Playing with Structure

Here is a great article on the structure of your work, stressing the importance of making the structure as important as the plot.

What is Structure?
by David Mitchell

To begin with, structure need not just be a frame on which you hang narrative, but a kind of plot in its own right, running parallel to the narrative-plot. Twists in this ‘structure-plot’ occur as and when its nature and workings are revealed to the reader.

What follows are observations and suggestions about constructing, handling and using a complex structure. Structure can be to fiction what the work done in an editing suite is to a film, which is why I’ve chosen examples from films as well as books. Structure dictates how your reader will experience your writing, and the importance of that ‘how’ cannot be overstated.

A traditional narrative-plot is a sort of question-engine (“Who killed Professor Plum?”) whose leading answers give the text momentum (“Colonel Mustard, in the library, with a candlestick… but why?”). Characterization also has a propulsive quality (“Why was Old Plum such a swine anyway?”, “Ah, that’s because of the War – sit down and let me fill you in…”). Less obviously, structure, too, can be made to ask questions: often a variation on “What’s happening here, in what order, perceived by whom?” A complex structure has the potential to surprise, connect with and intrigue the reader in innovative ways.

But how complex is complex? “Complex enough to generate unusual effects, unusual problems with unusual solutions” is an answer only slightly less arbitrary than the question, but it’s the one I’d like to run with. Thus a narrative-alternating structure (A1, B1, A2, B2, A3, B3…) where narratives A and B share a world and are ‘aware’ of each other (as in, say, the second book of The Lord of the Rings) won’t be counted as complex because it’s old as the hills, but a structure such as that of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (A1-20, A1, B1, A2, B2…) will.

When devising a complex structure for a piece of fiction it is wise to keep the question “Why am I telling the story this way?” in the front of your mind. If the answer is, “Because this structure develops the plot, enhances the characters or helps me to explore the themes,” then things are looking good. Proceed with caution if your response is, “Because it’s ingenious.” If the answer is, “Because it hasn’t been done before,” then be very careful – there may be valid reasons why it hasn’t been done before, and you need to know what they are. But if you’re only doing it because you can, then you’re in trouble.

Using Emotions to Build Tension
You build tension in a complex structure the same way as you do in a simple structure: by making the reader worry whether a character he or she has an emotional investment in is going to be okay or not, or get what they want or not. If a complex structure can interfere with this question by taking the reader’s eye off the ball, a complex structure can also offer more opportunities for deferring, diverting, or multilayering this tension (think of the acrobatics of theme made possible by the structure of the film Groundhog Day). Once again, restrictions (here, of a complex structure) cause problems, but solving these problems leads you somewhere special.

I find it helpful to think of emotions as colours, or musical timbres, and to consider what emotions dominate where one narrative ends and another picks up. Do they harmonize or clash? Do they clash usefully or do they clash stupidly? Is there one dominant emotion, or are they strange chords of mixed emotions? Chekhov was a maestro of ambiguous music: here as elsewhere, read the masters and think about how they did it.

Grief, anger and bliss (say) are the same experiences as in narrative A as they are in B, C and Z, even though the events that generated them may belong to different times, places or worlds. Play these emotions like instruments and think of your overall structure as the score. One more practical suggestion: if a structure involves narratives set in very different worlds, I advise you to concentrate on sticking to one narrative at a time, even if you’ll be cutting and pasting several narratives into a more complex structure later on. This way at least each narrative is created as one emotional whole.

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