How does structure affect story, and vice versa? The basic structure of a story is simple--beginning, middle and end--but is that always the most effective way to tell a story?
E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List uses an unusual narrative structure, a list, to weave together a story that jumps between the recent past, the current time and childhood. Rather than revealing the story in chronological "real time," Lockhart mimics her protagonist's soul-searching thought process through the list.
If you're unfamiliar with the book, here’s a synopsis:
A series of social debacles have taken 15-year-old Ruby from “reasonably popular” to leper in a matter of weeks. Her boyfriend dumped her. Her friends won’t speak to her. Everyone at her private Seattle prep school gossips about her. Even her carpool pal refuses to drive her to school. But she doesn’t want to talk about any of that, so her new therapist, hired when Ruby suffers panic attacks, asks her to make a list of boyfriends, past and present. The list gives Ruby the opportunity to reflect on her past, her friendships, her parents and herself, all the while coming to terms with her current situation. The first-person narrative, which includes footnotes, reveals Ruby’s insights on romance, boys, growing up and high school life.
(So awesome, by the way, to read a book set in Seattle.)
Each boyfriend on Ruby's list becomes the subject and title of a chapter in the book. For example, in an early therapy session, Ruby jumps back ten years, remembering her preschool friend Adam. She thinks he's irrelevant, but then she recalls meeting Adam again as an eighth grader when at a dance with her friend Kim. And then she realizes, "the story about Adam at the mixer was a story about Kim. And how we used to be." The chapters are structured to integrate the backstory elements that are critical to Ruby’s self-understanding, while building suspense by pushing off the answers to readers’ questions about what went wrong with the boyfriend and why Ruby’s friends won’t speak to her.
It’s interesting to note the similarities between The Boyfriend List and John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. Like Ruby, Colin, the protagonist of An Abundance of Katherines, was recently dumped. Rather than go to therapy, he takes a road trip, during which he too reflects on his past girlfriend experiences. I think Lockhart came up with a more elegant solution for integrating the backstory with the list structure. (Both books also feature footnotes, another similarity…).
The narrative structure makes The Boyfriend List an interesting read by increasing suspense and incorporating relevant backstory in an organic way. By revealing information in non-chronological order, Lockhart creates suspense, builds character and hooks readers.
Now the question for me is how can I play with narrative structure to improve my own writing?