How It's Made: On Learning to Read for Structure

Since it’s one of the things I need to focus on in novel revisions, I’ve been trying to pay attention to structure recently in the books I read. Where do chapters break, and why? How is information ordered? Several of the novels I’ve encountered recently feel like books in search of a scaffolding, lovely prose and ideas mixed together like batter so the story ends up getting in its own way. What would perhaps ideally be braided narratives feel like disconnected themes interrupting one another; new chapters flash forward and back without clear reason.

Masterful structuring is often invisible—I tend not to consciously notice a chapter break, for instance, unless it’s jarring—so it’s been easiest to pay attention to the outliers. Fates and Furies, of course, is a mirrored narrative, the second half coming as both a trapdoor of a plot twist and the relief of, at last, of hearing the other side of the story. It’s in large part why so many of us responded so well to Groff’s novel—the sucker-punch of the structure, the masterful way she withholds exposition and context for thrilling delivery in part 2 without making the first half of the book feel like it’s missing any load-bearing beams. I also recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz for the first time, and was struck by—among much else—what I think is one of the most compelling uses of flash-forwards I’ve encountered. Miller jumps hundreds of years between sections, and so skillfully that his novel feels documentary. Each new section creates the impression that, rather than inventing it from whole cloth, he’s dropping a needle on actual historical record. The gap in knowledge between the characters and the reader—each with some information over the other—the lyrical passages widening scope and speeding time at the end of each section, the ending flashes of omniscience as he beings to, it feels literally, fast-forward—these are all structural decisions that feel inevitable on the page, like historical fact. A perfect and chilling fit for the book’s subject matter.  

Structure is sometimes especially striking in nonfiction, since books’ formats tend to vary more and since there’s often a rhetorical case made upfront for the way they’ve been organized. This week I read Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One. (I’m not precisely sure that the title should be styled with two colons, but I don’t think there’s another way around it—emblematic of some other difficulties I had with this book.) It examines the literary and cultural events of 1922 in almost a calendar format, a kind of day-by-day diary that explains what Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Pound, and many many others were up to on January 1, January 2, etc. It’s an impulse I can relate to, and the structure has its charms—it’s compelling, and grounding, to remember that these great writers and artists existed in the same world we do, and that they were never divorced from the other events of the day. And contextual timelines are nearly always at least a little interesting. But this level of granular detail is almost immediately at cross-purposes with the book, which has far too big a project in mind—capturing the innovations of 1922 “on all sides, and in every field”—to go through diaries and letters literally day by day and person by person. Almost immediately, footnotes begin blooming to more than half the physical page, taking us beyond individual calendar days and weeks, months, years into the future and past. These footnotes, along with the introduction and conclusion (which don’t conform to the calendar gimmick) are by far the most natural and most interesting parts of the book.

I have sympathy for Jackson in that his structure grated at me for being overthought rather than under-. It made me want to reread Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927, a book with a similar rhetorical purpose—to give a cultural history of a brief slice of the 1920s—but one that goes down like popcorn, without the granular slog of a structure at odds with its mission.

It doesn’t come entirely naturally to me to analyze structure in book-length works—I’m still in the early stages of learning to appreciate and critique how they’re built. But I’ll keep training myself to find the beams and give them a tap as I read—let me know if you have any (least) favorites of your own!