My love for page-turning literary fiction is well-documented. I also adore a quiet, character-driven novel and the escape of feel-good fiction. But there’s a special—and particularlynerdy—place on my shelf for books where the author has done something unusual with the narrative structure.
Books with interesting structures give the reader an extra layer to unravel and appreciate. They deepen the experience of reading a good book, and salvage the experience of reading a mediocre one. And they make me want to immediately reread the book to figure out how did the author DO that?
Today I’m sharing 14 books with well-crafted structures that enhance their underlying themes. Unique structures aren’t reserved for experimental fiction. This list includes memoir, biography, YA fiction, and more.
This fall in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, we’re ALL leaning into our nerdiness by going back to Book School! Our theme is “Reading with a Literary Lens,” and we’ll be celebrating elements of fiction, like story structure, that lead to deeper reading and great book club discussions.
We’re kicking Book School off on Thursday September 10th, and we’d love to see you there. Click here to see the full calendar.
14 well-crafted books with unique narrative structures
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Science writer Lightman’s premise is as follows: in 1905, young Albert Einstein dreamed repeatedly about time as he worked on his paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” and made creeping progress on his special theory of relativity. Each dream reveals “one of the many possible natures of time.” Lightman presents these (entirely fictional) dreams as a collection of poetic vignettes. Small enough to read in an afternoon, but easy to wander in and out of. Unusual and utterly delightful. If you need more convincing, listen to Beth Wallen and I discuss this little book on a past episode of WSIRN. More info →
An easy read with emotional depth and a unique structure. This novel traces the path of a diamond engagement ring from 1901 to 2012, and the four couples it links. The ring is lost, found, and stolen; it becomes a symbol of lasting love, and of betrayal. Woven throughout is the story of Mary Frances Gerety, the copywriter responsible for De Beer’s iconic slogan “a diamond is forever.” Each couple’s story is engaging on its own, but I appreciated the common thread connecting them. More info →
In this biography-of-sorts, Gretchen Rubin argues that the larger-than-life Churchill’s portrait could be drawn in many ways, all “true.” She presents 40 different angles on Churchill, as child, man, politician, leader, husband, etc. All are interesting; many contradict each other. Readers who enjoy traditional biographies might enjoy this fascinating, multi-faceted approach, or they might find that it clashes with their love of a traditional nonfiction structure. I personally enjoyed the various takes on one of history’s most prominent figures. More info →
I began this book knowing nothing about it, and it took me a while to get my bearings. Atkinson’s creative (and sometimes, mind-bending) structure shows clearly how tiny choices in her protagonist’s life (and the lives of those around her) lead to vastly different outcomes. Vastly. Ursula Todd dies before taking her first breath, while another Ursula Todd is born with a piercing wail. The rest of the book follows Ursula’s unique life cycle from death to life and back again, as WWII approaches. Bonus: in addition to a creative structure, Atkinson’s novel is packed with literary references that serious literary types will appreciate. More info →
What do you do when your mom dies and leaves you her old journals? And then you discover that her journals are blank? In 54 separate meditations, Williams unfolds the mystery of her mother’s life, and of her empty journals, and explores the power of words—and withholding them. I’m still wondering what her mother might have meant by leaving all those journals blank. What message was she trying to send? In the midst of her speculating, Williams crafts passages worthy of book darts and highlighting. More info →
Opening line: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” In her third novel, Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father’s second marriage starts to force its way into the open. Rather than writing back-and-forth between two perspectives, the reader encounters almost all of one sister’s point of view in the first half, followed by the other’s. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age narrative wrapped in a complicated family novel. More info →
Readers call this 500-page tome “unique,” “interesting,” and often, “indescribable.” Told in interweaving, expansive stories, this novel truly is a structural feat. Mitchell composed six narratives, and each one breaks off somewhere in the middle to begin the next, resulting in a dizzying and urgent effect. This isn’t a series of cliffhangers; rather, the stories pick back up and connect to each other throughout the novel. Apparently, Mitchell wrote each narrative separately, keeping them in folders and then wove them together later. More info →
After Tariq Johnson’s death, his community grapples with what happened—speculating, mourning, and wrestling with the tragedy. Tariq, a sixteen-year-old Black boy, was shot by a white man as he left a convenience store. Everyone has an opinion on “how it went down,” but no two stories align. Told in the alternating perspectives of Tariq’s friends, neighbors, family members, and strangers, the structure shows how perception creates reality, and how our biases influence larger narratives. More info →
Books with thought-provoking structures don’t always make for great audiobooks—sometimes you need to see the structure on the page. In this case, Wilkerson’s stunning combination of thorough research and storytelling works in any format. An essential read about a slice of forgotten American history, this historical nonfiction narrative details the decades-long migration of almost six million Black people from the South to the North and West, hoping for a better life. Wilkerson focuses on the stories of three individuals, giving us both an intimate portrayal and Big Picture view of what they experienced and how this changed the country. More info →
O’Farrell tells this story in interlocking scenes from different viewpoints, occurring between 1944 and 2016. After I turned the last page, I had to read it again to pay closer attention to the structure. I’ve reread it many times since. This is the story of an unlikely but successful marriage between a floundering American professor and a British film star who hated the limelight so much she faked her own death and disappeared … until an unexpected bit of news, twenty years old but newly discovered, threatens to unravel everything they’ve built together. Family stories are commonplace in fiction, but this one stands out. I love its intricate plotting, nuanced characters, true-to-life feel, and ultimate hopefulness. More info →
This is the moving story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family, set in the present day. Ward’s evocative prose imbues even the family’s most painful moments with tenderness and beauty. She based the novel’s structure on As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, saying, “I am in awe of how Faulkner volleys back and forth between multiple first-person POVs and still tells a coherent, moving story. I thought I could try to mimic that in the structure of Sing, Unburied, Sing.” She did indeed, and the result is a moving, haunting novel that’s sure to be considered a classic for years to come. More info →
In this unusual memoir, “matrilinear love story,” Bess Kalb tells the story of her grandmother Bobby Bell’s life, and their special relationship, in her deceased grandmother’s voice. (On the second page of the book Bobby, speaking from her own funeral, is telling the readers, “It’s a terrible thing to be dead.”) I enjoyed this story so much: Bobby is spry and spunky, fiercely opinionated, a force of nature—and firmly invested in (or committed to meddling in, depending on how Bess is feeling at the moment) her granddaughter’s life. Bobby’s fierce and sometimes persnickety devotion to Bess shines on every page, from Bess’s birth to Bobby’s dying days at age 90. For most of Bess’s life, the two spoke on the phone every day, and my favorite parts of the book were these phone conversations. More info →
I’ve been meaning to read this National Book Award winner for a while. In her unique memoir, Broom writes about family, race, and class by noting the intersections of her family’s history and the history of New Orleans. After reading about her process, this thoughtfully-structured book moved to the top of my To Be Read list. Broom says, “I knew when I started collecting evidence, so to speak, that I was trying to find the architecture of the book…I needed to know where the beams were and what was the supporting wall. I literally thought of it as a house because I knew that I was trying to put a lot in it.” More info →
This tense and tautly-written novel-in-verse takes place in the short span of sixty seconds. Fifteen-year-old Will gets on the elevator with his brother’s gun tucked into his waistband. His brother Shawn is dead, and he wants revenge. The elevator stops on the sixth floor, and Buck enters. He tells Will to check the gun; one bullet is missing. Did Shawn ever use his gun? And then Will remembers: Buck is dead. Another figure from Will’s past enters a few floors later, and then another, all connected to Shawn. Each one reveals pieces of Shawn’s story, and Will has a decision to make as the elevator reaches the ground floor. More info →
Do you have a favorite book with a unique structure OR a literary element that you look for while reading? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.
P.S. Here are 4 authors that take you to plot school and 8 novels that are delightfully self-aware about the writing process.