Speaking of Structure

Late last night I finished reading a wonderfully rich, inventive novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The book, the ensemble cast story of how a mutual love of books pulled together a small, eccentric band of Channel Islanders (British citizens) and helped them survive the horrors and hardships of German occupation during WW II. I loved it because it truly transported me to another place and time, and rather than detracting, the many voices wove a gorgeous tapestry of a story told entirely through letters, telegrams, and (in one brief section) journal entries.

It's an interesting structure that really works for this book but wouldn't in most cases, and it got me thinking about structurally-different novels. A lot of fascinating possibilities are out there, from variations in tense to changing up or mixing the expected use of third or first person, and/or using the omniscient voice, where the "wise narrator" knows all. (This is mainly a 19th century technique, Dear Reader.) And of course, in this day and age, one could tell a story composed of e-mails, text messages, blog posts, or even pithy Twitter tweets.

But the thing about switching up structure is it often diverts attention from the story itself, screaming at the reader, "Hey, look at how I'm writing this! Aren't I awfully clever?" Not a good thing, unless A. the story is so engaging and the writing so smooth, the reader barely notices the switch up, B. the story is better told by using the "different" structure/technique.

If the technique turns into a parlor trick, distracts the reader, or doesn't serve the story, the writer has to face the fact that it's not working for but against her. Which means that it should either be revised or overhauled completely to put the focus where it should be: on the characters and their story.

Today's questions: Have you read any uniquely (or differently) structured stories you would like to recommend? And have you ever broken away from genre expectations in terms of structure, and how do you feel it worked for you?


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