Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It has been ages since I put together a Reading Writer post and since I’m still coming off the high that is my weekly Tuesday morning meeting with my writing partner, I thought I might continue the conversation I’ve been having about structure and extend it a bit to what I’ve been reading lately.


When we talk about the structure of a novel, what exactly does that mean? For me, structure is the place where the author’s fingerprints are most likely to be visible. It’s what gets me asking questions like: Why was this particular scene placed after the last one instead of that scene on page 42? Why did parts of the story need temporal displacement? Why are we given four different points of view, shuffled to each give us a part of the story? And so on and so forth. Structure is about configuring the fictional elements and I enjoy trying to figure out why writers make the choices they do.


Because I read it recently, let’s look at Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. The book is divided into 5 parts, each of which has anywhere from 3 to 6 short chapters. Almost exclusively each chapter encompasses a single scene. I counted and McEwan uses only 22 scenes to structure his entire novel. Of note about these 22 scenes is that they are linear, branching directly forward from the first funeral scene both temporally and thematically. They build on one another, using either an event or a piece of dialogue to propel the story onward. It is an incredibly simple but also nearly airtight structure.


I am quite certain that McEwan did not divide his book into 5 parts by chance. So it follows that we can look at each part as an element of a traditional 5-part drama. And when I compare my notes on what happens in each of Amsterdam’s 5 acts, they follow exactly:


1 – exposition which ends with the “inciting moment”

2 – rising action involving secondary complications

3 – climax or turning point

4 – falling action

5 – conclusion


Amsterdam is a satire and the evilness of its characters quite exaggerated so it makes sense McEwan would have tipped his hat to burlesque theatre. It’s funny, when I first read this book I only liked it, I didn’t love it. But looking at its structure has bumped it up a few notches in my estimation. I love it when that happens.


But now for some nitty-gritty details (and maybe a small spoiler) – because otherwise talking about structure just wouldn’t be that much fun. McEwan does something interesting in terms of structure within two of the sections. The first comes in Part 2, when the story is still developing and when we are in Vernon’s perspective. Part 2 has five chapters and without the last three the entire book would fall apart. Sorry for getting so technical, but I’m going to use numeric indicators to make this easier. In Part 2, Chapter 3 (2 – 3), Vernon receives Clive’s suicide proposal, which he rejects as ridiculous along with the reader. But then something huge happens in 2 – 4 which changes everything so that 2 – 5 sees Vernon not only accepting Clive’s suicide proposal but requesting it be a mutual contract. The nesting of the presumably big event in between two smaller, seemingly benign events is a very cool structural trick with implications on how the ending impacts the reader.


The next interesting bit of structural work comes in Part 3, which has only three chapters. 3 -1 shows Clive on a “morning after”. We don’t know of what, only that he is upset and happily escaping to the Lake District to finish work on his symphony. 3 – 2 then jumps back in time to the “night before” to explain what got Clive so worked up in the first place. This chapter shows Clive and Vernon having a mammoth argument (related to that something huge in 2 – 4), which nearly ends their friendship on the spot. Then, in 3 -3, McEwan jumps back to Clive, now beginning his hike around the Lake District.


This back and forth is the only time the novel breaks with its strictly linear progression and the effect is quite interesting. In 3 – 1, Clive proclaims his friend a villain, in 3 – 2 we see exactly why he might be so but then in 3 – 3, Clive reveals his own spectacular failings. This structural movement is quite balanced, arguably better than a strict linear one which would have whalloped the reader with their fight and then sent Clive off to brood for two chapters. It is an interesting choice for McEwan to have made and it gives those three chapters an undulating emotional texture.


Well, I suppose I have rambled on here long enough and hopefully I haven’t bored too many of you who might not give a pickle for technical issues like this. Admittedly, I’ve picked a book with a structure just begging to be mentioned. I’ll try this again sometime later using a book with a more subtle structural pattern. That will be harder.


6 Responses to “Reading Writer – Amsterdam and structure”

  1. Cliff Burns

    I, personally, prefer McEwan’s early, more macabre efforts but I won’t argue he’s technically a gifted writer. Haven’t given CHESIL BEACH a shot yet but I will.

    Thanks for this…

  2. sadie

    Wow. What a careful and thoughtful look at the structural elements of this novel which, I am sad to say, I haven’t read…actually, I haven’t even gotten around to Atonement (but it’s on my tbr list for September). I’m interested whether Atonement follows the same standard dramatic structure. Perhaps that’s why it made such a good film? (Not that I’ve seen it yet; but that’s the general consensus). I had to scroll back through to see what you are up to in your Reader Writer posts. I certainly look forward to more of them. ~sadie

  3. verbivore

    Cliff – I haven’t read either The Cement Garden or the Comfort of Strangers but am interested to see what I think. I know McEwan first from Atonement and now Amsterdam (minus excerpts from Saturday and On Chesil Beach). I didn’t realize there was such a difference with his earlier work, thanks for pointing that out.

    Dorothy – I agree, I love it when something helps me revisit an earlier opinion.

    Sadie – I can’t remember about Atonement, I read it almost four years ago, but I’ll drag out my copy and see…something tells me it doesn’t, that it has other structural concerns. I’d be interested to see what you think of either novel if you get a chance to read them!

  4. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)

    Technically, I would call that break in the linearity a ‘zone of turbulence’ and they are the absolutely key elements of any structural analysis. You do know this is my area of study, don’t you? I do wish we were nearer and could get together to discuss this in greater detail.

  5. verbivore

    Ann – no, I had no idea and yes what a shame that we live so far away from each other, I’m quite certain the conversation we could have about this (and many other subjects!) would be brilliant and I would learn so much. Any reading suggestions for me?

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