Most (western) stories, regardless of genre, tend to follow the same major beats of a hero’s journey. Call to adventure. The road of trials. Twelve stages, three acts. All that. Something about this structure just seems to be our shared DNA. And yet, if you can’t break free from the typical in speculative fiction, where can you do it? I have a penchant for stumbling onto narratives that stray into the highly unusual. Some of these technically have something close to a traditional structure but toy around with it in their motifs; others walk off the three-part structure path altogether. All of them are magnificent in their own, unusual way. Here are five speculative fiction novels that are have unusual structures to their plot arcs:
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
It takes several twists of this novel before the author offers up enough information to understand what is happening in this story. It takes even more twists to grasp a decent amount of the why. At one point it leaves the core cast of point-of-view characters entirely to take on the point of view of a raging tiger (why not!).
After the story’s protagonist completes her traditional hero’s journey, there’s yet another twist — essentially a fourth act to the story that feels like a prolonged afterward, and completely pivots the novel’s significance another, final time. This story is mind-bendy in several ways, but the structure on its own is enough to keep readers enticingly off kilter.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
This book is striking in many ways, but one of the ways that isn’t talked about as much is in its narrative structure (in part, I suspect, because it involves a spoiler I will not delve into here). The novel follows three perspectives, including one that is told in second person, while the others are in third person.
This is one of many ways in which this novel is sure to stretch and challenge its readers that makes it stand out as beyond the norm.
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
I don’t know how this book is the start of a trilogy, because this first novel itself feels like an epic that stretches across lifetimes. I could easily see the three primary settings of this series each being its own full novel, rather than parts of just one. This feels extremely unusual for a modern novel.
The result is a highly rewarding journey that offers an extremely detailed, rich fantasy world, and a feeling that you’ve been weighed down by the journey, evoking a small dose of what Rin herself has suffered on her way from small town orphan to student in training to jaded soldier on the battlefield.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
When I first started this novel, I thought I’d misunderstood what I’d gotten myself into, and it was actually a short story collection. But if you trust enough to keep going (or are mesmerized enough by Morgenstern’s gorgeous prose that your confusion doesn’t matter, as happened to me), the stories start to fold together like a braid.
While the arc does eventually find something akin to a recognizable arc and a protagonist to wind around, it is in fact much more theme and motif than actual plot. Because it’s done so masterfully, it gives the novel a satisfyingly dreamy mood, like you’ve gotten lost in Neverland.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Years before Charles Yu’s National Book Award–winning Interior Chinatown, there was this topsy-turvy, quirky novel brimming with sadness and heart. This novel both breaks some of science fiction’s biggest tropes, while simultaneously celebrating and playing with them from a meta perspective.
It’s hard to exactly describe the experience of reading this novel. When I talk about it to my friends, the best I can do is to say that it tells the story of a time travel machine repairman struggling with the disappearance of this father, and that just as the protagonist lives on the fringes of a science fictional world, so the story itself hovers at the edges of the genre’s tropes and convention, on the outside peering in.