Thursday, August 19, 2021

Forbidden Formats: The Risks and Rewards of Uncommon Narrative Structures

By Bonnie Randall

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Not every story needs to be told in the Three Act Structure. Bonnie Randall shares three examples of narrative structures that defy convention
and still work.

Every fiction writer from veteran to novice knows there’s a collection of “don’ts” when writing.

Don’t use adverbs

Don’t use adjectives

Don’t use any tag other than ‘said’.

Don’ts abound in narrative structures, too, (how the story is delivered). Nevertheless, this summer I’ve read several bodies of fiction that used ‘Forbidden Formats’ with outstanding results. Let’s unpack a few and analyze why they worked—and how they can be utilized in your fiction.

1. Epistolary

Or, in plain English, using letters sent between characters to tell a story. Said to be overdone, cliché, and too fragmented to keep a reader’s attention, Epistolary style nonetheless made The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society an absolutely delightful story.

Why did it work?

The letters allowed for an intimate peek into the relationships between characters.

The letters were filled with gossipy tidbits, confessions, and reveals—and if there is one thing all people love (even though they deny it) it is to be privy to the sort of news that’s whispered behind a shielding hand.

And, speaking of secrets:

The letters create dramatic tension: when will Dawsey figure out how Juliet really feels about him? Or vice versa? After all, the reader knows, and this is part of the epistolary appeal; readers love knowing things that the characters don’t. It allows them to feel a titch superior, or wiser, than the person whose story they are seeing unfold.

Make It Work for You:

When using letters to tell parts or even all of your story, go the extra mile to make sure every letter has its own authentic voice (semantics, rhetoric, cadence, and jargon) and that none of them sound like the narrator. This will lend not just individuality to your characters, but also authenticity.

Beyond that, pepper the letters with intimate details shared between characters for remember: they are not just confessing to each other, they are confiding to the reader as well—and there’s few things people love more than to be the person entrusted with a secret.

Lastly, the letters cannot just be a random collection of missives. All need to tie into the central problem in the story, and each needs, in its own way, to push forward the narrative drive either by revealing information, or illuminating character (or both).

(Here’s more with Guest Author Jessica Brockmole: Writing Epistolary Novels)

2. The Interview

What a risk Taylor Jenkins Reid took when she chose to tell Daisy Jones & The Six as a journalistic interview, or a ‘rock-umentary’—but my, oh my, what a reward!

Members of 1970’s fictional rock band Daisy Jones & The Six recount their rise to fame, their crash into obscurity.

Why does it work?

Due to a series of unreliable narrators who simultaneously have moments of heartbreaking candor. This results in a deep knowing of these characters at their best...and at their worst.

It’s delivered in the style of a series of confessions and, as stated above, people love to be the person ‘chosen’ as the one who gets to hear the dirty dirt.

Perspective. The same events are chronicled by seven different people—everyone experienced the same thing, yet no one lived it the same way. And that is fascinating (and also very authentic; it’s why eye-witness accounts are considered dubious).

Vulnerability. The characters in DJ&TS are simultaneously insightful and shockingly obtuse with regard to their own assessments and recounts of their (often destructive), behavior, and with how they’ve perceived the goals and motivations of the others around them. This makes them deeply human, and completely relatable.

Make It Work for You:

Thread awareness, and lack thereof, into the answers your characters provide in their interviews. Go to the depth of their insight or blindness. Exploit the dubious or unreliable information they offer—and let all those pieces propel the narrative forward.

(Here’s more with 10 Alternative Types of Short Fiction)

3. The Loooong Flashback (or Series of Flashbacks)

Say it isn’t so! Aren’t flashbacks a no-no?

Not if they are executed with the mastery Kristen Hannah employed in The Nightingale. But…wait. Is that novel really a flashback? Well, considering that it opens with one of the two sisters in the present, then… YES. Yes, it is a flashback. A long, action-driven, pathos-driven memory.

Why does it work?

The pathos and action. No one heaps tragic event atop tragic event atop problem atop complication quite like Hannah.

It works because you forget…or maybe aren’t even convinced, that you are, in fact, reading a flashback.

It employs ‘The Burning Question’: as you’re reading the entire, lengthy flashback, it is killing you: which sister is it who we met at the beginning? The now elderly lady who is traveling back to France? Vianne? Or Isabelle? Ah, but you have to reach the end of the flashback to find out.

Make It Work for You:

Your flashback can’t be just a ‘Darling’—in other words, it can’t be just a cutesie memory you want your character to re-experience (I say this because I do it, then red-pencil it out, every time). In order for the flashback to take center stage it needs to deserve center stage—it needs to, essentially, be the story. As such, then, the present needs to be the punchline, or the mystery, which the flashback works to reveal. Tricky? You bet. But excellent when well-crafted? Ummm…how many copies sold of The Nightingale?

(Here’s more with What "Stranger Things" Can Teach Us About Flashbacks)

Now, as always, it’s YOUR turn. What body of work have you read that shattered a rule or employed a “Forbidden Format” yet really sang off the page? Please share and let’s discuss!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. It's always been interesting to me how some cling to the three act structure, placing it as edict for how a story must be told in this racket we call fiction writing. Imagine if we attached the same iron clad formula to nonfiction. Watergate in three acts? Debacle in Afghanistan in three? Sure, looking back on those events, a three-act can be done. While they're ongoing, we want it now. Structure takes a backseat to facts.

  2. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente is one of my all-time favorite book and it has interviews, newsreels, newspaper articles, parts of screenplays, recordings, even radio show episodes. The story premise is bonkers and it'll not be everyone's cup of tea but I love it the more for its eccentricity.