Now we know the rules of narrative we can start to bend and break them. An obvious instance would be The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson, I can’t call this a book in the traditional sense because it was published as a collection of booklets in a box. On booklet was marked as the beginning and one as the ending and the rest of chapter booklets could be arranged however the reader wanted so the story could be different every time they read it.

Another example might be Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett, there is a story where two waiting people meet some travelling people and the person they’re waiting for never arrives. Now, we could make some deep readings of this but as Beckett was more interested in rhythm than meaning what we have  is basically a story where nothing much happens.

I could also refer again to Calvino’s On a Winter’s Night a Traveller that negates convention by being a story made up of snapshots of different stories that the reader never gets the endings of.

None of these stories stick to a traditional narrative structure. They have beginnings and endings but the middles are unusual. Johnson gives us the means to make our own story, Beckett lets us make our own interpretation, and while the reader has a story to follow in Calvino’s novel it is made up of fragmented stories. This further complicates the notion of narrative structure because on one hand we are being guided by the writer but on the other there is space for us to wander off the path; whether it is to interpret Godot as death, create endings for story fragments, or reorganise events to suit us.

Narrative structure may seem restrictive but, as with anything in fiction, it can be played with to suit the story that we want to write. Structure is simply the skeleton on which we hang the façade, just as a building is more than the steel structure beneath.

Other examples, which might not ordinarily spring to mind, could be any book that starts with an extract from later in the book, a prologue set before the book which may or may not relate to the story itself, a book with a nonlinear timeline. There are multiple ways to break the rules without even appearing to break them and writers use them all the time.

In the end it is not a question of how to build a house but how do you build your house?

For more writing advice see my Advice page. For more on narrative structure try Finding Your Voice.

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