John Green's Paper Towns works brilliantly as a mystery, a comedy and a YA coming-of-age story in no small measure due to its strange, ingenious plot structure.
A novel is an unwieldy thing. Its ideas, characters and plot points must be whipped into an attractive shape, or readers will turn away.
A well-structured novel, on the other hand, is a thing of beauty, a pleasure to behold. I consider Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None to be a paragon of plot structure. After an intriguing premise - eight strangers are invited by a mysterious host to a mysterious island home (where they are joined by a butler and his wife, who have not met the host) - the classic mystery really finds its stride when the first bodies fall and a key clue gives the characters and the readers a vision, a shape, of what is to come. This takes the form of a nursery rhyme:
Ten little Indian Boys went out to dine;
This plot device is genius because:
I wonder if John Green took inspiration from And Then There Were None. (If he befriends me, I shall ask him. Hint, hint, Mr. Green.) Regardless, he uses at least four plot devices to give Paper Towns its attractive shape:
When Margo climbs into Quentin's bedroom under a midnight moon, she both establishes herself as an irresistible badass and introduces the book's first plot device. She says:
I have to do eleven things tonight, and at least five of them involve a getaway man.
And immediately our minds make space for eleven acts of late-night high-jinx. We simply must read on.
2. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"
The text-within-a-text technique is tried and true. Readers love texts, so we appreciate the textual equivalent of Russian nesting dolls. In And Then There Were None, Christie embeds an adapted nursery rhyme. In Paper Towns, Green embeds a classic poem that pontificates on the nature of personhood and interconnectedness, both relevant to Paper Towns' primary theme.
Quentin analyzes "Song of Myself" in a few ways. First he focuses on Margo's highlighted passages. Then he seeks the guidance of an English teacher. Then he commits to understanding the poem in whole. This progression is reflective of his character flaw, which he must overcome so that the book's theme is driven home. At first he sees only the highlights of Margo's public persona. Then he seeks guidance from others to understand her better. Then he commits to knowing her as a whole person, no less and no more.
We readers instinctively recognize that Whitman's poem will give shape to the story. It is a key clue to understanding Margo, so its existence implies that the highlighted portions must be pored over, that the poem must be comprehended, before Quentin can find the mysterious missing Margo.
3. Thumbtack holes marking paper towns where Margo might be found.
When Quentin and friends find Osprey, the minimall where Margo seems to have recently escaped to, they spot thumbtack holes in the wall where a map must have hung. The pattern of holes suggests an itinerary or a constellation of clues as to where Margo may have disappeared. Each of the map markers is a potential paper town, a pseudovision, an abandoned subdivision, a place that might have been but never was, a place befitting of a girl who never feels at home no matter where she goes.
Once Q learns of the existence of these thumbtack holes, we know he must determine the names of the places each one marks and then go to each of them. This provides us with another glimpse ahead along the story's road map, and we look forward to moving from point to point, making discoveries along the way.
4. Quentin's hour-by-hour breakdown of the final road trip.
The book's final section is a road trip. Quentin's research suggests that Margo has holed up in the ultimate paper town of Agloe, New York, but that she will be disappearing again in just under 24 hours. The story now amps up with a sense of urgency, a "ticking clock," which is why Q recounts the adventures hour by hour till he and his friends arrive in Agloe. This plot device serves readers in the manner of a countdown. We know each hour is important, and as we near the final hour the anticipation ratchets to a glorious tension.
Also helpful in this section is:
Thankfully, John Green imagined Paper Towns – and made it happen with a strange, ingenious plot structure.
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.