Poetics Serendipity: Elements of Narrative Structure

21 Nov

7:31 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin and Strings in G Minor

Hello, everyone. Today we have the last of the prose Thursdays. I have enjoyed the chance to revisit narrative structure, but will be glad to return to poetry. The post is longish [and I abbreviated it; each aspect could take a Thursday!], but so many of you are serious about your novels — as opposed to writing  each November for the sheer discipline of it and bragging rights! For budding novelists, these are thing you need to consider. For novelists redrafting a previous work, these are things you need to check.

If narrative structure is the skeleton of the novel, these elements are what provide the muscles and the ability of the story to breathe and think and move.

Structural Divisions

A novel is usually divided into chapters and/or parts, often according to a structural design. If characters and setting change from one chapter or part to another, the writer should have a logical reason for the division. Sometimes such divisions will coincide with geographical settings and character involvement. They may signal change, or a new direction, or emphasize a point.


The setting, both time and place, contributes to almost all aspects of structuring the plot. Setting may show the way to the structural divisions of a novel; setting can reflect or parallel a character’s state of mind, or conflict; setting may contribute to noticeable patterns that help structure the novel.

Polarization of Characters

Since one of the aims of writers is to simplify life’s complexities, and since writers wish to convey an idea, writers usually line up characters so that they represent polarized values or attitudes toward life. In this way, a writer is able to point to a truth, which is revealed through the way the conflict between the characters is resolved.  Such polarization is most easily seen where there is an obvious conflict.

A rounded (as opposed to flat) character is lifelike because she has within her contradictory impulses—internal polarization.

Repetition of Patterns or Elements

The repetition of images, symbols, conflicts, or characterization form patterns that help structure the novel. The pattern sometimes provides a thread of continuity, or signals the arrival of a character, [much like a musical motif], or warns readers of impending conflict, or accompanies a moment that propels the plot forward.

Resolution of Conflict

Typically, one character (or, in an internal conflict, one aspect of a character) wants something, but another character, aspect, or force, prevents the fulfilment of that want.

The resolution of a conflict is a key in setting the thematic emphasis of the novel. The resolution should  reveal the implications for the protagonist [whose climatic decision in the face of a conflict causes the resolution], for the world of the novel and for life in general. It is important to explore in what way the resolution is appropriate for the entire plot structure of the work. [remember Freytag’s pyramid]

Narrative Point of View

Ask yourself: Who’s telling the story?

Is it some unidentified person or voice, who always uses the grammatical third person — “he,” “she,” “they”? Or is it a first-person narrative in which the identified speaker relates everything from his or her point of view? Or does the novel unfold as an unusual hybrid in which a character tells part of the story and an all-knowing narrator tells the rest?

Next decide if this narrator knows absolutely everything about the story and its characters or only some of the things we want (and need) to know. Is the narrator, in other words, an omniscient or a limited narrator? One characteristic of an omniscient narrator is that such a story-teller, unlike any human being who has ever lived, knows what’s going on inside the mind of other people (or at least other characters).

Point of view should consider the function of the frame, if present: it may establish the narrator as moral evaluator of the action to follow. The frame may provide a context that reveals the ultimate resolution or lack of it. The unreliability of the narrator may provide ambiguity of meaning for the whole work. The involvement of the narrator with the reader can be such that the narrator’s words are ultimately directed at the reader.

Ask yourself: Whose story is it?

While working through these I am struck by how the elements translate into poetry. However, that’s another thing and I need coffee. I shall see you tomorrow for the prompts roundup and next Tuesday for an image prompt [I hear poets cheering]. The blog will be dark next Thursday and Friday.

Happy writing, everyone.

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Posted by on 21/11/2013 in writing


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