How to use structure for effect
- Narrative structure refers to how a story is ordered and shaped.
- The events in a story may be ordered in a linear or a non-linear way.
- A story may also be told from different narrative perspectives.
Putting events into order
Writers structure their stories by choosing the sequence in which narrative elements will be revealed to the reader.
A linear or chronological structure is where the story is told in the order it happens. With a chronological or linear structure, the reader finds out what happens in the ‘correct’ order - this can lead the reader through events clearly. It may not be the most interesting way to tell a story, though. You could use a non-linear structure where flashbacks show the reader a past event, gradually revealing details that have an impact on the plot.
In The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, the narrator moves through different time periods to tell the story. This structure is used by Hill to build tension as the narrator at the start knows how the story will unfold and can flash back and flash forward to control the reader’s knowledge. A non-linear story could begin at any point - somewhere in the middle, at the climax, or even at the end.
Both linear and non-linear structures are influenced by the narrator’s point of view.
Narrative perspective is the point of view from which the story is told. There are two that are the most common in fiction.
First-person perspective is where a character from the story tells the story. This involves using ‘I’ or ‘we’ in the narration. The advantage of this structure is that the reader can empathise and identify with the narrator - sometimes it can feel as if we become them. Using first-person perspective you can choose to limit if or when to reveal information based on the character’s motivation.
In Blade: Playing Dead, Tim Bowler uses a first-person perspective to help the reader understand the narrator’s point of view:
‘You probably want to know my name. Well, that's a bit of a problem. I got loads. But, there is one name I like. Everybody called me it in the old days. No one does now cos no one in this city knows it. And that's fine. I don't like to remember. But, I do like the name. You can use it if you want. BLADE.’
Third-person perspective is where the story is told about the characters. Using third-person perspective often means the reader can picture the whole scene as though it is being told through the eyes of an outsider. It uses ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ to tell the story. The advantage of this is that the narrator is separated from the action and can reveal to the reader what any, or all, of the characters are thinking.
In Lord of the Flies, William Golding describes two of his characters in the first chapter:
‘Ralph disentangled himself cautiously and stole away through the branches. In a few seconds the fat boy's grunts were behind him and he was hurrying toward the screen that still lay between him and the lagoon. He climbed over a broken trunk and was out of the jungle.’
Here, third-person perspective enables the reader to get an idea about the characteristics and appearance of both characters - Ralph and the ‘fat boy’, Piggy.
When planning and writing, a story think about the order in which events will be revealed to the reader, as well as the perspective from which the story is told. Experiment with linear and non-linear structures, and with first-and third-person perspectives.
What kind of narrative voice will you create? Where will you begin the story in order to hook your reader? Notice how other writers build their stories.
There is no single right way to tell a story.
Find out how much you know about using structure for effect in this short quiz!