Unless experimental or post-modern, most novels progress along an easily followed, predictable structure. The author chooses a point of view (first or third person, usually, but sometimes second) and structures their novel either by character perspective, like what GAME OF THRONES does, or by events, usually breaking out specific events in chapters. These are the most natural ways to tell a story and ensure that the reader won’t get lost too easily.
Peter Straub’s 1979 novel GHOST STORY does all of these things at once and even throws in a prologue and epilogue for good measure. In short, the novel goes out of its way to break assumed writing rules and does it effectively. So what is its structure and why is it the best way to tell this particular story?
In screenwriting parlance, the story is broken into three acts (or parts, according to the book) with a teaser up front (prologue) and a tag in the back (epilogue). Nothing crazy so far. Each of these acts is broken into three parts, except the first act which only has two. Again, in terms of ebb and flow in the story, this is an unexceptional way to tell a story.
The chapters themselves, though, do some interesting things with perspective and time. Each act is broken up into short chapters, and those are sometimes broken into shorter scenes. The chapters are told from specific points of view, with the person whose perspective we’re seeing identified in a bold header at the start of each section. However, within each act that perspective shifts multiple times, and then begins with new chapters.
There are other times, too, when the point of view shifts further out. For example, after spending nearly 200 pages bouncing around the four main characters’ points of view–the Chowder Society, as they call themselves–we’re suddenly thrust into a third person omniscient narration with “The Chowder Society Accused.” Not long after that, at the start of the second act, the story shifts into a first person viewpoint, as we read the journals of a relatively new character that had only been mentioned before. The story is a constantly shifting, full of differing perspectives.
The same goes for time. The story starts around the one year anniversary of a Chowder Society member’s death, and then the second chapter of the first act jumps back in time to the night he died. The second act, being a series of journal entries, takes us to yet another time period, although at first it is unclear when in relation to the other events of the novel. What we do know is that it’s sometime before the prologue.
All that said, the unusual style suits the story. It keeps the reader off-kilter, for one, just as the characters feel. But it’s also the most logical way to tell the story, in a sense. The story would need to leap ahead and juggle multiple, unrelated character arcs if it was told linearly, which would be confusing to follow and lead to several slow sections that would likely bore the reader.
The lesson here (to me, anyway) is that what perspective and what structure you use to tell your story is just as important as the characters and events that populate the story. The way in which a story is told can confuse or illuminate a reader, depending on the author’s intentions. As GHOST STORY proves, mixing and matching perspective, time, and structural elements in new ways can accomplish both, drawing the reader deeper into the mystery you’re presenting.