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Five genre novels that do something interesting with narrative structure

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I like stories that play around with the structure of their narrative. I like reading them, I like writing them. I particularly like the way they allow you to hide things, so you can drop them all on the reader at the end and blow their mind. I call that the B-52 Effect – not after the bomber but after the drink, which you knock back and it sort of goes whoommppfff when it hits your stomach. If I can do that in my fiction, then job done.

While I was thinking about interesting narrative structures, it occurred to me it’s not something genre fiction does often, but when it does it generally does it quite well. And I tried to think of ten excellent novels that boasted interesting narrative structures. But I could only think of five:

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), has perhaps the most common form of non-linear structure used in genre fiction, comprising two separate narratives – one of Byron’s fictional novel, which is also glossed with historical notes; and the second narrative is an email exchange set in the present about Byron’s life and his novel. One narrative informs the other and is in turn informed by it. I like that.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000), shares a similar structure to Crowley’s novel, in that the main narrative is – perhaps – a fictional work about the title character, and this is wrapped within another narrative which comments on Ash’s narrative and is in turn changed by her narrative.

Use Of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1991), famously has two narratives intertwined and chronologically opposed – one moves forward in time, like your average normal linear plot; but the other alternates with it and moves backwards in time. It makes for a mind-blowing climax, but sadly it’s a single shot: once you know the ending, you’re not going to get that B-52 Effect again.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974), equally famously has a non-linear structure narrative, with alternating chapters set on each of the story’s two worlds, Anarres and Uras, but not in chronological order. According to the Wikipedia article on the book, the chapters if re-ordered chronologically would go: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968) is, given that I’ve only read eight of Compton’s seventeen sf novels, the only one I’ve read so far that isn’t a two-hander. Most have a pair of protagonists, typically one male and one female, and the viewpoint alternates between them. Interestingly, in The Steel Crocodile the sections overlap so the reader sees events from both viewpoints. Synthajoy, however, has a single POV. At the start of the book, the protagonist is in an institution being “cured” after committing a crime. The narrative then starts to seamlessly slide into the past and describes the events that led up to the crime, and throughout the novel drifts back and forth between the two narratives. It is very cleverly done.

There are surely other genre novels with narrative structures other than the bog-standard linear beginning-to-end plot, but I’m having trouble thinking of good ones. There are fix-up novels, of course, though there’s nothing especially interesting in that as a structure. And both The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Icehenge comprise three loosely-linked novellas, and are both very good and cleverly done. Literary fiction is much more adventurous in this regard and two examples leap immediately to mind: Cloud Atlas and Girl Reading. Anyone else have any examples worth mentioning?

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9 thoughts on “Five genre novels that do something interesting with narrative structure

  1. I liked ASH a lot, although for reasons I cannot fathom, it was split into four(!) volumes here. It really is one long story, and the interplay between the narratives were innovative to me.

  2. Although I don’t like it much myself, a lot of people like “Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner which surely must qualify?

    I really liked Christopher Priest’s “The Glamour” which delivers a twist via a shift in narrative perspective at the end.

    • I’ve not read Stand on Zanzibar though I’ve owned the SF Masterworks edition for years. But from what I’ve heard of it, it’s probably a good candidate. The Glamour I read years ago and remember little of it except its central conceit. The Prestige also has a quite interesting narrative structure.

  3. Roger Zelazny’s Roadmarks has alternating chapters of a linear narrative and a non-linear one.

    • I’ve not read it – or at least I don’t think I have…

      • Roadmarks is unjustly underrated and overlooked. It’s a curious combination of density and readability, and its structure definitely qualifies it for the current discussion. (Lots of funny little bits in it, too, such as the Marquis de Sade as the head of a writers’ workshop.)

  4. I thought Budrys’ use of two interleaved chapter sequences in Who?, where the second sequence ends where the first begins, did an excellent job of using that structure to play with identity issues surrounding the main character, who is either an American scientist, saved by major robotic prostheses, or a replacement Soviet spy.

  5. I’d be interested if you could expand on this a bit: what do these nonlinear structures achieve? When one narrative “comments” or “informs” on another, what commentary or information does it provide?

    [Spoilers below]

    In the case of Use of Weapons, it’s because there are two mysteries about Zakalwe: where did he come from, and what is he looking for? The first of these questions naturally results in the time-reversed strand.

    In The Dispossessed, a major theme is the comparison between the social systems of Anarres and Urras, so by interleaving chapters Le Guin can make us notice contrasts and similarities that we’d miss if events were presented chronologically.

    Banks is particularly keen on nonlinear structures. For example, in Excession the narrative skips back and forth in time in a slightly haphazard fashion, forcing the reader to work hard to put together a particular chain of evidence (that implicates the conspiracy) in the same way as the detectives in the novel put it together. And there’s a particularly clever structure in Feersum Endjinn, where the use of four interleaved narrators conceals a twist: actually there are only three.

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