How to investigate structure in fiction texts

  • Structure refers to how written text is organised - the way the story is ordered and shaped.
  • A writer uses structural techniques to guide the reader.
  • Narrative perspective and syntax can shape the reader’s response.
Learn how writers use structural techniques to guide the reader

Guiding the reader

Writers use structure to direct a reader’s attention in different ways. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee begins her story:

‘When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.’

In this opening, Lee suggests that the story will be told in flashback by using the past tense and referring to events over time. It is structured as a memory, which helps to give the narrative a sense of affection for the past. It also encourages the reader to connect with the main characters - everyone is young and self-conscious at some point.

Writers use structural techniques to guide the reader

Narrative perspective

The narrative perspective is the point of view from which the story is told. A writer decides on the narrative voice and how to use this in the structure of the story. A story may be told in third person, as though the narrator is an outsider or observer looking in, and using pronouns such as ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’. Or it might be told in first person, from the point of view of one or more of the characters in the story, using the pronoun ‘I’.

In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon uses first-person perspective to tell the story from Christopher’s point of view. This perspective helps to structure the text as a convincing internal monologue. This is a device that shows the inner thoughts of a character directly in their own voice so the reader can understand their point of view. The reader hears the story only from Christopher’s perspective and the structure helps his thoughts unfold for us. As Christopher’s thought processes are unfamiliar to many people, the choice to write in his voice directs the reader’s response to events in the novel in unusual and unexpected ways.

Structural techniques

As well as arranging the events of the story, a writer uses other structural techniques to help shape their writing.

Short sentences could help to create a tense atmosphere. Alternatively, a writer could reflect a character’s thought processes, as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. If short sentences are used alongside long and complex ones it may create confusion.

When investigating structure, consider sentence types as well as the order in which events and ideas are revealed. Why might the writer have structured sentences in such a way?

Syntax

The syntax is the arrangement of the words and phrases in a sentence. At the start of Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier writes:

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.’

The opening sentence is simple and straight away provides the reader with a sense of time - ‘last night’, place - ‘Manderley’ and perspective - ‘I dreamt’. The syntax implies fact and truth, which is immediately contradicted in the second sentence by the mystery which is created. Why should this place be ‘barred’ to the narrator?

The structure of the writing directs the reader’s comprehension of characters and plot - it helps to reveal the plot in a way that shapes the reader's understanding and response to the story.

Daphne du Maurier chooses to open on a particular scene in order to establish important ideas about her novel

Remember

When investigating the structure of a text, consider the order in which events are revealed to the reader, and the narrative perspective from which they are told. Narrative perspective may change during the course of a story. Syntax and sentence structure are also important tools that a writer can use to influence a reader’s response to characters or events.

Quiz

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Where next?

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