I didn't think too much about structure before I began writing my novels. I don't mean that I didn't think through the story idea, looking at where it needed to go, and how I could get the reader there. I did that. But "structure", as in how often a type of scene or device appeared in the book, was something I only saw in retrospect. It just happened as I was writing the books.
On the other hand, I did spend time thinking about today's reading audience before I began, and continued to think of my potential audience as I wrote the books. There are so many people today who don't read. And of those who do, most seem to read books that don't challenge them. They're not looking for ideas, they're looking for diversion.
Not only do people not read much, but they have no staying power when they do. I had a friend who used to say that some people possess the "attention span of a flea." Such people are legion today. So how was I going to tell a tale to people who have a tiny attention span and don't like to read?
One obvious answer was to keep all the scenes short. No section in any of my books goes on at length. To address the attention-span issue head-on, I decided to keep moving, to stay with nothing for too long. I adopted a technique of jumping from character to character in my scenes. First a scene about this one, then we visit another character, and so on. It's essentially a method to avoid boredom on the part of readers, and I find the result compelling.
Plus, when it's written like this, readers can easily finish a scene and put the book down for a bit. When they return, it's never to the middle of a scene, where they're flipping backward to remind themselves of what happened. Each time they pick the book up again, a totally fresh scene greets them. It's kind of like watching an "episode".
And because each scene has, I like to think, a magical element to it, the book encourages the reader to absorb the book a scene at a time. I hope people will walk away from each scene with a sense of wonder, and that they'll continue to think about the ideas the scene brought up. Then they can come back when they're ready and read another scene (or two). I suspect this will work well with today's rushed, multi-tasking, attention-limited audiences.
One of my readers, a male, told me, "There was never one page where I was bored." This was a comment about "The Worlds," the first book of the sci-fi trilogy. This is the highest compliment I can be paid by readers. I thought, "It worked!"
In the two sci-fi books, I included a type of section that is not typical in fiction. The sections appear in almost every chapter in the second book, and in every other chapter of the first. Each of these sections provides four vignettes that paint a vivid picture of the strange worlds which a new technology has created. I included the sections as breaks in the story, something to inject a bit of fresh air. Each is a tale that will either surprise the reader or make her smile. I'm told by most of my readers that these were their favorite parts of the books.
In those two books, there is indeed a structure punctuated by the appearance of the vignette sections. I have to admit, however, that they appeared not by design but rather organically. They just grew themselves onto the page because they seemed necessary. For readers to have a global view of the action in the book, they needed to see it all. This device let me show many strange and interesting ideas to readers.
So that was the structure: a friendly, easy-to-read story with the vignette sections to provide a break and some extra goosebumps. Seemed to work. I haven't had any complaints.
One other technique, before closing. In the second sci-fi book, "The Pod, the God and the Planet", I opened each chapter with an excerpt from a book written by one of the characters. He is a trusted journalist and his book is a commentary on the times in which he lived. It broadened my brush, because I could use him to discuss the changes that were happening on the Earth. It even gave me a place to muse about the goings-on, and to speak about what they might mean for humanity in the long run. I think this device worked too.
Again, I didn't plan this structure beforehand. I find these things do indeed happen organically. As I was writing the Pod book, I found I was writing sections that were not part of the story. They were grand overviews of the cultural changes on Earth. I liked them, but how could I use them?
Duh. I realized my main character was a writer who could easily have written these things. So I transformed them into excerpts from "his" book, and that's how these sections came to open every chapter. Hopefully, if I can publish the books in 2011, readers can chime in on how they reacted to these devices.
Beyond that, I vowed to use simple words when they would suffice. I want to include readers, not exclude them. If I can get through to readers, maybe I can open their minds to new ideas. That's the goal, overall. That, and to help people see that the future is worth dreaming about and protecting. We need to understand this in order to manage the world we have today. Without protective action on our part, there will be no future.
So I say: let us dream of the future.