When it comes to the story structure of a novel, the journey is just as important as the destination. Stop for a moment and think about plots of successful books. For example, what is the plot of A Christmas Carol? It’s about a greedy old miser who loves nothing but money. Three ghosts visit him to show what he lost in life, the unhappiness he’s causing this Christmas, and the future he faces. The first two visions mildly affect him until he sees his own funeral where everyone rejoices in his death. He’s shocked into realizing the worthlessness of his money and has a change of heart. The old miser turns into a generous grandfatherly figure and determines to change his destiny into something valuable.
Linear or a meandering story structure of Dickens’ story?
If you only follow the linear plot, it would make a fairly interesting short story, but wouldn’t be much of a novel. What brings this novel to life is not the main plot, but what goes on around the plot. We see the struggles of the hardworking Bob Cratchit. Readers empathize with this humble man as he does everything to please Scrooge, and then defends the old miser when others criticize him. His unappreciated efforts stir our hearts because everyone has experienced these feelings.
Tiny Tim hobbles around on his crutches. In spite of his crippled health, he’s a cheerful lad. Charles Dickens builds a three dimensional character that again connects with readers. We find ourselves rooting for this young underdog.
Dickens is not only telling the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, he’s also telling the stories of all the people around this man’s life. As the novel unfolds, we get to see how one man’s life affects so many. Charles Dickens is the master of telling stories within stories. In his books, we follow many people as we jump from scene to scene while the lives of his characters are woven around the story structure of the main plot. As we journey along, we begin to see how each story merges together in a bigger picture. The author teases us by leaping out of one scene just as something interesting is happening, and landing in another subplot. When our mental juices are again flowing, we find ourselves in another person’s life following yet another life as it is woven into the overarching theme.
The value of good story structure.
Great authors often employ this same method of storytelling. Rather than following the straight line of the main plot like a crow flying to its destination, great stories wander in and out of the main plot as the author takes the reader on a journey to explore other things of interest. In conversation we would call this chasing rabbits. In a novel, what looks like a rabbit trail always has a purpose. It eventually leads to where the main plot is going, but it takes the reader on a wonderful safari along the way. The richness of the journey is often found on the rabbit trails.
As writers, we have the power to take readers on many adventures and introduce them to exciting new characters. Not every plot works with rabbit trails and we must guard against over saturating the reader with monotonous details. While you plot out the story or begin the shaping process after the first draft, look for opportunities to introduce mini-journeys to the reader that can be tied into the story structure to enrich the plot. If done right, your readers will thank you.