Stereotypically, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. And more often than not, they occur in that order, starting with the earliest relevant chronological event and moving linearly through time before ending with the last relevant event. A narrator, usually a character in the story or an omniscient observer, relates the events. A story that experiments with an unconventional structure risks confusing its audience or defying the basic requirements of a story.
However, there are instances where a story lends itself to, even embraces, such an unconventional structure. Perhaps relating events out of order delivers the greatest emotional impact. Perhaps multiple narrators are necessary to provide all the essential information and variations in perspective. The three novels listed below each employ an unconventional story structure to brilliant effect. Playing with chronology and narration amplifies their subject matter. At first glance, these unconventional story structures appear unsettling. They make the reader grapple for their place in time and setting. But once finished, it becomes hard to imagine how these stories could be told any other way.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
I first encountered Faulkner’s classic as a high school senior. This non-chronological story divided between four distinct narrative voices was one of my first, and definitely the most dramatic, experiences with an unconventional narrative structure. It took me two full readings and lots of guidance from my teacher before I had any idea what was going on in the first two sections of the novel.
The novel chronicles the collapse of the Compsons, an aristocratic family in the American South. The first of the four parts features the unfiltered thoughts of Benjy, an intellectually disabled man and the middle son of the Compson family. The second part jumps backward eighteen years and provides the stream-of-consciousness narrative of Quentin, the oldest and most intelligent Compson child. The third part occurs the day before Benjy’s section and is narrated by Jason, the youngest Compson son. The fourth part occurs the day after Benjy’s section. It is the only part without a single first-person narrator and follows Dilsey, the matriarch of the Compson family’s black servants.
In turn, these sections offer progressively more probing looks at a family that has been crumbling for years and is presently on the brink of collapse. One by one, we see the Compson children’s futures wiped out. Each section reveals new information and shines a light on details presented in other parts of the story. In this multifaceted portrayal, Faulkner gives us a glimpse of a family that has grown rotten to its core and can no longer sustain itself or continue its old way of life.
There is no single cause of the Compson family’s downfall. Rather, as Faulkner shows us with help from his narrative structure, the influences are both myriad and intertwined. The result is a complex story and an extremely challenging read, but one that is well worth the effort.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014)
Wolf in White Van is the first novel by John Darnielle, the sole band member of The Mountain Goats. And Darnielle’s shift from song lyrics to prose is an ambitious one. The novel uses a non-chronological storyline that combines the narrator Sean’s current life with flashbacks happening in reverse order.
Sean’s present life follows his development of the play-by-mail role-playing game Trace Italian. The flashbacks move toward a shooting in Sean’s adolescence that left his face disfigured and forces him to live with a caretaker.
Here, the unconventional structure serves to juxtapose two tragedies at opposite ends of the story. We learn about the terrible outcome of two Trace Italian players who carried out the game’s actions in real life. And at the end, Darnielle unearths the impetus for Trace Italian by revealing the circumstances around Sean’s injury.
Wolf in White Van succeeds because these two timelines work so well together. Darnielle uses the structure to build a throughline from Sean as an adolescent loner to the two teens who tragically brought his fantasy to life. In doing so, he is able to explore the ways our memories, fantasies and unrealized possibilities dominate our flesh-and-blood existence.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
Niffenegger blends time travel science fiction with a timeless love story in this wholly unique novel. In this instance, the unconventional narrative structure melds with the unconventional twists on two familiar genres. The story follows the relationship between Henry, who has a genetic disorder that causes to him time travel unpredictably, and his wife Clare, who has to deal with the fallout of his time jumps. In addition to the usual struggles of marriage, Henry’s unexpected absences cause some unique problems for the couple.
Niffenegger also upends the traditional time travel narrative, in which this ability is often portrayed as an exciting technology, although it may lead to unforeseen negative consequences. Here, time travel is often an impediment, and the reader is made to feel Henry’s confusion and Clare’s frustration through the novel’s unconventional narrative structure.
Henry’s life happens out of the usual order, and the story’s structure reflects his unique experience of time. At some points, the story moves chronologically, generally following Clare’s linear perspective of time. At other points, the story moves thematically, such as when Henry first meets Clare from his point of view, which is then followed by a series of encounters between an older Henry traveling to a younger Claire’s past.
Niffenegger tries to help readers out as much as possible. Each section has a header with the date and Henry’s and Clare’s ages. Within each section, Niffenegger also indicates which character is narrating, as the perspective often flips between the two characters. Most importantly, this unconventional structure allows Niffenegger to foreshadow events later in the story without beating readers over the head. We get glimpses of the future because Henry gets glimpses of the future. This broadened, non-linear perspective makes the ending even more heart-rending than it would be in a traditional narrative.
For more stories with an unconventional structure, click here to claim your copy of my novella The Theory of Anything and a preview of its sequel, The Friar’s Lantern.