Fearful Symmetry

by Virginia Parker Staat

TYGER, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
~ William Blake, from The Tyger, 1794

 The tiger… known for his symmetrical stripes…. stripes capable of illusionary camouflage.

The beast fascinates me with his raw beauty, remarkable stealth, and ferocious power. Amazingly, the tiger also offers an incredible parallel to good writing.

Tiger © Kenita Gibbins

Symmetry exists when elements balance one another… like a tiger’s stripes. Symmetry offers unity and harmony. Humans long for symmetry in design, whether it be in nature or art. As photographers, we aim for symmetry in a nine-grid frame. In writing, we aim for symmetry in grammar and format. When symmetry is missing, our work has an awkward, jarring, confusing effect.

A good example of failed symmetry is a recent encounter I had with a production of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. The Carol is probably my favorite story, movie, and play. I love its profoundly redemptive plot, its Victorian setting, and its rich characters. I have read it, taught it, and watched it… over and over.

When a young friend wanted to go to his first opera to celebrate Christmas last December, I found the premier season of the Christmas Carol Opera playing in Houston. We immediately booked tickets.

Granted, I am hardly an opera connoisseur, but this opera failed miserably in meeting audience expectation. No Victorian setting, no beautiful melodies, no bright-eyed children. For ninety minutes (without intermission), we listened to one actor. That’s right… one. A single tenor, dressed in a modern-day business suit, valiantly sang the role of twenty characters. The stage set was a moveable staircase and six skewed, white chairs. A fifteen-piece orchestra played the score with each instrument playing a different tune. Whole sentences were sung in a single note. People left throughout the performance. Scathing reviews followed.

What went wrong? In my humble estimation, the opera lacked symmetry. It was incongruent with Dickens’ original novella. The audience longed for period costumes and furniture. We longed for lyrical melodies that beckoned Christmas. We longed for characters to love. Not only did we long for it… we expected it. The contemporary opera simply did not deliver.

Lack of symmetry in writing affects our readers in a similar fashion. In hallowed halls, symmetry is called parallel structure. Faulty parallel structure is called shifted construction. Shifted construction messes with a reader’s mind.

Parallel structure permeates every facet of writing from verbs to phrases to clauses to bulleted paragraphs. Parallel structure balances sentences, clarifies meaning, unifies format, and creates a satisfying rhythm to our work. Recent research indicates, “When it comes to making people care about information, visual appeal matters” (Gasper and Middlewood, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2014). Their study further reported, “Asymmetrical designs may grab people’s attention, but if your goal is to get people intrigued, inspired, or involved, proportionality is your pal.”

The simple key to attaining symmetry in your writing is to maintain patterns. If you begin with an action verb, don’t change to a passive verb in the same sentence. If you begin a series with a gerund, all subsequent terms should be gerunds. If you begin your bulleted paragraphs with an imperative verb, stick with it throughout the list.

Symmetry also answers most writing questions. Here are a few examples:

Should my tense be present or past?

Should my voice be first or third person?

Should my style be personal or impersonal?

The answer to each is the same… whichever choice you make (and each is acceptable), maintain it throughout your manuscript. It provides your readers symmetry.

Faulty symmetry confuses our readers, giving our work a choppy, inconsistent feel. By maintaining symmetry in our writing, we, like a tiger’s stripes, create an illusionary camouflage that focuses our reader’s attention on our words rather than form. Symmetry provides an alluring rhythmic pattern and clarity that brings our readers back time and again.