Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Shape of Story

A big 'thank you' to all who posted comments to Andy Meisenheimer's post on Friday, and a huge 'welcome' to folks who stopped by for the first time. Did you know that we will choose one lucky person to win a copy of Latayne Scott's Mormon Mirage? Every time you post a comment, your chances multiply.

I just finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What a great story and what a creative way to have it unfold! This story about the German occupation of the Channel Islands is told exclusively through letters exchanged between the characters after the war is over. It handles a weighty and horrific topic in an approachable style by using the distance created by the use of letters and by interjecting subplots which lightened the tone, at times cutting away to a budding romance and points of humor. If it had been written any other way, I don't think I would have finished it, but I'm a lightweight. The right- or the wrong - book can leave me with bad dreams. (Like The Historian - shiver! I stopped reading a third of the way through.)

This unusual story structure led me to consider the art involved in the shaping of stories, and how it can both enhance and hamper a reader's enjoyment. Take, for example, The Time Traveler's Wife. The main character travels through time unexpectedly and against his will. As an adult, he travels back and meets his future wife when she is only a child. Later, when she meets him as an adult, he doesn't know her. At times it was a mental workout to keep up, but it was worth it. (I offer a word of caution about the sometimes gritty content.) If I put the book aside for too long, I had trouble picking it up again, like dropping a string in Cat's Cradle. But I was invested in the story enough to see it to the end, and the structure was intriguing. The flashbacks weren't there to provide backstory - they were the story.

By contrast, Isabel Allende's Zorro is largely narrative with limited dialogue. She had an interesting and very human perception of the man behind the legend, but I kept wishing she would show me instead of telling me. Hmmm...

Story structure should take into consideration the nature of the story and should be complementary. For example, Gilead is written in the form of a long, rambling letter full of wisdom (along with regrets) from an elderly father to his young son. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is told in the first-person viewpoint of an autistic teenager, using the charts, maps and diagrams he uses to break down his world into comprehensible chunks, along with prime numbers for chapter headings. Some stories are more suitable as allegory (The Screwtape Letters) and some are best recorded as diary or journal entries (The Princess Diaries). Structure should never get in the way of or detract from story.

While having a great story is, of course, the most important part of the equation, having an interesting or unique structure can greatly enhance it. How important do you think story structure is, and what are some interesting treatments that you have read? How much of story structure is art?


Nicole said...

Being a pirate or rebel at heart (in a good way, of course), I prefer variety and imagination even with my contemporary genre favorites. The "rules" were made to be broken in my world, and I appreciate skill demonstrated in multiple styles and unique voices.

Again, if the story works, bravo to the one who told it in a different way. Kind of an off the wall example, but in Robert Liparulo's Dreamhouse Kings Series, each book is told in increments of minutes or hours, and the next in the series picks up right where the previous one left off. They're published within a reasonable time of each other so the reader doesn't totally forget the previous story. Written for young adults, they're fast-paced and exciting, and they work.

Lisa Samson's The Passion of Mary-Margaret is written like a memoir by the hand of an elder Sister. The flashbacks work, the veering off from one memory to another works because the character of the writer has been established as aging and basically "required" to tell her story.

I like multiple POVs if they work. I love all kinds of things writers do if I like their voice and style.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I agree with you, Nicole. I enjoy multiple POVs if their voices are distinctively different. It can really help to build tension in a good story and move it along by switching viewpoints at the right moment.

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

I also enjoyed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Literary Society and its story structure. It reminded me of another book written ten years before titled Dearest Ones by Rosemary Norwalk. This true love story unfolds through letters sent and received by an American woman with the Red Cross serving overseas during WWII. Both these books were rich in history of this period and entertaining, too. I admire the skill in pulling this off so well with the use of letters, cables and telegrams entirely. I feel story structure is very important but the story line more so.

Patti Hill said...

I once proposed a book where each chapter was a birthday for the main character. Truly, it would have been a challenge to write, but I love things like that. It was rejected. Until then, I'm happy to read all of the books mentioned for their unique structures.

Remember the movie Same Time Next Year? The premise wasn't very redeeming, but the concept was fantastic.

Keep talking! I love this topic, Debbie.

Bonnie Grove said...

A wonderful little novel that defies traditional structure is Life on the Refrigerator Door: A Novel in Notes- by Canadian author Alice Kuipers. The title says it all - the entire book is comprised of notes from a mother and daughter left for each other on the fridge door.

I think one thing that helps an nontraditional structured novel work well is that it needs to adhere to the other aspects of traditional novels - story arch, character development, and a rich, well drawn ending. Otherwise, I think, it begins to feel like an experiment - and as a reader, I'm not always willing to serve as a test subject for someone's science project.

Love this post, Debbie. You've really got me thinking, and the timing is wonderful for me as I'm outlining three new books right now. Thanks for the food for thought - I can always count on my Novel Matters authors to give me a bone to chew.

Alexandra said...

Unusual structure, like journals (or the Dear America books when I was a kid) are only good (for me) if they have a really good plot. I mean, ok, I guess it's the same as a first-person story. Each chapter beginning with "Dear Diary" just feels a little weird.

Maureen Lang's The Oak Leaves and On Sparrow Hill are two I can think of that were really good. It took me the first couple of chapters to get into the modern girl/historical girl/historical girl's diary switchbacks, but once I got into the story I ended up really liking it.

Alexandra said...

And yes, the multiple POVs are my long, as everyone said above, as they're distinctly different.

Kathleen Popa said...

Gilead is one of my favorite novels ever, and the second reason (after the gentle, time-stopping wisdom) is the chance she took with the structure of the novel. I love it when authors walk the high-wire.

One very unusual novel I admire is Fallen by David Maine, a story that starts with the Biblical character Cain as an old man on his death bed, and steps, chapter by chapter, back in time till we end with the day he killed his brother, Abel. What a risk the author took, telling the story this way, and the risk makes his success all the more spectacular.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

This is a different medium (but still fiction) but do you remember the movie, "Memento"? It ran backwards, too, from end to beginning. I've often thought about it, wondering how the screenwriter would have gone about piecing it together without becoming hopelessly lost.

Unknown said...

Oh you're killing me! You're talking about something I can't talk about for another two years!!


*self-imposed muzzle*

Janet said...

*is greatly amused by the spectacle of Bonnie trying not to talk*