April 29, 2022

Narrative arcs generally follow a beginning-middle-end structure (hence “arc”).

Usually in the beginning there is the Exposition, which introduces everything. Then in the middle there starts to be a sort of acceleration/accumulation of events that will lead to a Climax. Then in the end there is some kind of Resolution. There is a lot of flexibility to be creative within these guidelines, but the reason so many stories follow this pattern is because it’s satisfying to the audience to see this kind of development. What is a story anyway but “a thing that happens”?

Trilogies are particularly satisfying because they operate narratively on multiple levels: each installment has its own three-part narrative structure, and then on top of that the overarching story also has a three-part structure. It can get fractally:

You probably already know many examples of movie and book trilogies, but some of my favorite are The Matrix trilogy, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and the three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Even if not strictly done in three parts, lots of art follows a similar pattern.

For example in drama that follows the three-act structure, the climax will come in Act 3 instead of in the middle section. Music and film narratives tend to follow this general trajectory. Visual art, since it is not a time-based medium, will usually have the main material in the middle section, with the first and third sections serving more as balancing roles. Also, basic good composition in painting and photography revolves around the triangle.

This is why it is so interesting when a story or work of art is structured in only two parts. At first it feels unbalanced compared to the above three-part structure. Instead of an arc with a direction, I think of two-part narratives as more the juxtaposition of two completely separate, equally weighted entities:

Each part can operate independently and then inform the other part by contrast. The need for continuity seems to have been fractured since there’s no connective tissue in the middle, no allocated space for development.

While having two things side-by-side is more common in visual art, when it appears in other art forms like music, poetry, and literature it is fascinating.

Here is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Song for a Lute” (1927), the first from the series of six poems “To Elinor Wylie”:

Seeing how I love you utterly,
And your disdain is my despair,
Alter this dulcet eye, forbear
To wear those looks that latterly
You wore, and won me wholly, wear
A brow more dark, and bitterly
Berate my dulness and my care,
Seeing how your smile is my despair,
Seeing how I love you utterly.

Seeing how I love you utterly,
And your distress is my despair,
Alter this brimming eye, nor wear
The trembling lip that latterly
Under a more auspicious air
You wore, and thrust me through, forbear
To drop your head so bitterly
Into your hands, seeing how I dare
No tender touch upon your hair,
Knowing as I do how fitterly
You do reproach me than forbear,
Seeing how your tears are my despair,
Seeing how I love you utterly.

The poem hinges on the line “Seeing how I love you utterly,” which appears four times and bookends each stanza. This repetition, instead of being cyclical, conveys urgency. The poem is a good example of an intense focus on one feeling: “how I love you utterly [and you are] my despair”. The first stanza encompasses this feeling, and the second stanza feels like a controlled overflow—like Millay is continuing the meditation unwillingly and saying, “again.” In this case, two stanzas works because having only one would not convey the same emotive strength, and having three or more would feel too cumbersome and dilute the briskness of the sentiment.

Artistically, it’s more difficult to pull off the two-part structure. In music, for example, think of a mediocre pop song. It’s likely the successful parts of this song can be attributed to its structure—as long as it follows the songwriting arc that is so common across pop music, it will achieve some level of “goodness”. The three-part structure is stable and flexible enough that loose adherence to it can carry a work of art.

On the contrary, the two-part structure is less stable and thus more demanding. It is much easier for the two parts to become unbalanced, to have too much or too little to do with each other (which then begs the question of the structural choice), or to feel lacking. It seems that two-part structures work against narrative, since at best they are only “beginning” and “end”. So, when two-parters are successful, it’s more the result of additional artistic qualities than the narrative form itself.

The ways in which a two-parted artwork can succeed varies and comes with a different type of satisfaction. Sometimes the first part will say something, and the second will say it again in a different way. Sometimes it will be more like a conversation: a question and an answer. Sometimes it will feel (purposefully) like a three-parter that has been cut short so as to prevent resolution. All of these are more cerebral and creative in how it feels to enjoy them.

Grappling with two parts leads to a wholly new set of creative problems to solve as an artist. Suddenly concepts of symmetry, balance, and contrast have much more weight.

Frank Ocean’s “Nights” has two parts, with the transition between the two bisecting the entire Blonde album:

Any time a song has two clear-cut parts it’s interesting to investigate the artist’s choice to keep the song as a single song, instead of splitting it. The two parts of “Nights” are musically distinct—the tempo in part two slows down, Frank’s voice is pitched up, and it feels overall like a comedown to the heavy rumination on dissatisfying relationships in part one. Both parts share a chorus (”Droppin’ baby off at home before my night shift...”), though it is more like a motif rather than a chorus, since it appears only once in each part. The two parts manage to work both sequentially and in parallel, with the second part in some ways an answer to the first part, and in other ways a second perspective on the same theme.

A few other two-part songs I’ve been enjoying recently are Tyler, the Creator’s “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU” and Nina Cobham’s “Sola.”

There is something startlingly hallowed about the concept of “two”—every flip-side, every pairing, every intimacy, every relation is an incarnation of two-ness—and when art takes this dual form it bakes this inheritance into its very structure, allowing for truly special results.