The Value of Unconventional Narrative Structures
A traditional narrative follows a dramatic, chronological plot arc of rising action, a climactic event and falling action. Many writers, however, have turned this concept upside-down, creating a new kind of story structure that explores time, character and themes in different and surprising ways. While stories with unconventional structures can be challenging and frustrating to follow, they may also reward you with a greater sense of satisfaction and meaning as you decipher their puzzling plots.
Unconventional narrative structures allow for a closer look at the characters' internal conflicts. While a traditional storyline continually moves forward, many writers use flashbacks to give readers a glimpse of significant events from the characters' pasts. Often, flashbacks answer questions that are integral to understanding the characters. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses flashbacks in "The Great Gatsby" to reveal the backstory of Gatsby's past relationship with Daisy. This technique enhances the novel's present action by adding new layers of meaning to Gatsby's obsession with Daisy and desire to rekindle their romance.
While traditional narratives typically focus only on the main character's point of view, unconventional narratives often let audiences see the story through different characters' eyes. Often, authors use this technique to show the same incident from multiple perspectives, revealing how they interpret the events according to their own desires and needs. A prime example occurs in the film "Rashomon," based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The story depicts four contradictory accounts of a samurai's murder from different witnesses, whose selfish motivations all color their views of the crime.
Because writers often choose to tell the story out of order or work backwards from the ending, unconventional narratives create suspense and intrigue. Jason Mittell, professor of American studies and film at Middlebury College, explains that these techniques force audiences to not only assemble the pieces of the story's puzzle, but consider why the author chose that structure. For example, Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" opens with the main character, Robert, being sentenced for murdering a woman on a pier, then moves back and forth between the trial and the events that led him to commit the crime.
Recently, authors like Jonathan Safran Foer, David Mitchell and David Foster Wallace have added a creative twist to fiction by including the characters' artwork, diaries and letters. English teacher Geneva Scully writes in an article from The Language Arts Journal of Michigan that these multigenre approaches lend authenticity to narratives; even if the stories are fiction, using the characters' personal art and writing enhances their believability. Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" uses a multigenre narrative in the book's first section, which interfaces the diary entries of a kidnapped woman with the first-person narration of her husband.
Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.