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.

10 Writing Tips I Was Reminded Of After Getting Torn Apart

1. Write What You Know

We all have a unique lens through which we view the world. We see things differently than anyone else; not better, not worse, just subjectively different. Some would argue that the ultimate aim of writing is to communicate this unique viewpoint in a way such that a reader can experience a suspension of disbelief, that curious thing that great writing does where we understand, if only for a fleeting moment, what it feels like to be somebody other than ourselves. This sense of walking in someone else’s shoes is conveyed through narrative voice. Finding your voice is a process of elimination as much as discovery. So, look for what doesn’t suit you, cut it out of your writing, and repeat this process until you have your own refined, authentic voice. 

2. If You’re Forcing It, Do Something Else

When you hit a creative wall, put your manuscript in a drawer. Save your draft and walk away. Don’t come back until you’ve done something other than read, write, or ruminate on your thoughts. Don’t force the pieces together. That’s being the writerly equivalent of that little playground shithead that jams a puzzle piece where it doesn’t belong and claims to have finished the puzzle. Don’t be a playground shithead. Instead, walk away so that you can view your work with fresh eyes and discover what is giving you trouble.

3. Read Your Writing Like a Reader Would

Going off my last point, when you come back to your writing, read it from the perspective of your audience. After every sentence, ask yourself: “if I didn’t know what I was trying to say there, would I be able to figure it out just by reading it?” This requires a blindness, a distance from yourself and your thoughts. You could even call it intentional ignorance. W.B. Yeats often talked about donning a “mask” so that he could read his works as a critic, not a poet. Strive for clarity. So, when rereading, ask yourself, “is it clear to the reader what I am attempting to communicate?” and then, “could it be clearer?”

4. Read Others’ Writing Like a Writer

I’m sure you’ve come across a sentence or paragraph that forces you to pause and stare at the page. For me, this always happens when I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Towards the beginning, the narrator writes that “in the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” Until I explicated that line, I couldn’t understand where that sentence rived its narrative thrust from. Once I picked it apart, I realized that the internal theme of light (“sunset,” “illuminated,” “aura”) causes the words to glow, only to be cutoff at the end by an unexpected intrusion, an unwelcome reversal. Pick apart any and all writing. Good writing provides you with a how-to manual, bad writing provides you with a trouble-shooting guide. Both are equally helpful.

5. Understatement Is A Powerful Tool

An implication, when used correctly, is far more powerful than a direct statement. Take for example Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” We know what they’re talking about (in this case, an abortion), yet their reluctance to outright state it builds suspense and makes us curious. Be subtle. Be slow to reveal. Don’t be melodramatic. This is why Mad Men is critically acclaimed and soap operas need their own Emmy ceremony.

6. Take The Time To Research Your Subject

Get curious about what you’re writing about, even if it is about yourself. Research adds depth and understanding that often counteracts and contradicts our preexisting notions. So don’t write based off assumptions. That’s presumptuous, and presumption in writing is achingly painful and boring to read at best. Whether it’s a memoir or a biography, researching your subject can only supplement the finished product. 

7. Substance > Style

Having pleasant prose that ebbs and flows is wonderful, but, as the expression goes, you can’t polish a turd. If a story lacks plot or an argument lacks structure, it cannot be remedied by tacking on even the most euphonic diction. “Halcyon diarrhea rolls off the tongue, but I struggle to find a context in which loose stool can be joyful or pastoral. In my article, I tried to patch up a navel-gazing argument with purple prose. However, putting makeup on a mannequin isn’t pretty, it’s still hollow and lifeless.

8. Rejection Doesn’t Hurt Unless You Let It

I’ve been called some nasty things by people that don’t like my work. But rather than take those to heart as insults, I instead viewed even the more derogatory comments as suggestions disguised as put-downs. They had a reason to call me out. My writing was weak and my argument suffered because of it. However, I was able to glean from the detractors a couple gems of constructive advice. (10 to be exact.) 

9. Revision Is Key

It’s exciting to finish a first draft. It’s less-than-exciting to go back through, word by word, and second-guess yourself. It’s even less fun to third-, fourth-, and fifth-guess yourself, but it is necessary. Cut large, sweeping swaths through your writing before you fix the little things. Consider rearranging, restructuring, and rebuilding your work to get the maximum effect. Perhaps add in a detail or two. This process can be tedious and even induce insanity in rare cases, but the final product will thank you

10. Reflect and Try Again

We encounter a new set of challenges every time we sit down to write. We stare at a blank page and try to turn ideas into words that can be turned back into ideas. It is amazing that this process works at all. When it doesn’t work, when there is a disparity between the author’s intent and the reader’s interpretation, it is up to you the author to try to determine how this miscommunication occurred. Once you have an idea of where you went astray, it is on you to try to fix it. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. If not, the cycle repeats itself until you and your readers reach a consensus. 

Seven-Eleven at Four-Thirty

I stroll, nearly somnolent, through the glass door. It is a bright room that glows golden beneath the near-dawn sky. Inside a bartender, nameless to me, nods and smiles. He is scratching a sore and talking to a police officer who has a tattoo of a Gaelic knot. Time has eroded the navy lines together.
“She didn’t feel any pain,” the officer says. “What was left of her just washed down the drain.” He shrugs, raising his coffee to his mouth and his sleeve up above the knot. Roman numerals mark some date, tallied on his arm like a prisoner counting sunless days.
A ruddy, pock-mocked old man hiccups so violently that his eyes roll like lost marbles. The cop puts his arm around him and laughs. But his smile is short-lived. “I, too, lost a son in Afghanistan, so I can understand their pain.”
I realize that some choose not to sleep at night. Under cover of darkness they do not see the things that they do not want to see: a lost son, an empty wallet, their own reflection.
“And then her family walked outside in the rain. She was up in the tree, just swaying back and forth, back and—“
“You have a nice night,” the tired cashier tells me.
“Thank you. You try to do the same,” I stammer.

Outside the Hardware Store

The square bags of loam
that I used to climb on top of
line the corrugated steel pipe
a foot in diameter
that I would crawl through
end to end from the opening
towards the circle of edges
sharpened by the sunlight

I see it all now from higher up
closer to the canopies
than I am the brown old leaves
windpulled from above
and scattered on the flat gravel lot

In dreams I am there sometimes
though the walls are unpainted concrete
instead of eggshell cream and it is winter
There are still the steel I-beams
stretching from the ceiling to the floor
and fastened together with bolts
though where should be wiffleball bats
in the storefront windows there is gray light
and where there should be
model planes that hang
from wires from the ceiling divebombing
and counters and screws of all shapes,
there is a pineboard box
on top of splaying sawhorses
their legs straddling over a
rectangle of             echo and depth

Morgue Building

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)

Charybdis

How does one stay the same?
Are our bodies vessels containing some
water that flows in whirlpools and waves?

If too much is poured out from
within, are we then dried—
or rather if too much

is let in, does the tide
become silty and brown
and coagulate inside?

Or do whirlpools that spin downward
twirl and turn counterclockwise
as the gulls above are thrown

offcourse, circling recursively, for dry
land to perch and rest on until
they begin to diagonally glide

and fall in stillness,
into the whorls that
bury their worn quills

as it silently draws back