We’re taught that a novel has certain basic rules. Not about what the story is, but about how you tell the story. Beginning, middle, end. Plot, character, point of view. Once in a while, a book comes along that breaks the rule for readers’ expectations.
It’s hard to do well, because even if you pull off some great technical feat, it still has to be enjoyable for the reader. I’ve never attempted Ulysses, for instance, because its structure has been described as a slog by so many readers. Especially recently, I’m not into storytelling that requires a study guide to be understood. But here are some books with unique storytelling methods that I greatly enjoyed.
Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig
This book breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule: it’s written entirely in dialogue. No description, no narration, no tags to tell you who’s speaking. The author creatively solves some of the expected problems with this format. For most of the book, there are only two characters, with such distinct voices that it’s easy to follow who’s talking. They’re in a prison cell, so there’s not much need to describe the setting. The readers do get plenty of other descriptions, though: one character is a film buff who passes the time by vividly telling his cellmate the stories of his favorite flicks.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
This book has six narratives set in different eras, from the 1700’s up through the present, near future, and distant future. Each has a different main character, and it’s hinted that they may be reincarnations of the same soul, though that’s not exactly the point. Each section has a different format (journal, letters, third-person suspense thriller, first-person comedy, interview, external monologue). Each section makes a brief mention of the previous one (eg, the writer of the letters finds the old journal and wonders if he can see it to a rare-book dealer; the near-future character watches a movie of the previous narrator, etc).
What makes it unique is the “nesting” format: we get the first half of the first story, then the first half of the second story, and so on to the sixth story, which is the only one told straight through. Then we get the second half of the fifth story, fourth story, etc. As I was reading this, I tried to imagine how the author was going to stick the landing. After we’d seen the far future, how was an ending in the past going to feel satisfying? But it did, because the author tied together the themes that ran through the book, and ended on a hopeful note in a struggle that’s far from over.
First Light, by Charles Baxter
This book traces the relationship of a brother and sister from birth until middle age. Or rather, it traces their relationship from middle age until birth. Each scene moves backwards from the scene we just read, ending with 3-year-old Hugh coming to the hospital to meet his newborn sister Dorsey. (Oddly, Seinfeld did something similar in one episode.)
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino
All of Calvino’s books are kind of surreal, but this one is his most delightful. It begins with the words: “You are about to start reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” The entire story is told in second person. After various preparations, “you” settle down to read the book, and the next chapter is the first chapter of the book-within-a-book. But there’s a problem with the book, and when the “you” character goes to exchange it in the next chapter, it gets traded for a different book, and we’re given the first chapter of a completely different story. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler alternates between first chapters of ten different books, and the increasingly ludicrous adventures “you” have that prevent reading past chapter 1 of any of them.
Speaking as a writer who has far more first chapters than finished books, why didn’t I think of this?
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.