Let’s talk about structure.
This is the time of year when I start putting together material for my after school writing club, and I think about structuring that, and structuring lessons and structuring stories and… you get the picture.
With 6th graders, I have to start with the most basic structure. What makes a story a story? A beginning, a middle and an end. For them, pretty much always in chronological order. But should it always be in that order? Well, yes, but what if the beginning for your reader is actually the middle for your characters? Or what if the end of your conflict is the beginning for your characters?
Something else to consider– are you even writing the correct thing? IS it a novel? Maybe it’s just a short story. Maybe it’s an opera. Who even knows??
I’m writing a trilogy (probably) of novellas at the moment. If you’re a Patreon subscriber at the fiction level, you’re getting one first draft scene per month. There’s a cyclical aspect to this trilogy, and a little bit of time travel, as well as multi-verses.
But I say probably a trilogy because structure is always something that I’ve struggled with. I’ve never been great at plotting the whole thing out before writing, no matter how hard I try, so I inevitably end up with plot sinkholes.
Structure is HARD.
Which is why I’m always super impressed when people do structure really well, and I’ve read two books recently that do just that.
First, Kameron Hurley’s military SF novel, The Light Brigade, and second, Stuart Turton’s gothic-romantic-dystopian-Christie-esque-murder-mystery, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
It’s hard to pick a genre for that one, honestly.
The Light Brigade takes place in a future where corporations have taken over the world governance in place of countries, and the people have been definitively divided into Citizens, wealthy people born into their Corps and who are the only ones with any real rights, the middle group that I am definitely drawing a blank on their name, who are the diminishing middle class and have some rights but not all, and then our narrator Dietz’s group: the Ghouls. They’re an untouchable class at the very bottom of the food chain, forced to lived outside civilization in their own slums and tent cities with no resources.
Dietz lives outside Sao Paulo, and joins the army when half the city is disappeared in the “blink” an attack attributed to the Mars Colony, which has split from the Big Six Corps over ideological differences. This launches a war, and Dietz signs up, hoping to earn her place in the middle class if she survives.
Soldiers in this war are teleported to their battle locations but Dietz frequently ends up in places that she isn’t supposed to be.
At the risk of spoiling the book, which I definitely don’t want to do because it’s one of the best things I’ve read this year, the structure of it is massively important to the story. Dietz ends up in a different place, and, we discover as she does, a different time, every time she “jumps” on a mission. The time travel part isn’t a spoiler.
But the amount of planning that would have to go into this novel is mind blowing to me. Dietz’s story isn’t told chronologically.
Or, maybe it is. Time is a weird and wobbly human construct.
But it definitely isn’t told in the very linear way that we usually think about about time, or a sequence of events: one thing happens, then the next, etc. In my head, it’s more of a word cloud of events—plot points floating around the climax of the story and popping in as needed and when relevant.
I can’t begin to imagine how you set about building a plot like that.
Likewise, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Aiden Bishop knows that title character Evelyn Hardcastle is going to die at 11pm every night–a cycle that he can only break by identifying her killer. One tiny little detail–every day he wakes up in a different body as a different person trapped in this very gothic mansion full of fancy rich people having a super macabre party.
So we have a timeline that resets itself, 8 different points of view (ish. They’re all Aiden though so it could be argued that it’s just one. I’d disagree.) and oh by the way one other small detail– he can wake up in any of those bodies in any order, as soon as the one he’s in goes to sleep (or is otherwise unconscious).
Part of me feels like the exact structure of the book is less relevant to this story than The Light Brigade’s but I’m honestly not sure. I don’t think it would be as engaging with a more linear structure.
Can anyone explain to me how you plot a murder mystery with a scatter plot timeline that actually WORKS? Because it does. I devoured this book so fast that I only solved pieces of the mystery, and I’m usually pretty good at recognizing plot twists.
Which is my main source of frustration, really. I am rarely surprised by plot twists anymore, and the ones that I really love are the ones that I don’t see coming. But for some reason, I can logic out other people’s plots, but I can’t seem to reverse engineer that in order to come up with a solid structure of my own.
I guess that’s the point of this whole post– I’m super jelly of grown up writers and their ability to structure. Someday I’ll get there. I hope.
But maybe I’ll try actually drawing out a plot cloud for my novellas instead of trying to outline in the traditional way. I’ll let you know how it goes!
I’m also in the middle of a run of books that use time travel as a device–currently reading Recursion by Blake Crouch and I don’t have A CLUE what’s going on right now but there’s a figure 8 on the cover so… I’ll find out, I guess.
Stay tuned for a possible follow up musing on that when I finish it.