Rob Shearman on structure

‘This is our sandcastle in the storm’

Award-winning writer Rob Shearman argues that structure is every bit as important as the more commonly discussed aspects of a novel, with even unconscious decisions impacting significantly on how a story is interpreted.

There are countless ways to structure a story. The decisions you make will fundamentally define the experience of your readers. Read Rob’s case for the importance of structure below.

Part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Structure, supported by Arts Council England. Discover more here →

I am a writer – and I am obsessed with structure.

That always feels like a guilty admission. Because deep down I believe that what I should be excited about is character, and theme – surely that’s where the emotion comes in, or the passion? Admitting that what really excites you is the building blocks makes you sound less like an artist than an engineer. Like a painter telling you his favourite bit isn’t whatever he’s daubed upon the canvas, but the wooden frame that keeps it from falling off the wall.

And I think even other writers distrust those of us who use structural conceits as the energy of our work. Stories that choose to run backwards, or are told as a series of emails, or which are written in a strange future tense, or which refuse to use the letter ‘e’ – what is it that we’re hiding? Aren’t we burying something human behind clever-cleverness? Aren’t we burying life?

I think life is a bit overrated.

Life is a story without structure. Just walking down the street, say, you are bombarded by sights, smells, tastes – a thousand different disconnected themes. You don’t know from second to second whether you’re living a comedy or a tragedy, because everything around you has equal emphasis. It would drive us mad if we thought about it too long. Maybe it does drive us mad – and we have no choice but to ignore it.

So from the moment you create a story you are carving out from this vast mass of stuff what is relevant – what requires slow attention, what needs speeding up or even discarding. When we even tell so much as an anecdote about what happened walking down that street, we are imposing a structure upon it. We are determining the length of time the anecdote plays out – the point of view character that gives the anecdote meaning and perspective – and all the conceits of pace and detail that best enable the tone of what we are trying to describe. That stranger we bumped into outside the supermarket – is this funny, sad? Is this trying to provoke sympathy, outrage, laughter – or something more contemplative?

We have to find a point amidst the chaos. The moment we put pen to paper our first thought is about structure, whether or not we are aware of it. And being aware of it, making those decisions consciously rather than accidentally, means we make a better job of it. The default structure of a story appears to be in a consistent past time, progressing in linear fashion, with a third person narrator. Because it’s the default we often don’t think it is even a structure at all. But even this simplest mode is more complex than we imagine.

Will your characters speak? If they speak, will they do so in live speech, or reported speech? Live speech has the effect of making the action take place in real time, every single word heard just the same as we would if we were there face to face. Reported speech has the effect that we’re playing with time, either speeding it up to get through the boring bits, or sometimes slowing it down as we analyse every facet of what the speaker is saying. Oh, and what we think they mean by what they’re saying. Oh, and how much their face contorts while they’re saying it. Oh, and whether that facial contortion reminds you of your mother. It suddenly gets very complicated – linear time is really a series of memories and hopes that send you into the past or the future. As a writer you suddenly show you have tremendous power to control all events – fast forward, slow down, go into your own detours. And if you make the structural choice to mix live speech with reported speech, you are taking the reader on something exhilarating, a rollercoaster where you are subtly and constantly altering the speed at which the story is occurring.

Who’s telling this story? If it’s in the first person, it has the effect of making it seem confessional. (And why are they confessing? And why are they trying so hard to convince you of their version of events?) If it’s in the second person, it feels accusatory. You said this, you went here – the reader is constantly either accepting or rebelling what they’re being told about themselves. Third person is the standard because it comes with the least baggage – a story told with detachment, free of bias. But that’s deceptive – of course the writer has bias! That’s why the story is being told! The structural choice of narrator merely dictates how much you’re trying to conceal that.

Basically, what structure does to a writer is that it forces them to ask questions of themselves. Right from the outset, to interrogate every aspect of the story, from which angle it’s being told. The business of writing is all about questions – the biggest one always being, ‘what next?’. And every sentence you write down is a solution – or, if never quite a solution, something that at least acknowledges that a solution is worth looking for. By putting it down on paper you are creating the need for still more questions. An endless ripple effect of ‘what next’s. The act of creating a story, creating the prospect of ever more stories – questions without end.

I wrote a book called We All Hear Stories in the Dark as a celebration of structure. And about the way that it is structure which determines our reactions to fiction, and to art, and to life. A man loses his wife, and can only win her back from the dead by listening to the final 101 stories in the world. But the stories – some funny, some scary, some weird and some desperately realistic – form a labyrinth. At the end of each story the reader is presented with questions about their reaction to it, and the choice of which one to read next. The book is vast – it’s longer than War and Peace! – but you are only ever expected to read your version of it, and it’s as much about the stories you discard and never experience. Mathematically, there are more permutations through the maze than there are grains of sand or droplets of water on this planet combined – as you read, you should be conscious that no one will ever choose the same route that you do. And that stories you find funny or sad will be so because they bounce off different tales – that the reaction to the same text will be different to someone else’s because they have encountered opposing echo points along the way.

And all the individual stories play with structure differently too – first person, second person, third – time, theme, tone, all constantly being rearranged as you make your selection. One story is even composed of 101 stories of its own, replaying the book in microcosm – and there are little stories and essays that you can only read if you cheat, and break out of the structure imposed on you altogether. Because that’s the joy of structure – it’s a gift, and it’s a tyranny.

It was, to be honest, a hard book to write. Each story specifically designed so that it chimes off at least ten other stories – five leading in, five leading out – in expressly contradictory but satisfying ways. It took several years even to sort out how the maze could work, let alone the stories within it. I think it was an experiment to see how far structure dictates our response to fiction – and, strangely, my conclusion was that rather than stifle emotion it deeply enhances it. You find a rhythm within the chaos. You also realise that you can never escape the chaos, and that is its glory. In the act of telling stories we all impose structure and meaning. In the act of telling stories, we realise too that structure is an artifice, and that life is richer and more wonderful than any artist can possibly harness. That’s the beauty of Art – that it always fails. That’s the beauty of structure – this is our sandcastle in the storm.

Robert Shearman is an award-winning writer for television, radio and the stage, as well as several acclaimed short story collections, the first of which won him a World Fantasy Award, and Doctor Who audio scripts for Big Finish Productions.

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash