The World of Other Literature
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,
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
If you have questions or comments, please contact me at Grossackva at
Yahoo dot com.
This article is the sole property
of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission. The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is
illegal, and will be
prosecuted at the discretion of the
Fiction Fix Home Page
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
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.