Lessons Learned from The Iron Ring: Chiasm

There are certain patterns of plots that Western readers are familiar with. These are rhythms of thought that help us know what to expect and help us discover the meaning inside a story.

I recently read (and loved) Lloyd Alexander’s The Iron Ring, a fantasy novel about a young king who embarks on a mysterious journey to uphold his honor and the honor of his caste. I loved many things about it, but one thing that fascinated me was its structure. Today, we’re going to talk about chiasm and plot structure.

Common Western Story Structures

Before we can dig into what makes The Iron Ring‘s plot structure so special, first we have to explore the more familiar Western methods of structuring stories. The most common structures in modern author discourse are the 3 Act, 5 Act, Hero’s Journey, and Save the Cat! Beat sheet.

Three Act and Save the Cat

In ancient Greece, Aristotle realized that the best tragedies had a beginning, middle, and end. Since then, many authors have followed a similar approach. The first act sets up the characters, setting, and conflict. The second act develops the conflict as more tensions are introduced. The third act brings the climax, or the moment things come to a head, and the resolution.

In recent years, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! book on screenwriting has further popularized the 3 Act Structure, breaking it down into 15 detailed steps. While this was intended for an audience of screenwriters, its influence has expanded far beyond those bounds into novel writing as well. Since at heart it is similar to the 3 Act structure, I’m not going to go in depth about it here.

Five Act

Horace, in ancient Rome, declared that the structure Aristotle had noticed was a rule of good writing, establishing the 5 Act Structure in Ars Poetica. Shakespeare and Freytag popularized this into the format you may have been taught in secondary school English classes:

In a story following this structure, exposition introduces us to the character and world. The inciting incident sparks a conflict, and rising action events ratchet up the tension surrounding the conflict. At the climax, characters move from reaction into action, actively doing something in the falling action, until everything is wrapped up and we see the new normal in the denouement.

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell popularized the Hero’s Journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Star Wars brought this structure into everyday parlance.

An ordinary character in their ordinary world gets an invitation to do something extraordinary. After they turn down the opportunity, interactions with their mentor launch them into a new world where they encounter bad guys, grow, and ultimately defeat the bad guys, coming back home changed for the good.


What these three/four plot structures have in common is that they all are more or less linear. At first glance, the Hero’s Journey seems cyclical, and it may be applied that way, but these charts show how it has a lot of similarities to both the Three Act and the Five Act structures:

In these stories, characters move in one direction: forward. But that is not the only way to tell stories.

The Iron Ring: Chiasm

Lloyd Alexander’s The Iron Ring follows a chiastic structure. Chiasm, sometimes called “ring structure,” is a technique of setting up a pattern and then presenting variants in reverse order. If we assign letters to the elements of the pattern, it might look something like A, B, C, C’, B’, A’, or A, B, X, B’, A’.

Spoilers for The Iron Ring after this point.

Boiled down to a few key points,

  • A. Tamar is a young king who has a dream-like encounter with an older king that launches him on a journey.
    • B. Tamar explores concepts of gift-giving with a river snake
      • C. He meets a disgruntled eagle who is too pessimistic to finish his quest to retrieve a gem for his king
        • D. Tamar encounters a talking bear hermit and makes a dishonorable choice
        • D’. Later, Tamar fights beside the bear hermit and is forced into a situation that he thought would have stripped him permanently of honor.
      • C’. The disgruntled eagle finally finds confidence enough to succeed in his quest
    • B’. The small, seemingly-insignificant choice Tamar made earlier with the river snake bears a surprising reward just in time
  • A’. Tamar has a dream-like reunion with the older king and has grown into a much wiser king on his journey

The actual novel has far more plot points, but the way Alexander lays out the plot and then deftly revisits each point is astounding.

Internal Journey Emphasized

It’s not just that Tamar hits each point twice, in reverse order. The truly fascinating aspect of this form of storytelling is recognizing what has stayed the same and what has changed.

Let’s look specifically at points D and D’ from the above discussion of The Iron Ring‘s structure.

Honor is at the center of the novel, and also at the center of Tamar’s inner journey. He begins the story convinced that he knows what is right, what is honorable, what he should do. He has a very narrow view of the world because of his youth and education.

When Tamar is at the bear hermit’s house, he wrestles more with his concept of honor than he had previously. There is something he wants desperately—a quiet life with the milkmaid he has fallen in love with—that he does not believe he will ever get if he continues to act in the way he thinks is honorable and finish his quest. In a moment of great struggle, he surrenders to the temptation of his own desires, throws away the symbol of his quest, and chooses dishonor. He has failed, or so he thinks. His selfishness is revealed, and his weakness in doing what is right.

Those who care for him eventually are able to convince Tamar to continue his quest. Now humbled, he once again encounters a situation that he has been told could strip him of his honor. Having lost a battle, he is discarded among the caste-less. Tamar has been raised to believe that interacting with these people automatically strips one of one’s caste, or place in society. To even touch one violates your caste honor. Now he, former king, becomes the slave of a casteless man.

Here for the second time, Tamar is in a situation that he thinks has destroyed his honor. But as he lives with the casteless, he comes to recognize the truth: his honor can’t be taken away by something a superficial as who or what he interacts with. His rejection of his quest had been the truly dishonorable thing.

Juxtaposing these situations makes the reader pull back and reflect more deeply on this theme. With only one or two direct comments from the characters, the readers have to sit and contemplate the story to draw out how Tamar has grown, what he has learned, what this means for their lives. That reflection leads to much deeper, lasting connection to the story. It also means the theme is more likely to be more transformational for the readers. When we come to our own conclusions after reflection, it shapes us far more than when we are spoon fed maxims.

With the general outline of the second half of the story made slightly more predictable by chiasm, two things keep readers reading: intrigue at how the writer will find a new way to present the thing that has happened before, and curiosity at how the character is going to grow. This latter one is one of the most important elements of storytelling, and chiasm keeps it intentionally front and center.

It’s easy to fall into the same storytelling methods that we’ve used and seen used countless times. The Iron Ring, in addition to being a beautiful book in its own right, was a good reminder to keep learning, keep exploring other cultures, and keep trying new things.

Have you read any stories with a chiasmic structure? Share your recommendations in the comments!

Remember to preorder Steward Stories! Ebook and paperback formats are available—and it’s publication month!



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