creative writing, creative writing online, diptych

Mini Lesson: The Diptych Essay

“I’m finding the diptych is such an incredibly effective and powerful structure. I’m writing about stuff I never dreamed I’d ever write about.”
~ Abby Palmer


Virgin and Child with Maarten van Nieuwenhove
Hans Memling, 1487

One of the most exciting CNF forms I’ve discovered recently is inspired by visual art.

The diptych essay is modelled on medieval and Renaissance paintings that were rendered on two separate wooden “panels”, like the painting above by Early Netherlandish artist, Hans Memling.

These hinged two-fold panel paintings were designed to illustrate biblical stories for the purpose of spiritual contemplation.

Given the inspiration for the form, it follows that the diptych is an ideal structure for stories that invite rumination–something we don’t often see in rapid-fire, flash-length memoir.

As the mind hovers in the “white space” between each panel, the story’s meaning is implied.

In my new CNF ecourse on forms inspired by visual art, writers will explore both two- and three-fold panel essays (i.e. the diptych and triptych)–each with their own unique dynamic as containers for different kinds of stories.

I hope learning a bit more about the possibilities of the diptych essay inspires you to tell some new stories–so I thought I’d share a quick mini-lesson here with you.

The Diptych Essay: A Mini-Lesson

Keywords: contemplation, rumination


  • also known as the parallel essay, text is presented on the page as two fragments, aligned side by side or set one above the other
  • may embody other genre-bending CNF forms; for instance, the diptych may be comprised of two distinct prose poems or two flash pieces
  • like the collage or braided lyric essay, diptych “panels” may be separated by lines, numbers, symbols, subheadings, or white space
  • each section may lead to a “flash” of understanding, but the diptych as a whole may not follow a singular linear narrative arc
  • unity in the piece is achieved by the subtle echoes that appear in each half—a shared theme, repeated image, idea, experience, word choice, mood, feeling, or phrase
  • there is room for rumination in the diptych—a reflection on the narrator’s responses to the subject or theme, suitable for a form inspired by art objects designed for contemplation and meditation
  • inspiration may be drawn from spiritual or religious themes and the arts


Key Reading:

Diptych Essays:

* “Fox and Woman: A Diptych” by Carolyn Moore
* “Mirror Image: A Diptych” by Rowan McCandless
* “Diptych: Chrysalis, Prayer” ” by Katharine Haake

Diptych poems:

* In “Fish Eyes” Susan Terris breaks her diptych poem into two sections, “Sink or Swim” and “Swim or Sink”. Note how she uses a symbol as a “hinge” between the two mirror-image subtitles that denotes inequation (≠).

* Robert Gray’s poem, “Diptych”, is a compare/contrast piece about his parents that uses a numbered format. Note the transitional word “whereas”, which acts as the narrative “hinge” in this piece, connecting two co-existing realities or truths.

* In Jim Moore’s two-part poem, “My Bracelet”, he writes two separate “panels” related to one object—this approach allows the writer to take differing perspectives, explore dualism, reveal new aspects of a subject, idea, experience, or memory.

Diptych Writing Prompts:

Write a parallel essay of no longer than 1,000 words using one of the following prompts to get started:

1.Choose a theme–it can be general and/or abstract like love, alienation, freedom, or anything you like. Select two objects, images, memories, or stories connected to that theme and write two independent fragments. Arrange the two pieces on the page. You might arrange the piece as two panels separated by numbers or format the text side by side using a table (as I did with my diptych essay, “Iconoclasts”).

2. Write a brief piece about an object and any associated memories that come up in the writing. Does a mood or theme emerge? Write a second piece about the same object—or some other object that is connected to the first object in your mind. What happens when you lay these pieces side by side on the page? Which works best as the first piece; which reads best placed second?

For a more in-depth look at the diptych essay, consider joining my new CNF ecourse on forms inspired by visual art.

Just like CNF Outliers, this e-course includes inspiring readings, exclusive Q and As with celebrated CNF writers, discussions in our private forum, and the opportunity to receive feedback on new work.

This week I’m offering a $20 discount to subscribers. Registration for CNFO2 closes at midnight PST on Sunday, June 17–or sooner, if all 10 spots are filled!

To confirm a spot is available and complete registration, please email nicole(at)

Registration Information
Course dates: June 18 to July 30, 2018
Course details: CNFO2: CNF’s Visual Forms
Course fee: $349 USD  $329 USD

For course curriculum and other details, please visit the e-course landing page — or drop me a line if you have any questions!