On Structure

Spoilers for 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

I’m very interested in structure. I don’t necessarily write what people would consider plot-driven novels, but I am conscious of how the story is built, the nuts and bolts of it: which sort of scene happens when, how the order impacts the narrative. I like to think about how changing the shape of a story might change what the story is. The very first article on this website was about playing with the way the scenes are ordered in The Left Hand of Darkness, and how changing its structure might change its impact.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak is an interesting example of how structure can serve the narrative, can change the story being told. The novel starts with the death of the main character, Tequila Leila. She is in a bin, dead, and this is the start of the aftermath. We then work through her life, not in chronological order, revisiting moments of her childhood and teenage years.

I actually found this beginning particularly strong and empowering. Focusing on the victim brings a twist to the trope ‘we found a dead prostitute’s body’ which is very common in crime fiction. Numerous crime novels start with a woman in a bin, or a bag, but the story then focuses on the detective, on the man solving the mystery.

 

This novel doesn’t. It focuses on the woman, sparing very little time for the people who committed the crime, or the people who will – or, most probably, will not – investigate it. That choice, I think, means Elif Shafak gives the story back to the victim. All her novel is then focused on outcasts, on people who do not belong, and how they can take centre stage, reclaim their lives, be heard.

Shafak uses some beautiful language and imagery:

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“Her mother had once told her that childhood was a big, blue wave that lifted you up, carried you forth and, just when you thought it would last forever, vanished from sight. You could neither run after it nor bring it back. But the wave, before it disappeared, left a gift behind – a conch shell on the shore. Inside the seashell were stored all the sounds of childhood.”

The idea of the past as something that we can revisit through taste, sound and memory, is very present throughout the novel. The book, like this conch shell, is something we can bring to our ear to hear whispers of Leila’s life.

Paradoxically, though, the pacing is akin to a mystery or crime novel, in that the reader works toward the moment of Leila’s death, to the question “who is it who killed her?” There is a scene just before her death, in which she chats with one of her clients, which resonates particularly strongly. This is because the shared intimacy of the scene, the empathetic conversation, happens once we’ve realised it’s the night of her death. This doesn’t seem like the person who will kill her, yet we know she will be murdered in the next couple of hours, so we’re hyper-focused on this moment, this quiet before the storm.

Then we get to the murderers, whom we see briefly, and we get answers to our questions. The story doesn’t stop there: there is a long last section where we follow her friends organising her burial. (Which includes digging up bodies, car chases and getting drunk, amongst other things.)

This last section didn’t quite work for me. Although the fact that Leila’s body isn’t discarded after her death is essential to the story, and Shafak did well to include it, I believe it suffered from where it was placed. It was set after the climax, when I’d been most attentive, and so my attention dwindled, as it might during a too-long epilogue. I would have been tempted to move the burial earlier in the book. It could have been its own chunk of narrative, or it would have worked cut into bits and pieces and strewn into the other sections that come before, woven with the strands of backstory. It has elements of absurd comedy, so it would have added a touch of humour to the grim backstories. By the end – by the time we’d found out how she died – we would also have been comforted in knowing her body had been taken care of by her friends, and not left in a mass cemetery.

It is always possible, as writers, to look at what we have and think about moving it around. It is important to know where to start, and where to end, and to be conscious those structural choices deeply impact the narrative.

With 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, it was important to end on a positive note. It’s interesting that we don’t end of something grim, but something hopeful, even though the story starts with the death of our main character, after a tough life marked by grief, rejection, and pain. Still, the end impacts our understanding of the story. If we hadn’t known our main character was going to die, and suddenly had to face that fact, it would have been much harder, much more bitter – paradoxically, because we already knew she would die, it is not so grim when it happens. By then, we’re already focused on something else: justice, friendship, grieving, being remembered. And Shafak ends the book on friendships being strengthened, on people loving and reminiscing as a found family.

Shafak is not the only author to use structure to blunt the sharp edge of a difficult story, either to make it easier for the reader to enjoy, or simply to give out a hopeful message in a desperate world. But I think she does so successfully. The order in which we tell the events shapes the story – where we chose to start, stop, cut and delve into details are powerful tools for writers.

17 Sept. 22