Novel Fridays: Structure

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Happy Friday, novelists! I hope you had successful weeks. Once again, we will be delving into the different techniques we use when writing novels.

Now you may have been wondering in our discussion of time last week: what about flashbacks? Or flash forwards? How are the events of my novel best arranged? Should they only proceed in sequential order? Or in other words: what should the structure of my novel be?

We can use the word structure, broadly speaking, to talk about any technical choices we make in fiction, including point of view, tense, syntax, demarcation of dialogue, use of section or page breaks, etc. Essentially anything that isn’t the novel’s plot may be attributed to “structure.” However, today, we’ll be focusing on what I would call the skeleton or scaffolding of your novel–the general form your novel takes.

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Linear Structure

We are all likely most familiar with linear structure: a story which proceeds sequentially in time. Even Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, with its unusual use of time we discussed last week, is a linear novel. It moves forward from moment to moment in a somewhat reliable fashion. This is not to say that characters in a linear novel will never remember or reflect on a past event. They may have brief flashbacks contained within the novel’s overall forward-moving structure. But the act of remembrance happens as an event in the linear timeline. Although the list of linear novels is more or less endless, some examples include: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Dracula by Bram Stoker (accomplished as an epistolary or a novel in letters and diary entries), and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

The benefits of a linear structure are also fairly straightforward. In a heavily plot-oriented novel, such as Dracula, it allows the reader to follow events most easily. In mystery or thriller novels, the build of suspense and the progression of events in the novel will be the same. The introduction and development of your characters will more easily happen in a recognizable narrative arc. And such a structure may allow you to make other, more unusual stylistic choices.

Reverse linear structure: We should note that not all linear timelines need to happen from past to future. Rather, a novel can move backwards in time in a similarly linear fashion. For example, Sarah Waters’ novel, The Night Watch, begins after World War II and ends in 1941 at the beginning of the war. Waters’ approach to the narrative allows us to realize the complications of her characters’ relationships, starting with their aftermaths and moving back to their beginnings. For example, an affair ends in the first section of the novel, but begins in the final section. A character is released from prison during the novel’s opening chapter in 1947, but the reader learns how he came to be there during a later chapter in 1941. You can see in this way that the linear structure, though considered less experimental, can be manipulated to great effect.

Nonlinear Structure

Most of us associate nonlinear structure with modernism and James Joyce, but the use of flashback appears in B.C.E. epic poetry and tales, so we might say its foundation is a deeply rooted aspect of storytelling. Essentially, a nonlinear narrative moves around in time–from present to future to past to present to past to future. Sometimes these moves are highly predictable, as in novels which only contain flashbacks from the present narration to past events. Sometimes they cannot be predicted at all and as a reader you may have to do quite a bit of rereading to determine exactly when you are. A nonlinear novel might be otherwise very traditionally structured or it might be extremely fragmented. Examples of nonlinear novels include: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

So why might a novel require such a structure? Perhaps the narrator has no sense of time passing, as Benjy does in The Sound and the Fury. Although he is a fully grown man, Benjy still imagines himself as a child. Perhaps the narrator has a mental illness (Quentin, The Sound and the Fury) or spends the novel in a drug haze (William Lee, Naked Lunch). Or maybe your character has been kidnapped by time-traveling aliens (or has a massive case of PTSD, depending who you ask), as in Slaughterhouse-Five. Of course, as we’ve noted, nonlinear structure is also simply a mode of storytelling–we often start in one place and have to backtrack to bring the reader up to speed.

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As with other technical choices, it’s entirely likely you won’t recognize the best structure for your novel until you’ve written the first, second, or even third draft. That’s okay, although it may seem daunting. Maintain a list of major events to keep yourself oriented in the story as you rewrite and revise. Draw diagrams to play with linear and nonlinear narratives. Or list each chapter or section on a notecard and then move them around as you please. Fragment a highly linear, sequential story. Order a fragmented nonlinear narrative. See how that impacts the mechanics of your novel.

How do you approach structure? What are your favorite linear novels? Nonlinear novels?

About the Author: Julia Patt

JuliaBiopicJulia Patt, Contributing Editor, from Chestertown, MD, is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she was a fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. Her young adult novels—i was a fourth grade zombie slayer and Through Waterless Places—were both shortlisted for Mslexia’s 2012 Children’s Novel Competition, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Surreal South ’11Stymie, and PANK.

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