Over the summer, I read Madison Smartt Bell’s book, Narrative Design, where he discusses and defines “modular” stories, stories that are:
“..organized according to some non-linear principle—and usually without a strict cause-and-effect structure. Modular narratives are organized by juxtapositions rather than by linear continuity” (373).
“[liberating] the writer from linear logic, those chains of cause and effect, strings of dominoes always falling forward. Modular design replaces the domino theory of narrative with other principles which have less to do with motion (the story as process) and more to do with overall shapeliness (the story as a fixed geometric form). The geometry of a modular design, especially one that has been well worked out in advance of composition, will be defining and confining to some degree. But the gain can be more than worth the sacrifice. The very fixity of the substructure can give the writer more latitude to improvise freely around the hidden armature with plot, character, and voice ” (215-216).
My story, Sounds of Dolphins, is a “modular” story that appears in the Fall 2011 issue of Waccamaw (see link below). While I’ve written modular stories before, this is the first story I’ve written with Bell’s terminology in mind. It’s a design that fits stories about marginalizing experiences particularly well and allows the writer to cover a range of issues/themes/topics without adhering to dominant notions of “plot.” Can plot be place itself? I think so. Some of my favorite books, like The House on Mango Street, The Things They Carried, and Winesburg, Ohio, employ modular design around “place.”