Why Structure Matters When You Are Writing a Novel

Structure / Photo by Simon Goetz on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Louise Candlish attended University College London and worked as an editor in art publishing and as a copywriter before becoming a novelist. She lives with her husband and daughter.

The Power of Structure

It’s fair to say I am obsessed with structure. The way I think of it is that structure drives voice and voice connects with readers. Why play it safe with an all-seeing third-person narrator and a linear, A to Z journey, when you can challenge yourself, your characters, and your readers?

Whether you construct your story as a confession (think The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain — the narrator is awaiting execution on death row, there’s nothing to lose now) or a diary (Amy’s strand in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl — here’s a schemer who knows the devil is in the details) or something altogether more radical like an elaborate alternative-realities puzzle (Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life) or a tale told backward (All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda), the form in which you present your characters’ story will determine how readers respond to it. And the reader is the reason for everything.

He Said/She Said: Parallel Universes

Our House is my US debut, but is actually my twelfth novel, so I came to it with plenty of experience in the dark arts of structuring. I knew I wanted to use husband and wife narrators and I had featured alternating narrators before, but I felt this was a plot that demanded something more ambitious, something that would stand out. I love the spoken word — even transcribed, it has a special kind of intimacy — and it felt natural for my protagonist, Fi Lawson, to tell her story via an interview for a true-crime podcast called “The Victim.” Meanwhile, her estranged husband Bram is writing a suicide ‘note’, in reality a detailed confession of the crime he has committed. So right away, you have the tension between public spoken word versus private, written word. Right away, the reader knows more than the protagonists do.

Sometimes, a he said/she said narrative involves telling the same scene from two opposing points of view; the power and the pleasure is in seeing their differing interpretations of the same material, à la

“The Affair.” More often, narrators’ stories enrich or complete one another’s, rather than repeat them. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is as bold as it gets: ‘back and forth’ doesn’t begin to define the chronology-bending husband-and-wife storytelling employed by Henry and Clare. A more accessible example is Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, a masterclass in trick-free character — and love — development using alternating voices. (I often look to YA for ideas for pared-down but inventive structures.)

How to Restart the Engine

When you find the structural device that suits your POV, you are flying. You are experiencing what authors describe as a book ‘writing itself.’ But what if you’re struggling to find that voice? Or what if you thought you had it but now it’s slipped and doesn’t sound so authentic? My advice is to be very clear in your mind who your narrator is addressing. This could be integral to the plot itself, like Fi speaking to her podcast audience, or it could be someone in the shadows, an unnamed target you are determined to convince. Read sections aloud, record them, and play them back. Does that sound like a real person doing these things, speaking these words, or a fake one? If it’s still not working, try switching tenses or rewriting third person as first person. Fast forward or rewind, then re-enter your plot from a new angle. Play with the form until the mood clicks.

Once a draft is well underway, I’ll print it out and physically cut passages with scissors, pinning them where they might work better. One time, I experimented with throwing the pieces in the air and seeing where they landed, David Bowie-style. I didn’t go with that order for the real thing, but it reminded me that there are no laws about chronology. Anita Shreve’s Testimony is a masterclass in bending time: I’m in awe of what she does in this great novel.

Nuts and Bolts

You can’t devise a complex structure and expect to hold it in your head for very long. You need a way of keeping track of it. We’ve all seen images of authors’ writing rooms with a whole wall of post-it notes and visual references, exactly like in a police incident room. My method is more sedate. I have a file of cuttings on my desk and on my laptop I have a ‘live’ list of scenes. Fonts might be color-coded according to narrator or tense. The list changes constantly. I also have numerous timelines, one for each main character.

Beware loose ends, especially with crime and thriller plots. You could write a near-perfect novel and one overlooked inconsistency will be your undoing. If you don’t have an editor yet, share your work with a creative writing colleague or a trusted reader.

My motto is: the reader is always cleverer than I am.