Skill 4.10: Story Structure Styles

Do not go crazy at this point, if this seems like minutia and you are already overwhelmed. I’m simply sharing a few methods below that authors consider and utilize in setting up the story–how it will be told. So many new authors have uttered the words, “I’m not sure where to start.” Sometimes, the answer won’t appear until you are staring at the completed first draft. Just read the options below, so that it sits gently upon your mind, and move on. Down the road, it’s fun and useful to consider the structure and starting point and attempt to have “form follow function”–meaning that if you can, use the structure to help further the plot or enhance the reading experience.

  • Chronological: The story is told from one event to the next, in order, from start to finish. More examples than I can mention.
  • Envelope: Begins at the end. Returns to the past and the story is then related moment-by-moment, often by an omniscient narrator who has already lived it, until we reach the same moment where the story began and continue on from there.

Example: Sunset Boulevard The narrator opens the story by telling us he is dead and there is a body floating in a pool. The narrator then backs up to the beginning to tells his story of how he ended up there.

  • Anachronistic: The story is told out of time order. This is tricky, but useful with certain stories.

Example #1: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. This is, in fact, the autobiography of Gertrude Stein. Alice B. Toklas was Stein’s lover. Living in Paris and influenced by her Cubist artist friends (including Picasso), Stein wrote her biography in a Cubist manner. She jumps from place to place in disjointed fashion, much like the misplaced body parts on a Picasso painting. She starts a chapter with a promise of explaining one event, only to jump to another.

Example #2: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. At times, Benjamin “Benjy” relates the story—but he is mentally challenged, so his mind jumps from event to event or melds them together. Some of his narration is like a dream—a “stream of consciousness” without commas, periods or clarity. There are, however, four (4) parts to the story—four narrators. Each section of the book is from the POV of another character. In this way, we learn of the same event from different POVs: Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Dilsey. As you can see, Faulkner used this structure for a reason (but—side note—even he knew it would be a tough read, so used italics in parts to indicate time shifts—still, it’s a tough read).


Go to Skill 4.11: Dialogue vs Narrative Passages

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