Friday, June 21, 2013

Complex Structures and Multiple Storylines--Authors Are Experimenting with Next Steps for Their Books

Have you noticed the trend?  Books are getting more complex--not just in their storylines but also in their structures.  Could be a reflection of how our brains are changing (see The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr).  Or our desire to reinvent literature once more.

But what's best for your book?  Are you eager for the edge in structure or storyline?  Here's a short history of where we've been and a forecast of where we might be going, with some ways to analyze where your book fits into it all.

Multiple Narrators Become Woven Structures
Only fifteen years ago, when Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible was published, we were awed by a story told from six or seven viewpoints.  Each member of the Price family contributed their own version of the voyage from Georgia to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo. 

Next came the breakthrough structure of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.  Called "episodic" because it straddled the line between a group of short stories and a novel, it paved the way for further experimentation in  Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries.  Each of these new forms offered a complicated woven plot, following not just multiple narrators but different eras.  The Stone Diaries even toggled from first- to second to third-person voice.

I'm finding the next wave in two books I'm currently reading:  Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham. 

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is set up like an encyclopedia, moving through alphabetical listings of topics.  There are notes, bullet-point lists, ruminations.  Some listings are one paragraph, some as long as chapters.  It is entertaining and extremely random, as if you're visiting a fictional character's journal and peering in on her mind, heart, and daily life. 

The Suicide Index
is a bit more serious and the chapters look like real chapters, but the organization is fascinating.  It explores the author's experience after her dad's suicide.  Each chapter is a different way it affected her--but it is set up as an index.  Chapters fall under main and subordinate headings, like an index would.  An example:  "Suicide:  act of:  attempt to imagine."

Both of these books--and many others out on the market today--demonstrate a new kind of literary architecture. 

Structure is the frame of the story.  These authors are saying how much this frame influences their narrative, and they are making it a strong part of their stories.

What Kind of Book Are You Writing?  Simple to Complex Structure 
It's useful to consider how your book's structure influences your writing.  At revision, especially, you can use the structure to emphasize what the story is trying to say.  I remember being in awe of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, as I realized the language and structure itself mimics an opera--which is a main subject of the book.

If your story is about chaos, for instance, how could your structure show this? 

Choosing complex structures takes more work from the writer--to create a clear pathway and anchor the story for the reader.  If done well, it can amuse us, startle us in delightful ways.  Make us think differently.
But it may not be for you. 

Many of us are drawn to complicated structures as readers, but as a writer, make sure this serves your story.  What best fits your topic?  A simple structure (see below) might allow your story to shine, while a complex one will only confuse it unnecessarily. 

But if your are writing a story about several generations or multiple narrators or places, or if your topic is cutting edge, you may well benefit from an equally edgy structure.
Types of Book Structure
Although there are many exceptions, most books fall into one of three categories:

1.  Simple structure (such as a fairytale)
2.  Woven narrative structure (multiple narrators)
3.  Woven architectural structure (multiple W's or storylines)

Let's look first at the simplest kind of story, the myth or fairytale.  This is where our roots are, as readers and listeners.  These kinds of stories had a clear beginning, middle, and end.  They fit so well into a storyboard where you can clearly see the rise and fall of action.

An example might be "Beauty and the Beast" from The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang.  (If you need a refresher or just want a lovely break into the world of fairytales, visit Sur La Lune Fairytales. )

In simple structures, there are usually five main turning points.  These are:

1.  First external triggering event: 
The family's house burns down and they lose everything

2.  First internal turning point:  The father must give up his daughter to the Beast
3.  Second external triggering event:  Beauty refuses to marry the Beast but is given permission to return home if she promises to return
4.  Second internal turning point:  Beauty realizes the Beast is dying because she did not return as promised
5.  Final crisis or epiphany moment:  The Beast turns into a handsome prince  

There's not a lot of work for the reader.  This kind of structure is deeply satisfying because it mimics life--beginning, middle, and end.  As Aristotle said, it provides an emotional catharsis. 

Does this structure fit your story?  You can check out more about it, a description of these five points of the W, on my YouTube video.

Is Your Book Ready for a More Complex Structure?
The first step in trying on a different structures is to decide what threads will connect the parts of your story for the reader.

Threads can be:
1.  Chronology of events
2.  The narrator or main character's growth arc
3.  Theme
4.  Evolution of a central image, place, or era

We've seen that in fairytales, the chronology of events guides the structure, providing a beginning, middle, and end in chronological time.  Events are logically placed along this timeline, and the story evolves in a clear way.  We easily track chronological structures because they are like a calendar:  one thing happens, then another thing happens as a result.

When the narrator or main character's growth arc (how they change as a result of the events) is the dominant thread, the writer moves out of chronological time.  There might be a scene from the past inserted in the middle of the chronology.  Now we are being guided by something other than just the events--there's an emotional undercurrent that is directing the story.

Books with strong movement into backstory or flash forward are usually threaded by the narrator's growth arc.  Have you read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls or Cheryl Strayed's Wild?  Both move into flashbacks a lot.  Wild is an especially good example of books that are structured along the narrator's growth arc; it actually has two narrative threads--the chronology of the PCT hike and the revealing of her childhood trauma.

Books that follow thematic or image threads are much more complex.  These will often have a main question that will be addressed from lots of different perspectives, sometimes even time periods and narrators.  They move back and forth in time very easily.  The Stone Diaries is a good example:  there are so many different stories but they are tied together by the question of identity and the image of "stone" and what it means.
The most complex structure is threaded by theme or image.  One big image, like a camera shot often placed at the start of the story, carries us through the structure.  Sometimes the chronology or narrative voices move all over the place, but the image repeats and is recognizable by the reader.

An example is Let the Great World Spin.  In the opening chapter, we see the tightrope walker--people on the ground staring up at the sky where "real" life is happening.  Each section in the book explores an aspect of this dual view--and the theme challenges us with the question of where life is really taking place.

How Do You Work with Complex Structures?
In my classes, we start with a W storyboard.  It's the easiest way to test your structure ideas and see if they are best held to chronology or if you have enough connectors or threads to try something more complicated.

If a writer's story passes the W structure test, and she or he thinks a more complex structure will enhance it, I recommend a next step:  Study and analyze a book that offers what you're after. 

Several of my students spend about 2-3 weeks reading and analyzing the structure of one of the books listed above.  They break down the author's choices into a kind of map. 

Then they see what might be learned for their own books.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're just starting to explore structure, watch the video and try the W storyboard.  It's Joseph Campbell's model, adapted over the years for my classes, but it's classic and used by many, many writers.

If your story holds up to the simple structure, take another step.  Find a book you'd like to analyze or model.  Read it as a writer, getting behind the author's decisions.  What might you learn? 

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