If you click on the image above you can see my handwritten notes about how a novel is structured. This is directly taken from a lovely book I read called Structuring Your Novel Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by KM Weiland. Story structure has never made sense to me before, and not because I haven’t tried to understand it. I have read about structure in many books but KM Weiland truly made it accessible to me. I’m sure I have more to learn but it is nice to have some idea about how stories work.
Being able to see how books are alike has allowed me to really start seeing the differences between them. For example I read a children’s book called The Shadow Thieves By Anne Ursu and realized that it did not have the three act structure as I had traditionally seen it. Its a wonderful book and I highly recommend it. I’m going to use it to display how the author had broken the ‘rules’ in order to follow them. In so doing I’m also going to try not to spoil the book.
Part one says “We Begin in the Middle” and introduces Charlotte who lives in America. I liked Charlotte quite a bit. I felt a lot of fellow feeling for her. She has a difficult life which has only been made more difficult by the arrival of her cousin Zee. Zee is British and very dashing and understandably Charlotte has doubts about if she likes him. Everyone else loves him, but she feels that there is something off about him and when people at her school start getting sick, she has a feeling that he may know more about it than he lets on.
This is where the author chooses to leave off and go back to to why Zee has been shipped over to America to live with his cousin Charlotte. We meet his grandmother and Samantha, the girl he adores form afar, and we see that yes indeed Zee knows much more about this mysterious illness than he has told his cousin. This back story is Part two.
If you have ever watched a TV show and seen your hero dangling from a cliff and then been annoyed that the scene changes without saving him only to have a caption that says “three days earlier,” you might think that The Shadow Thieves has done the same thing. But in fact I don’t believe it is so.
According to K M Weiland the first act is to introduce characters. The authors job is to make the reader care about the main people that the story follows. It is essential that the reader (viewer) be invested in the protagonist. If the author of The Shadow Thieves had chosen to start at the beginning of the story with what happened to Zee the reader would only have met Charlotte in the middle of the book. A reader might then believe that she is not a main character at all, when in fact she is just as important as Zee is to the rest of the story. By starting the story with where Charlotte’s story intersects with Zee the author has cleverly made both characters equally important in the readers mind. By sharing the beginning of the story later she has increased the reader interest in the mystery of the sick students. In a way it is no different than using a flashback to establish back story.
So, in a way she has broken the rule, “Start at the beginning and work your way to the end.” and yet in so doing she has stayed true to the rule, “Introduce your main characters in the first act.”
Sometimes it takes an exception to show the rule.