chiasm has been identified, the center point often gives clarity and understanding of the full intent of these Scriptures either by revealing what is otherwise hidden or by adding particular emphasis.

Within the Book of Joshua, Bible scholars typically focus on the use of the chiasms in chapters 2 and 22. On the World Wide Web, for example, it is very difficult to find sites where chiasms are identified in other parts of the Book of Joshua. Similarly, there has been no association of chiasms with spiritual warfare on the Internet. Someone may have written about it, but as of the writing of Joshua’s Spiritual Warfare, it simply does not stand out.

This book attempts to add to the general understanding of the chiastic approach, namely that the center point of a chiasm can often be applied to the battle known as spiritual warfare. This is particularly true in the Book of Joshua. It is my hope that each of us will come to a new level of understanding with regard to spiritual warfare. We will study how to recognize these chiastic patterns for ourselves so that as we read other books of the Bible, the Lord can speak to us in a new way. Oh the joy of discovering God’s word for today!

Link to the rest at Bible Discernments (footnotes and links omitted)

PG first came across chiasmus a very long time ago when he was analyzing the structure of a variety of poems in college.

The concluding lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats are a well-known example of chiasmus:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

You can find a bit more about chiasmus here.

3 thoughts on “The Power of Chiastic Story Structure”

  1. That’s odd.

    You guys walked up to me and held out a stick of sweaty dynamite, and said, “This looks interesting. Oh, BTW, we have an entire shed that seems to be full of this stuff. Can you use it.”

    After a moments hesitation, as I realized what you guys were blithely holding, I said:

    – “Sure, of course. I’ll see if I can figure out how to use this. Thanks…”

    As I drove to the PO to track down my Amazon package[1], I kept breaking out into loud, maniacal, laughter.

    The part that shook me is in the definition of “Chiastic”:

    – the book contains a chiastic pattern in which the various parts mirror each other.

    When you see how Harry Potter series is laid out, with book one and book seven together at the end, Harry has totally changed. The “mirror” image expresses total “transformation”.

    – Harry and Voldemort are “mirror” images of each other. Only one can survive.

    The thing is, it is more of a “ring” with a “gap” in it, not a “circle”.

    In Fantasy, the Story comes full “circle” and restores the balance, that doesn’t happen in this structure. This is all about “transformation” of both characters as they “cross” each other.

    At the end, they see each other — and themselves — across that “gap”.

    Of course I can use this.

    Thanks…

    [1] Amazon tracking says that it was delivered a week ago, and yet it was still not in my box by week’s end. I took the tracking number this time, and after a long bit they finally brought the package out to the counter.

    It’s the latest King novel, called Fairy Tale, so of course it will cause havoc wherever it goes.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for posting this, PG. And for your last link as well, I like learning about literary devices. There’s something satisfying about knowing which tools to use to achieve a particular objective.

    @allynh

    I love game-changing revelations like the one you’re experiencing. It’s exhilarating; best of luck in getting a grip on this one.

    Reply

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