Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
A strong structure invites the reader into your book. Your table of contents is a big selling point–not only for readers, but even before you reach that stage, for agents and editors too.
How do you go about deciding on your manuscript’s structure?
Your manuscript’s structure should be unique.
One of the wonderful aspects about bone structure is that while we each have a basic face “shape,” we each also have a unique look. So don’t be afraid to break out of the standard with your book’s structure. Do something a little different. But not so clever that it calls too much attention to itself. That would be like having so much plastic surgery that you looked, well, plastic.
Your manuscript’s structure should be simple.
A simple structure often works best. For example, He’s Just Not That Into You starts most of its chapters reusing the title: “He’s Just Not That Into You If He’s Not Asking You Out,” “He’s Just Not That Into You If He’s Not Calling,” etc. It reiterates the book’s theme yet shows how that theme is explored in each chapter.
For those women involved with a man who isn’t that into them, the chapter titles will woo potential readers as each woman realizes, “Uh, I think too many of these chapter titles apply to my relationship.”
The memoir, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, has a simple but very different structure. Each chapter title is one word, but it has a subtitle. So you find chapter titles such as: “Beginnings: God on a Dirt Road Walking Toward Me,” “Problems: What I Learned on Television,” “Magic: The Problem with Romeo.”
While I don’t know exactly what each chapter will hold, these titles, as befits a memoir, are more opaque than a standard nonfiction book. But they reflect a thoughtful approach to the book’s structure and create curiosity. The structure fits our expectations of a memoir yet it also entices us into this memoir.
Your manuscript’s structure shouldn’t overdo a good thing.
A current trend in novel writing is to create a fractured structure, which could well prove to be a two-edged sword for the writer. The manuscript’s structure might cut back and forth between a contemporary story and a historical story. (Sarah’s Key is a popular example, as it moves back and form from WWII to a contemporary story.) Or a novelist may choose to cut back and forth in a character’s life from present to the past.
It may be literary, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Emma Donoghue (author of Room) does just that with her historical novel, Frog Music.
Critics waxed rhapsodic when the book released, pasted stars in front of their reviews. Here’s one example:
“[An] ebullient mystery….. Donoghue cross-cuts between Blanche’s desperate present-time search and scenes from her Technicolor past with showstopping aplomb…. It’s all great fun, and so richly atmospheric…. Astonishing details are scattered like party nuts…. Donoghue also provides riotous musical accompaniment for her narrative…. Call it a mind-bendingly original crime novel, or a dazzling historical mystery, but in the end, this is really a book about love–a mother’s love for a strange child, for an exotic friend and finally, for herself.”―Caroline Leavitt, San Francisco Chronicle
Critics see books differently sometimes.
Other reviewers proclaimed themselves in love with the main characters and assured us readers that we would want to return to the book time and again–and that it wouldn’t soon leave us.
I found that latter thought so true, for the book was jarringly amoral and explicit about prostitution, sexual partners, and the indifference of a dirty, raucous, smallpox-laden San Francisco in 1876.
Even worse, the structure was utterly incomprehensible to me, as the reader was asked to move from the present to the past with nary a clue to solve the mystery of which paragraphs were contemporaneous and which were the character’s past. The seemingly impulsive moves could happen multiple times in a chapter. And, considering that the story took place over a three-day span, the reader was left dizzy by the amount of time and space the novel actually covered.
Figuring out how the plot was moving forward was a challenge, to say the least. I found myself agreeing with an Amazon commenter who wrote: “The use of many, many flashbacks to build suspense in this story seemed contrived, as if Donoghue wrote a linear story and then cut it apart and rearranged the pieces.” Indeed, I can’t imagine how else she could have constructed such a labyrinth without writing it just as the commenter suggests.
Readers aren’t supposed to sweat over figuring out the structure.
I say all this so you’ll see what I mean about overusing a structural device. The book was not a pleasure to read; it made the reader work hard not only to understand whodunit, but also why the author chose a stream of consciousness approach rather than lay out any landmarks for the reader.
Structure can be elegant and make sense to the reader. Or it can overwhelm all other aspects of the manuscript, which results, in my opinion, in artifice.
What are you reading now? Did the table of contents or structure invite you in, or did you enter into the book’s world for another reason?
How to choose your manuscript’s structure. Click to tweet.
Does your manuscript’s structure invite readers in? Click to tweet.