Story Structure and the Reading Experience

Artwork from Oxford Elementary School and Bing Free Images

Over the years I’ve often revisited the topic of structuring a book—usually when I’m writing the first draft of my own stories. I don’t do a lot of detailed outlining (I like to keep the ideas and associated feelings fresh!) but I do have a vision of what’s going to happen next. I make sure there is plenty of foreshadowing, even if I have to go back to add it, with the hope of a gradual build toward those moments I most anticipate.

But this past weekend I was reading a book where the structure popped out at me. Unfortunately it wasn’t for the best reason. While the story is certainly suspenseful—about a child who disappears—it begins from a very vague point of view and without making a lot of sense. It took me almost fifteen pages before I had a clue about what was going on.

Normally this is the kind of book I’d set aside, but it’s my book club selection so I wanted to give it a little more than what I’d consider a fair chance. What I  concluded is that, because this particular author has been around for decades, and must sell well in literary circles, she wants her readers to participate a little more than what I’m accustomed to.

Here are just some of the emotions I felt while reading those initial pages:

First: Stupid. I read then re-read those first few pages, trying to figure out what was happening. Who should I root for? Who is this character? What is he doing? What does he or she want? Because I couldn’t figure out any of that, I felt as though this literary novel was too far above my intellect. (Usually this is a fair enough reason to make it a wallbanger – i.e. toss it across the room.)

Second: Manipulated. This author was making my job as a reader a bit too hard for my taste or reading habits. While I love a book that makes me think, I do not like one that frustrates me. I’m more apt to dwell on something that’s made me care, and a beginning that didn’t allow me to get to know anyone, or what they were doing, never invited me to get involved.

Third: I was aware of the book’s structure. Once I reached a point where I had a hint of what those initial pages were all about, I wondered why in the world the author didn’t start the story at a more logical point. If the author had begun the story where it started making sense, then gone into the other, more vague points of view that she actually began with, my initial experience would’ve been very different. I might have been engaged enough to want to continue instead of forcing myself to plod on.

Fourth: Resentment. Because this author has been successful over such a long career, I felt she wanted to twist things around to be new/fresh/different. If a new writer had structured her novel this way it never would have made it past an editor’s desk. This established author broke all kinds of rules, from grammar to the logical introduction of GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict). But as they say in the arts, once you’ve proven you can follow all of the rules, you can go ahead and break them. I don’t mind this principle when it works, but this time for me it didn’t.

Finally: Grateful. While I have every intention of finishing this book, and I do hope to learn something now that I’ve gotten to the more traditional storytelling end of it, I’m glad I stuck with it—if only to have something to blog about today!

What about you? Has the structure of a story—for good or bad—ever popped out at you?


About Maureen Lang

Author of a dozen novels, Maureen Lang has won the Selah Award, a Holt Medallion, FHL's Reader's Choice Award, and been a finalist in such contests as the Christy, the Rita, the Carol, Book Buyer's Best, and others. Before publication she was the recipient of a Golden Heart and a Genesis (then called the Noble Theme). She resides with her husband and kids in the Chicago area. Titles by Maureen Lang All In Good Time Bees In The Butterfly Garden Springtime Of The Spirit Whisper On The Wind Look To The East My Sister Dilly On Sparrow Hill The Oak Leaves Remember Me Pieces Of Silver
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2 Responses to Story Structure and the Reading Experience

  1. PatriciaW says:

    Can’t say that I have, really, although there are times when I’m hypersensitive, particularly with romance, to certain elements, like the meet, the conflict, the black moment, etc.

    Story structure is like the bones of a chicken. You’re aware of the carcass, it’s primary job to hold and deliver the tasty meat, but you don’t want it do any more than that and you certainly don’t want to catch one of those bones in the throat.

    Writers and many readers realize there is a certain structure to story, particular with genre fiction, but I don’t want to be entrenched in that realization as I’m reading. I want to be lost in the deliciousness of the story itself.


    • Maureen Lang says:

      Ooh, you’re so right! I want to be so totally immersed in a story that I forget everything but the images being created for me from the page. I think that’s why this experience was so unpleasant – I was disappointed not to be escaping into a story world.

      The romance genre is probably my favorite, and I’m with you totally about expecting certain elements. For me, it’s that conflict you mentioned. I want to know what kind of vehicle the author is going to use to keep two people who belong together – apart. Logically, realistically, what’s keeping them from getting together, and will I believe the whole premise?

      And by the way, I just love your bones of a chicken analogy about story structure! Thanks so much for commenting. 🙂


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