Alternative Structures (Part 1)

I’ve spent a lot of time in this organic architecture series talking about plot plot plot plot. (If you’ve missed those post please check out:  arch plotalternative plots, and plot genres). But it’s time to switch gears and think about organization, rhythm, and energy.

That’s right let’s talk structure! (Which, if you don’t remember I’m obsessed with. Yes, I said obsessed).

Traditionally, we’re used to thinking about structure as a mountain or triangle with an escalating tension.  But I want to break out of the triangle/mountain box and think about structure in a new way. The following ideas can be applied to a mountain structure (if you want), or they can provide a whole new guideline for rhythm and tension!

Alternative structures all be discussing include:

  • Non-linear structure
  • Episodic structure with an arc
  • Wheel structure
  • Meandering structure
  • Branching structure
  • Spiral structure
  • Multiple point-of-view structure
  • Parallel structure
  • Cumulative structure

Let’s dig right in!

Non Linear Structure


(Also known as: Backwards Structure, Scrambled Sequence Structure)

Non-linear structure tells events out of linear order for dramatic impact. The juxtaposition of out-of-order scenes and sequences can help the reader to create plot connections, expand character depth, or elaborate on theme. Backwards structures draw attention to causal connections, like forward-moving linear structures, but become causal mysteries, where the narrative fuel is the search for the first cause of known effects (Berg). Scrambled-sequence structures don’t “do away with the cause-and-effect chain, [they] merely suspend it for a time, eventually to be ordered by the competent spectator” (Berg). Additionally, a story with a flashback can be considered part of a non-linear structure. However, some define flashbacks as a character thinking back on an event, and thus exist within a traditional linear-story timeline.

  • Film Examples: Memento, Pulp Fiction, The Limey, Out of Sight, Reservoir Dogs.
  • Book Examples: Betrayal (Pinter), Habibi (Thompson), The Time Traveler’s Wife (Niffenegger), Beneath a Meth Moon (Woodson).

Episodic Structure


(Also known as: Television Structure, Book Series Structure)

“Episodic structure is a series of chapters or stories linked together by the same character place or theme, but also held apart by their own goals, plots, or purpose” (Schmidt). A larger multiple book or episode character-arc or plot-goal often ties together a series, as done in television and comic books.

  • Film Examples: Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Friends, Dr. Who, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, etc.
  • Singular Book Examples: The Graveyard Book (Gaiman), The New York Singles Mormon Halloween Dance (Baker), The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Angleberger).
  • Series Book Examples: The Adventures of Tintin (Herge), Sin City (Miller), Knuffle Bunny (Willems), Hunger Games (Collins).

Wheel Structure Image


(Also known as: The Short Story Cycle, Hub and Spoke Structure)

In wheel structure, scenes, stories, vignettes, and poems, all revolve around a thematic center where the “hub [is] a compelling emotional event, and the narration refer[s] to this event like the spokes.” (Campbell). Additionally, “the rim of the wheel represents recurrent elements in a cycle … [and] as these elements repeat themselves, turn in on themselves, and recur, the whole wheel moves forward” (Kalmar). Many novels in verse or vignettes use this structure.

  • Film Examples: Waking Life, Loss of Sexual Innocence, Chungking Express, The Tree of Life.
  • Book Examples: The chapter structure of Keesha’s House (Frost), Einstein’s Dreams (Lightman), The House on Mango Street (Cisneros), Tales from Outer Suburbia (Tan).

Meandering Structure


(Also known as: River Structure, Winding Path Structure)

Meandering structure is a “story that follows a winding path without apparent direction” (Truby). The hero may or may not have a desire. If the hero has a desire it is not intense, and “he covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way; and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society” (Truby).

  • Film Examples: Forrest Gump.
  • Book Examples: Alice in Wonderland (Carroll), Huck Finn (Twain), Don Quixote (Cervantes).

In my next post we’ll take a look at:

  • Branching structure
  • Spiral structure
  • Multiple point-of-view structure
  • Parallel structure
  • Cumulative structure

Read all the articles in this series here: Organic Architecture Series

Works Cited:
  1. Berg, Charles Ramirez. “A Tax-onomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the ‘Tarantino Effect.’” Film Criticism, Vol. 31, Issue 1-2, 5-57, 22 Sept 2006. Ebsco Host. Web. 6 May 2011.
  2. Campbell, Patty. “The Sand in the Oyster: Vetting the Verse Novel.” The Horn Book Magazine. Sept.-Oct.2004: 611-616.
  3. Kalmar, Daphne. “The Short Story Cycle: A Sculptural Aesthetic.” Critical Thesis, Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2009.
  4. Schmidt, Victoria Lynn. Story Structure Architect. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2005.
  5. Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Story- teller. New York: Faber and Faber Inc., 2007.

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0 responses to “Alternative Structures (Part 1)”

  1. Thanks! Your posts always get me thinking!!

  2. Great series of articles on Structure. I too am a structure junky. I’m looking for the perfect structural template for rapid story creation. The quest continues!

    • Hugh, I don’t know that “rapid story creation” exists. Or if it does, if it will have anything worthwhile to say. LOL! My philosophy is to embrace the work and the long and wonderful process of writing a novel! 🙂 If you find out that secret template, please share!

  3. L. Marie says:

    Wow. This is great! I particularly love Christopher Nolan’s use of nonlinear structure also in Batman Begins. And this technique was apparent in Man of Steel (with him as producer and story writer with David Goyer). I would love to try this structure one day.

  4. Keep going–you have my rapt attention, Ingrid. Love form and structure.

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