Pick and Choose

When authors think of how to lay out their novel, the most common structural technique chosen is chronology. That is the way the story appears to them: it starts here, goes through these obstacles, and culminates at this logical high point of past events. A skilled novelist may operate that way, but because they immerse the reader in whichever character’s head they choose, they know that as long as the reader is content following a narrative string, the structure can feature events out of order.

In this regard it is useful to study the configuration of Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. While linear time is followed to a large degree, emphasis is placed on what part of the lead character’s past should be revealed for the purpose of dramatic emphasis. The fact that he is only 33 when he leaves his young family and careens through back alleys in Spain is not revealed until well into the novel, after many plot events present and past have already been put forth. The author wishes to show at that point in the novel how truly damaged the character is. As the reader you already know so much and you’re left wondering: really, you gave up everything you had going for you at age 33? It helps to explain his present existential torpor by a quantum leap.

You can employ discontinuity for dramatic effect for other characters as well. How do they fit into the hero’s life? What are the signal events of their association? Which one really slays the protagonist? When you start thinking in terms of emotional valence, the timing of a revelation becomes a matter of when dropping the trapdoor will cast everything that has come before in a stark new light.

An important consideration is how the developmental arc is progressing in the present-day plot. If that plot line is somewhat static, as more modern plots are, then your arrangement of past events becomes an equivalent or even more dynamic force driving our understanding of the lead character. In this setup, a good deal of development can be placed earlier in the book, establishing a status quo that past events then can enhance or dismantle step by step. You choose when to deliver a telling blow—it just may not belong in the present.

Exercise: If you have already written a draft in chronological order, you can chop it up. Start by composing a chart of the plot events and then assign dramatic value to each one. The ones that hit the hardest may not be the later ones. In that case, bend your narrative so that the revelation, say, that the protagonist accidentally killed his father as a child stands on the height of all of the other material you have built beforehand. 

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” 

—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.