How I Write: Structuring a Narrative

This can be a never-ending story, and I saw other writers contributing posts on the topic… so I thought I’d add my two cents.

Doubtless, there is – and must be – some structure. Orwell said that the statement that art was for art’s sake was political, in that it asserted a specific idea. To paraphrase that, to render no structure to a text is also a political decision, for the structure will then rest in other, perhaps less obvious, components of the text. To take Memento for an example, it is seemingly without a structure, but as the film progresses, through multiples repetitions, the structure begins to manifest itself precisely through these repetitions that gradually help us to piece the story together. A broken structure, as in Bad Education, calls on our attention. To me, it was fascinating to notice that in Bad Education we had two films in one – but unless we pay attention, this fact may well escape us. In Vertigo, it is already in the middle of the film that we can see that the protagonist has stopped suffering from vertigo: Hitchcock points the camera down the spiral staircase, and we see that it is stale, yet the protagonist is too distressed to notice this – so we have the story starting anew. And, of course, Irreversible turns any conventional film structure on its head and gives us a narrative that unravels from the end to the beginning.

In literature, we can cite What Is to Be Done? by Chernyshevsky that started from the middle of the story; or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Vargas Llosa that was interjected by excerpts from the young author’s scripts. Vargas Llosa is certainly fond of these complicated texts, as The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, with letters and fantasies that break a storyline just as much as they enrich and help understand it, loosely follows the technique he used before in other texts.

Thus, for all the importance of structure and its role in making a text coherent, readable and pleasant in one way or another, “order is not all“, to now paraphrase Edna St. Vincent Millay. Indeed, at the start of the things it is not particularly important how we fetch all parts of our text together – whether we begin with the middle, or with the end, or start at the very beginning and continue to the end, then stop (I think this has something to do with Lewis Carroll).

Apparently, many writers have either notebooks or pieces of paper, should the Muse visit them. Umberto Eco, answering the question about how he writes, notes that he finds himself jotting down the thoughts on pieces of paper, in notepads, which he then assembles and studies before embarking on a book. His much elder brother-in-arms and compatriot, Francesco Petrarca, once declared something of a “writer’s bankruptcy”: he was inundated with his own notes, so threw half of them into fire. Personally, I use both notebooks and pieces of paper, and although I diligently try and use some notebooks for nothing but taking notes in the library or business meetings, somehow I end up finding there extracts for future essays or poems.

But now to the question: how do we decide what structure is “right” for the text we’re writing? If we believe that writers are being guided by some external force, then one may say that the force also imposes the structure. This, however, would go against the grain in Journalism or academy: whether we’re writing a newspaper article or an academic article, both have a structure that cannot be changed. An academic article or a study would often even have a set of chapters that has to be followed precisely. This is not to say that this structure cannot be enlivened or otherwise “tweaked”, but if you’re writing for a result then expect some criticism, should your peer have a strong view on how things must be done.

Yet with a creative, literary text – how do we decide what structure it follows? I’ve said before that a visit to Heaton Park was inspiring, coupled with a visit to Subversive Spaces exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery. I’m now writing the text, in Russian, but the way things go, I have written the end, and I have one third of the first part. A complete text, as I feel it, will consist of three parts, first telling a fictional story (dream); second telling the story of real people; third is the part that will show how the first two stories are linked together, and this part will also “solve the problem”. The reason I don’t tell more isn’t only because the text is not even half-written, but because at the moment I, being my own reader and critic, find that there are too many references in my head, and I’m not yet sure which of them are more powerful than others. There may be some oblique references to Bunuel; references to Heaton Park will be the most obvious; same with Surrealists’ fascination for hysteria, dreams, sex, and death. So, right now I’m something of Lady Shalott who makes a conscious decision to not look into the window, lest all the various threads she’s intertwining get knotted upon her seeing Sir Lancelot.

Now, to answer my own question – how did I decide on the way of writing this text? The answer, frankly, is that I didn’t decide it. I don’t always write texts from the beginning till the end, regardless of what structure they eventually assume. This is simply because when something speaks with you it speaks quickly, and my task is often to pin the thought down before it vanishes. Similarly, with the text in question, the one third of its first part isn’t “coherent”, in the sense that it contains bits that will be included in different chapters.

All the above, of course, begs the question about reading and editing – but that is a topic for another post.


William Howard Hunt, Lady Shalott (1889-1902)


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