The term “literary fiction,” is a bit of a loaded one. Defined as any fictional work that holds “literary merit,” the phrase is undeniably subjective. After all, what does it mean for something to hold literary merit? Who decides such things? Why are some works better than others and how are some books universally regarded as so? Where do we draw the line and define something as literary versus not?
To answer all of these questions would require an entirely separate blog post on a topic I don’t have the answers to (though my friend Rachel does! Read her post about it here). However, despite the ambiguity of the literary novel and how far its definition reaches, we cannot deny the fact that some people strive to write a literary novel – and that’s completely okay. Maybe it’s because they feel no genre out there defines their work or maybe it’s because they are telling a character-driven story that cannot be plugged into any sort of typical structure or maybe it’s just because their work is a bit avant-garde. No matter the reasoning, those who decide they are writing a literary piece have found something they dislike in “genre fiction” (again, using air quotes because there are so many layers to this topic that I am forced to simplify things for the sake of this post) – perhaps just the preconceived notions in a genre – and now pay for this choice by tackling what I like to call, the structureless structure of a literary novel.
My reasoning, of course, for studying the structureless structure of a literary novel is that of self-interest. When I sit down to plot out my novel or short stories, I find myself immediately bored to tears by the idea of writing any sort of external story where things happen (who would want to read something entertaining!?). A lot of my early work was likely (as a consequence of this resistance to external stories) very boring for other people to read because nothing happened in them. People had conversations and then walked away and that was about it. But that wasn’t it – at least not to me. I knew that underneath this simple conversation I was saying something and telling a story and that my characters had deep, internal issues they were grappling with, I just needed some sort of guidance as to how to do this best. Yet when I turned to guides on how to tell the stories I wanted to tell and how to structure them – subtly – all I found were more guides on the hero’s journey. And that’s not what I wanted.
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Don’t get me wrong. I love the hero’s journey. I wish so badly that epic poetry was still a thing I love the hero’s journey so much. But what we love and what we write are often very different things. And not everyone wants to write an external novel or plot-driven story, even if that’s all they consume as a reader. Yet despite this opposition to a plot-driven story – we still need help!
If you are someone who wants to write a literary novel, one of your biggest concern is that your novel is going to be too plot-driven and read as superficial. But you also (maybe) are worried you’ll bore your reader without anything external. It’s not to say external stories are all superficial, but more so that that is a concern for someone hoping to write a character driven story. With the wealth of information out there for genre writers on how to tackle the plot of their stories using the Hero’s journey, three-act structure and many other helpful outlines, it is not uncommon for literary fiction authors to feel a bit lost. They don’t want to write a plot-driven story, yet there remains no guide out there for them to structure their novel.
And that’s kind of the point.
Are you writing a literary fiction piece?
While you may say you are striving to write a literary fiction piece, it’s really hard to say, especially since literary fiction is often determined by society. However, with the overwhelming advice on following plot structure out there, for this post literary fiction will essentially mean anything that doesn’t follow a classic external structure of conflict, if it follows a structure at all. For example, if you are writing a piece like Cloud Atlas or One Hundred Years of Solitude that spans several histories and generations, it’s hard to nail such an idea down to one structure, even if there is a lot of external action. Or you could be writing a book like To the Lighthouse in which nothing really happens at all and we live within the internal moments of characters’ lives, which prove to be rich and engaging in their internal strifes.
However, for even more clarities sake before moving forward, here are some common characteristics of a literary novel (keep in mind that this is not a genre):
- introspective; emphasis on the inner story or internal
- character-driven (instead of plot driven); often a deep character study
- slower pacing
You could also define this as a character-driven novel, though changing the word will not make any difference in the difficulties in tackling the structureless structure.
Common Structureless Structures
Though its paradoxical to stay a structureless structure exists, in literary fiction there are a few “genres” or novel formats that have caught on. None offer an outline or how-to guide, but instead provide possibilities for the literary fiction writer.
Coming-of-age: The coming-of-age story is exactly what it sounds like – a story following a person going from childhood to adulthood. It is usually deeply internal and often written by the protagonist as a sort of retelling. The most common example of this is Catcher in the Rye, but others include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Separate Peace. I have noticed the universe is severely lacking in coming-of-age stories about women (one of the few being The Bell Jar, one of my favorite novels), so if you are short for ideas there is one you might pursue. The structure for this novel would involve mapping out the arc of your protagonist and the lessons learned, then stringing together the events that might shape this arc.
Picaresque: A type of novel known to bore many readers, the picaresque novel is a series of adventures or episodes tied together with little to no plot. The characters, who are often lower class members of society, don’t change or evolve, but remain the same throughout. Other attributes include elements of realism and the characters often committing criminal acts or something just short of that. In a way, structuring a novel like this one would simply writing out a list of episodes that are intertwined by circumstance and not by consequence, making it one of the easier structures to understand and implicate. Examples of this include Blood Meridian* (a masterpiece so great I am linking you to buy the book), Don Quixote and Candide.
You’ll notice that for both the coming-of-age novel and the picaresque, the structure comes from character. I know that doesn’t help immensely nor provide you the framework for plotting out your novel like you’d like, but because people are fickle and have minds of their own, so will the structure of your character-driven novel. Instead, when you approach writing out an outline, look to your character and their internal journey and create events that challenge that.
Playing With Our Ideas of Structure
All the same, if looking towards common literary novel structures or your characters’ internal woes does little to help you better understand how to structure your novel, it’s time to try another approach. As storytellers, we have instincts. While we are told in beginner writing courses not to spend half the book on what might be called “exposition,” sometimes our storytelling instincts say otherwise, especially if we believe dedicating half of the book to backstory is essential to internal development. Despite these instincts, as humans, we also crave order and direction and to know that what we are writing is “right,” whatever that means.
While it’s simple to suggest you just ignore structure all together and write and see what happens, for beginners (like me!) that’s hard. Well, technically it’s very easy to do, but very hard to do well. Looking back at the past 240,000 words I’ve written towards my own novel and knowing I had to toss them all because of ignoring guidance is a testament to that. My writer’s instincts aren’t there yet, so in the meantime I have to look to something for structural inspiration, even if my impulse is to shy away from just that.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook has a ton of ways to look at structure in a fresh way that I think is incredibly helpful for lost aspiring literary fiction writers (which is ironic given that he is notably a “genre” writer). Take for instance this diagram in the book where the structure is seen as orbiting bodies, something I found helped guide my own novel, which for so long was begging me to structure it. With VanderMeer’s book, I realized then that structure wasn’t bad, but that I had to view it in a different way for my own project, creating a “new” structure for my own work that matched its layered story. However, besides diagrams like these using real stories, VanderMeer suggests looking at nature or other images and using that for your structure. My favorite image he uses is that of a water droplet, asking readers to think about what a novel would look like with that structure.
Who would have thought, right?
So if you are struggling with following your character’s internal story for your novel, try picking out images or patterns in nature and basing those off your structure. Pick up a leaf, trace it’s pattern onto a piece of paper and structure your story around that. Doodle the clouds you see and base your main conflicts on how they connect. Or, leave nature and look to more artificial creations that appeal to your eye. Make a story structure out of your latte art or the pattern on your shirt. The more you start to do this, the more you’ll see structure as something beautiful and worth following. When you take the structure from somewhere different than the typical ones we learn about, you’ll find yourself developing that instinct you need to write character-driven novels.
What about other mediums?
Film: One of my favorite directors, Terrence Malick, evokes a highly literary style in his work. If you are someone who doesn’t believe film is “artistic” I highly recommend watching his work for deeply internal stories, though many people believe his work to be incredibly boring (just as people do with literary fiction). His stories often follow no specific plot, but exist to explore the psyche of a character or group of characters, making his work similar to a picaresque novel. There are plenty of other directors who tell their own “literary” pieces, but some are harder to really pin down as representing “literary” because the definition is so subjective. I’d argue Pan’s Labyrinth is also a literary film, but according to my very weak definition of literary fiction, I lack the evidence to argue this film is “internal” or “slow” and just have my gut feeling. By contrast, Malick undoubtedly embodies the plotless, character-study in his later work, and if you need a starting point I suggest The Tree of Life.
As for television, the genre is more conducive to imitating literary fiction because it has a lot of time to breathe and therefore explore internal conflicts more, but also must keep you entertained for several seasons, making it very external. As a result, I have had difficulties deciding if any shows out there could be considered “literary,” making it even harder to see what structure they use if they even can be qualified as literary. So with that in mind, see it as a challenge to create a literary television premise that people will want to keep watching.
Plays: Given the format’s emphasis on character, nearly ever play you find can serve as wonderful inspiration as to how to drive your story by character instead of plot. While older plays like Shakespeare tend to have a lot of conflict (Hamlet’s uncle killing his dad is a pretty big conflict! Something you’re more likely to see in a soap opera nowadays) they still remain focused on characters. Modern plays often have even less action or external events, though there is always some sort of conflict that will propel the characters forward. Take a moment to read through a favorite play, or use this as an excuse to (finally) read a Shakespeare play in your own time. You’ll find that while plays tend to have structure in act breaks and scenes, some plays will have 50 scenes and others will have two, demonstrating a disregard for any sort of rules or guidelines. Instead, the scenes and acts are cut based on emotional tensions and internal issues, making them another perfect medium to study should you want to write something “literary.” Because if anyone knows how to tell the character-driven stories, it’s the playwrights.
Video Games: This is where things get hard, because video games are the youngest of all forms of storytelling and therefore haven’t evolved to what we might consider “literary.” Given my experience, video games have the same dilemma as television. They are inherently internal because of the player-dynamic, but also must keep players entertained in the external realm. Games like Bioshock or Gone Home both are candidates for the “literary” title, especially because the latter involves a character trying to understand a situation and wandering around to try and find answers, much like Holden Caulfield might have in Catcher in the Rye. However, given the definition and the commercialization of the medium, it really is hard to say. But there is always a way to find inspiration for structureless structure in video games – half of the games involve you wandering around aimlessly!
As you can see, there is no guiding structure to literary fiction (to my dismay). Despite that, I hope I’ve given you ways to learn about structures that exist – be they in fiction or nature or somewhere else – should you be hoping to write a literary/character-driven novel. And while we may resist an external story, there is something to be said about stealing some elements of the hero’s journey and watering it down so much it’s hardly recognizable. Because whether you’re writing a “literary novel” or phantasmagorical space opera, the structure is inherently the same.
Are you writing a literary fiction piece? How do you tackle the structure? Let me know in the comments below!