A traditional component of classical beauty is symmetry. Think about the roman arches, the Eiffel Tower, or the face of Audrey Hepburn. All of these have symmetry. Great art, while not perfectly symmetrical, has a certain balance to it.
Similarly, I would argue a good book has symmetry. Characters, themes, settings, images recur, adding meaning and depth to a story. For example, in Harry Potter, one of the first things we learn about him is his scar. It makes him identifiable, different, it also represents a unique connection between him and Voldemort, and the future confrontations between the two. The scar brings Harry unwanted attention, causes him pain at times, and represents the key to Voldemort’s undoing. That’s a lot to put on one physical trait, but Rowling brings up one more time at the end, in a way that signifies all has changed. By reusing the scar, Rowling adds layers of meaning to it, making it more poignant each time it appears.
And I am a huge sucker for this type of device.
In this week’s books, the Beautiful Creatures Series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Chaos, Beautiful Redemption), this device is employed many times, but the following example seemed especially touching.
The Beautiful Creatures series follows Ethan, a high school student in the deep South, who falls in love with a Caster (kind of like a witch). They face many challenges together with the help of their family and friends, some Mortal, some not.
Earlier in the series, Ethan’s elderly aunts ask him to mark the household items he wants to inherit after they die with colored dot stickers. He did as he was told, as you do when dealing with beloved elderly relations. They tell you to do something, you do it, no matter how grim or wacky.
Later in the story, the elderly characters’ house is devastated. While wandering through the damage, Ethan picks up one of the broken items.
“I turned it over and saw it had a round red sticker on it. Marked, like everything else in the Sister’s house, for one relative or another, when they died. A red sticker. The cat was meant for me. The cat, the rubble, the fire — all of it was meant for me.” (146)
What works in this passage is not only does he recall an event that happened earlier in the book — tagging the items with stickers — but he uses the event to make a bigger point. The broken cat symbolizes how all the destruction was supposed to happen to him, it was meant for him, and eventually would be for him. By recalling to an earlier, lighter scene, the destruction has more of an impact on the reader.
So, dear reader, when authors create symmetry in their stories, it isn’t just about reusing favorite plot devices. It’s about amping up the feeling by building on the already established emotions.