How Triptychs Can Improve Your Writing

Have you ever had one of those short stories that begins with a clear, intense, glowing idea that loses its brilliance after a few pages?

Maybe the plot dwindles. Maybe a character’s motivations get confused. The language falls flat. You get too far away from the incredible idea you started out with.

Now look at the Bosch triptych above. The panels don’t tell a sequential story necessarily. Rather, they are united by theme. Each panel tells its own story, and together, the panels add up to a fourth story.

Nestor advocates for this technique in Writing Is My Drink  as her writing often derives from a feeling or idea that doesn’t translate into a plot/traditional story. Rather than create a story, she comes up with three impressionistic sketches, all of which share a common denominator. The differences in the stories only help to narrate a fourth, overarching story. Consider the following excerpt about using the tripartite structure centered on the theme of “detachment.”

A single golden thread of the theme of detachment wove its way through the three scenes- magically holding the scenes together, but just barely. It was the barely that thrilled me. Barely was exactly what I was trying to say; maybe barely was hat I’d been wanting to say for awhile. 

Thus, the disparate elements are united by the small similarities that unite them. Whereas we often find a theme in a story, why not try beginning with a theme and forming a story from that?

How To Write A Triptych

1. Brainstorm of list of ideas/feelings/concepts (e.g. loss, detachment, lust, birth, insomnia) and select one.

2. After picking one of the words, spend 15 minutes “riffing” on it. Try free-writing to see what comes out. Think of the word as a mantra repeating inside your mind as you pour out ideas that spawn from it.

3. Finally, look at what you have so far and find 3 incidents that are complete enough to write a “panel” about. Then just go for it.

Finally, check out these different triptychs for inspiration. See how loose or tight a theme can be.

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Excerpt from ‘The Tunnel’ by Ernesto Sabato

There are times I feel that nothing has meaning. On a tiny planet that has been racing toward oblivion for millions of years, we are born amid sorrow; we grow, we struggle, we grow ill, we suffer, we make others suffer, we cry out, we die, others die, and new beings are born to begin the senseless comedy all over again.

Was that really it? I sat pondering the idea of the absence of meaning. Was our life nothing more than a sequence of anonymous screams in a desert of indifferent stars?

Image
Ernesto Sabato at Work

Narcissus

separated by a stretch of breath,
suspended beneath
a watery veil,
white below the
light of a high
effulgent sun,
whose gold curls
drift
across an alabaster
cheek?

the crests of the current
break, myriad and soft,
against blue eyes
drowning in longing.

His voice commands
the ripples.
the words flows
downstream
in silty silence

Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dali (1937)
Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dali (1937)