Structure and Function

Structure and Function

 by Jonathan Hayes


A song’s structure is readily apparent in minutes, unlike, say, that of a movie or a book, where it slowly heaves into view over the course of hours or even days. Pop songs are almost instantly comprehensible because of their repeating structures: intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/instrumental break/verse/chorus/outro. 

With music, though, the immediate legibility that makes the songs accessible can also make them facile and disposable – what I like about most of the music I love is that each time I listen to it, I hear something new there. Indeed, I might not like it much at all the first time I hear it. Really well made pop music – U2, say, or the Beatles, or the Beach Boys – keeps rewarding the listener, but most has a pretty short expiration date. And that’s okay: one of the things I like about pop is that it is definitively of its era, sometimes going so far as to define that era.

I listen to a lot of music – indeed, I got my start as a professional writer by writing a montly music column – and can usually find something to enjoy in everything, but most of what I listen to generally falls under the rubric of alternative or indie rock (with a healthy dose of everything else, particularly electronic music, dance music and modern classical music). I posted my five favourite songs of 2010 on my blog; for me the clear #1 was “Helicopter”, by the Athens, Georgia band Deerhunter:

Now I grew up in a classical music family; at some point I pretty much stopped listening to lyrics, because I tend tend to find them both similar and facile. I listen for melody, but  even more for texture and timbre, and I thought “Helicopter” was just magnificent – that point at the 0:31 second mark when the song suddenly opens into an infinite ocean of space and possibility just blows me away. How is it possible for something to be so exquisite?

For all its radiant beauty, “Helicopter” is lyrically a grim thing. The song is inspired by (or inspired, I’m not sure of the order) a narrative by the transgressive (do we still use that word? is it still possible to transgress in 2011?) writer Dennis Cooper about a 14 year old boy who becomes a male prostitute in Russia; for a while he’s feted and sought after, but eventually his moment passes, and he’s routinely abused and raped. Finally, an embarrassment to the powerful men who once desired him, he’s taken by helicopter over a remote forest in northern Russia and thrown out. (This is probably one of the reasons I don’t listen to lyrics much.)

I love all four of Deerhunter’s albums, and their various singles, and collect their cover versions of other artists’ songs – I’ve not been as excited about a band in years. But I saw them live for the first time last night, and they were astonishing. Their songs share my obsession with texture and sound colour – they tend to the psychedelic, a post-Phil Spector wall of sound, welling chords from the two guitars meshing into thick waves of melody and noise, digitally processed, shaped and augmented. Their song structures are generally fairly classical, but they often smear the verses into the choruses, and use odd time signatures and unexpected tempo changes.

When they play live, they rework the song structures aggressively. A somewhat trite pop song turns into punk thrash, the singer’s voice drowned out by fast, grinding guitars. And the fast songs get split wide open, the instrumental breaks stretching out to swallow the last verses. For me, the highlight was a transcendent moment when they snapped the spine of “Nothing Ever Happened” open into an roaring two-guitar symphony, and then laid Patti Smith’s “Horses” on top. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and, when the song coalesced again and its original structure reemerged, I had tears in my eyes.


(I’m grinning now because I know that if you watched that entire video, some of you might have tears in your eyes of a different sort, but trust me: it was transcendent last night!)



I really admired their willingness and ability to play with time-tested structure; it’s not something genre writers in particular often do. Part of the stricture of genre is that there are certain conventions of the form that must be satisfied for the story even to qualify as belonging to a particular genre. Indeed, before we even reach the level of genre, the vast majority of stories hew to a classic three act structure, breezily summarized as “get your characters up a tree, throw some rocks at them, then get them back down”.

The problem is that stories, and genre stories in particular, have a certain narrative sameness. And the corollary of that is that, for the experienced reader, these similarities make books blur together, make them predictable. Similarly, I think most of us have gone to the movies, and found that what we’ve just seen was decent, but pretty much the same as the last 20 films we’d seen.

What this sometimes leads to is “forced twists” – events inorganic to the story, placed by the author just to cobble up a little surprise. Personally, I hate it when the killer turns out to be – gasp! –  the detective’s brother or what have you. In Precious Blood, I quite deliberately set out to write a forensic thriller with a direct linear narrative, a serial killer story where the case progressed as cases have always progressed in the hundreds of murders I’ve worked on: methodical police work, a little intuition, a little luck, eventually the different elements coming together like ice floes to form solid footing. (A note: I’ve never worked a case where the killer turned out to be the lead detective’s brother. Not that it couldn’t happen, but you’re going to have to work pretty damn hard to convince me.) For most readers, Precious Blood worked as a strong, unusually vivid procedural, but some felt it needed more twists.

I’d chosen a serial killer story for my first novel not just because the story came to me cut almost in whole cloth, but also because the serial murderer brings his own instant ticking clock, allowing me to focus on the mechanics of character and scene and dialogue. With A Hard Death, the sequel, I expanded the number of characters and points of view, and rather than having one protagonist and one antagonist locked in life-or-death pursuit and combat, I put Jenner in a town seething with bad people. I think of A Hard Death as following in a noir tradition; Jenner finds himself in a world of festering moral decay, and while he is ultimately infected by this amorality, he’s not consumed by it (which would be the true noir outcome). 

Precious Blood, since it gave me a way of dealing abstractly and somewhat discreetly with some of my post-9/11 experiences, is a deeply personal book, and I love it, but I think that A Hard Death is the stronger of the two, at least at the narrative level, and readers seem to agree. I don’t think it’s simply because of the increased complexity of the story, and the broader vista of its setting; I think that with each book you write, you understand the mechanics of story better. At least, I damn well hope so.

At the end of the day, genre fiction is a bit like reggae: there may be certain formal criteria for making a song a “reggae song”, but within that rubric, there’s a huge range of possibilities, from the stadium pop of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” to the drek pop of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” to Burning Spear’s mesmerizing “Marcus Garvey” and its dub version, “The Ghost”. There is life even in the most familiar formula, and it’s up to the writer to tap that; the art of genre is to transcend its formal limitations.



And of course there’s plenty of room to mess with the structure of a story/novel – I’m just not well-read enough to know who’s doing it well in crime fiction. In, uh, “literary” fiction, three books I have loved did just that:

Georges Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual bases its narrative structure on a physical structure – an apartment building – with each chapter built around the inhabitants of a particular unit, the stories gradually interlocking to become a woven narrative (Perec is also famous for A Void, a book written entirely without the letter E; I think the more astonishing achievement was that of Perec’s translator, who took the French original, Un Nul, and converted it into similarly E-less English.)


Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad dedicates different chapters to different points of view, each chapter taking place at a different time and place; over the course of the book, recurring characters (not always immediately identifiable from their previous appearances) help the reader construct the core narrative. It’s a beautifully written book, and one of its most beautifully written chapters takes the form of a Powerpoint presentation.


David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest I liked more than loved, in part because DFW insists on punctuating his narrative with voluminous foot notes; the print book is over a thousand pages long (at least, it feels like it), and flipping back and forth is a royal pain in the ass. If you’re going to read this book, for crying out loud, read it on an eReader! 

I’m sure there are some really strong crime fiction authors using unusual structure in their work. Anyone care to recommend something a bit different, and help me out of the shadow of my ignorance?








16 thoughts on “Structure and Function

  1. Pari Noskin

    Jonathan, I don't have an answer for you on the unusual structure, but wanted to thank you for turning me on to Deerhunter. What a wonderful early morning gift (though I'm not sure what my mood is going to be like after listening to those lyrics . . . )

  2. Alafair Burke

    I'm not very good at recalling books for anything other than character and story, but I happen to have heard Laura Lippman talking yestserday about experiments with structure in her new book, The Most Dangerous Thing, which I'm just starting. She's great.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Your vast knowledge of everything knowable continues to astound me, Jonathan.
    Not many people really listen to music the way you listen to music. You listen to music the way a musician does, which is the way an author reads a book. You appreciate every nuance and musical reference. It's wonderful to read your writing on the subject.
    I'd take a look at Katie Arnoldi's "Point Dume" for interesting structure. Her characters are outstanding and they each share chapters. Each voice is entirely unique.
    At the moment I'm really comfortable writing in third person, close. I'm branching out a little in my current novel, writing third person close for two different characters. I wrote the first one hundred pages as first person, present tense, then rewrote it all as third just to torture myself.
    Someday I hope to mix things up a bit more.
    By the way, Arnoldi's "Chemical Pink" is also a fabulous read.

  4. David Corbett


    You touch on this just as I'm beginning the structure portion of the book I'm writing on character, so it's almost annoyingly, agonizingly apt.

    Genre is more ambitious structure-wise in film than fiction, I believe. Tarantino is the king is the disjunctive narrative, obviously, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarrítu has done similar things with AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS, which aren't crime films per se but have a distinct crime element.

    The Argentinian film THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES, which has a clear crime element, melds past and present into a single narrative through-line brilliantly, and it stars one of my favorite actors in the world right now, Ricardo Darin. (EL AURA and NINE QUEENS, both great.)

    Another crime-touched film (a very minor touch) with an intriguing structural conceit is THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES (Why the eyes thing again? Who knows.) The movie's structure fascinated me so much I'm currently reading the book, by Laura Kasischke, which is lovely but could use a few fewer exclamation points!!!

    I'm at a loss to provide the titles of any crime books that mess with narrative. This seems like an incredible hole — either in my knowledge or the genre. But when you mess with narrative the overall effect is one of emphasizing theme, not action, and this seems to violate some holy principle in genre. Sad, really.

    BTW: I agree wholeheartedly that the trick is to bring life to old conventions and structures, and I think the musical analogy is apt. Check out this performance — there aren't even any chord changes, but you tell me if this is just another ho-hum blues tune:

    BTW: I saw a killer concert last night as well, though it was jazz. Ninety Miles, a Cuban-inflected project featuring David Sanchez, Stefon Harris and Christian Scott came to town, and blew me away. The drummer and percussionist just cut up the rhythm masterfully, all the soloists were stunning, and the ensemble gelled in beautiful, subtle, mesmerizing ways.

    Here's a clip of a concert they did (sound sucks, sorry):

    Here's a better sound version, but without the live energy and visuals of a live performance, for the set's concluding tune, BLACK ACTION FIGURE:

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I was thinking about your question and it's a good one, but I realize that I don't seek out unconventional structure in novels, I'd rather see conventional structure done brilliantly and with lots of archetypes.

    I guess I saw – and did – so much avant garde theater in college it gave me a deep appreciation of conventional structure.

  6. Allison Davis

    Arg, I just realized I missed the one concert I wanted to see (David, you'll have to tell me all about it…had it up on the wall to remind me and I didn't get there)…I just finished reading Michael Ondaatje's book Coming Through Slaughter — he wrote it a while ago about Buddy Bolden in turn of the century New Orleans. He is one of my favorite writers — and it reads as if he's blindfolded you and you have to experience through your other senses, smell, touch, hearing…incredibly sensual book. While it's not crime fiction, crime fiction could be written that way, might be somewhat horrific actually.

  7. Reine

    God . . . magnificent Deerhunter. I must return to listening to music.

    As a reader, I seek things other than structure to enjoy. However, if the structure totally sucks – meaning if I hate it and nothing more, I stop reading. Structure gone wild can be brilliant or incomprehensible, so I look for story with insight. As soon as I feel manipulated by the writer, I stop reading. I want the story to last and to hold me all the way through, giving me pieces and parts as we go along. If I become aware that there is an endless windup waiting for me, I stop reading. . . . my pitiful contribution to this amazing – stunning – discussion.

  8. Jonathan Hayes

    WTF? I thought this thing notified you when there were comments! I guess you have to post first.

    OK, sorry for the non-responsiveness!

    Pari: glad you liked the Deerhunter cuts. If you're interested in hearing more, I'd recommend the HALCYON DIGEST album as their most polished and accessible. All of the four available albums have a lot to recommend them, and the FLUORESCENT GRAY EP is fantastic. Their first album, TURN IT UP, FAGGOT (a heckle from the audience at an early show, the joke being that the band played very loud), is unavailable through traditional channels, plus the band apparently hates it.

    AB: I went on a splurge a couple weeks back, determined to catch up a little on authors I didn't know. I bought a L. Lippman book, but I don't think it was the current one – let me know how it is.

    Stephen: I'll certainly pick up POINT DUME, if just for the title. Indeed, I like both of her titles, which is a good sign. I'm one of those people who knows a little bit about a fairly wide variety of things; I'm always telling myself, when I find the time, I'm going to go back and learn more about the rules of baccarat or how samurai sword handles are made. Ultimately, I always feel like I should be somewhere, learning something.

    One thing I DON'T know that much about is writing jargon – what do you mean by "third person close"? A narrator whose perspective is close to that of the character in the passage?

    David Corbett: Thanks for reminding me to rent THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES! It's one of the many things I forgot I'd been meaning to do.

    I think that one of the hallmarks of sophistication of a consumer of any particular art is a nuanced understanding of genre. I listened to the Howling Wolf song, and I liked it, but I don't think I have the background and listening chops to let me really get all that it has to offer. I guess music appreciation can be a bit like mining – I listen to things repeatedly, first in a holistic way, then in a more atomizing, fragmenting way, until I feel I really understand what's going on. A bit like, uh, THE WASTELAND, I suppose. Anyway, blues is a music form I should be learning about somewhere.

    Jazz too. For me, jazz has a tradition of virtuoso performance that really gets in the way of the music – but that's just me, I know. I mean, everyone's playing really well, grooving, playing every single note they can, hitting every single drumhead, wood block, cymbal and clave they can, and they're all doing it at all the same time. It can be like a circle of people jumping up and down on tubes of different-coloured toothpaste to see what pattern they'll squirt into the middle.

    Alex, it'll come as no surprise to you that I adore the work of Robert Wilson – I've murdered whole days watching his five hour- plus theater pieces. He was one of my heroes, until I interviewed him. <tm Never meet your heroes>. I prefer modern dance to ballet – I just finished a two day series of photographs of Pina Bausch's work with Tanztheatr Wuppertal on my tumblr (the always delightful ).

    Allison: that Ondaatje book sounds right up my alley. I make a deliberate effort to describe smells – they're so easy to describe as just what they are (roses smell like… roses). In my Paris apartment, by my desk, I have a card on the wall (this is kind of embarrassing, because there's no way it can't be misread) that says "what does it smell like?", you know, to remind me.

    Reine: The only negative review I got for PRECIOUS BLOOD was from a web critic, who HATED it, just HATED it. She accused me of being manipulative – because she was unable to put the book down for the last 90 pages! I took that as a compliment, but I assume you're talking about not liking being manipulated when you can see the strings.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Jonathan – didn't you do some kind of olfactory course recently? I think it was JT who said an author friend of hers had worked on developing his olfactory "pallet," so to speak, and I didn't know if that was you. I'd love to learn about this. I have a pretty sensitive sense of smell (See Author Photo, Exhibit #1, Nose) and I often challenge myself to identify different scents I encounter.

  10. Reine

    Heh, yeah Jonathan. Should have been more specific, I guess. I hate when I know I'm being directed this way and that, so I will think there is more of a mystery or feel more suspense. Worse is the knowing I'm being misled just to keep me from figuring things out. When those things appear to be inserted and not really part of the story . . . I hate that. I don't try to figure out what happened or who did it. I just like a good story, and I'm happy to let the writer reveal the "stuff" (since you don't do jargon) through the telling.

  11. JT Ellison

    I really love the books that mess with structure. I think Audrey Niffenegger's THETIME TRAVELER'S WIFE is a really blatant example that works very, very well GOON SQUAD is on my list for next week. DAVID MITCHELL'S Cloud Atlas does a nice job of playing with the time continuum and structure. I have to admit, I'm working on something now that has some of that as well, so I'm partial right now : ) I don't think it has to be genre or literary to be well done and fun to read.

  12. Jonathan Hayes

    Stephen: Yes, particularly when I was a food writer, I worked a lot on trying to develop my nose – mainly because I was worried that I was stinting on scent in favour of flavour. I collect essential oils, and have taken perfumery classes, but I'm not very good at blending, and, in truth, I'm not crazy about perfume – I like the scent, and the analysis of the scent, and the rippling emotional/nostalgic connections of the different aromatic elements, and I appreciate the artist, but at the end of the day, I find the final effect artificial. I like the way women's bodies smell – even if some of that is perfume lingering from the morning.

    Yeahhhhhh… that's sounding a little macabre. But I really like how people smell. And sometimes perfume feels unnecessary and excessive, like every scented candle ever created.

    If you don't go into it knowing that she's fucking with the structure, GOON SQUAD is a little bit disorienting at the beginning. I'll be interested to see how you like it, JT – I find it hard to believe you wouldn't. But of course I'd find it hard to believe that ANYONE wouldn't! Is THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, you know, kind of for chicks? Because I can't help but notice that the title isn't THE FUCKING STUDLY TIME TRAVELER WHO BEATS THE CRAP OUT OF OTHER DUDES. What's CLOUD ATLAS – I've heard the name, but know nothing about it.

    Yours in ignorance,


  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Let me know what you think about Katie Arnoldi's books, Jonathan. She's a good friend of mine – I met her after reading her work.

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