Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Taking Risks With Structure

When I wrote the most recent draft of my book Killing Hamlet, I used a traditional narrative structure where the story is presented in chronological order, in past tense, with only a few brief passages of explanatory backstory here and there. It seemed like the best way to tell the story and I was content with a straightforward narrative until I got to the very last chapter. At that point, something in my brain zigged when normally it would have zagged, and I decided to do something different.

There were a couple of reasons I wanted to do something radical in the final chapter:

First, the chapter had to contain the book's last scene of dramatic action and then relate what happens after the story proper ends. I really don’t like the “story/epilogue” structure, and I wanted to avoid it. But I still wanted all that epilogue material in the chapter.

Second, I have taken a lot of chances with this book already. I’ve pulled the characters out of Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” and told a different tale with them, one that sort of mirrors the historical accounts of Hamlet that Shakespeare based his play on, but also plays fast-and-loose with the source materials and with “Hamlet” and is entirely new at the same time. That’s a risk in itself. So I figured that if the reader was willing to come along up to this point, I could try to pull one last rabbit out of the hat and give a shot at a really virtuoso performance in the final chapter. So, yeah, I just want to show off a bit at the very end.

Third, and this properly goes with the first point, I wanted the drama to keep rising until the very last word on the very last page of the book, and using the “story/epilogue” structure won’t allow that; the epilogue is always a slackening of drama and I want to go out on a high note, to keep pushing the reader into new territory with each sentence. Again, it’s showing off.

So I came up with a structure that’s more or less as follows:

Last scene of story (interrupted)
10 years previous
Last scene of story (continued)
A few hours later
Last scene of story (continued)
Three years later
Last scene of story (continued)
Three years later
Last scene of story (finishes)
Three years later and into the future

The language becomes increasingly high-flown and poetic as the chapter progresses, and I am inordinately pleased with the last sentence of the book. I’ve never attempted anything quite like this before, with a narrative sort of coiling around itself while moving forward. I bail out of the 'last scene of story' in the middle of the action without truly finishing the scene; it’s clear what’s going to happen so there’s no point in spelling it out. I’m proud of that bit. Anyway, this is the chapter that establishes my “literary fiction” street cred. I have no idea where the impulse to tell the last scene and the epilogue in overlapping segments came from, but I’m glad it came to me.

My next big book project will present the story out-of-order, for the length of the narrative. We'll see how that works out. Some day I'll try A.S. Byatt's idea of "laminating" stories on top of each other, or working the way Salman Rushdie has done, telling at once several stories that are linked just barely by theme/location. Or maybe I'll borrow the idea from Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight where the book takes on the structures of the books the narrator is discussing, but this isn't pointed out to the reader. Who can say? Possibilities abound.

So, you: are you doing/have you done anything interesting/different with the structure/chronology of your narrative(s)? If so, what? How successful do you think you were? How have readers responded to it?


  1. I love when writers take chances in their work...when they trust the reader has enough brains to follow along. (Readers are smart!)

    I commend you for challenging yourself and pushing yourself to do something unusual.

    Sometimes, if we listen very carefully and are fully open to it, a story will take us places that (as a writer) we just really couldn't see coming.

    Well done, Scott!


  2. Looking at it the way you're showing, my narrative structure is SUPER boring. I guess I play with it a bit in Monarch, but not really. That's mostly playing with POV, and it's pretty danged straight forward. My little novelette idea for our project, however...that will play with a lot of things. You'll love it. I think... :)

  3. Sometimes it seems that it's more the exception when I follow traditional structure.

    One short story I am finishing up ("That Which Survives")opens with with the present tense briefly, drops down into a memoir-style past tense, switches to a traditional past for a while and then catches back up to the present tense for the conclusion.

    Another story ("When You Wish Upon a God") hops between several different past tense time frames fluidly, using some narrative queues to help the reader from getting lost. There is a general tendency (but not a true pattern) of forward progression among the different timelines.

    I've gotten positive feedback from both casual readers and gatekeepers on those two stories.

    Another story which is yet untitled is all in the past tense and follows a J-shaped timeline. It starts at point C, swoops back to B, then back to A, then works back to B, C, and then finishes at D.

    I hope to find someone to vet this one still to make sure it's not confusing.

    In Sublimation the overall feel is much more straight forward, but there are a few jumbles here and there where it helps to add suspense by interweaving fragments of slightly different timelines.

    The sense of time and structure in Ennui and Malaise is hard to describe, but it's very messy. It's 1st person POV of someone who has lost just about all understanding of what's happening around him and even when it's happening. The narrative reflects that. I don't think it will be hard to follow per se, but there is a chance it will frustrate readers who desire a stronger anchor.

  4. I'm excited to read your book, including your last chapter, Scott. I'm glad you're so happy with it!

    With Rooster I did an alternating time line, with one story focusing on my protag as an adult and the other focusing on him when he was a teenager. It felt complicated, but the final result is pretty systematic. From what readers have said, it works best in places there there are good transitions between the two times. In other places, I think it comes off as being a tad random.

    With Bread, it's fairly linear with one long flashback in the middle. But, the last chapter is told backwards in an attempt, like you, to keep the most dramatic part at the end.

    Lately I've been trying to write more linearly just because that experience is new to me, and I think it's making me a better writer. It's a skill I should have picked up earlier but never did.

  5. I've just finished a book that plays with structure--dangerous when you write commercial fiction--but the subject screamed to be written this way. Hope it works.

  6. Shelley: Yes, we have to trust our readers! I try to assume they're smarter than I am. I like what you say about listening carefully to the possibilities a story has to offer.

    Michelle: Most of the time, I like a good, straightforward narrative structure. "Cocke & Bull" is pretty much just the story-as-it-moves-along, though I play with POV all the way through it. I think I was just having fun with omniscience after spending years in 1st-person. I will be interested to see how "Thirds" (if that's the novelette you mean) works out!

    Nevets: You have to take the chance you'll frustrate some of your readers sometimes. Also, it's not necessarily a bad thing as a reader to be totally lost and confused, if it's by the author's design.

    Domey: The structure of "Rooster" totally works for me. I can't wait to read "Bread." I think there's a lot to be learned about storytelling by writing simple linear narratives. I think you get a stronger sense of what you can do to the structure when you're really confident that the structure itself is solid. If you know what I mean.

    Anne: Yeah, sometimes the story will demand something unexpected of us. And bravery is often its own reward in the arts, I think.

  7. Scott, no, I was talking about the mystery/ghost novelette I'm going to write for the combined no-longer-so-secret project we've talked about in the past. However, if that never happens, that's okay. I'll write the novelette anyway. Thirds will be very straightforward. :)

  8. Michelle: "no longer happens?" I have a story idea for the Great Literary Lab Trio, so it had better happen! Just saying. Mine will be a straightforward narrative, I think. With tarantulas.

  9. Well, I was losing hope there because Davin has other plans for Bread and I moved on with Cinders and I wasn't sure if we were still all going for that Great Literary Lab Trio. (nice name).

    Tarantulas. What happened to the processed-cheese factory?

    Anyway, I'm getting nervous now for something later! You know why. :)

  10. (Side note: tarantulas are like the bears of the arachnid world.)

  11. Scott, your last chapter sounds awesome! I am looking forward it.

    I use a braiding structure, that alternates PoVs, and sometimes one of the storylines is from the past. I think it creates an interesting effect when the stories are juxtaposed, not told in straight chronological order, but as an experiment, one of the novelettes in my anthology is an extracted storyline, told straight through. It's from the PoV of a villain, so I hope it doesn't give readers that the whole series is that tragic.

  12. Michelle: I had a better idea is what happened. It occured to me that the story I had in mind was not only derivative of something I'd just read, but was also a mean-spirited parody of someone in real life. Also, tarantulas! How can I resist?

    Nevets: Timmy the tarantula? Maybe.

    Tara: I like the idea of a braided set of storylines. I will declare that I have no plans to ever write from a first-person POV again. Horatio has taken it out of me these last few years. I hope you like the book when you see it.

    My next project (the abovementioned "Great Literary Lab Trio" novella) will be in limited omniscient and in linear narrative. The project after that (a long novel about Antarctic explorers) will likely also be in limited omniscient, but in a looping narrative structure that keeps coming back to the same time/place/event. I have a sudden urge to have that "same time/place/event" passage be retold every 10,000 words or so by a different character in close 3rd POV. But I resist, because it's been done before and it seems mere gimmickry.

  13. Really, the idea just wasn't any good. I'll save the cheese factory for something else. I've had that bit kicking around in my head for decades.

  14. Scott, I also wanted to do a story where the same scene, or sequence is retold from different PoVs. I know it's been done, but I think it would be fun to do it with magic, in epic fantasy format. I might do that if I ever write a sequel series to Dindi. It would require a lot of careful planning, but could be a huge amount of fun. Death would would a main character. Good times!

  15. I'm sure the cheese factory will rise again. You can't keep good cheese down.

  16. I read a book of short stories by a local author that did a little of what Tara Maya mentioned--showing scenes from different perspectives.

    It was a collection of stories about households in the same neighborhood, and it took place over the same general time period.

    The stories were linked by little more than place and theme, but in a few spots the neighbors would interact briefly, or someone would look out a window or across the street and see a neighbor doing something and come to conclusions about what was going on--usually inaccurately.

    Honestly, the stories themselves weren't that great, but the structure of the book made an impression on me. The structure itself spoke volumes about cultural isolation, prejudices, and what it means to live in a city neighborhood.

  17. In one section of my novel-in-eternal-progress, two characters are falling in love, but one character has a secret from ten years before that is keeping them from getting too close. So for that section, between each chapter I've inserted a short interlude telling part of the story from ten years before that leads to the secret (which will be revealed at the start of the next section of the book). The idea being that hopefully the structure will emphasize for the reader the fact the secret and/or the past is coming between them by literally interrupting their story.

  18. That, good sir, was fascinating. All my projects at the moment are 1st person present, so not much you can do to play with time in that tense. Still, I like the concept very much.

    Now I just need an excuse to use it.


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