Do you have a great idea for a novel but are struggling to work out how to tell the story? Or are you midway through telling a story and feels it needs a bit more? This blog is all about novels which push the boundaries of narrative.
Non linear narratives – this is probably a device we are all well used to by now, where a novel is told out of time sequence. In fact Wikipedia lists 125 well known non-linear novels, some of which didn’t even register on my brain as being out of sequence – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one, Wuthering Heights is another, and Station Eleven yet another, which are all brilliant books but not ones I remember because of their non-linearity. As a writer, I’m more interested in when it’s this non-linearity in itself which makes the story shine. Sometimes it is simply a prologue which is out of sequence, tempting the reader on. One of the most intriguing examples of this is The Secret History by Donna Tartt, where the first chapter tells you about the murder – who is murdered and by whom, and the rest of the long book – which is then conventionally linear – is all about discovering why.
1. Affinity by Sarah Waters. This book chops and changes between different time periods, and it’s honestly one of best examples of this I’ve ever seen. The mystery of what is going on, who is deceiving who, how, and why are dependent on this chopping and changing, and the reveal is stunning. If you like gothic thrillers then you can’t do better than this. You should also check out Fingersmith by the same author. I could not believe it when I got half way through this story, came across an amazing twist, and then found myself reading the same story, all over again, told from another character’s point of view. And I wanted to keep reading. Sarah Waters is a complete story telling genius.
2. Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Nieffenegger is, in my opinion, the most accomplished non-linear novel ever. It’s one of the few books I’ve re-read numerous times as an adult. Once again the story depends on and is enhanced by the non-linear structure. Some people do find this chopping and changing difficult, but you need to persist with it because it does in the end make complete sense. It was so successful that her second book Her Fearful Symmetry got a $5million advance (and again if you like gothic thrillers, have a look at this – it’s pretty haunting). It’s a pity maybe she’s been so successful because I’d really like to see what else she could write, and there hasn’t been anything for over ten years now.
3. Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin. Just had to include this YA novel, although it is actually told in a conventionally linear fashion, the premise is that the narrator has just died, aged 16, and she finds that death involves re-living your own life to date, backwards. So Liz, the main character, only has sixteen years to live and knows how it will end. Really loved this story.
Embedded narrative – books within books
4. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. The dark story of two sisters, Iris and Laura, and their relationship to Richard, it contains within it another novel written by Laura, and within that is a third story, about a Blind Assassin. It’s intriguing and gripping despite its length, and it won the Booker in 2000. Margaret Atwood is certainly one to read if you’re interested in unusual narrative forms. The Handmaid’s Tale is defined as a type of ‘metafiction’ – where a work of fiction draws attention to itself as being fiction, in that the story is narrated by Offred but (spoiler alert) we never know what happened to her, and the book ends with an epilogue stating that it is a transcription from historical tapes from the ‘Gilead’ period.
5. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. There are five notebooks in this novel, all written by the same character – Anna – and describing different aspects of her life: political, personal, internal and historical, while the fifth book – the golden notebook – attempts to tie them together. It is an amazing account of contemporary life in the mid twentieth century, but it is also a great portrayal of mental breakdown.
6. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. Another form of ‘metafiction’ you probably have to read it a few times to get this. The main character, also called Charles Yu, is a time machine mechanic who enters a time loop as his dying self hands him a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. If that hasn’t made you run screaming for the hills, then you will probably love this story.
Unusual narrators – There are several great novels with unusual narrators – The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is narrated by Death, Lovely Bones by Alice Seebold is narrated by someone who is already dead, then there are all the novels narrated by animals – Watership Down, The Incredible Journey etc etc. But there are two in particular I will commend to you.
7. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend – Matthew Green. As the title implies, the story is told by Max’s imaginary friend, and it is a beautiful story told by Budo who is Max’s imaginary friend, in which we meet a whole community of imaginary friends, and discover how they live and support their children.
8. Every Day by David Levithan. This book really blew me away. The main character wakes up every morning in someone else’s body, and lives that life for that day. Of course this means that the character has no name, and no sense of whether it is male or female, and we manage to live with this person for an entire book, without categorising them ourselves. It’s a wonder of story telling.
Unusual forms of narrative – this last category is all about books told in an unconventional way, and as I selected them, I realised that their big draw back was how quickly the form would date. Twitter changed the length of tweets, Blackberries were superceeded by iPhones, but nonetheless, I think it’s interesting to experiment in this way, and hope you will enjoy the final three, even if they have dated soooo quickly.
9. Black Box by Jennifer Egan. This story is told entirely in tweets – and it was written in 2012, when tweets were limited to 140 characters. Apparently it was originally published as a series of tweets on the New Yorker twitter feed. The story is a series of despatches from an alien spy.
10. Martin Lukes: Who moved my blackberry by Lucy Kellaway. This novel is written as a series of emails or texts from Martin Lukes’ blackberry, showing his increasingly desperate life, and this too was apparently first published as a column in the Financial Times, and appeared in book form in 2005.
11. Life on the Refridgerator Door by Alice Kuipers was her debut YA novel, published in 2007, and is told as a series of post it notes written by mother and daughter and stuck on the fridge in order to communicate with each other. It’s a really poignant read, and says a lot about communication, but of course nowadays it would be a series of texts. A lovely story.