Structure is a good idea when it enriches the meaning of your story, but it comes with its own risks.
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Everybody is in awe with the structure of this huge novel. The proof that it is indeed huge? I have just completed my third 1.5 hour cycling session while listening to it and my Audible app informs me I’ve still got 23 hours of listening left.
What’s mind-bamboozling about this novel is not only its size or indubitable literary merit – obviously recognised by the Man Booker Prize judges this year as the best out of some 150 literary books – it’s its byzantine structure.
How does structure affect a novel? Does an intricate structure enrich it or does it risk making it a predictable, if not dull, tale?
Simply put, The Luminaries is organised in 12 parts, each half the length of the previous one. Moreover, each character is linked to a celestial body in a deeply mysterious way. For any writer, this structuring will have to be so accurately planned, I fear it might impact on creativity and many reviewers have pointed out the reins with which the characters seem to be held in place at the disadvantage of creativity and narrative flow. (As well as the self-conscious and highly strung connection to the Victorian literary style and Wilkie Collins in particular).
Structure is important in Catton’s novel because it is part of its rich symbolism. The whole story, including setting and characters, are linked to astrology and the zodiacal signs. So Catton didn’t structure the novel the way she did just because such a door-stopper is easier to read and certainly easier to write according to a predictable map. She did it to add to the meaning of the whole story.
This has a certain appeal. A construct so accurately built it could compete with the structure of a mathematical formula. But, as an author, if you plan to structure your novel so rigidly and attach this structure to a very intricate system of symbols – such as linking character traits to zodiacal signs and trusting the reader to understand the similarities and make the connections – there is a definite risk that you will make your novel so esoteric, many will miss the meaning of at least some of your messages.
The Luminaries has been described highly experimental because of its structural aims, but so what? This year we have the proof that an experimental novel (‘the kiss of death for any publisher’ in the words of Jonathan Cape’s editor, Dan Franklin) can still win the Man Booker Prize. The precedent has been reset for the army of experimental writers. Heaven help us from now on!