Pattern Matching: Creating Unity in Stories
by Audrey Greathouse
Intelligence is often portrayed as a logical and analytical skill, but humans are really very emotional creatures whose intelligence has evolved and is exercised through the practice of matching patterns. So much of our knowledge comes from what we recognize, and our ability to detect similarities to previous stimuli when confronted by new stimuli, whether that is physical, social, or intellectual in nature.
But what implication does this have for writing and reading stories?
Because it is so key to our survival, our brains love matching patterns, even in fictive realities. We love a dramatic reveal that brings back a character we had almost forgotten about, multiple storylines slowly woven together, or a mystery that pulls all preceding clues together. Whether the narrative is linear or nonlinear, readers want a sense that every new chapter is inexorably linked to the preceding content.
All of this is encompassed by the literary element of unity, an element which is embedded in every other aspect of your book. Characters must be consistent, plots must be cohesive, and diction must conform to the style you are writing in. One of the best ways to achieve this, however, is by thinking in terms of patterns.
Can you imagine your characters as patterns? Start with their motivation: can you distill their motives down to a simple statement of character that can be applied to all their actions and dialogue? If your character is angry because he is poor, and determined to get rich at any cost, this gives you a basic formula with which you can build his emotional and physical responses to any plot event.
Of course, if we left character development at that, we’d have a very one-dimensional character. We need more motives, more personality… but these should stem from the initial pattern. Perhaps, being drawn to wealth, he falls in love with a rich girl and we see a softer side of this character. Maybe his exasperation with poverty transforms, at times, into a feeling of worthlessness or profound ambition. Envision backstory for your character (even if you only ever hint at it within the story) so you understand where his motivation comes from and so you can create concrete images to demonstrate his character. We can imagine his mother fell sick and passed away because his family could not pay medical bills, or his father gambled their money away, and these details better show (instead of tell) why he is angry.
But let’s dig deeper still. Let’s say he remembers his mother laying in bed in her favorite yellow dress and how her coughing sounded like cats yowling in the night. From that moment on you have arrows of imagery and metaphor in your storytelling quiver. Yellow and cats yowling are both concrete images, and can become patterns if you return to them. If the mother also grew daffodils in her garden, she becomes better associated with yellow, and for the rest of the book the color yellow has an emotional meaning unique to your story. You can manipulate this to remind the reader of the character’s mother, or the root of his motivation. Let your character notice yellow things. Put yellow objects in your story when you want to illustrate something about his emotional state. And, when he is suffering, let him hear cats yowling in the alley.
As soon as you hit writer’s block, the first place you should look for inspiration is earlier in the manuscript. What have you introduced—maybe never intending to use—that you can bring back to forward your plot? What little helpful tools have you already embedded in your character’s world? Never invent a new minor character for something an existing minor character can do. Rather, bring back what you have already established and give your reader the pleasure of recognizing it—the sensation of running into an old friend again unexpectedly.
The result will be a tight story and a sense of unity among your characters that is possible only in the realm of fiction. Real life is never so poetic. Many aspiring writers shy away from repetition, afraid that they will seem redundant or too novelistic. While this is a pitfall to be aware of, many writers go too far in the other direction. Writing is a limitless canvass, the most expansive of all sandbox games. The goal is not to take full advantage of this, but rather to take artful advantage of it.
When designing your story, remember Chekhov’s Gun: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
The converse is also true. Introduce nothing when you need it, always before. Go back and hang all your guns on the wall before anyone needs to shoot someone. The more you reference or allude to elements that will become important, the more natural it will seem when they come into play. Whatever elements you introduce, whether they are characters, props, or plot points, remember to make patterns out of them. Nothing is single-use in a story. Your language conveys physical actions and images as well as their emotional implications. Don’t forget to capitalize on those emotional implications and bring them back to the forefront of the reader’s attention whenever possible. If the protagonist stumbles onto his estranged father playing poker in a bar, it will only be as powerful as the emotions, as the patterns, you have already established. Give your readers things to pay attention to. Engage their minds the same way life does: by showing them patterns and relying on them to experience the joy of discovery and sense of familiarity as they match them.
Audrey is the author of the bestselling YA fantasy novel The Neverland Wars and it’s sequel, The Piper’s Price, coming 2/21/2017. Native to Seattle, she can usually be found somewhere along the west coast. Her hobbies include writing and wishing she was writing, however, she has also been known to play piano and eat fire when she can’t find a pen.
The Neverland Wars
Magic can do a lot―give you flight, show you mermaids, help you taste the stars, and… solve the budget crisis? That’s what the grown-ups will do with it if they ever make it to Neverland to steal its magic and bring their children home.
However, Gwen doesn’t know this. She’s just a sixteen-year-old girl with a place on the debate team and a powerful crush on Jay, the soon-to-be homecoming king. She doesn’t know her little sister could actually run away with Peter Pan, or that she might have to chase after her to bring her home safe. Gwen will find out though―and when she does, she’ll discover she’s in the middle of a looming war between Neverland and reality.
She’ll be out of place as a teenager in Neverland, but she won’t be the only one. Peter Pan’s constant treks back to the mainland have slowly aged him into adolescence as well. Soon, Gwen will have to decide whether she’s going to join impish, playful Peter in his fight for eternal youth… or if she’s going to scramble back to reality in time for the homecoming dance.
The Piper’s Price
Peter is plotting his retaliation against the latest bombing. Neverland needs an army, and Peter Pan is certain children will join him once they know what is at stake. The lost boys and girls are planning an invasion in suburbia to recruit, but in order to deliver their message, they will need the help of an old and dangerous associate—the infamous Pied Piper.
Hunting him down will require a spy in in the real world, and Gwen soon finds herself in charge of locating the Piper and cutting an uncertain deal with him. She isn’t sure if Peter trusts her that much, or if he’s just trying to keep her away from him in Neverland. Are they friends, or just allies? But Peter might not even matter now that she’s nearly home and meeting with Jay again.
The Piper isn’t the only one hiding from the adults’ war on magic though, and when Gwen goes back to reality, she’ll have to confront one of Peter’s oldest friends… and one of his earliest enemies.
Thank you so much Audrey for such an insightful post! Pattern matching is actually really difficult for most writers, esepcially when you’re trying to figure out sub-plots, point of views, and multiple characters. Sometimes it just doesn’t gel, but it will eventually. =) Thank you for your extremely thoughtful advice on this not so talked about obstacle!
As always, thank you so much to everyone who has been a part of this feature. Your words of advice and support mean so much to those who are struggling through their writing. Thank you!
Have a wonderful rest of your week, and Happy New Year to those who celebrate! =)