The Value of Unconventional Narrative Structures

When creating a narrative, conventional structures fill the writer's toolbox. Like genres themselves, certain patterns allow storytellers to appeal to wide audiences. But what if a narrative structure has become predictable and formulaic? How might a writer turn tradition on its head and surprise his or her readers?

Conventional Structures

The value of a conventional narrative structure is, arguably, that through its effective use, readers' expectations are met in a sufficiently satisfying way. But what are these structures? How do they work? Well, they are a lot like movie genres. Movie buffs are probably aware of what a Western contains: good guy with white hat, bad guy with black hat, showdown on a dusty street. Similarly, conventional narrative structures include patterns that have become obvious or expected because of tradition. This can include, for example, chronological exposition -- that is, telling what happened in exactly the order that it happened, from beginning to end. But the same strength can become a weakness if the structure becomes too predictable or formulaic.

Telling the Story Out of Order

One inventive way to shake things up for a reader is to play with chronology. Rather than telling what happened in the proper order, mix up plot elements to generate a little bit of initial confusion. The possible value to this approach is that the reader stands to become more intimately aware of cause and effect within your narrative. Providing that you don't confuse your reader so much that he loses interest (or the ability to follow along), the reader of a narrative like this may gain precise insights into the plot of the story that might not have been appreciated otherwise.


Another unconventional narrative structure with great potential for reader engagement is the stream-of-consciousness approach. This structure may require you, as a writer, to rethink your concept of "structure" entirely in that stream-of-consciousness writing generally breaks all kinds of writing rules. It's as if the reader has gained access to the unfiltered thinking of the narrator, whose thoughts may or may not take the form of complete sentences. The beginning of William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" is a famous example of this kind of experimentation. Perhaps the greatest value to an approach like this is that the reader engages with a story in an unrestricted, imaginative and memorable way.

The Second Person

One highly unconventional narrative structure involves a second-person narrator. You are probably very familiar with first-person narratives (narratives where the speaker says "I did this" or "I did that"), and you are probably equally familiar with third-person narratives ("he said" and "she said"). But what about a narrative that uses "you"? Robert O'Connor's novel, "Buffalo Soldiers," uses this technique effectively. A possible value to this approach is that the reader is immersed in the narrative at hand, and that he therefore may become more permanently and personally engaged in the story.

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