03 September 2014

Two Plots, No Waiting

by Robert Lopresti

I recently came across a novel and a short story which used the same plot structure, one that I have seen once before.  I am wondering if anyone can point out more examples of this scheme.

The current samples are the novel Parlor Games, by Maryka Biaggio, and the story "Jaguar" by Joesph Wallace, which appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I recommend them both.  The novel is the life story of a female con artist as she travels the world at the turn of the century.  "Jaguar" tells of a forest guide in Belize who joins up with an American tourist to escape a violent home life.  But a traveling female main character is not the similarity that interests me.

You may have heard Lawrence Block's comment that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end -- but not necessarily in that order.  The structure of these two tales is such that they begin and end in the middle.  How does that work?

Well, let's say that a story had six parts.  The traditional way to present them is in chronological order : 1 2 3 4 5 6.  (I have put the second half in bold to make what follows clearer.)

Now maybe you want to follow Larry Block's suggestion of not beginning at the beginning.  You might rearrange the story: 2 1 3 4 5 6.   That is, you start with the action under way and then go back to "catch up" with what you missed.  After that chronological order takes over.

But the tales I am discussing use a more radical approach: 4 1 5 2 6 3.  In other words, you start halfway through the story, go back to the beginning, and then alternate.  In effect you have two plots taking turns, one that will end where the other one  begins. 

Am I making any sense?  Let's try another example.  The first time I came across this structure was in The Dispossessed, a great science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Le Guin wanted (I assume) to show us two contrasting societies.  One  is an anarchist organization that was given their planet's inhabitable moon as a way of preventing their revolution from taking over  the  home planet.

The book begins with Shevek, a scientist from the anarchist moon, getting ready to return to the home planet, the first person ever to do so.  The next chapter begins with his childhood.  And so the pieces alternate, showing Shevek's visit in contrast with his upbringing on the moon.  The latter ends with his decision to visit the other world, bringing us back to the beginning of the book.

Parlor Games starts with the con woman on trial.  Then we see her childhood in the Upper Peninsula.  Back to the trial.  On to her early adventures in Chicago... And so on.

"Jaguar" alternates between Ana's first day in America, and her meeting with the tourist who winds up taking her there.  This structure allows the author to cleverly conceal some plot points until he wants you to see them.

I planned to ask you if you knew any more examples of this plot structure when I realized that I had a contributed a modest sample.  My story "Why," (AHMM, May 2011) has the structure  3 1 4 2.  Here is part of  what I said about the story when it was published:

I wrote a story with two endings. In one finale, a character had an ah-ha moment, an epiphany if you will. In the second ending we see him reacting to that realization. Originally I went with chronological order, but I decided to end with the bigger bang, even though it meant losing an exit line I really liked.

At the time I didn't make the connection to LeGuin's novel.

Can anyone name more examples?


  1. I think Toni Morrison's "A Mercy" might do this. It certainly ends with "1" and it jumps back and forth along the way. It's been long enough since I read it that I'm not sure if it follows the entire sequence you describe, but it's power definitely comes from the shifting of sequence and the aha that comes at the "end" by learning the beginning.

  2. I mean "its" power. Darn those apostrophes.

  3. Or "Paradise", which starts out with the arresting line, "They shoot the white girl first." And then alternates flashbacks in various order... And "Beloved" - I think Toni Morrison specializes in very unusual structure that works for her.

  4. Two that come to mind might be: Philip K. Dick's Counter-Clock World and Martin Amis's Time's Arrow. Both begin with the death of a person(s) but retraces or steps back to their birth.

  5. The simplest example of effective story bassackwardness is probably the Columbo series, but I've enjoyed complicated nonlinear plots in several novels and movies. Movies include Pulp Fiction, Michael Clayton, The Usual Suspects, Memento, and others. I guess the risk is "losing" the reader/viewer, but when it works, it works.

  6. Out of sequence telling isn't uncommon in science fiction. I recall one novel in which the chapters counted down backwards to 0.

    Adding to John's list, the movie Vantage Point made a splash a few years ago with several viewpoints (and sequences) coming together to create the narrative.

    The most recent example I can think of is Cloud Atlas. I was one of tens of people who really liked it.

  7. Since I just finished reading The Hundred Year Old Man Who (verbed) Out The Window And Disappeared, I didn't have any trouble naming a book that did this. Thinking of shorter formats, the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic quite often has the chronologically first panel last.

  8. I did this in A PURSE TO DIE FOR...that is, I started at the point of the first crisis, and then went back to "Four days earlier..." From there I marched forward to the end, overlapping the first crisis.
    The trick of course, is to hook the reader before giving the set-up (and thus avoiding info-dumping.)
    I wouldn't do this all the time, or it would get predictable.
    A more famous example would be Daphne Dumaurier's Rebecca. Brilliant.

  9. This is a great blog exploring story structure. One of the benefits of alternating timelines is that the author can address causation. She can show event B happening in "current" time and then bounce back to earlier event A and show the historical or psychological backdrop or origin of events unfolding in "current" time. This, in fact, is what I attempted to do in PARLOR GAMES (which is based on actual events). In the trial that kicks off the story we see the infamous May being sued for a possible swindle that unfolded over many years. Then we jump back in time and see how May's modus operandi developed. It was actually great fun to write the story this way.

  10. Ms. Biaggio;

    Glad you enjoyed the blog. I meant to write to you to say how much I enjoyed your book (which I only finished this week). I particularly appreciated how indignant May got about people accusing her of things which she had already admitted (to us) having done, and her loathing of the Pinkerton agent who she considered a cad for catching her.

  11. This post is a print-out-and-keep-'er. Too much to absorb without sitting and reading the stories and book, and then comparing them to the numerical skeletons you've provided.

    If I remember correctly, Block tells the story that his editor took him to lunch and said, "Great book, but it would work better if you simply switched chapter 1 and 2, then continue from there." He did, and it worked.

  12. Joe, I hadn't heard that story about Block, although I can certainly see it happening. A professor of mine used to quote Kipling: "There are nine and ninety ways of composing tribal lays and each and every one of them are right." I would add: "if they work."

  13. Here I am, discovering this post and weighing in what? Only six weeks late!

    I'm the author of the short story "Jaguar," and I'm thrilled to see it discussed in such a thoughtful blog. Thanks, Robert!

    I've always felt more comfortable playing around with unusual structure in my short stories than in my novels. As you mention, this kind of shattered structure allows the writer to conceal information until he/she feels like revealing it. I'm afraid that readers might come after me with pitchforks if I tried to conceal such plot details for 80,000 words instead of 5,000.

    Thanks again. This was a satisfying story to write, so I'm very glad you liked it.

  14. Joe, clearly you need to vanity-Google yourself more often to keep up with your press! And did yousee this page? http://lbcrimes.blogspot.com/2014/08/jaguar-by-joesph-wallace.html
    Thanks for the good story.

  15. And here I thought I was pretty good at the vanity-Googling thing! Maybe there's a class for that.

    Thanks again, and thanks as well for the link. Though I'm not sure I should be thanking you for pointing me towards so many compelling blogs that are new to me!


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