What’s Structure Got to Do with It?

More years ago than I like to count, when I was but a first year graduate student in creative writing, I came upon a slim volume in a bookstore titled Shakespearean Design, by Mark Rose. I pulled it off the shelf and gave it a glance, because I was taking a summer literature course on the Bard and soon found myself deep in a book that would influence me as a writer for the rest of my life.

Not many people know this, but Shakespeare never divided a single play into five acts. As Mark Rose notes, “In Shakespeare’s lifetime not one of his plays was published with any division of any kind.” And yet all his plays, as we know them today, go hummingly about their business from curtain rise and act one on through to act five and curtain close. These divisions were added to the plays many years after Shakespeare’s death.

So if our greatest playwright never tinkered with five acts (or any acts), what sort of structure did he use to shape his narratives—surely he didn’t simply scribble away?

It turns out he was influenced by late medieval and early renaissance diptych and triptych paintings. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, as an example of a triptych (click to enlarge),

and here’s an example of a diptych painting, by Hans Memling:

In both forms, the individual painting can stand alone, but is given greater meaning and context when seen as part of a series. And in his plays, Shakespeare used the diptych and triptych as his basic units of structure. Here’s a diagram Mark Rose has worked up for the opening of King Lear:

Here’s a classic triptych structure, with the brief prologue and epilogue framing a much larger scene in the middle. Notice how the first and third scenes have very nearly the same number of lines, creating an elegant symmetry, while their very briefness is juxtaposed with the large court scene, the one where Lear has a fit and divides his kingdom. Also, the prologue and epilogue are private scenes, where characters gossip or conspire, in contrast to the grand public spectacle of the middle scene.

Shakespeare was never one for cookie-cutter regularity, and was more than capable of interesting change-up when it came to framing scenes. This next diagram is from Othello:

Here Shakespeare uses an arch form to shape the narrative, two framing diptychs that surround a central scene. Again, notice the elegance of how the paired scenes (Iago and Othello; Othello alone/Iago alone) are nearly the same length. And it’s the center scene, Iago’s discovery of the handkerchief, which sets off the drama, the single act around which these two characters’ fates will revolve.

Rose’s beautifully written analysis is filled with smart diagrams like the two above, and reading through the book one gets a sense of the infinite possibilities of structure, how manipulating the placement of small units can lead to a greater whole. And once you’re clued into these Lego-like building principles, you can find them in many different art forms. The Fourth String Quartet by the 20th century composer Bela Bartok, for example, has a structure nearly identical to the opening of Othello:

The first and fifth movements share musical themes and material, as do the second and fourth movements, and the middle movement stands apart, its eerie musical material particular to itself. One could see this as a kind of rhyme scheme: ABCBA.

This arch form was an influence on the structure of my second book, The Art of The Knock, though I built mine out of seven sections. David Mitchell’s magisterial Cloud Atlas employs a grand version of the arch structure, which can be read as: ABCDE F EDCBA, an arch, but also an elaborate triptych.

We structure our fictions, and we also structure our memories. Sven Birkerts, in his marvelous book The Art of Time in Memoir, describes the “time frame” of Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception. Wolff begins his memoir with the sudden announcement by phone, as he’s vacationing in Narragansett, of his father’s death, then employs the bulk of the book to tell the narrative of his life with his father, and then ends with a return to the site of Narragansett. Another triptych.

Yet must structure always aspire to symmetry? Yann Martel’s first novel, Self, serves as an effective counter argument. The novel is comprised of only two chapters. The first is 329 pages long. Chapter two is a single page. It’s hard to imagine a more lop-sided diptych than this, but that final second chapter more than holds its own with its bulkier companion.

Did any of these writers have their structure set in mind from the beginning? Maybe. I like to think, though, that these various shapings come about through the writing. If conceived of too soon, a structural plan could easily turn constricting. But if an architecture arises from the thicket of writing’s multiple discoveries, then it gives shape to what might otherwise remain amorphous.

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February 23rd, 2011 by admin

Yet Another Chapter One

One of my favorite novels in recent years is I, the Divine (A Novel in First Chapters), by the Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. It’s a brilliant novel in the form of a memoir, written by one Sarah Nour El-Din, and it’s an evolving memoir at that, which is where the subtitle comes in. Every chapter in the book is a Chapter One. That’s right, the reader finishes the first chapter, turns the page, and there’s another chapter one waiting. And then another chapter one and so on: page after page of beginnings.

Sarah can’t seem to find the proper footing into her memoir, and so she begins again, trying to start from this angle, then that angle. Though each chapter is in and of itself engaging (at least to this reader), Sarah hasn’t yet captured for herself the right tone, or the most fruitful approach to the rest of her life’s story.

And yet, through all these failed first chapters, the reader begins to gain a deeper sense of her life, as empty narrative spaces slowly get filled in. We learn of her marriages, her lover, her son, father, mother, stepmother, sisters, grandfather, her life in Lebanon and in America, and her artistic ambitions.

Eventually, a first chapter takes on a shameful secret (one of many in this family), that Sarah’s sister Lamia was a serial murderer—a nurse who overdosed her patients to death. Sarah feels she can’t begin to explain her sister’s actions, so instead she announces “I will let her speak for herself” and includes in the chapter her sister’s awkwardly eloquent letters.

Through this seeming defeat of imagination, this reliance on her sister’s own words, something seems to break through to Sarah. Lamia’s letters have allowed Sarah to see her sister from the inside, bringing with it a level of empathy she never had before. Two first chapters later Sarah writes about a day in the life of her stepmother Saniya, from what she imagines is her stepmother’s point of view. And again, her understanding of and empathy for Saniya deepens. A few first chapters later, Sarah imagines a walk through the streets of New York from her first husband’s point of view.

Sarah is of course fictionalizing—she can’t really know what her husband thought as he walked from classroom to apartment, can’t know what terrain her stepmother’s thoughts might occupy. But seemingly for the first time, Sarah is thinking of others, not herself, she is trying to interpret them, understand them. And in so doing, the relentless I, I, I of memoir deepens from the singular self to the multiple competing selves of family dynamics. Sarah is no longer the center of the universe but a part of the universe, and this helps her move from the role of victim to that of survivor, relinquishing blame for compassion.

Alameddine, a fine novelist, is perhaps taking a swipe at memoirs here, by implying that the fictional impulse of imagining others is the remedy for the solipsism of first-person memoirs. Yet the fictional impulse is indeed a major part of our nonfiction selves—constantly, every day, we try to interpret others, try to imagine their inner lives so we can better mesh with them. Because we cannot and will never be able to read minds, our interpretations are necessarily fictional, or at least fictions based upon the best available evidence. As I’ve said elsewhere on this website, “So many thought bubbles, like storm clouds, hover above us.”

Sarah becomes a survivor through imagining the points of views of others in her life because she has released herself from the trap they themselves are stuck in—the inability to empathize. That’s how victimizers go about their business: lost in their own dramas and playing out the echoes on others, unable to truly see the damage they’ve wrought, unable to imagine any point of view besides their own. Victims are locked within their own dramas.

Having escaped this interior claustrophobia, Sarah earns the last chapter of her memoir, which she labels not as yet another Chapter One, but as an Introduction.

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February 10th, 2011 by admin