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COMPLEX PLOT STRUCTURES

By Mary Carroll Moore

Paining by Mary Carroll Moore

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MARY CARROLL MOORE is an award-winning author. Her books include PEN/Faulkner-nominated novel, Qualities of Light and Your Book Starts Here: Create, Craft, and Sell Your First Novel, Memoir, winner of the New Hampshire Literary Award, 2011 Readers’ Choice Award. She teaches workshops and weekly writing classes both online and in person at writing schools around the U.S.

 

 

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

 

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've found the next wave in two books I read recently: 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, and 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.

 

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 mimic 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 you 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 storylines)


In simple structures, there are usually five main turning points. Using Beauty and the Beast (from The Blue Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang) as an example, 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.


Is Your Book Ready for a More Complex Structure?

The first step in trying a different structure 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 or a central image, place, or era


Chronology of Events

 

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.


Growth Arc


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. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Cheryl Strayed's Wild both use flashbacks a lot. Wild has two narrative threads--the chronology of the PCT hike and the revealing of her childhood trauma.


Theme or Image


The most complex structure is threaded by theme or image. 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, with several different stories tied together by the question of identity and the image of "stone" and what it means.

 

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?

If your story holds up to the simple structure, decide whether any of the books with more complex plot structures provide an alternative structure that would work best for your material. Try reading and analyzing the structure of one of the books listed above or find a book you'd like to analyze or model. Then break down and map the author's choices to see what might work best for your work. Reading them as a writer, getting behind the author's decisions, see how you might borrow from their approaches to devise your own strategy for telling your tale. If you find your story has several threads or subplots that do not fit neatly into a linear, chronological order of storytelling, then a more complicated plot structure might work best for bringing your story’s pieces together in an interesting and cohesive way.

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