How Narrative Structure Works in Fiction

And How It Differs from Plot

Have you ever wanted to yell at someone, “If you hadn’t done __________, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now”?

Actions have consequences. And often one action produces a consequence that requires another action, and so on—and on.

This cause-and-effect pattern works in fiction just as it does in life. A fictional character wants something and takes some action toward getting it. That action produces a new situation that requires a second action, and so on. The plot, as they say, thickens until the fictional world becomes quite complicated. Plot is chronological, starting at the beginning and progressing to the end.

But telling a story in chronological order often is not the most interesting or dramatic way to present it. Authors know that readers want to be pulled into a story right away and that if they don’t write openings that do this, readers will pick up another book instead. (See 5 Irresistible Introductions in Fiction.)

Authors therefore commonly look for some place well along in the plot sequence that will catch readers’ interest. They throw us right into the middle of the action, probably at the point where the main character’s companion is about to scream, “If you hadn’t done __________, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now!”

Once readers have been drawn into the story by an effective opening, they have to learn about the earlier plot points to understand fully the significance of what’s happening. More and more television shows now start dramatically, with a scene such as a shoot-out, then move into a sequence labeled something like “24 hours earlier” to fill viewers in. Authors must devise some similar technique for giving readers the background information they need. Both in books and in TV shows the earlier plot points—everything that occurred before the dramatic opening—are called the backstory. A novel’s narrative structure is the order in which the author presents the various events that make up the plot’s chronological timeline.

In identifying a novel’s narrative structure it’s often helpful to think of the point at the beginning, when we are thrown into the action, as the novel’s present time. Passages that fill in some of the backstory are called flashbacks because they often appear as memories, when a character’s brain flashes back to something that occurred earlier. An effective narrative structure allows us to keep track of what happened earlier—the backstory—and what is happening right now and into the future.

You may sometimes see the terms plot and narrative structure used interchangeably, although technically they are different. If we criticize a character’s action as being impossible or incredible, we are criticizing one of the novel’s plot elements. But when we complain that a novel didn’t grab our interest or that the story dragged, we are probably talking about narrative structure rather than plot. An effective narrative structure generally keeps the story moving by alternating sections of backstory with actions occurring in the novel’s present.

Example: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You
Penguin, © 2014
ISBN 978–1–101–63461–5

I’ve chosen this novel to illustrate the effect of narrative structure for two reasons:

  1. It’s an apt illustration.
  2. Because the key plot element occurs in the first sentence, I can discuss it without giving away anything that would spoil your reading of the novel.

Here are the novel’s first two sentences:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

Notice how that first sentence immediately captures the reader’s interest: Who is Lydia? How and why has she died?

But notice, too, how the second sentence shifts the focus just slightly: Who are “they”? Why don’t they know this yet? When, why, and how will they find out? And what will happen when they find out?

In this novel Lydia Lee is a high school student in a small Ohio town in the 1970s. She’s the middle child in her family. Her father, James Lee, is the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, and her mother, Marilyn, gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor to get married and raise a family. As a typical teenager, Lydia wants nothing more than to fit in at school, but her Chinese ethnicity makes her stand out in their small community. The only people who can understand her at all are her older brother and her younger sister.

Everything I Never Told You isn’t just about Lydia’s death. It’s about Lydia’s death in the context of her family’s lives, and the novel’s narrative structure creates that context. Imagine how different the novel would be if Lydia were to tell her own story. But that’s point of view—and that’s another essay.

Many contemporary writers are experimenting with narrative structure as a way to help shape their book’s meaning. My next article will look at a few of those books.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Findings from Around the Web

Liane Moriarty’s Favorite Books with Sudden Life-Changing Moments

truly madly guiltyIn Liane Moriarty’s seventh novel, Truly Madly Guilty, something terrible occurs at “an ordinary neighborhood barbecue in an ordinary neighborhood backyard.” It’s something so profound and unsettling, it seems to rewire the six adults and three children present; will any of them be able to recover the relative peace they enjoyed before? As the life-changing event is processed, friendships and marriages are tested and the adults are racked with guilt and regret. Moriarty is known for her compelling, tightly woven stories of the darkness that can lurk behind the apparently ordinary, the suspenseful secrets, catty rivalry, domestic dysfunction, and the shocking event that changes everything.

I’ve read only one of the five novels on her list. And I haven’t yet read any of Moriarty’s own novels. I need to put these books on my TBR list.

Was Philip K. Dick a Madman or a Mystic?

Even if you haven’t read any of Philip K. Dick’s books, you’ve probably come in contact with his work through movies or, to a lesser extent, television: Minority Report, The Man in the High Castle, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, The Adjustment Bureau.

Much of Dick’s visionary content followed an experience in which he believed that a spiritual force had unlocked his consciousness and given him access to esoteric knowledge. In this article Kyle Arnold, a psychologist at Coney Island Hospital, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and author of The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick, describes this experience and how it affected the author and his work.

New Data Analysis Suggests Only Six Book Plots Exist

“There’s nothing new under the sun,” the saying goes. If you’ve ever felt this while reading a novel, you’ll be interested in this article.

Researchers from the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington used sentiment analysis—or analysis of emotion in a string of words—to map the plot of over 1,700 works of fiction. By looking at how the emotional tone of a story changes from moment to moment, the researchers could see the overall emotional arc of the stories.

They found that there were six main ones:

Fall-rise-fall, like Oedipus Rex
Rise and then a fall, like what happens to most villains
Fall and then a rise, like what happens to most superheroes
Steady fall, like in Romeo and Juliet
Steady rise, like in a rags-to-riches story
Rise-fall-rise, like in Cinderella

Read the entire article to see the main grains of salt with which you should take these results.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown