One of the most important aspects of a novel is its narrative structure. Do you present your story as linear or non-linear? How does the story fit into the typical three-acts of story-telling: setup, conflict, and resolution/beginning, middle, and the end? What are the character arcs and how do they develop over the course of the story? Do you want to closely follow the Hero’s Journey or depart from it? Do you want to make use of flashbacks or not? Is there going to be a framing narrative to encompass the story? These are ultimately some of the most important questions a writer has to answer with regard to their work when writing. The results can have an incredible impact on the way people respond to a text. Just think, would people have been so impressed with films like Memento or Pulp Fiction were it not for their non-linear structures? Equally, how would people have coped if The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or A Song Of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) had been told in anything but a linear mostly chronological fashion? Would The Great Gatsby be the amazing piece of literature it is without the framing narration of Nick opening and closing the novel? The answer to these questions in my mind is no, these works would not have been as successful had they used different narrative structures. That’s because the chosen structures work so perfectly with the texts that they help to elevate their overall quality.
When it comes to my own novel I’ve always had a very clear idea of the structure I wanted. The story I’ve had in my head ever since I was fourteen has always been a tale of two halves, each acting as a mirror of sorts. This story is then framed by the Prologue and Epilogue which take place about twelve years later. I cannot remember the initial reasoning behind these choices, but in my heart of hearts, this is the structure that feels most fitting for the story I want to tell. As I’ve grown older and become more aware of the thematic and tonal essences I wish to echo, I’ve begun to realise why some of the choices I made back then are so integral to what I’m writing now. Over the next few paragraphs, these reasons should hopefully become quite clear.
One of my favourite narrative techniques is bookending. Bookending is the common practise of matching scenes at the beginning and end of a story. This is frequently done to show how much characters have changed or how little they’ve changed. It can be awfully cheesy, but also incredibly heart-warming and fun when this occurs. Some of my favourite examples are the Bayonetta games (both of which are among my all-time favourite openings and endings for a video game), Sonic Unleashed (as above), and the voice-over narration in Prince of Persia (2008). So obviously I want to pay homage to bookending because it has been a part of some of the stories I love. However, there’s also the whole medieval romance link I want to strengthen. One of the most common tropes in medieval romances is that they begin and end at court during a festival of some description. When the Gawain Poet wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it was one of the main things he chose to make use of. It works on exactly the same principles of showing how much or how little things have changed and provides further proof to me that bookending is the way to go.
The ball from Cinderella (2015) is a decent approximation of the scale of the Dragons’ Festival. (Source)
However, the bookending I have chosen is a framing narrative in a similar vein to The Great Gatsby. While the main story has Hideki as its primary focus, the Prologue and Epilogue has Rosalina as its focus. On the night of the Dragons’ Festival, the queen finally decides to break years of silence and tell her people the story of the hero they’ve all forgotten. I’m sure that some people will argue that this framing device means that the novel loses tension as we already know the ultimate fates of the two main characters. What I would argue against that, is that the story is becomes more about who and how and why. The Prologue sets up the question of who Hideki is, why he was so important to Rosalina, and how his story ended with the people forgetting him. It becomes a tragedy that’s just waiting to happen, like Blood Brothers or Romeo & Juliet. By the time the reader returns to Rosalina finishing telling the story to her people in the Epilogue, I hope that readers will have found the answers they are looking for. In the end, the bookending frames are there to provide a sense of mystery and a sense of resolution. It allows me to pay homage to the stories that have inspired me while at the same time doing something a little bit different with the trope.
The Hero’s Journey following the summary by Christopher Volger. (Source)
Speaking of playing with tropes, when it comes medieval romances, the most common is the quest. In almost every romance, the knight must go on a quest across the country either to rescue a maiden or defeat a powerful foe or to find a mysterious treasure. In most Japanese RPGs, which are also a rather large influence on me, a similar quest-based narrative is in play. If I wanted to follow these exactly, I would probably choose to make excellent use of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with its seventeen stages. There have been various attempts to develop more accurate monomyths since then by the likes of David Adams Leeming, Phil Cousineau, and Christopher Volger; but Campbell’s remains the most well-known. The whole point of the Hero’s Journey is depart on the journey, go through the trials of the initiation and then have the return to where it all began. It’s a very simple process, but it is not one that I feel is an entirely suitable form for the story I wish to tell.
I’ve already spoken about how I want to deal with the ideas of utopia and dystopia within my novel, but the broader theme of duality, mirrors, and balance is even more integral to the structure. Instead of having a single arc, The Burning Ash is at present split into two halves. One deals with the utopia of Ryushima and Hideki’s domestic level quest of love with Rosalina, the other deals with the dystopia of Helheim and a more typical quest to save the world. Each half will ultimately have its own beginning, middle, and end. This double plot structure (as I’ll call it for now) is perhaps atypical, but it suits the way I feel this story flows. There will no doubt be elements of the Hero’s Journey in there, but the overall structure isn’t quite so singular. In my mind, one of the main reasons for this structure is that it allows for more direct mirroring. I suspect comparisons will quickly be drawn between each of the climaxes when it comes to the battle set-ups, but I do hope to go a little bit more complex in playing with the dualities at work in the story. The goal is to have two halves of the same coin, each being integral to a deeper understanding of the other.
With all this in mind, it should be clear just how much thought needs to go into the structure of a story. I suspect that when I finally finish The Burning Ash and begin the next book I’ll have another play around with the narrative structure because it’s a fun little task. At present, I’m working my way up to the first climax in The Burning Ash so I’m very nearly in a position to start making the most of the structure I’m using. If all goes well, I’m about to pick up the pace in my writing. My current personal deadline is the end of August this year, so let’s see whether I can hit that target! Wish me luck!