When I made plans to teach a workshop during the first week of the Chautauqua Institution’s season this summer, I wasn’t sure how my students might respond. After all, Chautauqua is a classy place, and yet I settled on a workshop title of “Getting Weird: Innovative Story Structure.” I also opened my public reading at the beginning of the week with a story about a girl walking, literally, into books, where in one case she’s sliced open by the pages, and in another she starts vomiting ink. But I figured if my theme was “getting weird,” I would go all out and hope for the best.
Fortunately, the weirdness didn’t backfire. My workshop was nearly at capacity, my students were bright and curious and creative, and multiple writers reported that they were inspired to experiment with form based on some of the structural options we discussed in class.
In honor of my week spent in the company of writers willing to take risks, and in celebration of all things weird, I’ll use this space to share a snippet of what we discussed in workshop.
Story as Category
As I explained to my students, arranging a story around an external structure or set of categories creates a framework that gives the story a shape while also presenting new creative opportunities. For example, my story “The Necrophiliac’s Almanac,” which the Kenyon Review published last year, is framed around the structure of an almanac. Almanac sections—Weather, Calendar, Astrology, General Store, and so on—serve as headings within the story and as metaphorical connections to the plot. While the headings alone weren’t enough to serve as a plot outline, they helped guide me through the initial writing process and sparked new ideas. (I talk a bit more about that story and the almanac inspiration in this interview.)
The flash fiction piece “How I Liked the Avocados” by Wendy Oleson is a good example of this category technique. Here, the structure revolves around avocados given to the narrator by a presumed lover. The first three avocados are numbered and serve as headings to break the story into sections. For example:
Ripe before the other two, this is a mystery. Did it cook in my shoe under the plane? I called you in the bathroom on the layover and apologized to your voicemail. I still don’t have any messages. When we get home I can’t sleep; I eat the avocado in the dark, standing over the wooden cutting board. I eat the skin because it is thin and from your tree.
While this story is clearly about more than avocados, the structure presents those avocados as a concrete element to illuminate the more abstract conflict.
But writers need not use headings or subtitles within the narrative to create an unusual structure. In “The Book of Faces” by Namwali Serpell, the structure and culture of Facebook (plus some shades of the Bible, for good measure) serve as the backbone of the story’s narration:
Two posts below, Anne Swizzler makes a mess of self-promotion, every thought she has ever had about her successes splattered to the world for their perusal and approval. Her most recent post is an interview she gave to a medium-famous media outlet. “Go ahead, Anne,” you mouth as you like and then quickly unlike this. You like this, unlike this, you think on your soul, finally you click Like, and then Home.
And now Jordan Shell is burrowing quietly through the pages of the Book, smearing a spotty trail of likes across extant pix. He is blossoming from lurker to user, flitting over the feed, dropping thumbs-up on every new post. What is his deal again? You type and you scroll and you click and you peer. His picture is highly deceptive. How many people he’s befriended already! How does he have the time, with that fancy new job?
And here is a list of pictures that will make you laugh.
Serpell didn’t write the story in the form of a Facebook feed itself, which might seem the obvious or expected structure for such a story, but instead recreated the experience of scanning through friends’ posts and conversations. It’s an innovative approach that should also feel familiar to social media users.
My students loved reading excerpts from “The Book of Faces,” by the way. We didn’t have time to read the entire story in class, but everyone seemed eager to read the full story later in n+1 to learn what happens next in this fictional Facebook world.
What will happen next?—always an important question in fiction, and one that should remind writers that an unusual structure cannot replace plot, tension, or character development on its own.
Parts of a Whole
Each of the stories mentioned above present a single, cohesive narrative from beginning to end. Other structurally ambitious stories, however, might consist of separate sections that are connected thematically even as they each feature distinct characters or plots. My story “Zoophilia in Four Acts” is one example. Each of the story’s four “acts” is completely separate—a snake sex show, a man in love with a llama, artistic representations of Leda and the Swan, and a young boy with his nature atlas—but together, they tell a larger story about our conflicted human connection to animals and nature.
Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women,” the title story of her newest collection, fits into this category. The story uses vignettes to examine several female archetypes, including loose women, frigid women, crazy women, mothers, and more. A few non-sequential excerpts include:
Who a Loose Woman Looks Up To
Never her mother. She is trying to kill her mother or at least, those parts of her mother lurking beneath her skin. When she spreads her legs she hopes the distance between her and her mother will gape ever wider. She does this because she remembers too much; she has seen too much, her mother pale and frail, cowed by the meat of her father, his fleshy body, his fleshy demands.
What a Frigid Woman Wears
Every morning, she wakes up at five a.m. and runs until her body feels like it might fall apart. Everyone tells her she should run marathons but she doesn’t see the point. She doesn’t need to wear a number on her chest to feel validated. She lives in the country. She can run all she wants. She can go longer than 26.2 miles. She can do anything. She runs because she likes it. She runs because she loves her body, the power of it, how it has always saved her when she most needed saving. She loves to wear form-fitting clothing that shows off her musculature, the leanness of her legs, the gentle curves of her calves, the flat of her stomach. When she feels people watching her, she remembers the freedom of running and knows one day, she will just keep going.
What a Crazy Woman Eats
It is hard to remember the taste of cream, of butter, of salt. In her kitchen, she has a shelf of cookbooks, Light Eating Right, Getting Creative With Kale, Thin Eats and one very worn copy of The Art of French Cooking she only opens when her hunger is so gnawing she can only be sated by reading of veloute and bouillabaisse. On Sundays, she plans her meals for the week using her cookbooks. It is a dreary process that leaves her tongue dry. Next to the stove there is a small scale she uses to weigh everything. She understands the importance of precise measurements.
You can read a full—but slightly altered—version of “Difficult Women,” titled “Important Things,” online at Byliner.
Liz Breazeale’s “Survival in the Plague Years” also employs this parts-of-the-whole device. The story surrounds six “plagues,” such as cholera, leprosy, HIV, and more. Each section features separate characters, although they all speak in a third-person plural voice. Here’s a partial excerpt from the fourth plague:
When the men come, all precision, they do not knock. Tear through our homes with lightning quickness, rip our children from their beds. We, their mothers, do not try to shield their cricked hands, which bend like roots, their weeping-eye sores.
Our voices like leaves brushing against skin, we ask, where do you take them?
We stay back, do not fight. Have wondered in the cavernous dark, since our children took ill, whether we should try and keep them. Whether it is best.
Our husbands strike, eruptions and flame.
Here’s a fun fact about this story: I saw an earlier draft of it a few years ago in which the sections were merely numbered rather than being labeled with their respective plague names. As a result, this earlier draft risked creating confusion. Because readers weren’t immediately tipped off that the voices were different in each section, they may have spent time searching for a connective element linking all the sections. Once the headings were added, however, it became clear that these are separate stories on the same theme.
It’s a good reminder that clarity and an understanding of the reader’s expectations are imperative when drafting a story with an ambitious structure.
Structure to the Rescue
I was thrilled to see my students at Chautauqua get creative and make use of new structures in their writing. Along the way, we talked a lot about what might make a structure work and what might make it problematic. After all, the point is to be inspired to write a piece that feels fresh, not to arbitrarily apply an external framework for show.
We talked about how sometimes a writer might use an unusual story structure to get started only to later dismantle and discard the framework to allow the narrative to better stand on its own. We also talked about different ways to incorporate the framework into the structure. Including a long recipe at the beginning of a piece, for example, might not be as compelling as breaking up the recipe into parts that serve as a metaphorical link to the story’s action. And finally, no matter what structure a writer might use, the basic elements of story—tension, conflict, character development, setting—need to be in place.
Finally, after getting weird with structure all week, I welcomed returning to the familiar ground of literary rejection for my end-of-week lecture, “The Power of Rejection.” As I prepared my lecture notes, I decided to tell a personal story about rejection, but beyond that, the topic was so broad that I knew I needed an organizing structure. As a result, I came up with a twelve-point examination of rejection and the role it plays in our lives.
Once I had that outline in place, the rest came together naturally. Isn’t it funny how that works? For one final time that week, structure—and perhaps a bit of weirdness, too—came to my rescue.