The Importance of Multiple Structures
For the last few months I’ve been serving as an advisory editor for short fiction at Strangelet, a new speculative fiction journal based in Boston (first issue September 2014!). Submissions continue to pour in, and it’s fun and serious work separating the mature stories that are ready for publication from the ones that need more work.
One of the key elements I look for in a story is structure. Good stories have structure, a sensible rhythm of events and motifs that keeps the reader reading. And great stories layer multiple structures one on top of the other, each one colliding and colluding with the others to create a meaningful complexity.
I can’t share the stories we’ve received at Strangelet yet, but let’s look at “Robbie”, the first story in Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot. Robbie is a robot who belongs to eight-year-old Gloria. Gloria’s parents are at odds whether a robot is a safe or socially-acceptable companion for their child. They end up sending Robbie back to the factory and telling Gloria that he ran away. Gloria is sick with worry about Robbie. She doesn’t care for the puppy that’s meant to replace him, she stops smiling, she starts losing weight, she takes no pleasure from an extended family vacation in New York. Desperate, Gloria’s parents arrange a visit to the robot factory where she can see that robots are just machines, incapabale of love. That’s when Gloria sees Robbie working on the factory floor. Overjoyed, she runs to him – unaware of the gigantic tractor that is about to cross her path and crush her. Neither her father nor the factory overseers are quick enough to stop the tractor. Tragedy seems inevitable. But Robbie runs with superhuman speed to her rescue and disaster is averted. Gloria is safe in Robbie’s arms and happy again at last, and her grateful parents welcome him back into the family.
The first and most obvious structure is the plot. We have a clear exposition, rising action, and climax followed by a satisfying denouement as the girls’ life is saved by the very robot her parents thought would ruin her. The story’s setting shifts smoothly along with the plot. We could easily enough divide the story into three acts and adapt it for the stage, and the plot is driven by a tastefully small cast of main characterswith a few minor characters for color.
But then there’s a deeper structure of images and motifs underneath the plot, which is where things get really interesting. For example, the story opens with Gloria and Robbie playing hide-and-seek, seemingly an innocent game of no real consequence. But after Robbie is sent away we see that the story as a whole is a larger game of hide-and-seek with far greater stakes. The author is hiding Robbie from us! Gloria looks at every robot hoping (with us hoping right along with her) that it will be Robbie. This childish, irrational love that drives Gloria to search for Robbie is something we can all relate to because we’ve all had to face our own powerlessness in the face of loss – of a toy, a pet, a loved one. It’s almost impossible not to empathize with Glroria, and we can’t put the story down until we’ve gone with her through the whole structure of seeking and finding.
There’s also a mythic or fairy tale motif at work. Toward the beginning, Gloria starts telling Robbie the story of Cinderella. “Gloria was reaching the very climax of the tale – midnight was striking and everything was changing back to the shabby originals lickety-split, while Robbie listened tensely with burning eyes –” but they’re interrupted by the call to dinner. It’s left unsaid but we know what follows: the prince must seek out his beloved, using the scant bit of evidence he has that she ever existed in order to rescue her from a life of servitude and anonymity and lovelessness.
In reflection we see that Gloria is the prince and Robbie is Cinderella, and instead of a glass slipper all she has is his name. Robbie working in a factory IS Cinderella locked away in the wicked stepmother’s house. And the great thing about fairy tales is that we love to hear them from start to finish, no matter how many times we’ve heard them before, no matter that we already know the ending. By tapping into this mythic structure, Asimov has almost guaranteed that his readers will stick around until the end.
This is just an example of what an author can do by paying careful attention to structure. That first layer of plot structure is essential and sometimes sufficient in itself, and a deep layering and variation of structures is what makes a story re-readable. Carefully structured, multilayered stories are the ones we come back to again and again, each time discovering new facets we hadn’t noticed before. They’re the stories we want to keep in our lives, the stories that can save us when we’re in trouble, the stories we’re always looking for.