Five Unusual Novel Structures
For my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive', I adopted a two-part structure, together with a prologue and epilogue. Not particularly unusual, but it got me thinking. Just how weird and wacky can a novelist get with the way he/she constructs a novel? And are there any examples I could share with my blog readers? It turns out there are plenty. Here are five examples of novels that take a different approach to the classic chapter-by-chapter structure.
1. 'Dolores Claiborne' - Stephen King
'Dolores Claiborne' is a 1992 thriller by Stephen King, narrated by Dolores herself. The novel is unusual in that there are no chapters or other section breaks. Instead, the book is a single continuous piece of prose that reads like a monologue. It sounds strange, but it works. Here's a summary of the plot.
Dolores Claiborne is being interrogated by the police, under suspicion of murdering her wealthy employer, an elderly woman named Vera Donovan whom she has looked after for years. The two women had a difficult yet close relationship. Dolores is adamant that she is innocent; however, she does confess to killing her husband, Joe St. George, almost thirty years before, after finding out that he sexually molested their fourteen-year-old daughter. Dolores's confession develops into the story of her life, her troubled marriage, and her relationship with her employer. Along the way we also get glimpses into the personal lives of the police officers interrogating her, disclosed through Dolores's commentary, which demonstrates an astute grasp of human nature.
2. 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' - John Fowles
'The French Lieutenant's Woman', written by John Fowles in 1969, is a historical fiction novel. It's unusual in that the narrator intervenes throughout the novel and later becomes a character in it. Furthermore, he offers three different ways for the narrative to end. (No plot spoilers, I promise!) After the first ending, the narrator appears as a character sharing a railway compartment with the male protagonist. He tosses a coin to determine the order in which he will portray the other two possible endings, emphasising their equal plausibility. Here's a summary of the plot.
Sarah Woodruff, the 'Woman' of the title, also known as 'Tragedy', lives in Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French ship's officer named Varguennes who has returned to France and married. She spends a lot of time on The Cobb, a stone jetty where she stares out at the sea, thus increasing her mysterious reputation. One day, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman, his fiancée, see Sarah walking along the cliffside. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah's story, and he becomes curious about her. He has several more encounters with Sarah, and ends up falling in love with her. Returning from a journey to Ernestina's father, Charles has the choice of either returning to Ernestina or visiting Sarah. It's at this point that the first possible ending kicks in, triggering the appearance of the narrator in Charles's railway carriage and the other endings. Intriguing!
3. 'Slaughterhouse Five' - Kurt Vonnegut
The novel boasting the unwieldy title of 'Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death' was written in 1969 by Kurt Vonnegut. It's a satirical novel that's partly autobiographical, being based on Vonnegut's World War Two experiences, particularly the fire-bombing of Dresden. Its structure is unusual in that the story is told in a non-linear order and events become clear through various flashbacks (or time travel experiences) involving the narrator. He describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, who believes himself to have been in an alien zoo and to experience time travel. Here's a summary of the plot.
Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier who refuses to fight in the Second World War. He is captured by the Germans and transported to Dresden where he and his fellow prisoners are housed in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden. Their building is known as "Schlachthof-fünf" ("Slaughterhouse Five"). During the fire-bombing, the prisoners of war and their German guards hide in a cellar, causing them to be among the few survivors. After the war ends, Billy suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is put into psychiatric care.
Once released, he marries a woman called Valencia Merble, and they have two children: a son, Robert, and a daughter named Barbara. Years later, on Barbara's wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a far-off planet, where he meets a porn star. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. He is then sent back to Earth to relive past or future moments of his life. In 1968, Billy and a co-pilot are the only survivors of a plane crash. Whilst recovering, he shares a hospital room with a Harvard history professor. Billy talks about the bombing of Dresden, with the professor claiming it was justified. After Barbara takes him home, he sneaks out and drives to New York City. That evening he wanders around Times Square, visiting a bookstore featuring pornography, which brings back memories of his former love. Later, he guests on a radio show where he talks about his time-travels, culminating in being kicked out of the studio. He returns to his hotel room, falls asleep and time-travels back to 1945 Dresden, where the book ends.
4. 'Pale Fire' - Vladimir Nabokov
This novel, written in 1962, is unusual in that it's presented as a 999-line poem entitled "Pale Fire" by the fictional John Shade, with a foreword and lengthy commentary by an academic colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Together these elements form a narrative in which both authors are central characters. The reader can chose to read 'Pale Fire' in the normal linear fashion, or by jumping between Kinbote's notes and Shade's poem. The interaction between Kinbote and Shade takes place in the fictitious town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they live close to each other. Kinbote writes his commentary in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana.
Canto 1 of Shade's poem includes his early encounters with death and what he believes to be the supernatural. Canto 2 centres on his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter, Hazel. Number 3 focuses on Shade's search for knowledge about an afterlife, whilst 4 offers details regarding his daily life and his poetry, through which he attempts to understand the universe.
Kinbote acquires the manuscript, overseeing the poem's publication, telling readers that it lacks only line 1,000. In his role as co-narrator, he tells three stories, one being his own, especially his friendship with Shade. Kinbote's second story deals with King Charles II, "The Beloved," the deposed king of Zembla, claiming he inspired Shade to write the poem by recounting King Charles's escape to him. The final story is that of Gradus, an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled King Charles. In the last note Kinbote makes, to the missing line 1000, he tells how Gradus killed Shade by mistake.
Isn't that all weird and wonderful?
5. 'The Unfortunates' - B S Johnson
B.S. Johnson's 1969 experimental novel 'The Unfortunates' consists of 27 unbound chapters in a box. The first and last chapters are specified but the other 25 can be read in any order. These range in length from a single paragraph to twelve pages.
The author explained this unusual structure by saying it was a better way of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book. Here's a summary of the plot.
A sports writer is sent to Nottingham on an assignment, only to find himself confronted by ghosts from his past. As he attempts to report an association football match, memories of his friend, a tragic victim of cancer, haunt his mind.
Let's hear from you!
As I mentioned above, this post is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unusually structured novels. What ones have you read that go beyond the norm in terms of structure? Perhaps you're a novelist yourself who's written a book that's a bit different. Leave me a comment and let me know!
Interesting post, Maggie - I'm always interested in different ways of telling a story. I read Slaughterhouse 5 years ago and have been in two minds about it ever since, so probably need to give it another look. Of the others, the Stephen King and John Fowles have been on my reading list for way too long, so I've just ordered copies of both. Damn, never going to whittle that list down...
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