Story Structure: The Polygon
A crucial choice before you begin to write is the structure of the novel or short story. One way to conceive of structure is to consider the shape of the story as a physical, three-dimensional object…
A perusal of several novels demonstrates the use of point of view as a way to contrast perspectives. This often becomes a part of the engine of the story, gaining increasing momentum. An interesting way to make sure your characters are all given equal space, before things get out of hand, is to conceive of story structure as a three-dimensional shape. This helps save you from having to cut a rag-tag, relentless draft that goes off in too many directions before it happens.
One structure, or shape for a novel, is to think of it like a polygon, with symmetrical parallel cuts on opposite sides. If there are four separate character arcs, for example, within the same story, the story is seen from four equal points of view. This means the story itself could be envisioned as the middle, with each side representing a facet of it as seen from different perspectives. They are equal only if given the same relative amount of space and depth within the story. This form is especially effective at conveying the incredible contrast possible between how different people view the same events, concepts or themes. As readers, it helps us begin to understand how others, who may view life through a very different lens, might think or respond. It’s only one of the motives readers may have, but it’s one that is a powerful motivator. It can also be a powerful motivator for the writer. When using this story structure to ask how people with completely different values might actually see the world, whatever hits the page thereafter begins to allow the answers to unfold. This is the magic of the writing process. Being willing to be with the process until clarity comes. It’s an act of great willingness and courage.
One of the main reasons I read fiction, is for this reason exactly, to learn a new way to look at familiar themes in life. I’m searching for a new perspective. How do other people react or solve problems we all face, such as survival, for example, or finding ‘right’ work? How do people find work that is both fulfilling and earns enough of a living to do more than subsist on? One of the driving forces that sells fiction is the human craving for clarity.
An example of a novel using the polygonal shape of an octagon is Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. It’s not just told from eight perspectives: an additional twist is that it’s seen through the eyes of two very different generations. It’s told from the point of view of four Chinese mothers and their four American-born daughters. This story structure in the shape of an octagon seems especially appropriate, because it’s a shape that is imbued into the Chinese psyche. It’s the shape of the Bagua, which has been used as a means of divination, in relationship with the I Ching, (The Book of Changes), for 5,000 years. It’s especially effective because the mothers have the long view of ‘what happened.’ In other words, they tell the story of what it was like growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. It highlights how alien their daughters’ American perspective is; the misplaced cell phone seems insignificant alongside the loss of a child or the mass of possessions left behind after becoming a refugee from a tyrannical government.
Another example that uses structure to contrast view point is The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood. Each of the three main characters then tells her version of meeting Zenia, the main character. The story is actually about her, but the reader, like the other characters, never gets the inside view of how she thinks. There is a fourth character outside looking in who is the initial narrator, Tony, a historian who knows all of them. Thus, we have a sort of cube shape, wherein four people are relating the story of a woman that none of them can quite fathom, and even the reader is left in a state of conjecture. The brilliance of this is that it mimics life. All we can do is wonder at how people behave and come to our own conclusions in the end.
A third example, for those who may not read as prolifically as others, is best drawn from the silver screen as the screenplay well may be the origin of shape as a way to structure story. Consider the elaborate PBS series Downton Abbey. Each scene is usually an exchange of some kind between two of the sixteen main characters. They are all given relatively equal screen time, which means they are given equal weight. It is easy to imagine this transposed to theater, as the intrigue moves in ever revolving circles around a central shape that is the story itself. The theme, as in the first example, is the emphasis on contrast, in this case contrast between class rather than generation. The lives led by the lords and ladies of the manor in contrast to that of the servants is a major theme. This could be visualized as the upper and lower half of a rotating column in the shape of an octagon if certain characters are paired together, based on their relationships with each other. The story again, is housed in the core of the column. The story is the core of the structure.
Thinking in this way is useful for conceptualizing character relationships, especially if the novel has a lot of characters. Sometimes it’s easier to remember them this way. Yet, to encompass how to think about time, other devices are useful. For narrative, like life, occurs over the passage of time, which is another way to structure a story, perhaps a topic for another time.