3 foundations to structure your writing

A pile of lumber and bricks is not a house. Neither is a compilation of words a story.

Writers are crafters–they build a structure out of words.

The best writing fits the ideas, themes, characters, impressions of a writer into the perfect container.

How do writers build the right structures for their ideas?

Sorry, there is no easy answer, no formula for this. It’s not as simple as fitting gems into a jewelry box, office supplies into a desk drawer, pills into a pharmacy bottle, or crew, passengers and luggage into an airplane.

Structure in writing is less defined, less tangible than a bento box. Structure often happens on an intuitive level because writing is like life. It’s messy and mysterious. The more you read (and especially when you learn to think about structure while you read), the more likely your intuition will find the right structure for your ideas.

The problem is, the more you read, the more possible structures you’ll discover! Structure can become very complicated, especially when it applies to something like a novel. So let’s start by examining something simpler.

How might you structure a prose poem, a short-short story, a brief essay or a blog post?

Here are three possible foundations for you to build on.:

  • Time:
    • Build a chronological structure by arranging the actions according to what happened first, second third and so on.
    • Or put the events in reverse order.
    • Or start in the middle, insert a flashback, and finish at the conclusion.
    • Or feature a series of short scenes or images to create a montage (a compression of time).
  • Logic, follow either an inductive or a deductive line of thought:
    • Induction moves from the specific to the general. From birch to tree. From Shirley Temple to the notion of a charmed childhood.  From this crime to these suspects to the crime’s solution. We threw the crime scene in to keep you on your toes. Think of it this way: there is a particular crime, there is an examination of particular suspects, then follows the answer to the general question, which is universal to all crimes, “Who done it?”
    • Deduction moves from general to specific. From love to motherhood (which is only one of the many manifestations of a loving relationship) to Mary and Jesus. From hunger to drought to the 1930’s dustbowl to Steinbeck’s Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. 
  • Repetition:
    • One of the simplest structures is to close by repeating an element (an image, a sentence, an emotion) found in your first sentence. The feeling of the piece is circular, reminiscent of a homecoming, and intuitively satisfying.
    • You can also use repetition like a drum beat, repeating a word or a phrase at intervals to create emphasis, drama or rhythm. But be cautious. This requires skill. You could inadvertently become redundant or predictable, and bore your reader.

If you’re struggling with a piece that just isn’t right, try giving it structure. Then see what happens if you completely change the structure. You’ll learn a lot about the shape of your idea.

Is there a structure you find yourself habitually using? Which structure might you try, to firm up your writing?

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4 comments

    1. By design or by habit?

      Flashback is quite useful, but often tricky to integrate in a way that doesn’t disrupt the plot progression.

      I think it works best when the circle around to the past propels you forward in the story, to the next plot-event. Think of cursive handwriting, and making the lower-case letter “e.” A small loop backward while you’re thinking and moving forward to the next letter.

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