The S-word we all hate
That is, of course, s for structure. Before you rush off to read something that’s more fun, just answer one question. What if the story starts with Cinderella looking in the mirror at her middle-age spread and grey hair, as she remembers the moment when her bad-tempered husband, now King Charming, fell in love with her? How does that change the story? Hold those thoughts!
‘Structure’ sounds rigid, all rulers and straight lines, but we’re going to get messy, fool around with the sequence of scenes in a story, and consider the consequences.
The simplest structure for a story
Good storytelling is as old as sitting round a fire with friends and, although the terms used for the craft might change with fashion, the craft itself remains the same. My touchstone as to the simplest story structure, very useful for a play or short story, dates back to Aristotle. His theory of three unities suggests that you should limit your story to one location (place), one day (time) and one plot (action). Breaking one unity is fine but if you break more, you risk confusing your audience and losing the power in your storytelling.
In a novel, we can play with multiple places, times and subplots, but we should still be aware that this adds complexity.
Let’s return to the Cinderella story and consider some of the choices related to one of Aristotle’s unities, time.
Time structure is the order in which the content of the book (whether story, poems or facts) is revealed to the reader. This is where we have fun and get messy because there are so many options. There are no rules - just consequences!
The simplest time sequence for telling a story is chronological, by the time and date events happened. Imagine a four-year old telling you, ‘Then I went on the swings, then I went home.’
Even with a chronological structure, we can incorporate memories (the past) and hopes or fears (the future). We can change points of view (but not too quickly or the dreaded ‘head-hopping’ will annoy our readers). Versions of Cinderella’s story often begin with her being ill-treated as she does endless domestic chores, then she sees the invitation to the Prince’s ball. In between there are obstacles and resolutions. The ending is a Happy Ever After – classic romance structure.
What is the effect if you begin at the end?
In my Cinderella version, the beginning shows poor Cinders disillusioned and wondering what went wrong – the chronological ending of the story. This is now women’s fiction instead of romance, so there is a genre change. The hook is no longer ‘Will she meet her Prince, against all odds?’ (and because it’s romance, you can expect that she will) but ‘I know just how she feels. I want to spend time with this real woman and find out what went wrong.’
What if you begin in the middle?
Jane Davis’ superb novel ‘Smash All the Windows’ starts in the chronological middle of the story. The opening chapter shows us the trial and verdict regarding a lethal disaster in a London underground station. We know who was killed. The structure removes all suspense as to who dies, or what the trial verdict will be. This transforms what could have been an all-action disaster thriller into a contemporary novel focused on the survivors’ relationships and emotions.
You could start the Cinderella story with a middle scene. She is at the ball dancing with the Prince. This changes the mood of the beginning from misery to happiness and gives different ways of continuing the story, perhaps a) flashback to all the events leading to the dance, followed by losing the Prince again and a similar story arc until they are together at the end. Or b) a dual timeline, one chapter narrating Cinderella’s tough life with her stepfamily and the next continuing from the dance.
Why use a dual timeline?
Juxtaposing Cinderella’s time with the stepfamily before and after the dance with the Prince would allow psychological depth. She could know despair after happiness was snatched away, and realise that the cruellest emotion of all is hope. This would be a good structure for a novel raising questions about our existence.
A dual timeline is also useful for any story where two sequences of related events are separated by time, especially – but not only – Historical Fiction. J. T. Lawrence’s ‘Why You Were Taken’ creates sci-fi suspense by switching between two related women’s viewpoints, in 1980s and 2020s South Africa. When it works as well as this, readers are hooked as they puzzle over the connections.
A dual timeline can converge at any moment in the book, when the connection is revealed, but authors often leave the full revelation to the end, where a conclusion ties up all the main threads, apart from those left for the next book in a series.
Create suspense through the sequence of scenes
Readers love knowing something that the characters don’t, so show the reader something that’s going on, then let another character head for disaster, not necessarily straight away.
Let’s add a scene to Cinderella.
1) Cinderella finds Prince Charming in bed with her (ugly) sister.
From Cinderella’s point of view, this could come as a great shock or be no surprise but either way we know as much as Cinderella does.
However, if we see
1) Prince Charming in bed with a sister then
2) Cinderella talking to her friend about how happy she is with her dream husband
we feel the pain of Cinderella’s betrayal and we’ll read on quickly to find out what happens when she finds out! This is a classic example of dramatic irony and is one of the most effective weapons in the writer’s armoury.
Now it’s your turn to have fun with these techniques.
1) On separate post-it notes or, if you’re hi-tech, in Scrivener or other software, arrange the scenes below
i) chronologically. What genre/s is the story?
ii) in alphabetical order. How does this change genre and mood? How would you write the link from one scene to the next?
iii) randomly. Shuffle the scenes, lay them in a row and add any scenes you like. Add a point of view for each scene (could be the same throughout)
iv) as a dual timeline. Add four scenes from the life and viewpoint of the stepmother twenty years before the ball. Put these in a row. Choose 4 scenes from Cinderella’s story and put these in a row above the stepmother’s. Read the story, zig-zagging from one row to the other, then add or write one scene to bring the two timelines together.
2) Play the same analysis game with any novel which struck you as having an interesting structure, especially if it’s in the genre you are writing.
3) Write each key scene in your story in the same way and have fun moving scenes around. Plotters can do this before writing and pantzers can do it at any stage. Both can do it at re-drafting stage. A key scene is whatever you want it to be – could be an event, could be a revelation (e.g. Luke Skywalker finds out that Darth Vader is his father).
J. Cinderella sees the invitation to all girls to go to the ball at the Palace so the Prince can find a wife
A. Cinderella’s ugly step-sisters are horrible to her and say she can’t go to the ball.
M. Her stepmother gives Cinderella lots of housework to do so she can’t go to the ball.
B. Stepmother and sisters get dressed up and go off to the ball.
O. Cinderella is crying and her fairy godmother appears.
R. Fairy godmother makes coaches out of pumpkin, footmen out of mice and creates beautiful gown. She instructs Cinderella to be home by midnight.
D. Cinderella is at the ball and dances with Prince Charming. Love at first sight.
P. Clock strikes midnight. Cinderella runs away. One shoe falls off.
V. Visit from the Prince and entourage to Cinderella’s house with shoe to see if the shoe fits. Ugly sisters try shoe.
L. Discovery of another girl in house. The shoe fits. The Prince has found Cinderella. Joy. Wedding.
Jean Gill is a Welsh writer and photographer now living in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a beehive named Endeavour, a Nikon D750 and a man. For many years, she taught English in Wales and was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Wales. She is mother or stepmother to five children so life was hectic.
Her nineteen books are varied in genre, including the award-winning Troubadours Quartet, memoir, military history, dog books, poetry, and a cookery book on goat cheese. With Scottish parents, an English birthplace and French residence, she can support the winning team on most sporting occasions.
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