Random Musings – Odd Narrative Structures

Before I start this post, I must warn: spoiler alert all through this. If you ever have an interest in reading Phobos: Mayan Fear by Steve Alten, you might want to skip this post. An incredibly interesting book, if very difficult to read too.

So I am working on a review for a science fiction book that came out in  the Fall called Phobos: Mayan Fear by Steve Alten. It is the third book in his Mayan Prophecy series that deals with the prophesized end of world on December 21, 2012 (the first book came out in the series came out in 2001, putting Alten ahead of the curve in terms of the recent fascination with the supposed apocalypse). As noted in my post from a couple weeks ago on my own story, I’ve been really interested in plot structures recently, and this one definitely has a unique one.

See, in Phobos, Alten definitely has crafted a story that has a build, a climax, and a resolution (the traditional structure). But he’s taken that structure, copied it, and jumbled it up. See, in Phobos, the Large Hadron Collider has succeeded in creating a singularity that on December 21, 2012 will consume the Earth. The problem is that as the singularity grows and distorts space-time, Earth phases in and out of existence in different eras, meaning that the different time periods start to blend together, as do some people’s stories.

With this setup, Alten is able to play with the traditional structure, and build his story through telling of the different eras. The main character, Immanuel Gabriel, is tasked by fate to save the Earth from its fate in the Apocalypse), but because of the phasing of the Earth, he shares a conscious mind with the old Mayan Prophet, Chilam Balam. So the story bounces back and forth between the two character to give us all the details we need to follow Immanuel’s story.

Sounds fairly simple so far, right? Well, what if I were to tell you that Immanuel is born after the Apocalypse he’s supposed to be saving the Earth from? As the Earth phases in and out of existence, it actually bypasses the Apocalypse date for a while (aren’t we lucky?), so we add in the element of time travel to jumble up the story that much more. Immanuel experiences the Apocalypse, but is thrown back into the past (the 1990s) so that he can commence acting upon what he learned in the 2040s (to save the world from its end in 2012, if you need reminding).

So this adds our next level of complexity. The mid-point of the book actually features what is seemingly the climax of the story: Earth’s destruction (along with Immanuel’s confrontation with the devil-incarnate, which I’m not even going to touch in this post). But it’s not the climax. It’s almost like two stories in one: build to climax, which results in protagonist’s failure; he gets a second try, so build to climax where he succeeds. Failure is usually part of the Hero’s Journey, as it gives the Hero a heavy psychological hurdle s/he has to get over to continue to success, but it isn’t often that the Hero fails so miserably. Immanuel does, so Alten gives him a do-over.

So we have these dueling characters (Bilam and Immanuel) dealing with these dueling stories (post-Apocalypse and pre-Apocalypse). There is a lot of bouncing back and forth. But Alten wasn’t done there. In order to give us more background information to clue us in to the science (some imagined, some of it very real) behind this story, there are interjections between the chapters that full of science articles, journal entries, and depositions given by witnesses to extraterrestrial events.

The journal entries are mostly by an archeologist named Julius Gabriel (Immanuel’s grandfather) who is studying the impending Apocalypse, fully convinced the Mayans were right. Over time, these journal entries collectively give us another narrative into the life of Julius as he uncovers more truths (corroborated later as he shows up when Immanuel goes to the past).

That’s three stories (or four, if you count pre- and post-Apocalypse as two stories) we have to keep track of. The other articles and depositions collectively paint a picture of the world as a whole, so that could be counted as a fourth/fifth. That is a lot of stories to deal with, particularly as Alten gives them to us seemingly haphazardly.

But somehow it seems to come together well. I spent most of the first half with my head spinning, but it came together when Immanuel goes to the past and starts filling in the gaps. I may still not understand all of the science that is in it, but we have a complete picture (which is what matters).

This book is just another example that points to being willing to play with your narrative structures. A standard build, followed by a climax and resolution might work for most stories. But sometimes, seeing the sorts of things you can do to mix that up and play with it can lead your stories to places that you never thought to go before. As a teacher, I preach the law: build-climax-resolution. As a writer, though, I am learning to not be married to that idea. Keep an open mind to your story structures; you never know where it might lead you.

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