Form-busting fictions: 5 unconventional narratives

S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst - photo from
Category: Reading

The current edition of our Book Talk podcast centres on a discussion of Close Your Eyes, the award-winning novel by Scottish author Ewan Morrison. One of the great things about the book is its unconventional narrative style; writing in two time periods, Morrison uses the same character’s voice in different ‘persons’. It reminded us that some of our most exciting reading experiences have come from books that challenge the forms and, occasionally, push the boundaries of how books can tell stories. Here are five that blew our minds:


House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

Have you ever had to read a book in the margins, or read through again picking up the red and blue printed words to create an almost-separate narrative? House of Leaves follows a tattoo parlour employee as he seeks out info on the film The Navidson Record, which may or may not exist. Each narrator has a distinctive font style and the novel is told with the words on the page often mirroring the content of the story, with much of the action happening in footnotes, or footnotes within footnotes that reference nonexistent sources. It’s a doozy of a novel that proves that there’s more than one way to read a book. 

Ulysses, James Joyce

While it could be argued Ulysses is simply a day in the life of one man in Dublin, the narrative structure through which it is told is anything but straightforward. With metaphors draped in wordplay, bedecked in experimental style, the free and direct discourse that allows readers to follow different characters’ trains of thought (or lack of) is anything but linear. As the novel progresses from morning to night, we begin with the educated Stephen and end in the wild night-time thoughts of Molly, whose chapter lacks most punctuation and consists of only eight sentences.

253, Geoff Ryman

Originally written as an interactive narrative on a website, 253 was then published in print form and is unique in that each character is introduced in a separate section in a biographical fashion mixed in with the characters’ thoughts. The way the story progresses is by subtle connections in the thoughts of each character. The only place the chronology matters is in the final section of the book. When read online, the characters can be read about through the hyperlinks that connect them or in the order they sit in the carriages of the London Tube carrying them from Embankment to Elephant & Castle.

The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros

This coming of age novel tells the story of Esperanza, who grows up and leaves her Latino neighbourhood in Chicago. It is told through a series of vignettes which are somewhere between a micro story and a poem, but can almost be read as standalone pieces. Somehow the short vignettes work together (some are more easily mixed and matched) to explore how she feels through the year as she ages (we don’t know how old she is) and hits puberty, gets assaulted, and realises that she can never quite totally leave Mango Street and all it means.

S. J.J Abrams and Doug Dorst

This delightful creation (pictured above) from Abrams (the multi-hyphenate creative force behind TV's Lost and the rebooted Star Trek film series) and novelist Doug Dorst is so multi-layered as to be almost overwhelming. It is presented as a library edition of a novel called Ship of Theseus by an author named VM Straka, but upon opening it a reader finds that they are not the first to visit its pages; the book is filled with scribbled notes that form an ongoing conversation between students Eric and Jennifer, who have also filled the book with actual physical objects - postcards, tickets, a cafe napkin - that all build up a parallel story of their developing relationship. Mysteries within mysteries!

These are some that sprang to mind for us - what are your favourite books that revel in unconventional structures or forms? Tell us in the comments below.

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