As well as being ‘divided’ into three acts and eight plot points, the typical story narrative will unfold in a linear manner. This may unfold naturally, with the plot simply going from beginning to end without overt mention of the time frame in which the story unfolds, or the time frame may be used as part of the structure – as in the seven day example mentioned in the Introduction. Not all stories however unfold in a linear manner but may move backwards and forwards in time, perhaps ending at the same point at which it began (a circular narrative) or even weave different stories together which unfold in different ways. Nevertheless, the overall arc will still fit the basic structures used in your ‘skeletons’ albeit in a more complex way.
A story can also be made more nuanced by using different voices – the two main characters for example, or even a group of characters. Jodi Picoult, author of ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ to name just one of her bestsellers, often switches between a third person narration (he said, she said) and the voice of one or more of the central characters (I said).
Although more complex structures can be used to great effect, they are by nature more difficult to write and even more difficult to make work. If you are a new writer or are writing in an entirely new genre then it may be good advice to stick with a simple structure. Simple is often the most effective. Nevertheless, some stories lend themselves particularly well to a more complex set-up, and the structure itself becomes part of the story. A recent and award winning example of a highly complex structure is Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ – arguably the best literary and commercial thriller of 2013.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was hailed as a literary masterpiece as well as becoming a mass market bestseller. It can be rare for a book to rise to the top of both the literary and commercial markets, and as well as Flynn’s evocative writing and the fact that the work is a typically gripping, pacy thriller, the way the novel was structured undoubtedly played a big part in its success. The book is written from the first tense viewpoint of the two main characters, Nick and Amy, who are husband and wife. The premise of the book and the reason for the title is Amy’s sudden and shocking disappearance on the eve of their wedding anniversary.
In the first half of the book, Amy is missing. Nick’s chapters (they take an alternate chapter each) follow a linear narrative from the day of Amy’s disappearance onwards, covering a period of a week, reflected in the chapter headings. Amy’s chapters on the other hand take the form of her diary and go right back to the beginnings of the relationship up to just before her disappearance. This discoherence in the time period of the narrative voices is crucial to the plot twist that comes in part two of the novel, when Amy’s narrative comes up to the present day, though remains a few days behind Nick’s, and ceases to be in diary form. The structure of this story then, both in terms of time and viewpoint, is deliberately complex and nuanced.
On top of all this the author employs an ‘unreliable narrator’ viewpoint in the first half; meaning that ‘diary Amy’ is almost unrecognisable as ‘real Amy’ (I’m trying not to give too much away here). The result is really quite stunning. Although ‘Gone Girl’ came in for its fair share of criticism (as indeed do most runaway successes) mainly because neither of the main characters are particularly likeable and for the ending, which some found anti-climactic, others chilling, nevertheless lovers and haters alike admired the way she had shaped the narrative.
Although this is an excellent example of a more complicated structure, bear in mind that it only works so well because the way the story is shaped is integral to the unfolding of the plot and its many twists and turns. If ‘Gone Girl’ was simply written in a linear fashion without the unreliable narrator element and the two ‘voices’ then the impact of the story’s central twist would have been significantly weakened. In fact, the story simply would not have worked, reading like a second-rate generic thriller at best (although Flynn’s elegant prose and punchy dialogue may arguably have saved it). The message? Only use a complex or non-linear structure when the story calls for it. Don’t take a perfectly good story and play around with it unnecessarily. When in doubt, A to B is not just the safest option; it’s usually the best.
Still, it’s always worth familiarising yourself with more complex works of fiction, particularly as your own writing progresses and your critical faculties sharpen. My own recommended reading list, as well as Gone Girl, would be as follows;
Stephen King – The Shining (jumps around in time and features the ‘voice’ of a building!)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (jumps around in time, is written from the viewpoint of various characters, and in different tones of Scottish dialect. Not easy reading, but incredibly powerful.)
Alice Sebold – The Lovely Bones (narrated by a murdered girl, moving in and out of her ‘alive’ viewpoint and the more dispassionate voice of her disembodied spirit. Eerie.)
Mini-exercise – Have a read of these and similar books and you’ll soon see that the very concept of structure actually offers incredible scope for creative planning.
Extract from ‘Building your Story’.