Jostling Structure

I've been reading a lot of good books lately. This is always a good thing, but one of the shared characteristics has been an interesting twist in the Space-Time Continuum, i.e. the structure of the novel. I find it interesting to read a book that could have started another way, gone in a linear fashion from start to finish, but instead chose somewhere pre-story or mid-story and bounced around from there. When you're reading and think, "Oh, now I get where this story started in order to bring us to Page One in order to bring us to this magic moment" is something that always makes me smile, feeling suddenly smart and knowledgeable and in on the author's plans all along. It's something I didn't know I liked until it struck me like a chord again and again.

When I was strategically withdrawing in Vermont, the great and awesome Alvina Ling spoke about structure, how an "ordinary story" can become extraordinary if you mix things up a bit, either with the timeline or POV, including a countdown to a crucial event or reflections being chronologically out-of-order. It keeps things interesting by keeping the reader on her/his toes, creating tension and surprise where ordinarily there was a steady build-up and reveal. These things came back to me while I was reading the latest in my (very long) TBR pile.

THE SPACE BETWEEN by Brenna Yovanoff features the luscious prose and gorgeous covers I've come to expect (and yearn for) but also had the sort of pre-story beginning that hit me as both artistically and cinematically brilliant. The tale could have started as many YAs do where the ordinary mortal is going about their everyday existence and *poof* the otherworldly hottie pops in and changes his/her life. In while that happened, Brenna took the less traveled path, as she did in her debut THE REPLACEMENT, by stealing in through the eyes of the Other and giving that story first as a prelude to What Happens After. Given the POV and tense switch, it was enough to keep me turning pages like gaining purchase on a ship bound for adventure. I couldn't put it down. It reminded me a lot of another book I raved about, DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, whose mid-story saga revealed an entire book "pre-Chapter One" whose discovery completely changes the reading; from that point onward, it's a different book.

Yovanoff also used the "countdown" wherein chapters gave a ticking clock number to something that was going to happen if you just keep reading! I think the first to do this was John Green's LOOKING FOR ALASKA, but it's become a really effective way of hooking the reader and pulling them forward knowing that something's coming but we don't know what. It *feels* a lot like a movie where we know the title of the film and suspect every dark and shadowy corner will reveal it to us in a rush of color and noise. It sneaks up on us because we're all too aware of it. The anticipation does the work of tension for us and the payoff comes after the event has finally struck. We sigh and glance around: What Now? We are begging to be lead to the next step of the journey towards a satisfactory conclusion promised at the very first chapter heading.

John Green's latest novel, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, begins as a reflection but moves chronologically forward although retains some of the "jumping" quality by changing settings dramatically and often. This montage effect works amazingly well when it messes with the timeline, something that works amazingly when done well like in THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffennegger, THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers and 13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher. Shaking up the past, present and future does a lot to hold our interest and make what might have been a linear story one with untold surprises and discordant revelations that keep me up til 4am.

None of these stories were "ordinary" from the start, already amazing ideas that were taking shape on the page, but the order in which they were revealed to us, the readership, raised the bar and the story to dizzying heights, begging questions and answers and just-one-more-page and really, who could ask for anything better than that?

If you have any other favorite books that jostled the timeline, thus changing the whole story, please plunk them in the comments--it's more fun to share!


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