The Power of Chiastic Story Structure (Especially in a Series)

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.

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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:

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

Now that we have examined the chiastic links between all the major structural beats, I want to close out the discussion with an overview of chiastic story structure itself, along with a look at how you can employ this technique over the longer work of an entire series.

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:

Other ancient texts such as Beowulf and The Iliad can also be seen to demonstrate chiasmus, both structurally and narratively. More recently, many analyses have shown that the great cohesion and resonance of the Harry Potter series is thanks largely to its chiastic structure. Of course, as we’ve been exploring throughout this series, any story that adheres to classic structure is, in fact, offering at least a nominal chiastic structure.

Why is chiastic story structure so prevalent and, clearly, so powerful? There are many reasons, not least the fact that it provides plentiful opportunities to use the potent tools of comparison and contrast to deepen thematic weft, sometimes overtly and sometimes subconsciously. Moreover, chiastic story structure all but ensures a story will emerge cohesive and resonant. If all its major pieces are connected, then necessarily they will be all of a whole. They come together, even in their variation, to create a unified big picture.

Perhaps most importantly, but also most simply, chiastic structure demands a story fulfill the sometimes mystifying directive that the “ending is in the beginning.” In chiastic structure, this is almost literally true since the beginning not only foreshadows the ending, but in fact ensures the beginning and ending are reverse images of one another, however subtly.

Like any storytelling technique, chiastic structure can be applied too overtly and become on the nose. You don’t want the links between your story’s halves to feel repetitious, nor do you want them to be obviously “matchy-matchy.”

You can see how wonderfully successful and resonant (and yet not “matchy” or on the nose) chiasmus is in the Harry Potter series simply in recognizing the link between the series’ beginning and ending.

In the beginning, Voldemort casts a killing curse on Harry and does not die; in the end, he casts a killing curse and does die.

This is chiasmus at its absolute most basic within this series. The series utilizes a linked structure almost perfectly scene by scene in every book, as well as over the course of the entire series. Many people have written about this extensively, including in this graphic.

4 Tips for Implementing Chiastic Structure in a Series

In past posts, we’ve already talked about how you can employ a chiastic structure in standalone books simply by ensuring they are classically structured. Understanding how the story comes full circle in this way allows you to strengthen the mirroring elements throughout both halves of the book. But as we’ve already seen in the reference to the Harry Potter series, you can also utilize chiastic structure to powerful effect by applying it to the overarching structure of a longer series of books. Although the same basic principles apply to series structure as to standalone structure, here are a few particular tips to keep in mind when creating chiastic story structure for a series of books.

1. Know the Ending in the Beginning

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Whether or not you outline your story before the first draft, at some point you must know how your story will end. And when you know how it will end, you must go back to make sure this ending is reflected in the beginning. (You can see more about the specifics of how to do this in the previous posts on the link between the Hook and the Resolution and particularly the link between the Inciting Event and the Climactic Moment.)

This is especially important in writing a series of cohesion and resonance. Unfortunately, foreseeing the ending is much harder to do in a series than in a standalone book. Most of us write the first book with little or no true understanding of precisely how the series will end. So what can you do?

The most obvious solution is to outline the entire series before you start writing the first book.

You can also try to implement the chiastic effect as you go by mirroring the second half to the first (rather than the other way around). This can work, but it can also be difficult to pull off soundly since the most important moment in the story is the ending. It’s usually easier to create a resonant plot from a beginning that mirrors the ending, rather than an ending that mirrors the beginning (although the MCU did it rather handily).

Regardless your approach, try at least to gain a firm sense of how many books will be in the series. An odd number, such as the classic three books of a trilogy or the seven books of Harry Potter, offers the most ease for constructing a chiastic structure, since there will already be an inherent symmetry to the books, with one book (the second or the fourth in these examples) standing out as the obvious Midpoint of the series. If you don’t know which book will be your story’s centerpiece, you’ll have difficulty consciously structuring the series in a chiastic way.

2. Make Use of the Series’ Innate Structural Chiastic Offerings

Any overarching series is essentially a single story. As such, this overarching story will offer an inherent story arc of its own, following all of same foundational beats that are found in each individual book:

  • Hook
  • Inciting Event
  • First Plot Point
  • First Pinch Point
  • Midpoint (Second Plot Point)
  • Second Pinch Point
  • Third Plot Point
  • Climax
  • Resolution

The timing may be slightly different in the series than in the standalone books, but the basic structure holds true. This means that just as an individual book’s structure is inherently chiastic, so too is the overarching story of any series. In the same way as you can mine this inherency to magnify the chiastic effect in a standalone, you can also mine it from the series as a whole with just a little careful conscious attention to the natural links between structural beats.

3. Choose Chiastic Symbols, Settings, and “Easter Eggs”

There may be times when a series won’t allow you to perfectly execute chiastic scenes at every single structural beat. (This isn’t “ideal,” of course, but let’s be realistic…) Although chiasmus is most powerful on the plot level—when the events of linked scenes pay each other off in important ways that move the story forward—you can still communicate the concept of symmetry to readers on subtler level.

In fact, even when your chiastic plot structure is perfect, underlining it with additional symbolic symmetry will only strengthen the effect. Think about the visuals you have chosen for each of your linked structural beats. How can they mirror each other? Pay special attention to symbols, colors, settings, characters who are present, even invisible “Easter eggs”—hidden symbolism that only the most perceptive readers will even notice at all.

4. Remember Chiasmus Is “Comparative Symmetry”

Finally, remember that chiasmus evokes meaning not simply through creating obvious links or “sameness” between structural beats, but most importantly by contrasting them. Chiasmus creates the effect of “mirror images” between the halves of a story—which means the images are reversed from one side of the story to the next.

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This is reflected most obviously in the protagonist’s character arc: perhaps in the beginning he believed a Lie, but in the end he believes the Truth. You can utilize this “reversal” in many ways, not just to avoid repetition but to emphasize the progression and the dynamic change that is happening from one half of the story to the next. In considering how you can create resonant links between the beats in the first and second halves of your story, look not just to comparisons but to blatant contrasts.

***

Thanks so much to all of you for your enthusiasm in joining me on this journey through this beautiful layer of story theory—chiastic story structure. I started this series as what I thought would be a standalone post, in response to a question from one of you about this mysterious link I’m always talking about between the Inciting Event and the Climactic Moment. But your passionate interest in the subject led me to expand it into this six-part series, and I’m so glad you did because I’ve learned an incredible amount along the way myself.

All the best with your chiastic structures in your own stories!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you think you’ll ever attempt chiastic story structure in a series? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Louis Schlesinger says

    Thank you for this. I’m currently outlining Book 2 of my Good Seeds Trilogy, and the timing of this post seems providential.

  2. Thanks for this post and for the series. I never heard of chiastic story structure before this post. I will have to give it a try some day.

  3. Kari Gorman says

    Thank you for this post! I was working on this while plotting my series and have a question. My series has three races who start out enemies and become family at the end. The series is a paranormal romance and will focus on a new couple as the main characters in each book.

    When dealing with the structure of a single story, you would plan plot points based on the main characters arc. In a series with three races where all will be represented, what do I base the plot points off of?

    Do I need to pick one of the races to be the “main character arc” through the series or can I base the plot points off of a more basic external plot line of the races coming together? If I do the latter, will I still get this symmetry?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, there will always be a structural throughline that is represented by either a specific protagonist or a collective protagonist (usually the former). Look to the Climactic Moment in your final book to determine what the story is *really* about and how you can strengthen this structurally throughout the entire series.

  4. Bill Palmer says

    For modern readers, we tend to look at the end of a story as the most critical element for understanding what the author is saying. The classic chiasm in Scripture, however, puts the emphasis in the middle. In the example cited above, the central element is God remembering Noah. That is the crux of the passage. The reader sees that no matter the circumstances, God acts on behalf of His beloved.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I think the form of chiasmus itself bear this out–with the Midpoint being unique in that it has no paired beat. However, of course, every major structural moment–and particularly the Inciting Event, Midpoint, and Climactic Moment–should be viewed as part of a larger whole, each reinforcing each other in their ability to define what the story is really about.

    • Agreed on the most part, but I’d like to expand by saying that, the way I like to see it, is that the Midpoint will always tell you what the story is about (theme), but it’s the ending that will tell you what the author is saying about it (the “lesson”). If Noah’s story had ended differently, the takeaway would have changed with it.

      The takeaway of Noah’s story is that it pays to trust the Lord (ending) because He cares for those He loves (theme). This central truth justifies the journey, but it doesn’t get proven or disproven until the end.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        “the Midpoint will always tell you what the story is about, but it’s the ending that will tell you what the author is saying about it.”

        I like that a lot.

  5. Eric Troyer says

    Thanks for this great series on chiastic story structure. It gives me a lot to think about regarding my WIP.

    When considering the visual for this structure, I like the circle. However, I keep thinking that a circle is a two-dimensional representation of something that is three-dimensional. While the structure is circular, the story also moves in a direction, typically forward, as in a positive character arc.

    So, I view the structure more as a spiral, like a section of Slinky stretched out. When viewed at one way it is circular. When viewed another way it is a spiral that reaches from one point to another.

    • That’s interesting (and weirdly I mentioned a Slinky in a recent blog post!). I only saw the story moving from the beginning to the end (no surprise) by traversing the 2D chiastic circle in a simple anti-clockwise direction (obviously whilst preserving its mirror symmetry). Maybe what you describe is more resembling character arcs (= planets) being in orbit around the story (= the Sun) as it moves though time (= space). With this analogy you would indeed get the spirals you describe. Like in this video : https://youtu.be/zBlAGGzup48

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like that! Although I have to admit that what came to my mind as I was reading through the comment was a hamster wheel. :p

  6. Thank you so much for this blog series…I have copied and pasted every one into my file with your name on it, Katie. This post particularly…it’s opened up a whole new thought process on the series I want to write. The first novel in the series is currently with my editor (Dori Harrell) for 3rd (or 4th-lost count!) round editing. There are two more novels for this series in my head, partially drafted, so now I’m going to take a look at the chiastic structure for the entire series. So fun!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What has been particularly interesting to me in writing this series is the realization that my initial reaction to the idea of chiastic structure as something revolutionary isn’t the case at all. What this series has driven home to me is that chiastic structure isn’t an alternate structure at all, but in fact is inherent within the heart of what we already think of as traditional structure. I always say that all approaches to story structure are just different ways of looking at the same thing, so I don’t know why this surprises and delights me so much. 🙂

      • You made my day K.M. ! All I could do was shout WOW, this is exactly what I’ve been struggling with since I decided to end my novel with a chiastic full circle. Thanks for helping me understand it is actually a “thing!” I wanted to ask you though, why another of my gurus told me it would fall under the genre’ of “Literary” if I decided to use it. Is that true? Thanks again, Suzette

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          No, that’s true. As mentioned in the post, one of the prime genre examples of chiasmus in fiction is the Harry Potter series. There may be other reasons your story might skew toward literary, but chiasmus itself won’t do it.

  7. This was a very useful series that came at just the right time for me. Thank you!

  8. Hi Katie. I’ve been carefully following all 6 of your posts on this topic and applying them to get my novel into better shape as I came to the end of its First Act. I’ve now created my own custom chiastic wheel with all the key events outlined and it’s pinned to my writing stand! Thank you for your clear and in-depth explanations. I also realised that David Mitchell’s chapter/scene structuring of his ‘Cloud Atlas’ novel is highly chiastic in nature and can easily be documented similarly to your Noah example.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I have yet to read Cloud Atlas, but everything I’ve heard about it would lead me to believe that it very likely offers a deeply intricate chiastic structure. Glad you’ve enjoyed the series!

  9. Thinking chiastically really helps me get a better handle on the purpose and importance of addressing each of the main plot structures. In my wip, I was missing something in the second act and knew it had to do with either the 2nd pinch point or the 3rd plot point, but I just could not nail it down. Thinking chaistically, I was able to figure out what it was and then how to address it. As someone else said, this series came just when I needed it. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s awesome! That’s really what these tools are all about. They’re here not to tell us *how* to write a story (we already know that, deep in our bones), but to help us bring consciousness to what we’re doing so we can troubleshoot along the way.

  10. Olga Oliver says

    The other day I was looking at the Circle diagram and noticed you had the beats going from the beginning left around the Circle, the Midpoint at the bottom and up to the Ending at the right. I stopped and said aloud … what’s this, Katie has it going the wrong way. Ha! here’s my answer this morning. My dictionary didn’t have the word chiastic. Thank you Katie. I’m just beginning my second draft after first edit and I’m gonna work on this. I’ve been studying this writing craft for 30 years, been to conferences, been to university, etc., and this is the first time I’ve seen this funny little word – chiastic … really Katie . . . why??

    Thank you so much Katie, I’m feeling like a first grade child, but I’m lucky, my Dad taught me the alphabet and to read when I was three – “Run Spot . . . run!
    Olga Oliver

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What’s funny to me is that I created that circle graphic when I wrote the first post in this series without even realizing that chiastic structure is often called ring structure. :p

  11. This is such a great post! I also had never heard of chiastic structure. I am a huge nerd for story craft and I am so excited to learn about something that has never come up in all my reading! I can’t wait to go back and read the whole series now.

    I will definitely work with this structure.
    Thanks Katie!
    Kris

  12. Hi Katie. Great, thought-provoking stuff. It makes me want to pan out and work on the main story arc for my historical fiction series. I have a whole set of stories to tell in that, but I’m unsure how many books it will take. Your advice about using an odd number of books is helpful. I must figure out more clearly what the overall shape is of the series. Sometimes I think the series will be 5 books long, sometimes 7, sometimes 11! I think I need to rein in my ambition and clarify my objectives. Your post is helpful in pointing this out to me.
    Thank you.
    Steve

  13. Yes! I actually did outline my trilogy before I started writing it, but I didn’t know about chiastic structure until your wonderful series. I’m using it in the second book (my WIP) and will make use of it in my third book. I already know the ending of the series, but I need to look at the first book again for mirroring. The first book is already published, so I can’t really change that one.

  14. I have never heard of “chiastic” before today. I started thinking about my WIP trilogy, and…the overall structure is chiastic! Even more fun, I’m into flower gardens, and my prize garden is (visually) chiastic. Our brains must be wired this way.

  15. “remember that chiasmus evokes meaning not simply through creating obvious links or “sameness” between structural beats, but most importantly by contrasting them.”
    Story structure in a nutshell!

  16. Chiastic structure is a big deal in biblical studies, as well. I know you have the Genesis narrative listed here, but another example is the book of Daniel.

    Chapter 2 – Prophecy about coming world kingdoms (Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue).
    Chapter 3 – Faithfulness of God’s people under persecution (The Fiery Furnace).
    Chapter 4 – Judgment on a king because of his pride (Nebuchadnezzar’s madness).
    Chapter 5 – Judgment on a king because of his pride (Belteshazzar and the fall of Babylon).
    Chapter 6 – Faithfulness of God’s people under persecution (Daniel in the Lion’s Den).
    Chapter 7 – Prophecy about coming world kingdoms (Daniel’s vision of the four beasts).

  17. I learned a lot from this series. Thank you!

  18. Thank you for this excellent series. It’s been thought provoking, and my thoughts need lots of provoking!

  19. When I was introduced to the idea of chiastic structure the person pointed out that the name came from the Greek letter Chi, the equivalent of the English X. What stuck in my mind was the narrowing down to a point. It all comes to a focus at the middle, that mirror point. The circle picture seems to emphasize the balance of the sides. The X seems to emphasize the progression from left to right, from all the old focusing inexorably to the point of transition from which all spreads out into the new.

    Count me in with those who have enjoyed this series. One of the challenges that it has highlighted for me is the idea of foreshadowing. Setup I can understand. It looks to me like basic cause and effect. Foreshadowing, on the other hand, seems more nebulous. Can you offer some insight?

    Once again, excellent work, Katie! Thank you so much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Bam. You’re right about “X.” How fascinating!

      Foreshadowing *can* be as simple as cause and effect, but it’s more complex as well. Sometimes foreshadowing is more about tonal implication than anything. Basically though, it is any technique that sets up the reader’s expectations in some way (whether they are directly fulfilled or not). You might find these posts helpful: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/?s=foreshadowing

  20. This got me thinking of a wip I’d put away, and I began to see the chiastic pattern, where it already existed and more importantly where I needed it. And now it seems so easy! Thank you for exploring this structure with us!

  21. Thanks for this. I’m currently writing book 3 of a series. I can now make it the ‘midpoint’ as there are 2more books to go ( I think.) this will be most helpful.

  22. Could this structure also be mirrored by the Hero’s Journey circle?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. At its most basic, we see chiasmus in the Hero’s Journey in that it ends with the hero coming full circle and returning to the Normal World.

  23. I am writing memoir of my character will be a series split into three books or two.
    What do you know about Canva?

  24. Thank you so much for writing this series as an add-on to go deeper in the structural beasts of story.
    I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly and learned so much along the way. 🙂

  25. Thea T. Kelley says

    Fantastic series of posts. Thank you!

  26. Wow, after listening to this, I feel like I really lucked into the structure for my series, more than it being a conscious choice. I’m doing a five-book (odd number! yay!) fanfic series, having just finished book 3 and still outlining book 4. I’ve had the ending in mind the whole time (most of book 5 is already nailed down in my head), and there are some callbacks and contrasts I’ve planned across the whole series that will pay off in this mirroring sort of way.

    For example, in book 1 chapter 3, a young girl is the last one onto the last plane out of southern France before the aliens arrive, her parents sacrificing themselves to ensure she survives. In the third to last chapter of the final book, set 17 years later, she and the protagonist will use their giant robots to thwart the alien hive, sacrificing themselves to ensure the last of the human race can escape the now-doomed Earth. Thematically, it’s about one generation ensuring the well-being of the next, and we get to grow into that moment over the course of the series, but now I can see how the structure and placement will let it really pay off.

  27. What’s the best way to implement these concepts when writing about 2 separate protagonists (well, protagonist and deuteragonist sounds more accurate)? Mine start off together, split ways and I switch between their perspectives a few times until they are finally reunited. It feels complicated since they both have their own character arcs (inner lies, lessons learned and also characters they meet for future books in the series).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      More “pieces” always create more complications. But the best way to keep the structural throughline straight is to remember that no matter how complex the story, the protagonist will always be the throughline.

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