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Playing With Structure
Every piece of writing has a structure, even if it's just a simple beginning, middle, and end, but it plays a crucial role in how you tell your story, and can even become a part of the story itself.

In this module, David Mitchell (Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas) explains how playing with the structure of your story can reveal new aspects of the plot, theme, and characters, as well as some of the more complex tricks open to adventurous writers.

This session covers:
  • Complex structures
  • Flashbacks
  • How not to confuse readers
  • Using emotions to build tension

  • What is Structure?
    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.

    Approaching Complex Structures
    When writing a piece with a complex structure, do you need to plan everything? Roughly, yes. I'd advise starting with a coherent enough structure to give you direction, but not one so meticulous that you get bogged down in preliminary planning and preclude any happy accidents along the way. Some writers plan structure more than others, and your own optimum method will form in the same way as your voice, simply by the act of writing and the discipline of writing regularly.

    I plot a loose road map that will take the narrative through certain scenes, but I leave plenty of blank spaces for unforeseen diversions or short-cuts. I find it helpful to structure a narrative on a single piece of A3 paper, as this lets me view the entire masterplan without needing to turn pages, and I sketch it out as a herringbone diagram. The spine represents the whole novel, bones coming off the spine represent chapters, and sub-bones represent scenes with sub-sub-bones spiking into foliage of dialogue, lines and ideas which will feature in those scenes. A godawful mess, to be sure, but it makes sense to me. I then pin this A3 behind my laptop so it can monitor my progress from on high.

    Both as you plot and as you write, stay mindful of alternative ways you could tell your story from one or many different viewpoints, deliver the story differently or chop the story up. If something interesting occurs to you, think about it more then, if it still seems worthwhile, try it out. Even an unsuccessful experiment with a particular structure won't be a waste of time because you can always recast your narrative-plot and character work in your original structure, or another new one. I've sometimes turned around a workmanlike but lacklustre story (or a whole novel in one case) simply by redrafting it with a new structure.

    Getting from A to B
    Your main variables of structure are chronology and point of view, so let's deal with chronology first. Consider whether the plot is best told in a straight, no monkeying-about, Jane Austen line (A1, A2, A3…), in two straight lines (A1, A4, A2, A5, A3, A6…), backwards, as in Martin Amis' Time's Arrow or the film Memento (A5-6, A3-4, A1-2), or any other way you can think of. There is much territory still unclaimed by gimmickry and cliché.

    It is arguable that every branch on the literature tree was a gimmick when it first sprouted, and often a cliché needs only a tweak to turn it into something special (although some hoary chestnuts like the 'death-bed remembrance' structure may need more than a tweak). Cutting and pasting the narrative into a new chronology alone can sometimes impregnate a plot with questions that resolve into answers later, keeping your reader wriggling on a hook in the meantime.

    The obvious subdivision in points of view is the first and third person. A first person structure lets your protagonist's character develop even as they breathe and think, and allows your readers to see through your narrator's eyeballs, but it limits the narrative universe to your narrator's perception, unless you smuggle information that your narrator fails to register. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a recent example of an ordinary enough plot rendered extraordinary by giving it to a first person narrator wholly devoid of cliché.

    In contrast, a third person structure gives you untrammelled freedom to show the insides of anyone's head, past, present and future, but untrammelled freedom is tricky stuff. Will you limit your narrator's omniscience? Try to make him or her invisible? Judgemental? A member of your cast? You have to resolve these questions and stick with the consequences.

    Your choice of narrative tense is where chronology interfaces with point of view. It's an interesting exercise to reset a past tense narrative in the present tense. You have to abolish the future, but in return you can get a surging immediacy. Your structure simultaneously awards you certain freedoms as it slips you into certain straitjackets and these are not necessarily bad news. If you can figure out how they work, they encourage ingenuity and escapology.

    Don't Confuse the Reader
    As old as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and no doubt older, jumping between points of views offers rich possibilities for:
  • developing your dramatis personae by showing the differences between how and what different characters think;
  • nurturing dramatic irony by letting your reader know things that some or all of the characters don't know;
  • pacing the revelations you feed the reader as you build your character-montage;
  • authenticating and making more real the world in which your narrative is set;
  • examining a particular theme from multiple viewpoints.

  • Jumping between points of view isn't an appropriate technique for every novel (what a hash it would make of Huckleberry Finn) but it might be right for yours. Even if your structure doesn't involve jumping between points of view, I strongly recommend writing short autobiographies of your major characters in your notebook. This will flesh them out on the page, let you know what they think about the events and their fellow characters in the world you have created, as well as helping you hear their uses and abuses of language.

    If you do elect a structure which jumps between points of view, there is indeed a fine line between confusing, frustrating, confounding and mollycoddling the reader. You balance this fine line by controlling the flow of clues about what is happening to whom, and by the truthfulness of these clues. Obviously, if you wish, you can make it clear as day whose point of view you are using by labelling the sections with the narrators' names. Alice Walker's epistolary In the Temple of My Familiar gives you the pleasure of guessing the identity of each letter writer before confirming or refuting your guess at the end of each letter.

    Personally I like being confused by a writer, as long as my faith that I will be unconfused (to a reasonable degree) turns out to be well-founded. Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World resolves the confusion generated by the structure totally, whereas The Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs does so partially (both are fine novels, but don't read the latter on a full stomach).

    Short bursts of frustration can be worthwhile if they are there for a reason, and John Fowles' underrated A Maggot is an example of a novel which repeatedly undermines those same interpretations of events that it previously nudged the reader towards. Being confounded by a novel 100% (no examples spring to mind because I rarely finish the book) may carve the author a niche in the avant-garde but it's rarely much fun to read. Being caught out by my own assumptions or even prejudices, on the other hand (as in The Usual Suspects), can be very satisfying, if humbling.

    So how do you know whether your structure is confusing the reader in an intriguing way (good) or a confounding way (bad)? A tricky one. I can only suggest the Three Month Test: finish the piece, shelve it for three months while working on something else, then return to it with the cooler head of a reader rather than the buzzing head of a writer.

    To gauge the worth of a flashback or flashfoward, I'd like to propose another rule of thumb: if you can imagine it on a screen at the multiplex in a misty frame around Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp, your cliché alarm should be buzzing. Flashbacks (and I would maintain flashforwards are flashbacks, just facing the other way) do have a deservedly dodgy reputation. They interrupt narrative flow and tend to feel lazy.

    They also violate the estimable 'Show Don't Tell' principle. If you can show, for example, childhood abuse by scars, behaviour and dialogue rather than by 'telling it' with a backflash, then you prune an unnecessary scene and let the reader know that his or her intelligence is being credited.

    Pearls of originality, however, can be dug out from the pig-sty of cliché. The flashback/forward structure of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can strobes (successfully, to my mind) this question over the plot: "What events happened in the past that lead to this incarceration in the present?" Flashbacks also make room for sharp stings in the tail when the narrative past then catches up with the present and catapults into the future. You can make your flashbacks odd, beautiful mysteries whose significance only becomes apparent over time.

    The backflashes in Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man feature a misty frame around a younger Johnny Depp character both to highlight the hokey humour of the cliché and provide some handy background detail, and Jarmush really gets to have his structural cake and eat it. In my own novel, number9dream, one chapter features several backflashes because the chapter is about memory, so the flashbacks allowed structure to be married to theme.

    Foreshadowing and backshadowing occur more at a textual level than at the structural level of fore- and backflashes, but they are nonetheless a useful tool in the kit and worth a brief mention here. A character fated to die in a car accident on page 75, for example, might twist his ankle on a toy car on page 8. A Norfolk witch is burnt on page 15, while three hundred years and pages later, a website designer mentions that she can't rid her newly done-up Norfolk cottage of the smell of burning. Even if the reader doesn't spot the shadowing (and it is often wise to keep it subtle) this technique can both resonate between and glue together the components of a fragmented structure.

    When Less is More
    It was once fashionable to pillory what was once fashionably called 'the postmodern novel' for being too tricksy for its own good and for failing to engage with the reader on an emotional level, but I would say that the major problem inherent in complex structure is interruption: just as you get one emotional tune going you stop and begin another. The type of complex structure you choose will thicken or dilute this hazard. If your structure is one primary narrative punctuated by short secondary narratives (A1, B, A2, C, A3…) as in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, your chances of narrative A1's afterimage remaining on the reader's emotional retina until A2 picks up the narrative again are good.

    If your structure is more chaotic, I'm afraid it's the nature of the beast that your order will need to be tailored to your particular chaos. When I have a sinking sense that my own writing is coming unstuck, what has never failed me yet is to stop writing and compose a short, cold-blooded diagnosis of the problem. From the top of the definition of a dilemma, you often have a clear view of its solution.

    The components of a complex structure can affect one another and generate emotion for no other reason than they exist side by side, like magnetic fields, and this proximity is another type of connection. The realist, European memoir sections of Georges Perec's W or The Memory of Childhood refer only obliquely to the search for an island somewhere off Patagonia. The book's subsequent descriptions of this island's society make no reference at all to the former. Published separately, these two narratives might not add up to that much, but together, the reader realizes that they are portraying the casual brutality and wasteful lunacy of the Third Reich in as sickening a way as Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, with Germany hardly even being mentioned. Sometimes not making explicit connections in a complex structure leaves a question mark haunting enough to suggest answers to its own mysteries.

    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.

    By way of conclusion, I wish to state the only hard-and-fast rule I would apply to all advice about creative writing: "Do anything to make your fiction work." This includes ignoring anything written here. If an idea appeals to you, just try it out and think about why it works or why it doesn't. And good luck.
    Related Reading
    Tackling this kind of storytelling could commit you to sleepless nights. Here are some books to read while you're up.

    Vogler, Christopher - The Writer's Journey
    The essential elements which lie at the heart of many novels or films, laid out as a mythic hero's quest. Learn the basics before you start cutting and pasting.

    Atwood, Margaret: The Blind Assassin
    A Russian doll of a novel in which Atwood employs newspaper clippings, flashbacks, a novel within a novel and an allegorical story within that novel to tell the story of an old woman looking back on her life. Astonishing.

    Nolan, Christopher: Memento (screenplay)
    The simple plot of a man suffering short term memory loss tracking down his wife's killer is turned on its head by being told in two strands, one running backwards and one going forwards, which finally meet in the middle. Watch very, very carefully.

    Cunningham, Michael - The Hours
    Three women, three points in history, three different lives but Cunningham hops from one to another, highlighting themes of suicide and denial as he goes. And without the use of prosthetic noses.

    Useful Links
    BBC Radio Drama
    Listen again to recent dramas. Unpick the narrative structures of plays and book readings. Note the effects on your brain and body.

    An interesting article by author Nancy Kress on the perils and pitfalls of using flashbacks - luckily she explains how to make them work too.

    Related Craft Articles

    Using Foreshadowing
    Heighten the themes of your story or increase the tension by using small incidents which echo later, more significant events, known as foreshadowing. Keep it subtle though, and the reader will be quietly thrilled to have spotted your literary trickery!

    Multiple Viewpoints
    Don't be afraid to tell your story from multiple viewpoints if you feel it's right, but be careful not to confuse the reader - make it clear which character is in pole position at any one time.

    Question Your Decisions
    Once you've decided on a structure (or as one develops while you write), ask yourself what your chosen structure adds to the story. If your answer is that it seemed like a good idea at the time, it might be worth reconsidering!

    Different Perspectives
    Take a short story you have written which is from the view point of one character. Take a scene where your character is dealing with another character, and rewrite the scene from the viewpoint of the second character. How does this affect the style and tone of the scene? If you replaced the original scene with this new version, how would it affect the story overall?

    Running with Scissors
    When you've plotted out a story, write the scenes out on a piece of paper and cut them out. Try rearranging the scenes into a different order to create a non-linear narrative. It won't work for all stories but if it does, has it revealed anything new about the plot, theme or characters?

    What is Flash?
    The Flash version allows you to collate top tips and exercises using My Pinboard.

    Take a Mini-Course
    We've combined bits from all our Craft modules with exercises to develop a mini-courses for all levels. Created by creative writing tutors, our mini-courses set you on the path to better writing.

    Offline Courses & Groups
    Want to find a writing course or group that meets in person? Want to notify people of your writing group and recruit new members?

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