Over the last two weeks we have looked at linear and circular story structures, and ways in which we can jazz up these basic structures. In some books, though, structure transcends itself. It becomes more that the skeleton on which the story hangs. Structure becomes meaning.
In these kinds of books, the author adds an extra layer that lies, like some magical being, just beneath the surface of the story. It piques the curiosity in advanced readers to dig deeper. And once it is uncovered, it contributes to a deeper understanding of the text and a more exciting read.
This “form has meaning” internal structure is most evident in novels in verse, such as Solo by Kwame Alexander or The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. The Poet X is written in three parts that distinctly highlights sections of the main character's struggle to find her voice. Xiomara’s way to her voice takes on an internal journey (circular) structure, but each part is titled by a quote from scripture that applies to Xiomara’s experiences, awareness, and growth within that part, thus structure equals meaning. Examples where form echoes meaning are the poems in which she argues with her mother, where the two voices are in two languages, or where her mother argues with biblical quotes that she answers with her poetry, as well as the assignment pieces Xiomara writes for her English class. She writes “What I wanted to say” – her true voice – in poetry. But “What I actually said” is in prose, an symbol of her constricted voice.
In Okay for Now the metaphor of Audubon’s birds is used as an organizing thematic pattern. Not only does the reader have images of the birds at the beginning of each chapter that create a circle structure beginning and ending with the Arctic Tern, but also the book is saturated with imagery. The author uses the bird imagery in structure and story arc. The main character recognizes the imagery in the bird pictures and keeps drawing metaphors from his study of these paintings. Thus, the reader enjoys layers of metaphors, created both by narrative and structure, which leads to multiple levels of understanding and immense depth of meaning.
The structure of The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or Three Children and Their Holy Dog) by Adam Gidwitz mirrors medieval texts, such as Canterbury Tales. In this book the structure supports the medieval setting, educates readers about medieval texts, but also provides opportunity for multiple narrators in a way that is accessible to young children.
Meaning in structure is also attainable in picture books. In 2015 Caldecott Medal winner Beekle, author-illustrator Dan Santat uses the whole book’s physical structure to deliver the full message. On the front end-papers the reader sees many children with their imaginary friends. Each child-imaginary friend duo has their thing they do together – their purpose. But Beekle, centered on the right-hand page, stands alone. When we get to the last full-spread of the book, we find Alice and Beekle surrounded by drawings of their adventures. These drawings are images from the book we are holding in our hands. On the back end-papers, Beekle and Alice appear together in the center between all the other children and their imaginary friends, holding the book Beekle. Making this book was their purpose. The structure of the book echoes the meaning of the book that is about the making of this book.
As you read mentor texts for research, pay attention to the internal structure. Is it simply a skeleton? Or does the structure contribute to meaning? And as you plot your own work, take some time to consider the backbone of your story, and whether your structure can be purposeful in more than one way. What suits your story best? What can you tease out or build upon to give your WIP an additional layer of meaning for those analytical readers?