Note: This post contains numerous spoilers.
Lately I've found myself thinking a lot about story structures, those architectures upon which authors erect their narratives. I'm talking about something a little broader than scene-by-scene plotting and a little finer than the old high-school critical pattern of exposition leading to rising action leading to climax leading to denouement. The latter seems universally applicable and the former specific to every individual work, which means neither really helps much during the difficult work of composition. Are there any mid-altitude setups we can spy out that give us the overall lay of the land while providing enough detail to aid with detailed plot work? I think so. Just look at what C.S. Lewis did with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third installment (at least by publication date) in The Chronicles of Narnia.
A fair amount has happened in Narnia prior to Dawn Treader, but it's not essential to know if you're new to the series. Suffice it to say that a chance encounter with a magical picture draws Edmund and Lucy Pevensie into Narnia, along with their boorish cousin Eustance Clarence Scrubb. You wouldn't exactly call it a pleasant journey. The trio find themselves unceremoniously dunked into a frigid ocean and saved just in the nick of time by a Narnian ship, the titular Dawn Treader. Onboard is King Caspian, who in the current time of peace has pledged to find seven lords exiled during the prior reign of an evil ruler.
You can see the setup right off of the proverbial bat, can't you? The seven lords serve as progressing plot points, each leading to the other as the Dawn Treader races farther out into the unexplored blue. I like to think of it as the Beads on a String structure. That's mostly how Lewis uses it, too. In the Lone Islands, Caspian and crew find a lord who fell in love with a local woman years ago and decided to stay; with his help, they eradicate the local slave trade and setup a loyal Narnian government. On an island entirely shrouded in darkness, they discover another one, only he's bedraggled and half-mad; his warning saves them from a place where dreams -- and nightmares -- come true. Near the world's end, they happen on three at once at the table of Aslan, the lion son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea; they're sunk in a slumber that can only be broken if the crew completes a very specific task. Not all of the encounters end happily. One lord ends up at the bottom of a pool whose waters transform everything they touch into pure gold. Another gets transmuted into a dragon and dies as one. It's a simple structure, one easy to follow.
In fact, it's almost too easy. Had Lewis confined each landing to an encounter with a lord, Dawn Treader would quickly grow dull. Instead, he interspersed the beads of these central episodes with unrelated action. A sea serpent. A tremendous storm. Islanders rendered invisible by a magician. Mysterious, menacing merfolk. What's more, he adds two more plot movers in the form of character motivations, one negative and one positive, one occurring early in the novel and one near its end.
The first comes in the person of Eustace. Peevishly progressive, he allows Lewis to poke lighthearted fun at that philosophy while breaking up the action with an interlude tangentially connected to the seven lords. Only by magically becoming a scaly monster (just as happens to one of the lords) does Eustace's dragonish nature slowly surrender to something a little more -- how should we put it? -- lionhearted. The second appears in the form of a talking mouse named Reepicheep. A prophecy was murmured over him as an infant ("To find all you seek, / There is the utter East"), and those words keep the crew sailing a couple chapters after they find the last lords. The Beads on a String structure may seem easy, but Lewis shows us the need to vary it up a little lest the proceedings become dull.
(Picture: CC 2009 by David Jackmanson)