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November 3, 2017

Dealing with Complexity in Structure

by Chris

We’re taught structure in language from a very young age. First, we learn the structure of our sentences (subject, verb, object, etc.). Later, inspired by the stories we read or have read to us, we’re taught to start writing our own stories. Here, we learn about beginnings, middles and ends, and the basics of planning out our tales.
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As we become more advanced, this structure is broken down a little bit further, and we start analyzing individual paragraphs, and even sentences (all over again), starting with topic sentences, the five ‘W’s of reporting, etc.

Then, if we get good enough, we’re told to forget everything we knew so far. Instead, we’re taught about pacing, dynamics, and action: how every story would have a series of rising and falling actions, with a single culminating climax somewhere in the third act of the story (best near the end, so as not to bore the reader unnecessarily).

But what, essentially, is structure—and what’s the point?

I grew up surrounded by music and trained as a composer at university. In music, structure is everything. There are many kinds of structure, from sonata form to rondos to binary form and scherzos and trios, and these structures have developed over centuries to the point where, even today in popular music, their influence continues to be felt.

A classic musical structure is sonata form. In sonata form, we are introduced to the main theme at the beginning; there is a brief transition, and then we move to a secondary theme (usually in another key). Sometimes these two themes repeat a second time. Then we move into what’s known as the development, where we get to expand upon the first two themes in interesting and unique ways. But eventually, we return to the first theme, coming ‘home’ as it were, before wrapping up with a modification of the secondary theme, and sometimes a brief return to the first theme before the end.
If this sounds complicated, listen to Mozart’s Eine Kline Nachtmusik—one of his most famous works, and you’ll hear exactly what I’m talking about.

So why is this important? In music, the act of proceeding from one theme to another to another is often likened to a journey, in which the listener starts in familiar surroundings, travels to new and distant lands, before returning home to curl up by the fire, or something. When listening to a song, piece of music or even an entire symphony, the listener instinctively wants to know where they are in the journey—how far they’ve come, and how far they have yet to go. The structure of the song helps the listener define this. Take a typical rock song structure: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus. In many ways, this is simply a reduction of sonata form, as described above.

Some composers are famous for varying from these structures; Beethoven loved to trick his listeners by making it seem like the end of the piece was coming—only to veer off again for another five minutes before finally coming to a conclusion. But for the most part, most composers will stick to a tried and true structure, because it satisfies the listener—and because it works.

So how does this apply to stories?

Bridge to Terabitha
As I wrote last month, journeys are a large part of stories, as well. Whether it’s a physical journey in space, like The Lord of the Rings, or an emotional or spiritual journey, like Bridge to Terabithia, where Jesse learns to deal with imagination, loss, and how the two can strengthen a person.

And if a story is a journey, then that journey needs a structure. The vast majority of books follow a linear storyline, where we are introduced to the story at the ‘beginning’, journey through the ‘middle’, where things happen, and eventually come to the ‘end’, where things are wrapped up in a neat bow, with no loose ends or unfamiliar surroundings. Sometimes these are referred to as ‘acts’. The first act introduces us to characters and environments and raises questions that will eventually need answering. The second act is where the action takes place, in a series of high-intensity scenes followed by slower ‘respite’ scenes, but always raising the stakes and increasing the danger to the characters until a final climax, at which point the protagonist triumphs over adversity (in the case of most stories) or fails once and for all (in the case of tragedies). The third act wraps things up, leading characters to a final ‘home’—be that a changed life, a new environment, or simply back to where things were at the start.

There are many variations to this, but almost all stories follow this basic formula. Sometimes there will be a great dip before the climax—a point of despair and hopelessness, where all things are lost—before something happens to save the protagonist and the day. Sometimes things simply build in intensity until all hell breaks loose. Star Wars is a wonderful example of narrative structure; in The Return of the Jedi, Luke battles against Darth Vader, eventually defeating him, only to be struck down by the Emperor’s seemingly invincible power. It seems that Luke is going to die, until Darth Vader himself rises up to defeat his former master. In Revenge of the Sith, however, things simply get darker and darker until the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan, at which point the protagonist of the prequels—Anakin Skywalker—becomes the antagonist (Darth Vader).

But not all stories follow these conventions, and this is where things get interesting. If the author is going to deliberately shy away from traditional structure, it becomes all the more important that the structure be clear from the outset, and that the reader can follow—even in mystery—where the story is taking them.

In my upcoming young adult novel, 22 Scars, there are two distinct storylines that are interwoven with each other: one of a teenage girl suffering from severe depression, and another dealing with an unnamed man and woman with troubled pasts as they meet, court, marry and have children. There are no breaks between these sections, so it’s up to the reader to determine which storyline they’re following at any given moment—but the identity of the couple is revealed near the end, as is the fate of the young girl.

Finally, because despite the girl being presumably the protagonist of her storyline we haven’t actually seen anything from her point of view, the novel ends with a series of diary entries written in her own hand, describing the traumas and tragedies she suffered growing up.

There are examples of other stories with non-traditional structures; in A Song of Ice and Fire, the chapters focus around individual characters and their points of view, but there is no central protagonist that ties everything together. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five tells a disjointed, non-linear tale that involves both fictional characters and, somehow, the author himself as well (Stephen King’s Dark Tower series does this as well).

But changing it up like this is difficult, and often makes for a more difficult read. The author needs to ask themselves whether the heightened sense of tension from a disjointed, non-linear story worth the confusion of the reader as they meander their way through the book with no real sense of where they are in the plot or narrative. There’s a comfort, and a familiarity to a straight-forward storyline, and this is provably why the majority of mass-market novels follow the preset structure set by their predecessors of centuries before.

Ultimately, of course, every story must come to an end, and that end needs to give a reader one of two things: a sense of conclusion, or a desperate desire to read more. In stand-alone novels, a sense of conclusion is preferable, as the reader would otherwise be left wanting a sequel that is never destined to happen. In the event of ongoing series, however, there are variations of the cliffhanger: you can wrap up the main plot while leaving smaller points unresolved, or you can literally end the story partway through the narrative, meaning that it becomes absolutely necessary for the reader to pick up the second (or third, or fourth) book in order to reach their conclusion.

The advantage of wrapping things up is that, even in a series, a reader could (in theory) pick up any novel in the series and have an idea of what’s been going on. If the story ends with no resolution, picking up the third book in a series before reading the first two would make for a very confusing read (something I’m discovering with my own Redemption of ErĂ¢th series).

There is always the option, of course, to deliberately fail to end the story purely for the sake of art, to antagonize the reader: to infuriate and make them read it all over again, wondering if they missed something. And sometimes, if you’re really good, you can loop the ending back into the beginning, creating a kind of endless cycle of reading that goes on forever and ever (again, see the Dark Tower series).

However you choose to end your book, though, it’s important to recognize that, at the end of the day, people are going to read your book in a linear order: from page one to page last (unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, I suppose). And in that regard, I would suggest respecting the reader’s intelligence and time: give them a reason to understand why this is the end of the book, and not a chapter too late or a chapter too soon.

Just like music, structure is critical to storytelling, whether you choose to stick to something tried and true or to experiment with your plot and pacing. And sometimes things will work out brilliantly, and sometimes they’ll fall flat. There’s no way to know until you try.

The important thing is to make sure that your structure is clear, and consistent—at the very least to you as the author. Whilst there are examples of fantasia-style stories that simply meander from place to place with no true conclusion, they are few and far between, and often don’t end up being very engaging anyway.

What do you think of narrative structure, and the role it plays in constructing interesting, well-placed plots?

Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris's creativity since his youth. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at

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