When you pick up your pen, or re-angle your keyboard, do you ever consider the way in which you will write, or just what you will write? Just as important as choosing the best narrator and setting for your narrative, is consciously deciding the form, structure and style of your writing.
The options are endless. Perhaps your narrator talks to the reader. Maybe the plot doesn’t follow the rules of time. What if your prose is poetic, or images weave around your text? Perhaps the chapters are numbered with prime numbers. The following nine books will spark your imagination for alternative ways to write, and how those ways can enrich a story...
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
You’re probably familiar with a number books that offer first person narration which isn't via the main character, think: The Great Gatsby and Sherlock Holmes. In The Book Theif, the first person narration isn't through the eyes of the protagonist, Liesel either. Australian author Zusak’s narrator isn’t even human—it’s Death.
We will travel a little, to a secret storage room, and we will see what we see.
~ A Guided Tour Of Suffering ~
To your left, perhaps your right,
perhaps even straight ahead,
you find a small black room.
In it sits a Jew.
He is scum. He is starving.
He is afraid.
Please – try not to look away.”
This unusual narrator addresses the reader directly as he explains the life of Liesel and WWII, drawing us into the events that happened decades ago. Death also interrupts his narration with bold, centred segments that include translations, historical events, his opinions or key points he wants to highlight. This can be jarring for the reader, but amidst all the holocaust novels now available, a novel that really makes you feel uncomfortable again about the horror is one worth holding on to.
2. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Niffenegger’s book doesn’t follow a chronological structure or pattern. It starts with a series of “firsts”: Henry’s first time meeting Clare, Henry’s first time time-travelling and Clare’s first time meeting Henry. We then follow Clare growing up with future-Henry visiting her before she meets him in the present and is still visited by the future- and sometimes past-Henry. Amidst this, however, the story may follow Henry returning to his present, or see a younger Henry sharing Clare’s present time elsewhere or Henry tutoring his child-self.
The erratic timeline carries Henry’s feelings of confusion at being tossed around by time, and Clare’s frustration at trying to keep up with him. It also creates a sense of suspense: what happened in the future to make Henry unhappy, and what did Henry’s future self do in the past to bring about present events?
3. What Does Blue Feel Like? by Jessica Davidson
This story of teenage chaos comes to life through its verse novel form. Teenagers and sufferers of depression often feel empty and trapped in a cycle of unwanted events; Australian author Davidson portrays this through the pages’ white space, and the rhythm of the prose.
I’m sitting in a lazy circle,
playing drinking games,
While the use of free verse with few poetic techniques allows Davidson to touch on the rawness of youth, verse novels can also be more poetic. Both prose writers and poets can write amazing books through this form, which borrows narrative structure from prose and techniques from poetry.
4. Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult & Samantha van Leer
For those familiar with Picoult’s work, this YA novel she co-authored with her daughter is quite different. It is a sweet, dreamy teenage love story between a high school girl, and a prince trying to escape from the pages of his fairytale.
What’s really unique about this book are the pictures. The book echoes those marvellous (usually old) collections of fairytales with carefully rendered full-page images. Small, simple illustrations also sit in and around the text of the novel: the fairytale bleeding into the real world. Not only are they pleasurable to behold, they enhance the story’s content. Who said pictures were only for children’s books?
5. The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Omniscient narrators usually focus on the characters or story, elaborating further only when a reader is unlikely to be familiar with an object or concept. Adams' sci-fi book seems to speak not only to humans, but to any intelligent life form that happens to pick it up.
Bypasses are devices which allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast whilst other people dash from point B to point A very fast.”
These “unnecessary” explanations (assuming only humans read this book) create a sense that Earth is as alien as Betelgeuse, and the rest of the universe. This also makes reasonable the assumption that towels could have starkly different and complicated cultural meanings across space.
6. Blood Red Road by Moria Young
In Young’s dystopia YA novel, quotation marks have perished along with today’s society. This can seem confronting, but author Cyan Jones finds it “more immediate, more with it”. Fitting with the narrator’s lack of education, incorrect spelling is littered through dialogue and narrative.
Go on then, if you know so much, tell me what happens when you die.
I dunno. He sighs and flops back on the ground, squintin at the sky. You jest… stop. Yer heart don’t beat no more, you don’t breathe an then yer jest… gone.”
Not only do these intentional mistakes create a big impact and make the reader sit-up, but what better way to write a dystopian novel than to break a few rules along the way?
7. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Shteyngart’s book examines the modern world: social media, death and the absurd rate of technology. Along with the story’s content, these themes are artfully woven in through the book’s epistolary form. A stark contrast is created from the alternating chapters of 39-year-old Lenny’s long-winded diary entries, and of 24-year-old Eunice’s emails and instant messages.
We learn more of Lenny's inner self than of Eunice's due to the privateness of diary entries. This strengthens the idea in the novel that new technology makes us shallow, and that only when Eunice meets the book-loving Lenny can she have full, real experiences such as falling in love.
8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Hodden
Few books reflect the narrating character as well as this one. 15-year-old Christopher, arguably a budding maths genius, isn’t so good when it comes to people or metaphors. He’s also not someone who would write a novel; hence the book is an exercise set by his teacher.
Chapters in books are usually given the cardinal numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on. But I have decided to give my chapters prime numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on because I like prime numbers.”
In addition to Christopher’s character determining chapter numbering, the book is littered with diagrams and figures. In reading you learn how to find prime numbers, the reason the Milky Way looks like a line in the night sky and the mathematical reason for the change in population density in his school’s frog pond. If a narrator calls for it, there is no limit to how you can write.
9. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Novels are fiction—or are they? Boo lived in a Mumbai slum for three and a half years to write her book. Despite being factual, the book has a narrative arc, central themes and uses fiction novel techniques such as revealing character thoughts and foreshadowing events to create suspense. And sometimes fact is more compelling than fiction. In the Chicago Tribune, Jessica Gelt said:
The end product is a richly detailed tapestry of tragedy and triumph told by a seemingly omniscient narrator with an attention to detail that reads like fiction while in possession of the urgent humanity of nonfiction.”
The key differences between fiction and non-fiction are where you get your information, and how you use it. Other works, notably several memoirs, blur the fiction-fact line further, questioning whether subjective experience can be fact, and whether metaphors to explain experiences can be taken as reality.
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With all this being said, it's important to note that more conventional ways of writing are not inferior. If an unusual way of writing doesn’t add to value of your story, it likely distracts—and detracts—from your story.
Sometimes the way a book should be written leaps out at you, but other times it's worth sitting down and considering what would happen to your story if you changed the way you wrote it. You may discover an angle or a part of the story you hadn’t noticed before.
Of course, there are more than nine unconventional books and ways to write, so never stop experimenting and reading broadly. Happy writing!