The World of Other Literature
     Victoria Grossack

In my Fiction Fix column in March, 2005, we reviewed various levels of structure involved in writing fiction. Since then we have gone through these levels in more detail: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, books and series of books. There’s one more level above these -- at least only one that I can think of so far (and if you come up with something else, please, please, tell me about it) – and that is, other literature.

You may wonder why other literature should matter as you set about structuring your own novel. After all, you have no influence on books written by other people.

On the other hand, books written by other people have influenced you. Even more so, they have influenced your readers and their expectations. So, the other books in the world are worth thinking about, even if you can’t possibly read them all.


If you are writing for a particular genre, you need to know the requirements of that particular genre. For example, if you are writing a romance for Harlequin, by the end of the book, the hero and the heroine had better have come to a mutually happy understanding in which they’re together. You can’t have an ending like in Gone with the Wind, where Rhett slams the door and walks out of Scarlett’s life – though she does plan to get him back, for after all, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Reader Expectations

Readers, because they have been influenced by other literature, will come to your story with certain information already in their minds. If you are writing cozy mysteries, you may want to assume that most of the readers will know the classics: the works by Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, and maybe Perry Mason and Dorothy Sayers. If you are writing science fiction, your readers are very likely going to be familiar with Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke; if you are writing fantasy, it is good to know The Lord of the Rings.

So, if you want to entertain them, you should understand what people have read before, so you know the worlds that they have already visited. For example, if elves in other books tend to have certain characteristics, such as long lives and pointed ears, you may want to give your elves the same characteristics, or prepare to do some explaining.

Overused Techniques

There are techniques that have been used so often that they will already be in the minds of nearly every person reading your story.

She woke up and it was all a dream. This was certainly extremely original the first time it was used in the world. And it’s a technique that impressed me the first time I read it – how amazing, I thought, what an unexpected twist! – and also the first time I used it in a story (I was about ten years old, so perhaps I can be excused for believing that I was exceptionally clever). Of course, people are still using it, both in literature and in film – consider Total Recall and Matrix – but you should be aware that the technique is overused, and set up the plot accordingly. In both Total Recall and Matrix, the dream/fantasy sequences are deliberately caused by external agents for reasons that are well founded in the story lines.

In certain genres there will also be techniques that have been used many times. How often is the narrator the murderer, for example? That does not mean that you can’t use a particular technique, but that you should be aware of it.


If your readers are likely to be aware of other stories, you can actually build off this familiarity to deepen their experience with your own story.

This is done over and over. Here are some examples in which entire works (novels, plays and movies) are re-tellings of what can be considered the classics.

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. This book is based on a few chapters in Genesis, the first book in the Bible. It retells some of the events from the point of view of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob (also known as Israel) who was the father of twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of Israel (more or less).

Mourning Becomes Electra, a play by Eugene O’Neill based on the Aeschylus version of the Electra myth. There are many plays that use this particular story; it was an inspiration for several plays in Classical Greece as well as repeatedly since then.

Clueless, a movie, is a contemporary reworking of Jane Austen’s Emma.

Fiddler on the Roof, is a musical which also has many similarities to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: five daughters in a poor family that can’t afford dowries.

These stories can be enjoyed without being familiar with the original, but how much deeper is the understanding, the appreciation, for the reader who is familiar with the original! And, the author can always hope that potential readers, agents and editors will be more likely to recognize the similarities and recommend it to others.

Another method is to simply add texture to your writing by taking a familiar tale and giving it an added twist. For example, the “Boy who Cried Wolf,” is an Aesop fable in which a shepherd boy, lonely and bored while caring for his flocks, keeps calling out “Wolf!” The villagers came and tried to help him – but every time they do, they find no wolf, and so when the young shepherd finally calls out “Wolf!” because a wolf is there, his cries go unheeded and he is killed and eaten. This fable is usually considered an instruction in why you should not tell lies. However, the character Garak on Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine uses the story as a reason why you should never tell the same lie twice.

Other literature can influence any level of your literature, from how you choose your words, create your sentences and paragraphs, even to how you create your series of books. J K Rowling, for example, has used the same structure for her Harry Potter series as many Enid Blyton books, which followed, for example, the O’Sullivan twins as they made their way through successive years at boarding school. Rowling, although following the same format of one book per school year, has of course added the excitement of magic.

Note that you don’t have to base an entire work on an external piece; you can use it just for seasoning. Make sure, however, that you don’t plagiarize!

“The Great Conversation”

Have you heard of this phrase and the concept it represents? I confess that I find it particularly enchanting. It refers to the conversation that has been going on within humanity for several millennia, the exchange of ideas over time on important subjects, such as who we are, how we think about ourselves, questions and hypotheses about God, science, politics, truth, knowledge, relationships and the world around us.

Maybe your goal has nothing to do with participating in the Great Conversation, but if it is, you will want to write stories that contain elements that matter, that may be responding to things brought up by people such as Moses, Confucius, or Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Review and Conclusion

So, dear readers, I hope you have enjoyed this series of articles devoted to different levels of structure in fiction. (I have not done letters but I really consider them a sublevel.) For me it has been an interesting journey, because I did not know what there would be to say on each level before I got there. But during the process, I have discovered many things, and I have had fun sharing them with you.

I want to add a little bit about going through the different levels. It’s my opinion that your work will be better if you know how to analyze it at each of the levels. Each level, I also believe, should convey a unit of meaning to the reader. When you understand the meaning, when there is a clear meaning associated with each unit at each level, then your work will improve.

If you have questions or comments, please contact me at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.