f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of Lying Awake – Structure

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Day 2 of Lying Awake – Structure

The thing I’ve not been crazy about lately in films, television, and books is what I’ll simply call abuse of narrative flow. This is when fairly straightforward stories are hacked into bits and told backwards and upside-down and every which way—for no discernable reason.

There’s a possibly apocryphal story of a Seinfeld episode (the one with the Indian wedding) that the production team found so lame that they decided to tell it backwards simply to invoke at least some interest and uniqueness to it. Balance this with a movie/short story like Memento where the fractured or non-traditional narrative thread grows organically out of the problems facing its amnesiac point-of-view character.

That said, I love complicated narrative threads. My second novel, Quinlin’s Estate, has a fairly complex structure modeled after one of the central images in the book—the labyrinth. A book like Godric takes off on the random wanderings of the mind of a very old man. You need to play an active part in piecing together the timeline of the book. It’s quite demanding on reader and can be a stone in people’s shoes.

Lying Awake doesn’t have a terribly complex narrative structure, but it’s not perfectly sequential so I thought we’d take a look at it today and see if we can figure out what role it serves and if it accomplishes its purpose.

First off, let’s be clear. We’re not talking about flashbacks (all though they’re involved in this book). Instead, we’re talking about the actual time-and-place of the point-of-view of every section and chapter as a whole as you move from left to right through the book.

Lying Awake begins in Section 1 on July 25, 1997 and ends Sept 8, 1997. Section 2 dips into the past, 1969, for one day, Sept 14. Then it jumps to 1982 for one day, July 16 in Section 3. Next in Section 4 it jumps to 1994 for one day March 27. It then picks up from Section 1 in Section 5 with Sept. 9, 1997. We’ve returned, on page 119, to the next day after page 69. This goes to Sept. 14. Section 6 is interesting in that we don’t change years. We stay in 1997, Sept 26, through Oct 5. Section 7 stays in 1997 also, Oct 15 through Nov. 1.

So depending on how you look at it, either we’ve gone three months with some flashbacks or twenty-eight-years.

The point is why. For this we turn to the Section titles.

1 God’s Mystery
2 The Call
3 The Desert
4 Rain From Heaven
5 Darkness
6 Surrender
7 Faith

We have two echoing patterns.

The Call. The Desert. Rain From Heaven.

God’s Mystery. Darkness. Surrender. Faith.

In both of these patterns, Sister John of the Cross is faced at first with a sense of yearning from God, an obstacle to finding answers, and then finally some resolution to those questions. Salzman’s main conflict is a nun faced with doubts about her faith when she learns an epileptic condition may be causing hyper-religiousity. That’s the core of the story and so he introduces it right away. Supporting it are Sister John’s hard journey to faith in the first place and the fact that she feels her interaction with God has been hard won through years of searching and yearning. Because we learn about that road after her condition, I think it heightens the impact of the choice she faces. Surgery, in essence, may take away the path she knows best in interacting with God. Straight-forward storytelling, in this novel, would take the focus away from her decision and simply turn it into a long path where this conflict is only slightly bigger than others faced. This would have made a subtle book even subtler, perhaps to the point of flat, and would have failed the story greatly.

Go to Day 3 of Lying Awake.


Want to talk more about Lying Awake than just in the little comment boxes? We have a discussion board (sign up is easy and free) for just that opportunity. Once question I want to throw out relates to structure a little. He chooses to name his chapters using the appropriate days from the Catholic Liturgical Calendar. Authors rarely make random choices, but I don’t know enough about the Liturgical calendar to understand his thinking behind the days. Got an idea? Talk it out.