Friday, 30 October 2015

Ask not what Chiasmus can do For You by Lucy Robinson


What makes your writing memorable?

You know, I’d been hoping to write something about literary devices. Something helpful. Something encouraging. Something beyond just the Rule of Three.

Perhaps that is where my story begins, because I love rhetoric and close readings of texts. (Somewhere I made some notes on it, once upon a time.)

Finding my notes is part of my rounded routine of procrastination. That is, when I find the time to start looking for the right notes.

With the children home from school, much of this summer has been spent absorbed in their greater and lesser needs. They do keep wanting to eat.

Which demands having food in; and clean plates.

But they keep producing mess. And eating up the food.

(And still wanting more to eat…)

Their needs have grown greater and lesser as the days draw on and the evenings draw in and they have each absorbed so much and I will miss them when they return to school, but I really look forward to having just a little more time.

Time to procrastinate squarely on my own terms. To find my notes.

And, finding them, to peer closely at the end.

Closely, to find riches scrawled unbeautifully, there and back again like some unwieldy chiasmus, and closer still, to present some hope that the practise and purpose in writing to bless others who are also living real lives might do just that.

A post on chiasmus needs an image with a Chi – the Greek letter c - to illustrate the connection between the two elements crossing over. See image at the top of the page. Remember this quote?

                                          Ask not what your country can do for you;
                                             ask what you can do for your country.

                                                                                                       John F. Kennedy

Of course, it is also possible to extend the pattern further:

A           No one can serve two masters;
B                       for either he will hate the one and
C                                     love the other, or
C’                                    he will be devoted to the one and
B’           despise the other.
A’           You cannot serve God and wealth.

                                                                                        Jesus Christ

The Bible is actually full of examples of chiasmus and other very deliberate rhetorical stylistic devices and as a student of the Old Testament I am fascinated by them. Short pithy proverbs. Repeated ideas, reinforced and strengthened. Central pivot points and play on words. Alliteration and rhythm. I believe much of the oldest material (and indeed many of the sayings of Jesus which we have recorded) survived because they were memorable, and chiasmus is one good way to do that.

If you think of the stories you can remember from childhood, the chances are that the structure was also memorable. Chiasmus works structurally too. Maybe you have seen how certain parts of the Bible can be described like this, including parts of Genesis and Revelation and possibly even the entire book of Ruth, although I would caution against finding these meta-structures too readily.

The process of writing a chiastic structure is not always easy, but it can be a helpful exercise to create a there-and-back-again piece of writing which embraces repetition, and to remind ourselves of some of the clever rhetorical devices which have held stories together for centuries.

About the Author

Lucy Robinson is currently working on a historical fiction manuscript. A trained teacher with two Theology degrees, her writing stems from a passion for the Old Testament and for those on the edges. She lives with her husband, two children and a brace of guinea pigs in Cambridgeshire. Her blog is mostly associated with the family giraffe bread story which went viral in 2012, but she recently started creating a writer platform at


  1. I've just read The Elements of Eloquence by one of my favourite wordy people Mark Forsyth. Great little book on rhetoric. And funny.

  2. I'm sure you're right about the things we remember and it probably developed as a story-telling device back in pre-literature/oral tradition days. Itis also fun, and can become predictable in telling a story. You might like to look through Lord of the Rings - we are finding a great deal of patterning in there on this winter read!

  3. And of course the Hobbit's subtitle is 'There and Back Again' - Tolkien knew story and what he was doing! Thank you Mari - I'll look up 'The Elements of Eloquence' Fran :)