The seed of this post began as a reflection on my own writing choices, the constant desire to create something new and original on the page, pitted against the awareness that any break with writing conventions and norms carries with it a certain level of risk. Will readers feel drawn in by this choice, or will they find it off-putting? Is this a bold break with tradition, or is it a gimmick? Risk can be terrifying, (especially for an unpublished writer,) but I’m a strong advocate for risk-taking, and the aim of this post is to help you discover the best risks for your story.
What do I mean by taking risks?
Risk is a broad term. Dictionary.com defines it as exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance. Reading that definition, it’s difficult for me to see how I’m going to make a convincing argument in favor of risk-taking! Even dictionary.com’s example of the word used in a phrase is negative—their example is: not worth the risk. Wow! So much risk aversion!!!
Even when narrowed down to the art of storytelling, the concept of risk is still quite broad and could represent a zillion different things. A writer weighs many choices as he or she forms a new story—the setting… the age, gender, race, etc., of the characters… the time period… the point of view… and on and on and on. Every choice could represent a type of risk to the story. For purposes of this post, however, I want to focus less on the story and more on the telling of the story. I want to talk about narrative choices—risks that a writer might take in deciding to employ a style or structure outside of the norms or expected conventions.
For clarity, let me share some examples of books and films that took narrative risks and succeeded.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A book narrated by Death himself.
- Monster by Walter Dean Myers: The story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial, presented as a screenplay of Steve’s own imagination.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: The story of a boy named Charlie, who describes the events of his freshman year of high school through letters to an anonymous stranger.
- Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: A foreword, a 999-line poem by a fictional poet, and a commentary to the poem combine to form the story of the novel.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan: A “story within a story,” but the reader is kept unaware of the nested story until well into the book.
- The Sixth Sense (a film by M. Night Shyamalan): The main character can only be seen by one other character, a narrative manipulation that is hidden from the viewer until late in the story.
- Memento (a film by Christopher Nolan): A story presented as two different sequences of scenes: a black-and-white series of scenes in chronological order, and a color series of scenes shown in reverse order. The two sequences converge at the end of the film, creating a unified story.
These are just a handful of examples, but I hope they convey the breadth of stories that can be successfully told outside of the standard conventions of form. I also hope they demonstrate the value of risk-taking. Looking back at these from the perspective of the present, knowing what we know, for instance, about the way readers have embraced The Book Thief, it may not seem like Markus Zusak took a risk by casting Death as the book’s narrator. But as he was writing, Zusak couldn’t have known how this break from narrative norms would be received. Fortunately for us as readers, he took a chance.
When a break from traditional structure succeeds, it’s often because the choice complements and magnifies the story and all of its elements—character, setting, theme, etc. When such a choice fails—when it calls attention to itself and distracts the reader—it’s often because it doesn’t add to the story, but instead stands out against it in a false and gimmicky way.
So how do you get it right? How do you ensure that your choice to abandon some narrative norm improves rather than detracts? I would suggest that you consider the following:
- Your own personal judgment as a writer. How do you feel about this choice? If you’re passionate about a unique narrative structure for your story, you’re probably onto something. Trust your gut.
- The advice of trusted readers and your agent. Your critique partners and beta readers may love your choice… they may hate it. They may fall somewhere in between. Weigh their input. Ask for the basis of any reservations they may have. Remember that critique partners and beta readers want your story to succeed. Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to be working with an agent, he or she will have an opinion, too.
- Let the story itself be the ultimate judge. Ask questions like: Is this choice illuminating the story, or getting in its way? If I went with a more traditional form, would the story shine more brightly, or dim from a loss of energy? Why?
All this advice can be reduced to one essential truth: the ultimate goal of a writer is to tell the best story in the best way possible. Serve your story. Use conventions. Take risks. Tell the best story you can.
What are your own feelings about narrative structure? Are you a risk-taker, or do you prefer to follow traditional form? Please share your thoughts in the comments!