How to Study Fiction, Part 17: Structure, Part 5

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

What order should you tell your events in?

We’re back to talking about szuchet and fabula (see this post).  You have a choice between presenting the events of the story in different ways.  Here are just a few of your options:

  • In strict chronological order, with no summaries or flashbacks, and with no foreshadowing.
  • In reasonably chronological order, with some summaries, a few minor flashbacks, and possibly minor foreshadowing.
  • With part of the novel split between the present and part between the past (parallel stories).
  • With a small part of the novel in the present and a larger part in the past (or in another world, for that matter), a.k.a. a “frame story” or “story within a story.”
  • With the prologue out of order, as in one scene that foreshadows most of the events of the book (a few scenes might follow the point where the book catches up to the prologue).  “It all started when…”
  • Parallel (and possibly intertwined) stories that occur at very nearly the same time.
  • Parallel (and possibly intertwined) stories that occur at different times.
  • A story told in reverse order.
  • A story told with most events in order, but in clusters that are not in order (Pulp Fiction).
  • A story told through several completely separate episodes, with or without a frame story (variations on a theme).

There are more possibilities.  Most popular fiction books will follow the same structure, though:

  • In reasonably chronological order, with some summaries, a few minor flashbacks, and possibly minor foreshadowing.

Most books present the setting, characters, and problems of the plot, move the plot forward a bit, stop to bring a few things into perspective via a flashback or a summary (and repeating the pattern of moving the plot forward, then explaining the important bits of What Has Gone Before), then increasingly shift to no more backstory while layering in some foreshadowing as we approach the climax of the book.

There is nothing wrong with that as a structure.  It’s like the structure of a modern pop song:  we all know it, even if we never really think about it, and intellectually we know that a lot of pop songs “sound the same,” but we will vehemently protest if anyone claims that Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is very nearly the same thing as anything by The Rolling Stones.  There’s an intro…some verses…a chorus…a musical interlude somewhere in the middle…more verses and the chorus…and some kind of ending.

Pop songs all follow kind of the same template. It’s all about how you use it.

Most fiction, most of the time, needs to have a real reason to deviate from the usual sort of structure.  Some deviations, like having multiple plots running at the same time across multiple characters, are so common in certain genres that they’re taken for normal.  For example:

  • The structure of many modern romances is to have a his-and-her plot, two main plots running in parallel part of the time and together part of the time.
  • The structure of many high fantasy novels is to have multiple plots running at the same time, with characters who start out together, split apart, check in with each other/get news of each other periodically, but all come together for the climax of the book, which is some huge battle.

Those structures aren’t requirements, but they can become expectations.  And most of the time, you want to meet the readers’ expectations…because then they’re ready for you to knock their socks off with something surprising.

Which is to say that what order you tell your events in:

  • Depends on your story.
  • But should be pretty normal most of the time, unless you have a major reason to do so.

Find out in what order events are usually played out in the books in your genre and subgenre.  Copy that.  If and when that doesn’t work for you, try something else.  Some experimentation may be called for.

You will know when you’re on the right track because, when you’re done with the draft, you can step back and go, “The content of the story fits the weird order I put the events in.   Huh.”

The biggest part of making this kind of structural decision is knowing what your options are–and that requires a lot of reading.  It can require some really challenging reading, too, if you want to wander off the beaten path.

I’ll probably repeat this again later:

The more original you are, the more studying you have to do.

You have to know what most readers expect most of the time, and you have to know it as well as any hack writer knows its ins and outs.

And, if you’re trying something the reader doesn’t expect, you have to have far more tricks up your sleeve than you will ever actually use in order to be able to select a good one.

If you want to build something new, you have to know even more:  you have to know every trick in the book.

And that means reading–and comprehending on a structural level–a huge number of books.

This is probably a good place to remind you that reading at least the top 100 books in your genre is probably a good idea–if you want to write books to fit reader expectations.  And that reading the top 100 books in another genre is a good idea if you want to write a book that surprises your reader.  If you want to be truly innovative…good luck!

Next time, I think I may work on a few case studies on structure.  I’ve been typing up a lot of Edgar Allen Poe lately because he has such interesting structures, and the stories are out of copyright–so it should be okay to quote them extensively here.

Free book and other curiosities here.


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