Choosing story structures; what makes a group of books a series?
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: June 23, 2009
|Q: I recently read a short story that was one long letter from one character to another. The structure inspired me. Are there other interesting story structures like this that I just haven't come across? |
A: Welcome to the joys of the epistle! An epistle is a letter, usually a more formal work that is shaped, as opposed to a chatty, private exchange. An epistolary story (or novel) might unfold as one long letter or a series of letters from one or more characters.
Plenty of writers have experimented with structure with much success. Daniel Orozco's "Orientation" is told as a first-day tour of the workplace for a new employee. Here's how it starts:
Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That's my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal calls allowed.
The tour quickly veers into the more personal territory:
Russell Nash, who sits in the cubicle to your left, is in love with Amanda Pierce, who sits in the cubicle to your right. They ride the same bus together after work. For Amanda Pierce, it is just a tedious bus ride made less tedious by the idle nattering of Russell Nash. But for Russell Nash, it is the high-light of his day.
Lorrie Moore's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" is organized as diary entries:
11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can't help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a golddigger. She is a gorgeous nomad, an un-friend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as a mold. And Bob, visibly heartbroken, still in the room, sneezing and giving instructions, hoping for one last cat nuzzle, descended to his hands and knees and jiggled his fingers in the shag. The cat only blinked. For you, however, she smiled, gave a fish-breath peep, and settled.
12/4. Sometimes the phone rings, but then the caller hangs up.
In "Facts Toward Understanding the Spontaneous Human Combustion of Errol McGee," David Means focuses on the evidence of what was left behind to reveal something about McGee's life. The story is broken up by subheads, including "The Fire," "The Skull," and "General Conditions." One section, "Additional Theories: The Spiral Notebook Theory," reads like this:
Word was McGee had a fascination with the idea of the spiral notebook, and even claimed that he had invented the product himself ... One old timer remembers seeing him in the break room during his electrician days, fiddling with wire, twisting it around a dowel. Only through stubborn will is it possible to fit McGee's obsession with the spiral notebook with the manner in which he died that evening at the lake, and in doing so one must turn to the grand theory that includes the idea of symmetry and of the spiral in relation to the stress—and heat and friction—produced by certain bond papers when a sheet is torn away. But that's a stretch.
David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" reads as a transcript of the very title. Each interviewee elaborates on a "hideous" characteristic. Wallace includes only the answers, not the questions that prompted them. Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" tells the story of a platoon in Vietnam by relying on lists that document necessities, both physical and emotional. Junot Diaz's novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao uses footnotes to elaborate on moments in the narrative. And there's the graphic novel, which combines written and visual storytelling elements.
In terms of structure, you're limited only by your imagination.
Q: What makes a group of books a series?
A: A series is a collection of books that share something significant in common. In fiction, the commonality is usually characters, a particular conflict, or setting.
Some series allow the individual books to function wholly independent from one another. They don't connect in terms of plot, so you can jump around in the series and not lose track of the story or miss out on important elements. These are like a trip to the ice cream parlor. Each flavor is a different delight, but you know you're getting something you like—ice cream—in every serving. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books are an example of this.
Other series have an interlocking structure where the books inform one another in a more fundamental way. While each book is complete in and of itself, you usually want to read them in order, as events that happen in one book are important to those that happen in the next. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series falls in this category.
There are more specific kinds of series as well, such as the trilogy, which is a series of three books. Each book is complete on its own, but together they tell a larger story.
--Posted June 23, 2009
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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