By Lisabet Sarai
When I’m reading or critiquing fiction, I find myself particularly sensitive to the temporal structure of the story—the flow of events through time. Effective structure provides a feeling of unity, even if the story does not follow Aristotle’s strict definitions (one action thread, one location, a time span of no more than one day). In a well-structured tale, each event links strongly to the others. Each scene contributes to the whole. Characters grow and change according to organic, believable trajectories. The plot may be intricate and complex, but the resulting impression is one of satisfying coherence.
In contrast, poorly structured fiction may include unexplained gaps, extraneous events, unsettling jumps from one time to another or one character to another, shifts of perspective that don’t tie back into the overall narrative. Another characteristic that reflects poor structure is a story that continues long after it should have ended, dawdling along when the conflicts have already been resolved and the outcomes are no longer in doubt.
The skill with which an author structures her work has a major impact on my enjoyment. Yet this is an aspect of craft not often discussed. In this post, I want to consider some of the different patterns a story may take through time, suggesting when or why you might want to adopt each one. I’ll also consider the potential pitfalls in each approach.
Let me begin by defining story structure. In my view, story structure is the ordering of events that affect characters, as they are presented in the story. This includes potential shifts between focus characters. Two stories might have the same basic plot and characters but employ very different structures. Consider, example, the recently revived fairy tale Cinderella.
Structure 1: Cinderella’s father remarries, then dies. Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters relegate her to the role of kitchen slave. A herald arrives at the door announcing the Prince’s ball. The evil step-family heads to the ball, leaving the ash-smeared girl crying at home. Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears to comfort the girl and provide the necessary fashions and transportation for Cinderella to attend the ball, where the Prince is smitten and waltzes with her all evening. At the stroke of midnight, as the enchantment dissolves, Cinderella flees, but leaves her glass slipper behind. The love-lorn Prince appears at Cinderella’s home, searching for the mysterious beauty by trying the slipper on each young woman in the kingdom. The shoe fits and Cinderella’s identity is revealed. She marries the Prince and they live happily ever after.
Structure 2: Cinderella scrubs the pots in the scullery. She hears the royal secretary knock on her step-mother’s front door and announce the Prince’s search for the mysterious beauty who fled from him at midnight. Cinderella remembers in wistful detail her triumph at the ball, the thrill of dancing in the Prince’s arms and the terror at having her lowly identity revealed at midnight. She listens at the kitchen door as the step-sisters fail to fit the slipper. Gathering her courage, she emerges and requests a chance to try on the shoe. Her lovely little foot slips into the crystal slipper, the Prince claims her as his bride and they live happily ever after.
Structure 3: It is the day after the ball. The Prince muses in his room, refusing to eat, remembering the gorgeous young woman who fled from him at midnight. A retainer arrives, telling him about finding the isolated crystal slipper on the road leading away from the castle. Meanwhile, Cinderella is scrubbing pots in the kitchen, sighing at the recollection of her prince, sadly sure she will never see him again. She hears his voice outside in the parlor as he arrives at her step-mother’s home with the shoe. Gathering her courage, she emerges from the kitchen and asks to try the shoe. The Prince recognizes her immediately, before she’s even made the attempt. He sweeps her into his arms for a kiss, claims her as his bride, and whisks her away to the palace where they live happily ever after.
The three examples above represent three frequently-encountered temporal patterns. Structure 1 is linear. The events are presented more or less in the order they occurred. Furthermore there is a single focus character, Cinderella.
Structure 2 is what I call a loop-back. The story begins part way through the temporal sequence of events, then via a recollection or a flashback, recounts earlier events that led up to the present, before moving on. Once again, there’s a single focus character.
Structure 3 illustrates a parallel structure, in addition to a loop back. There are two focus characters. The narrative shifts from one to the other and back. In this example, the events experienced by each character are concurrent (that is, they cover the same basic stretch in time), but parallel structures can also be used for temporally disparate events, as long as there’s a strong logical or emotional connection between the two event streams. For example, my novel Incognito uses a parallel structure in which Miranda’s sexual adventures in the present time mirror the confessions she reads in Beatrice’s Victorian-era diary.
Even given the mere outlines above, a reader gets a different feeling from each structure. The first follows the simple, traditional course of a fairy tale. Each event triggers the next in a sequence. The second, in contrast, feels more modern, and perhaps, more interesting. If one were not already familiar with this plot, this structure might generate more suspense. The third structure produces a major shift in intent. The Prince changes from a mere appendage to the plot, the medium for realizing Cinderella’s dreams, to a character in his own right. The parallel time streams, if implemented with skill, could have the reader wondering whether, in fact, the two characters’ goals and desires will converge. (If, like me, you’d recently enjoyed the film “Into the Woods”, you’d recognize that this convergence might not be inevitable!)
These three basic structures can be combined and ramified, especially in longer work. In the hands of a skillful author, temporal patterns can become very complicated indeed (consider Audrey Niffenegger’s astonishing novel, The Time-Traveler’s Wife). On the other hand, playing too fast and loose with the ordering of events can produce a narrative disaster, confusing your readers and diluting the impact of your stories.
When might you want to use each of these basic structures? The comments below are suggestions, not rules, and represent my personal observations.
Linear structures work well for shorter work, for instance stories in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range. In these cases, you usually don’t have the word count to get fancy with time. Your focus is on your characters, their crisis and its resolution. Furthermore, in this sort of work, it’s often best to take Aristotle’s advice in stride and keep all the events within a relatively short time span—an evening, a day, a week at most. Short stories where there are large temporal gaps between scenes often feel awkward to me. The breaks in the action dissipate the story’s emotional intensity. What’s happening to the characters during those lapses in time? Has the crisis been somehow suspended?
Linear structure can also be applied in novel-length work, especially when maintaining suspense is important. If you write a novel in the present tense (difficult but something I’ve attempted several times), linear (or parallel linear) structure is the only possibility, since readers are experiencing the events at the same time as the character(s).
A linear structure offers the overarching advantage of clarity. It’s also simple to construct and to implement. Most novice authors intuitively use linear patterns when they begin writing. This is the structure most often found in oral storytelling, part of our ancestral roots.
The main risk in using a linear structure is boredom on the part of the reader. To avoid this, it’s important to select and describe only the events that truly contribute to the story, and to continually build tension toward the (narrative) climax. With a linear story, it’s also critical to recognize when to end the story, as noted above. Once the main conflict has been resolved, end quickly. You do not necessarily have to tie up every single loose end.
The loop-back pattern works really well in short fiction because it immediately throws the reader into the action. The initial scene, which needs some dramatic intensity to be effective, can snag the reader’s curiosity and trigger her questions, questions which will be resolved during the loop back to explain the genesis of the situation. I use this pattern a lot in my own work. For example, my story The Last Amanuensis, recently released by Fireborn Publishing, begins as follows:
My hands no longer tremble when I pierce his papery skin. I’ve learned how much force to apply, how to tilt the hollow needle just enough to fill the tiny wound with color without blurring the line. I know what he can bear. I can read the change in his breathing that tells me he needs a break.
He’s reached that point now. I straighten from my awkward position, crooked over his bared buttocks, and set the gleaming apparatus down on the bedside table next to the flickering candles. With Preceptors on patrol twenty-four hours a day, we dare not risk the gas lamps.
“Some water, sir?”
Moving with care so as to not to smudge my work, he twists to take the glass from my gloved hand and drains the contents. “Thank you, Adele.” The weariness in his voice sets up an ache under my sternum. Seeing what it costs him, I would dissuade him from this endeavor if I could. I’ve also learned, though, that it is useless is to argue with the professor when he has set his mind on something.
Hopefully, at this point, I’ll have the reader wondering. Who are these characters? What are they doing and why? Who are the Preceptors?
In this story, I use about 1000 of the 5000 words in the first scene. The next 2000 words explain the genesis of this relationship and situation, bringing the narrative up to the present (the time when the story starts). The final 2000 words move the tale forward toward its climax and resolution.
However, there are a variety of potential pitfalls in using this pattern. Balancing back story with forward action is probably the most serious problem. If the loop back takes too long or involves too much detail, the reader may lose the sense of immediacy evoked by the initial scene. One solution is to use multiple, shorter loop backs. This can work but risks confusing the reader.
Novel-length works frequently include loop backs/flashbacks to provide background on events or characters. The impact of these backward-looking sections depends on their frequency and length, but the same caveats apply. It’s important not to lose forward momentum. A novel usually has a more complex and detailed plot, so narrative trips back into the past may not have as much of a noticeable effect on structure or the corresponding impression of the readers, but there are exceptions. John Le Carré’s book A Perfect Spy, which I recently finished, flits back and forth across a period of about fifty years in the life of the main character. This could have been extremely confusing, but Le Carré made it work, gradually revealing the experiences that had brought his protagonist to his present state.
Parallel structure is most effective in longer works, depending as it does on the existence of at least two focus characters or subplots. Usually (though not always), one of the event strands will be primary, while the other will provide a mirroring or contrasting perspective. Parallel structures are fairly common in romance, with alternating chapters offering the heroine’s and hero’s points of view. Books that provide contemporary plus historical narratives (like Incognito) offer another frequently encountered example.
What are the problems with writing parallel structures? Consistency can be one issue, at least in stories where two characters experience the same or related events. (Of course, a skilled author might deliberately introduce inconsistencies in order to reveal certain aspects of the characters.) Balance is another potential problem. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, parallel narrative threads do not necessarily have to have equal weight—length or thematic importance—but once the author has made a decision about the intended weight, she needs to be careful that one thread does not assume more importance than planned. In traditional romance, for instance, the heroine’s perspective tends to be more emphasized than the hero’s, even when the narrative alternates between them. If the hero’s story begins to take over, this may weaken the book.
One of my goals in writing this article is to point out how important it is to understand the temporal patterns we authors choose, not just in order achieve the effects we want, but also so we can recognize when we’re violating our own decisions. Extraneous scenes, time gaps, unmotivated shifts of focus and similar issues become easier to detect when we have some idea of the pattern we’re aiming for.
I don’t mean to suggest that story structure is always the result of a conscious decision. However, I’ve learned that when a story feels somehow wrong—awkward, flat, without a clear point—the structure is often to blame. Sometimes, playing with patterns in time, experimenting with a different structure, can dramatically improve the impact of your writing.