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Post #4 in my Australian Short Story Festival series

One of the panels I’m appearing on at the Australian Short Story Festival is “The Importance of Structure: How to Put What Where”. Structure’s a slippery term, especially when it comes to writing. I need to think aloud about just what it is we’re talking about.

  • At a basic level, there’s the ordering of events. Is the writer narrating chronologically, or starting somewhere in the middle, or even the end? One of my favourite short stories, “The New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson, begins near the end. The narrator is holed up in a capsule hotel, waiting for the assassins to arrive, as he tells his story addressed to Sandii, the woman who betrayed him. An element of surprise is sacrificed for the gain of intrigue: how did the narrator end up there?
    The risk of telling a story out of order is that flashbacks are hard, and can be clumsy. Of course, the flashback isn’t essential – there’s other ways to do it.
    Some of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s stories which have weathered least well are those told as monologues inside a frame narrative. Typically, someone encounters a character on the goldfields who then relates a story of interest. (“The query was a spur to Mick’s yarning,” we read in “Mrs Grundy’s Mission”, followed by Mick launching into the yarn.) Frame narratives are less appealing to readers today, unless they’re postmodern. Perhaps, too, there’s less “yarning” in our lives; the situation seems more artificial.
  • Divisions and breaks are also an element of structure – as per my previous post. Jennifer Egan seems to me to be a writer who uses them particularly well in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Some of the stories are broken up with chapter headings; others with scene changes. The quite different sectioning helps signal the different narrators of her interlinked stories.
  • Beginnings and endings are particularly important elements of structure. There’s an expectation that short stories will get moving quickly, so the writer has a challenge to make sure they’re simultaneously capturing the reader’s interest while also managing to convey the necessary background. This was particularly difficult when I was writing science fiction, as there was always so much to convey and understandably little tolerance for “infodumps”. More so than in the novel, there’s an expectation that short stories will have a twist just before the end. In his adult stories, Roald Dahl made it an essential element. It’s probably less emphasised now, but when it’s done well, it gives me a small thrill as a reader, perhaps like a cricket fan watching an old-fashioned but classic batting shot.
  • Situation as structure: Andrew Maunder gives an expanded definition of structure in The Encyclopedia of the British Short Story to include “its repetitions and patterns… What sort of unity appears through recurring actions, images, allusions, or descriptions? Are there pervasive metaphors like that of a journey that provide a unifying subtext?”. The journey is surely one of the most overworked metaphors – but more simply than its function as a metaphor, short stories often use a particular situation like a journey as a structuring principle. In order to contain the narrative to the length of a short story, a bigger span of time is often compressed to fit a journey or a meal or an encounter. The narrator gives flashes of the character’s past over the course of a particular situation.
    An example: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s “White Kid Gloves” is set over a few hours as a well-dressed woman comes to a small town in search of a man; over the course of an encounter at the blacksmith’s, we learn the story of her affair with the blacksmith during the war and the son she brings with her that is actually his.

Can you add to these thoughts on what structure is in the short story?