Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Simple and Complex Structures

This is not an in-praise-of-one and excoriate-the-other kind of post. It’s really a question of the kind of story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.

Yes, but they’re all CHAIRS.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One has one structure: his narrator, Wade/Parzival explains the contest that is the crux of the book. The bad guy that we meet at the beginning, Nolan Sorrento, is the bad guy that we meet at the end. The book itself has the structure of a video game. Advance a level. Advance a level. Defeat the boss. Advance a level.

The Magicians pulls a different trick. It is a simple structure (there is one goal the entire book) with a quest at the end. The quest isn’t tacked on – it’s bound up in Quentin’s journey – but suddenly the book feels more like the epic fantasy it seems to be. Playing with our expectations doesn’t mean that Grossman’s structure has more than a single line, however.

The musical Into the Woods, on the other hand, has both a plot arc and a thematic arc. There are two overlapping structures, two separate builds. Lapin and Sondheim play them off of one another until the end of the play, where they resolve separately. The thematic highpoint is the two-duet number  (also structurally complex), “No One Is Alone,” which not only reflects the action that’s about to take place, but also subverts the message they’ve been toying with, what happens when you go into the woods alone (when you grow up; when you commit adultery; when you sell a cow). In this moment of crisis, they say, we are not alone – or at least, we don’t have to be. Next to this is the plot (or action, if you prefer), the confrontation with the widowed giantess, which takes place a scene or two later.

Me, I like a complex story where the craft is evident or suddenly revealed, but that’s just a personal preference and nothing more. I look at the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon for The Magicians and see bile spilling out – “If you love epic fantasy, run away from this book.” For Ready Player One, love love love. I found Grossman’s book more engaging than Cline’s (and really – in their pop-culture reference-dropping way – they have very similar potential audiences) because I didn’t always know where it was going. I always knew where Cline was heading. That’s not a bad thing.

Structure plays a larger part when you start getting into series. Susanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy comprises three different kinds of books (quest; I-don’t-know; revolution). Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy uses the same structure in each book, pulling threads from the first two to create his conflict for the third.

Then there’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. My hardcover edition of this novel is just around 300 pages. The inciting incident is the attempted theft of the title object, and we don’t even get to that until Hagrid takes Harry to the bank to remove it from a vault for safe-keeping. That doesn’t happen until around page 100. Check it out – the action of the novel doesn’t begin until one third of the way through the book.

You may object that Voldemort has already killed Harry’s parents and that Harry has already been put in the “protective” custody of his horrible aunt and uncle (Catherynne Valente has something to say about that, by the way). And you would be correct that those things have happened, but that is Rowling giving us the inciting incident for the series. The first books in particular share common roots – the immediate threat-of-the-year paralleling the general threat-of-the-series.

Both styles involve their own challenges. One advantage of the two-structures is that you can bounce off them and highlight one tension against another, letting one story breathe a little while you pick up the other one. The disadvantage is getting lost, overly complex, too clever or ambitious for your own good (my personal Achilles’ heel). It’s a very common strategy, embodied in YA paranormal romance. Storyline #1 is typically the plot; #2, the romance. Julie Kagawa’s The Iron King, for example.

The single structure sounds simple, but that’s deceptive. For all of Ready Player One‘s sprawl, there is a kind of muscular leanness that such writing requires. Everything has to hinge on the one structural line. Even Wade’s hoped-for romance with Art3mis falls into this category, connecting back to the quest at the heart of the book. A disadvantage? There’s no time to breathe. Pacing becomes a bigger issue. When does the reader get to relax? Alternatively, we get bored. How do you keep our attention?


What’s your story?

Previous: Distilled Spirits

Next: Acts and Scenes


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