Novel Structure – and this isn’t about architecture

Cloud atlas.jpg

There are many different ways that a novel can be structured. There are epistolary novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, both are written as a series of documents: letters, diary entries, excerpts & quotations from other books (real or fictional), notations in a ships’ log, and newspaper clippings. There are novels structured as a straightforward linear listing of events in a timeline, mimicking the style of a true history; the narrative structure contains a setup, conflict and resolution in that order. Then there are unusual structures such as in The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. In this book, the six separate stories are nested around each other like Russian dolls. Some books flick backwards and forwards through a timeline, telling the story as a patchwork. None of these structures are better than another, as they all get the job done.

How a narrative is structured is closely related to how a writer wants to tell the underlying story to the plot. The knock-on effect is that the characters and settings must relate back to the structure, or create inconsistency that will jar with the audience. An illiterate character can’t write an epistolary novel – unless she dictates it to a third party, such as in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. But then, we can’t be as talented as Atwood. (I wish!) Your structure should integrate with the three pillars of storytelling: the plot, the characters and the setting.


Many of the Steampunk novels that I read conform to the linear narrative structure. Now, I see nothing wrong with that – particularly as the scientific method is linear. You have a hypothesis; you come with a way to test to the hypothesis; you collect your data; the data either supports your hypothesis …or it doesn’t. Easy peasey. The structure of the narrative echoes the underlying theme of the science in the Steampunk story.

But consider a narrative structure made to resemble clockwork, with wheels turning within wheels. The convoluted plot could be as beautifully crafted as a machine, with every piece highly polished and beautiful on its own, but only really working when sitting in its proper place inside the mechanism. It would take more work than a linear narrative, but it would be a delight to read! It would certainly take a lot of prior planning to pull off such a complicated plot.

So, what other plots would suit a Steampunk narrative? Seriously, I can’t think of a single narrative structure that couldn’t be made to work for the Steampunk genre. The fun is in the experimentation! Never be afraid to try something new. It might not work, but then you will have learnt something. And if it does work? Brilliant! Another pretty for your writer’s toolkit.



Filed under Steampunk, Structure, writing, Writing Style

2 responses to “Novel Structure – and this isn’t about architecture

  1. Yes indeed. And at the risk of being boringly self-promotive my “Journey into Space, 1874” is epistolary. And the documents are, at the end, being read by someone else which is a lead in to another story 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s