Structuring Your Novel – time frames, multiple POVs & background information
The novel is a large and complex system. Get the structure wrong, and it crumbles like a building without decent foundations. Understanding how to structure plot, character history, and handle time lines can be a confusing process. How on earth does a writer tackle this issue?
Chronology of Events vs Plot
If you plan your novel, you might use two time lines. The first is the time line of the characters’ histories – the chronicle history of events throughout (and beyond) the pages of the novel. The second time line is the novel’s plot – the order of these events as they appear to the reader. This is the structure of your novel, with flashbacks, memories, dual time frames etc. You must order these events keeping the following in mind:
- What does the reader really need to know?
- How much can be implied?
- When do they need to know it? (Don’t clump everything together just for the sake of chronology.)
- How can this information be used (or withheld) to create suspense and intrigue?
Multiple Time Frames
One character can narrate the novel from (usually no more than) two places in time. An example of this can been read in Booker long-listed The Testament of Jesse Lamb by Jane Rogers. Usually, a character tells the story from a present time frame, then delves back into the past in order to explain the events that led up to the current situation.
Multiple Points of View
The same story can be narrated by two or more characters in the same time frame. Think of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, or Leviathan by Scott Westerfield. How you order these sections is up to you. Depending on your story’s time frame, you may need to spend more time with one character than the other, if more events are linked to them. Alternatively, you can write the story from a tightly constructed time frame, and alternate sections, as Westerfield does in his novel. This technique is useful if you have two characters separated from each other, or two characters who don’t know each other, but whose stories eventually converge.
Biographical Novel vs Flashback
The biographical novel was very popular in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – think Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, and so on. These novels start at the beginning of a character’s life, and tell of the main events throughout a lifetime. Their structure, and their plot, is chronological. However, in more modern novels, the plot is more tightly focused around a particular goal or event, and character histories are explored through flashback, memories, dream sequences, or simply implied. The type of story you want to write will effect how you deal with character history.
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Structuring is something very much on my mind with my own novel at the moment. I have been trying to figure out how best to portray my character’s histories. Knowing what is important, in order for the readers to understand motivations and character traits, is a difficult task. Some of this information comes through implicitly. But sometimes it is difficult to know when the reader needs a little help.
For example, the captain of the airship in my novel has a slightly contradictory personality. He’s a ruffian, unafraid to roll up his sleeves, but he also sometimes speaks with polite formality and must portray himself smartly in his position of authority. A class conflict battles within him. He comes from a lower class, but has self-elevated to a higher social class by inheriting his own airship. In a world in which class has been almost eradicated, people are developing their own social boundaries. None of the characters who narrate the novel know his history. I had hoped it would be implicit, but some of my readers have expressed confusion. I have to work out a way for this to be explained. Methods I might use include: giving him snippets of narrative, from his own point of view; revealing his past through conversation; having a character reflect and speculate upon his personality.
What about you? How do you deal with structure and character histories?