The Symmetrina

A Fixed Form for Prose Narrative

Bruce Holland Rogers

Rules for the form:

A symmetrina is a work made up of thematically linked shorter narratives. It has these characteristics:

1. A title which refers to the common theme but does not name it directly.

2. At least seven sections, each with a title of its own.

3. The first and last sections are written in the first person.

4. The second and second-from-last sections are written in the second person.

5. All other sections are written in the third person.

6. Sections each have a length that is a multiple of n words. The proportion of sections is determined by any mathematical sequence, such as doubling (1n, 2n, 4n, 8n...) or the Fibonacci sequence (1n, 1n, 2n, 3n, 5n, 8n...). After counting up to the longest section in the middle, the sections count down again toward the end. In revision, the sequence may be re-ordered for effect, so long as the symmetry is maintained. That is, in a Fibonacci symmetrina of eleven sections, the third section of 300 words may be switched with the fourth section of 450 words, so long as sections nine and eight are also switched. However, the first-person and second-person sections must occupy the first/last and second/penultimate positions, respectively.

7. The number of words, n, can have any value and counts actual words, not typesetter's approximations.

8. Words in titles do not count toward the section's total.

9. At the writer's option, the story may somewhere contain a number which names the value of n. In one of my symmetrinas, the value of n is 250 and a character pays a bus fare of $2.50.

10. At the writer's option the middle section can be shorter than the sections on either side of it, as long as proportionality and symmetry are maintained. For example, word counts of 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 1600, 800, 400, 200, 100 are acceptable, but so are word counts of 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 800, 1600, 800, 400, 200, 100. That is, a middle section of 800 words is allowed to replace one of 3200 words.



Discussion

When I wrote more poetry than fiction, I came to love the magical effects of the fixed form. The demands of rhyme and meter or other formal considerations made it easy to start writing without an idea, to find words that fit the rules one line at a time, and to let the meaning reveal itself to me on the journey to the last line.

My favorite fixed forms were less constraining than, for example, sonnets. Holly Arrow and I wrote poems based on an exercise in Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town. The exercise was the sort of thing that Hugo said Theodore Roethke would put on a final exam for his poetry classes. From lists of ten nouns, ten verbs, and ten adjectives, the writer was to choose five from each list and write a poem according to certain rules: Four accented syllables to a line, three stanzas of six lines each, two internal and one external slant rhyme per stanza, no more than two end stops per stanza. We'd supply each other with word lists, or sometimes generate lists of our own. And we'd bend a few rules sometimes, of course.

Here's an example from our chapbook, Breathing In the World.

The Road is Aging Also, Brother

The bones, like peppermint sticks

grow soft in their bath of blood.

A wind finds windows in the skin

and carries dust and mist across

the floors of ribs and clavicle.

Ribbons of nerves don't thrill,



but knot like curdling milk. Eyes

yellow. The horseman of the heartbeat

sleeps in the saddle, a riding crop

falling from his fingers, foam

collecting on the horse's lips. What

bright path did you expect



to travel here? Which angel

did you think to hail? No seeds

left to broadcast from your seedbag,

no promising fork to follow. The road

is aging also, brother. See how

round the stones have worn, how dull.



I haven't written much poetry in recent years, but I wanted to try writing to fixed forms again.

Much of my work in recent years has appeared in theme anthologies, multiple-author collections of stories that are, in many cases, written to order to match the proposed book's theme. The fixed form that I created, the symmetrina, has much in common with a theme anthology. It's a narrative work composed of shorter narratives that are all grown from a common theme.

The first symmetrina I wrote was "Something Like the Sound of Wind in the Trees," which appeared in the Winter/Spring 1994 issue of Quarterly West. Some time later, George Guthridge and I were discussing the possibility of collaborating on a story. I showed him "Something Like the Sound..." and suggested that we structure our collaboration in the same way.

My initial rules for the symmetrina were rough. I figured them out as I wrote "Something Like the Sound of Wind in the Trees." I wanted several sections. I wanted symmetry in story lengths and voice, with the longest story in the middle. Having that one long story in the middle would give me an odd number of sections. Nine seemed a good choice. It would keep the section numbers in single digits. And I liked the feel of nine, of three times three. A nice square number.

The title, I thought, should refer metaphorically to the theme but should not name it. Arbitrarily, I chose the first-person voice for the first section and second-person for the second section. It gave me an additional way to make the story symmetrical if I made the last section first person and the second-to-last second person.

It was George's idea to establish set lengths for the sections. We discussed various patterns for doing this, and various lengths for the sections. I only recently decided that the sections could be any length so long as the proportions were fixed.



So here were my first rules for writing symmetrina:



1. A title which refers to the common theme but does not name it directly.

2. At least seven sections, each with a title of its own.

3. The first and last sections are written in the first person.

4. The second and second-from-last sections are written in the second person.

5. All other sections are written in the third person.

6. Section 1 is n number of words long.

Section 2 is 2xn.

Section 3 is 4xn.

Section 4 is 8xn.

Section 5 is 16xn.

Section 6 is 8xn.

Section 7 is 4xn.

Section 8 is 2xn.

Section 1 is n..

7. The number of words, n, can have any value and counts actual words, not typesetter's approximations.

8. Words in titles do not count toward the section's total.

9. In final drafts, sections may be re-ordered, so long as the symmetry is maintained. For one symmetrina, the sections and word lengths were as follows:



Section 1, third person, 1,360 words.

Section 2, second person, 340 words.

Section 3, first person, 170 words.

Section 4, third person, 680 words.

Section 5, third person, 2,720 words.

Section 6, third person, 680 words.

Section 7, first person, 170 words.

Section 8, second person, 340 words.

Section 9, third person, 1,360 words.



In the symmetrinas I've worked on so far, the stories do not relate except thematically. Each section should be able to stand on its own, at least as a vignette or prose poem if not as a complete short-short story.

The form lends itself well to collaboration, with each partner entirely responsible for his or her own sections.

My first symmetrina was literary fiction, but I find the form is also well suited to science fiction's emphasis on idea. Each section for the story I'm working on now could have been developed into a complete SF story, but these compressed versions are a lot of fun to write. I hope they're as much fun to read.

Because of copyright considerations, it's unlikely that I will post any symmetrinas on the web. However, as more of them are published, I will post notice of their publication here. I'm the author of these symmetrinas except as otherwise noted.

"Something Like the Sound of Wind in the Trees" appeared in the Winter/Spring 1994 issue of Quarterly West. It's available for purchase from Alexandria Digital Literature.

"Not Exactly a Dog" appeared in Alien Pets, edited by Denise Little and published by DAW.

"The Main Design That Shines Through Sky and Earth" appeared in Polyphony 1 from Wheatland Press.

"Dead White Guys" appeared in Polyphony 2.

"Nine Whispered Opinions Regarding the Alaskan Secession" by George Guthridge appeared in the July 2004 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

"The Train There's No Getting Off" by Bruce Holland Rogers, Ray Vukcevich, and Holly Arrow appeared in Polyphony 4.

"Hooked on a Feeling" by Deborah Layne appeared in Flytrap, issue number 3, in late 2004.

"We Shall Not, We Shall Not Be Moved" by Bruce Holland Rogers, Michael Bishop, Deborah Layne, Susan O'Neill, David Galef, and Victoria Elisabeth Garcia is scheduled for publication in the Summer 2005 issue of Indiana Review.


Assorted notes:

Symmetrina Update 3-17-98

I've just finished a science fiction symmetrina, "Not Exactly a Dog." In writing and revising it, I've had some new thoughts about the form.

Of the nine sections I wrote, the two second-longest ones seemed problematic in both content and presentation. One of the science fictional ideas clearly needed rethinking, and in both of these sections, characters that should have been fully realized weren't. Also, some of my test readers thought the whole symmetrina, at 9,000 words, seemed too long. So I cut these sections (grateful that they happened to be sections of the same length) and called the seven-section version my final product. After all, what matters most is producing a work of fiction that's fun to read.

The result is still a symmetrina, but now I have to alter the rules to fit the resulting story. So...


A symmetrina is a story consisting of an odd number of thematically related stories or vignettes (sections). The sections must be ordered in a symmetrical pattern according to word count and personal pronoun (I, you, she). Mirroring sections must be of the same length. There must be at least one section written in each person, so the minimal number of sections is five.

Optionally, sections progress in length through some mathematical sequence, usually doubling in length: n times 1, n times 2, n times 4, n times 2, n times 1.

Other mathematical progressions are possible, such as the Fibonacci sequence:

n times 1, n times 1, n times 2, n times 3, n times 5, n times 8...and back down again in reverse order.


Ray Vukcevich and I are planning a collaborative symmetrina, and Ray has suggested two interesting ideas. One is that a symmetrina based on multiples of n words should contain text that identifies the value of n to the reader. So "Not Exactly a Dog," with sections of 170, 340, 680, and 2,720 words would somewhere reveal the number 170.

Ray's other suggestion is that if the order of sections is changed in revision, there should be some clue that signals to the reader what the original ordering was.



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