The architecture of a novel isn't the same as plot. It's the pieces large and small that make up a whole that's subtlety perceived and appreciated by your own individual tastes. Not a sensory perception so much as an aesthetic one. Weightless, shimmering in and out of your mind and feeling, it makes an impression, like intuition or instinct—maybe even clairvoyance.  Plot is one of the constituents of architecture: the intermeshed chains of cause and effect that carry you along toward a known or unknown destination. It's a function of time and space, movement and location, but that's not what it really is: the opposite of real life, our lives. The lives of others. The lives we would prefer to be living, or hate to be living but still being able to know and feel what it’s like. 


Another constituent is the dramatic arc that emerges from the interaction of the characters, or their interaction with their environment or with themselves—or any possible combination of those. It generally follows the golden rule: an appealing character struggles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal. But it doesn’t have to be, and when it’s it breaks the rule, that’s when it’s most interesting, most revealing. Finally there are thematic and metaphoric elements modulating below the surface: repeating and shape-shifting patterns of images and interactions, ghostly presences that imply a deeper, vaster world than the one where the characters live

Schematized, this is River Run:

It has all the charm of a spreadsheet. It’s only important because it’s the solid armature upon which everything else is supported. The fatal mistake James Joyce made with Ulysses was putting the spreadsheet front and center. Multiple strata of subtext, complexities metastasizing until, when he got to Finnegans Wake, the great snake ends up gnawing on its own tail. The same mistake Margaret Atwood made with The Blind Assassin, stories nested in stories, everything circumscribed by a scheme. And yet these are books in every other regard are brilliantly written. In contrast there is cunning design in Nabokov's Lolita, but only if you want to go looking for it. And deep inhering design in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that is invisible to all but its scholarly readers.


Alternatively, there is the near or total absence of design. The meanderings of On the Road—the author in search of his story. Or the anecdotal looseness of The Sun Also Rises, like a ring too big for the bride's finger. The less said the better about these, and other books, that are highly regarded but make many others wonder why.

Author's Workbook