Making sure all the puzzle pieces fit: approaches to non-linear story structure by Claire Patel-Campbell

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Good afternoon and Happy New Year to you all! Well, I've had my baby, I'm slowly on the mend and I'm getting back to work - so far I've done a quite a bit of one-handed typing with the baby in the other arm! For this, my first blog post of 2017, I've got a special treat for you. This post was written by my fellow Unbounder, Claire Patel-Cambell who used an unusual narrative structure for her novel Abernathy, which is currently funding on Unbound. I had the chance to read an ARC of Abernathy and I'll be posting a full review next week. For now, here's Claire:

Claire Patel-Campbell:

It’s fair to say I had some very set ideas when I began to write Abernathy. I knew where I wanted to set it – rural Wisconsin, in the dead of winter. I knew how the opening scenes should unfold – a woman’s body, discovered lying in the snow by two hapless men. I knew where the emotional climax of the novel would be. I knew how the killer’s identity would come to light and I knew how I’d get to that point. Indeed, as I believe AS Byatt has said, when writing a murder mystery, you have to start from the end and work back.

I also knew I wanted a non-linear structure to the plot. That, I think, might be the most critical element of the novel, other than setting. Although it is a murder mystery at its heart, its structure marks it out as a literary novel, rather than a straightforward piece of genre fiction, as it uses flashback and ever-changing narrators – each of whom might be unreliable in their own way – to create a fully formed world. The reader should feel like they’re part of that world, privy to its inner workings and its secrets. The idea was to try to give a sense of how one inexplicable act of violence could have far-reaching consequences for everyone within the small, nameless town where the bulk of the story takes place. No one is safe from the repercussions, and yet no one is really without blame, either.

I wanted to be able to jump back and forth in time, switching between past and present tense and between characters’ viewpoints, so that the reader never feels quite at ease. I also wanted to be able to zoom in and out on certain elements, to draw out the key details and the connections between characters and events. The point was to tease the reader, to keep them guessing – to drop hints about the characters’ pasts, to make them think they’d cracked it and then reveal something else that cast doubt on everything they thought they’d figured out. I wanted to make sure they knew nothing in this tale is ever quite what it seems.

Effectively, I wrote it as a series of single short stories, each of which (more or less) could act as a standalone story, fully fleshed-out and complete. Although they don’t necessarily follow on from one another chronologically, there is a very deliberate order in which each part is placed: one is intended to link to the next, to shed light on certain things and throw shadows on others, like pieces in a puzzle, gradually forming the whole picture.

The biggest disadvantage was making sure all the timelines fit together and that each part of the narrative was in the right place so that the whole thing still made sense. Keeping track of who was who and how old they were and how they were connected to each other and whether they were even still alive became a major task in itself. There were so many different threads within the narrative, it was imperative I didn’t leave any of them loose, and doing that was a substantial undertaking. I needed to check, recheck and then check again to make sure there were no holes in left in the tapestry – even seemingly unimportant events were meant to be tied back to major plot developments, so nothing could be left hanging.

Although the story is written in the third person, I had to make sure each character had his or her own distinctive voice. I wanted to provide a glimpse into the inner worlds of each one, and to make sure they were all as three-dimensional as they could be. To that end, even the most outwardly brutish of characters suffers a major personal crisis, which finally bleeds into another key act of violence. It meant letting each character’s voice be heard at the right time, as well as hiding their thoughts at certain moments, so that nothing would be given away too soon.

Ultimately, Abernathy is an allegory on the dangers of complacency, and how secrets and lies can eventually cause a whole way of life to come crashing down. The structure of the novel is emblematic of the story itself: nothing ever quite fits together the way we might want it to, and in the end, no one gets out unscathed.

To find out more about Abernathy and pledge your support, visit Unbound.