Unconventional Formats


by Barbara Beckwith

I’ve always been fascinated by novelists who dare to eschew usual first or third person, or other narrative conventions, and still create a satisfying story.

Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, concerning Japanese “picture brides” brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s, is told from the “we” point of view. Remarkably, the novel’s first-person plural narration conveys both the women’s commonality and each individual’s experience.

Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, narrated by the brother of “the Arab” who was killed in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger, uses the second person (you) to convey the anomie the Camus character showed toward the unjustified killing.

Julia Alvarez’s Yo!, revolving around a Dominican-American girl, is narrated by the girl’s sisters, cousins, parents, grandparents, professor, a housemaid, and a stalker, to illuminate the dynamics of gender, class, race and culture


Epistolary formats became popular in the 18th century with novels such as Richardson’s Pamela and Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. My 21st century favorites include Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge of the World, told in a woman’s letters to her husband in Alaska’s wilderness, and Brendan Halpin’s Donorboy, a detective story told in emails and texts.

The quirkiest format: Yannick Murphy’s The Call conveys trauma and revenge, via a veterinarian’s logbook!

Non-fiction writers try non-traditional formats, as well. Joan Wickersham’s memoir, The Suicide Index, explores her father’s death as a book index. “I stumbled upon the “index” format,” says Wickersham. “It was how this particular story had to be told to give it a trajectory of emotion.”

Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends tells an enlightening and empathetic story about Central American children seeking amnesty, by organizing it around 40 questions the children are asked to determine if they will be allowed to stay in the U.S


And in the just-published Dear White Woman: Please Come Home, African American Kimberlee Yolanda Williams writes letters to the white women she thought could be her friend until their biases crushed her hopes.

I look forward to reading more stories structured in ways that offer fresh ways of seeing. If you feel stuck in your writing, try one of these innovative structures — or one of your own making.