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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Barbed Wire by Henry Taylor

One summer afternoon when nothing much
was happening, they were standing around
a tractor beside the barn while a horse
in the field poked his head between two strands
of the barbed-wire fence to get at the grass
along the lane, when it happened—something

they passed around the wood stove late at night
for years, but never could explain—someone
may have dropped a wrench into the toolbox
or made a sudden move, or merely thought
what might happen if the horse got scared, and
then he did get scared, jumped sideways and ran

down the fence line, leaving chunks of his throat
skin and hair on every barb for ten feet
before he pulled free and ran a short way
into the field, stopped and planted his hoofs 
wide apart like a sawhorse, hung his head
down as if to watch his blood running out,

almost as if he were about to speak
to them, who almost thought he could regret
that he no longer had the strength to stand,
then shuddered to his knees, fell on his side,
and gave up breathing while the dripping wire
hummed like a bowstring in the splintered air.

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