The Writer's Writing Guide: Structure

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Writing is a linear art form. That is, it moves through time. Other linear art forms are film, theater, dance, and music. Nonlinear art forms include painting, sculpture, and photography.

In a linear art form, you need to have some kind of structure that moves us through the piece. In standard rock songs, you have intro, verse, chorus, verse, guitar solo, verse, chorus, resolution. In dance, you have recurring major and minor themes.

Structure is: the way your major units are arranged not only to build up your whole, but also to unify it.

I use a vague term like "major units" because unit can be defined in many ways. In the case of music, it can be defined as kinds of passages — chorus, verse, etc. being kinds of passages. In dance, units can probably be defined as kinds of movements — maybe a series of pirouettes are followed by mere hand gestures followed by a series of lunges, and then you're back to the pirouettes.

In writing, your major units tend to be defined by one or more of the following:

1. Time — different times

2. Point of view — different povs

3. Location — different settings

4. Tone — different tones (humorous, touching, pedantic, etc.)

5. Theme — different themes, or one theme examined with increasingly insight

Usually when we speak of structure in writing, we are referring to the way time has arranged the parts of the piece. (This could be chapters, sections between space breaks — whatever.) I'll get to a few examples in a minute. But first, a few things to remember about structure. And I'm using novels and movies to give you examples, but that's just I figure more of us know these than any individual short story:

1. You can be overt about your structure — like separating out your point of view by space breaks, or even headings — "Mary Speaks," "Jack's Turn." Or you can be more subtle, so that most readers won't see the structure without thinking hard about it. Neither way is intrinsically better, though I tend to think that more overt structures make the reader's job easier. The Joy Luck Club is structured into 4 parts, each part containing 4 chapters, with each chapter the story of a different character. The author Amy Tan made the structure overt through identifying each chapter, and each of the four parts, in her table of contents, and also by subtitling each chapter with the name of the teller of each story. Many novels and most short stories are not so overt — they don't begin every section with a description of what it is in relation to the other sections — but most provide the reader with some kind of guidepost. For instance, you can have a story that covers several points of view, but instead of having subtitles for the sections, just make sure the reader is clear right when the section starts that you are now in Jack's pov, rather than Mary's.

2. You can be rhythmic about your structure, or you can be more free-flowing. A rhythmic structure is where you develop a clear pattern that moves you back and forth between two or more elements. This occurs in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, when we jump back and forth between the pov of the killers- and victims-to-be, as they live through the day which will culminate in the murder. Or you can be more erratic. In Louise Erdrich's The Beet Queen, we cover several related characters over a forty-year period. Initially, when we meet a sister and brother, and we first go into her pov and then his, we think that will be the pattern. But then we go into other people's and back to the sister's and other people's, before we get the brother's. Eventually, we realize we are getting every pov several times, but not in any discernable pattern.

3. You can, by having a well-thought-through structure, make a story both more interesting to write, and more interesting to read. Structure can help the reader get a lot of clarity about characters and themes. It can help the reader identify the most important elements in this particular story. And it can help provide forward momentum.

Let's get into some examples. This list is not exhaustive by any means — your structural possibilities are only as limited as your imagination. I won't go into the whole list I had above, because you should see each of the examples below as an example that you could use in any way. For instance, the way someone handles time in one book might be the way you want to handle place in another. I focused on time in my examples since it is the most commonly used basis for structure, and is usually present even with there is another, more noticeable, basis, such as place, or point of view.

Time

1. Straightforward chronological structure. This is the most common way of structuring time. Let's say we have a story about a short-term romance during a woman's senior year of college. A possible structure is to use five sections, the first being their meeting on Valentine's Day, the second their visit to his house on Spring Break, the third their big fight the week before graduation, the fourth her weeping privately just before the graduation ceremony, the fifth the moment she sees him again at their five-year college reunion. This simple, chronological structure is very popular, especially in more mainstream stories and most (but not all) genre fiction. Certainly, fairy tales are told this way, and most romances, and most westerns. Your average TV show is straightforward in its chronology. (Though TV uses the interruption of commercials to impose a 4 part structure for hour-long programs, a 3 part structure for half hour programs.)

2. Chronological movement through time while using more than one time period. Let's say you are writing about the White House in 1996, but you are also including a lot of vital material about a secondary time period, let's say, the White House in 1976. A possible structure is to switch back and forth between the present and the past, with one of the time periods moving forward, and the other complementing it, or also moving forward. If you wanted to be overt, you could cut back and forth with subtitles; if you wanted to be more subtle, you could just open each section with some detail that made us know right off the bat which time we were in. One movie which used the dual time period approach is Fried Green Tomatoes. In that case, the past was our main story, but both past and present stories kept moving forward. (Since it was a movie, the director didn't have to worry much about making the periods overt, because the visuals, such as fashions and the kinds of cars, took care of that.)

3. The periodic or single-but-extended flashback. In the periodic flashback, you won't work up the same kind of rhythm you have in, say, Fried Green Tomatoes, but you will develop a living past. In the single-but-extended flashback, you develop a past only once. In both cases, the success of the structure depends on where you fit the past into the story. Or, as a friend of mine refers to it, how you handle the architecture, or where you put the bubble.

4. The frame. With a frame, you begin the piece in the present, then go back into the past for the bulk of the book and work your way up to the present, which we get right at the end. Edward Scissorhands is like this, beginning with an old lady reading a bedtime story to her grandchild. The bulk of the movie is the story she's telling which, we learn when we return to them at the end, happened to her when she was younger. The book Auntie Mame is also like this. Frame structures work well with many kinds of stories, and especially well with coming-of-age.

5. Anti-chronological. Start in the present and move backwards in time. Martin Amis' Time's Arrow begins with the death of the main character, and works its way backwards through his years as a Nazi in the death camps to his conception. Charles Baxter's First Light begins with the complicated relationship between a brother and sister, and works backwards to when the brother was a kid and his sister was just brought home as a newborn. The movie Memento covers only a few days in the life of its hero, a man who has lost his short-term memory. By moving backwards from the climax of these few days (a murder) to the way they began — with each scene moving forward and ending just before the beginning of the previous scene — the viewer both experiences reality in the same confusing way as the hero, yet also comes to understand what's really going on in a way that the hero never puts together. This seldom used structure is striking and works well when you want your narrative to be about not what happens to the characters as much as why and how they ended up where they are.

6. The set time period. Limit the period of your story from, say, Memorial Day to Labor Day, or the character's first year in the nursing home. The Summer of '42 is a coming of age story about several kids during that summer. By keeping us to the specific time limit, we know a) something must happen during that time, so you can have a strong major story, with several minor ones, b) the kinds of things that happen will have to do with the specific time period (the changes characters have during summer vacation will be different from the changes during the first year in a nursing home), and c) some scenes can exist in isolation to the other scenes without contributing to the major developments. Amarcord is a beautiful example of this, being the story of the people of Fellini's hometown during a one year period; the piece opens with the blossoms of a certain tree blowing off and ending a year later, when the blossoms blow off again. The movie Mary Poppins does the same — we know when she arrives that she'll leave when the wind changes direction, and she does. The necessary character development must happen within that time frame.

Point of View

1. Each unit is a different point of view, none of which repeats. An example is Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury, in which we have four main sections, each of which is a single point of view (and each of which has its own internal structural plan).

2. You can repeat points of view. In the novel A Map of the World, the author Jane Hamilton begins the book with several chapters in one point of view, then begins a new section in another, and eventually gets back to the first.

Extrapolate from these examples (and others you can think of) to develop possibilities for location, tone, and theme (or thematic buildup).

But how do you even start seeing structure?

Structure is rarely summoned by will when you're writing. It generally appears as you're writing and you realize in a flash — aha! — the best way to tell this story is to have one chapter in the mom's point of view, the next in her son's, the next in hers, the next in her uncle's, etc. On rare occasions, you can decide it in advance.

But let's say you are actively writing, and you want to learn more about structure. Let's get you ready for that:

1. To start tuning into your own use of structure, give yourself the exercise of looking at other people's structures. Be disciplined about this, because it will help you enormously. Get a bunch of magazines with stories in them, and read through. (You can also do this with videos of movies or TV shows.) As you read, define the units in the story. If you decide the units are of time (which they usually are), you can mark up the margin with some system of your own choice. For instance, A=The present, B=Earlier that morning, C=Last week. Then use this scheme throughout the story, seeing which time period comes most frequently, which has the emphasis, which moves forward most directly, and which — most importantly — is where our emotional energies lie. Note that most books use more than one kind of unit (though this is rarely the case with short stories). Let's say you're reading through thrillers to see structure. In addition to time, your other major unit might well be point of view, since point of view is very important in many thrillers. So while you'd start by marking both kinds of units, eventually you might focus only on point of view. You can also do this with dance, commercials — any linear art form. Find the units, then how they are arranged.

2. In general, you should simply write without thinking about structure. Structure will most likely come to you along the way, or after you're done, and step back, and try to visualize the piece as a whole. However, sometimes we're too scared to begin without structure. Then, you should think of the larger whole that you want to tell, and see if you can devise some kind of unit, which, when added together, will tell you your story. Here are some examples I know of:

- To My Ex-Husband, by Susan Dundon, is in the form of letters written to an ex-husband. Dundon wanted to cover the period from his leaving to her heroine's remarriage, which was a four-year period. The focus of the book, though, was not on the overall arc of the divorce, but of the small details of the days as the heroine recovers from the divorce. So Susan grouped the letters into 4 parts, each part covering one year. This way she got the advantages of time limitation, along with the letter form, both of which allow for self-contained stories.

- Consider a frame structure. You can use it in terms of time, but also in terms of place. Think of the movie The Wizard of Oz, where the frame is not a different time period, but a different place — Kansas, as opposed to the land of Oz. Or consider a variation on the use of time. The movie Forrest Gump began as if it were a frame — a man sitting on a bench talking about his past — but eventually the story of his past meets up with the story of his present, and then keeps moving on.

- Be multi-dimensional. A friend of mine is trying to write a book that doesn't have a plot. What it does have is a complete picture of her childhood as well as a description of the last year of her father's life, when she was an adult and he was dying in the hospital. She wanted to weave both elements together, but wasn't sure how. I suggested that she structure the book within a year cycle, breaking down the units to holidays, or seasons, and then clustering all the material, both childhood and father, into those units, working back and forth between each. She'll still need some kind of buildup to move us through the overall book, but this way she can organize her thoughts while working with many, many time periods at once. Plus, she can allow some scenes to exist outside of the buildup.

- Let desperation be the mother of your invention. In my first novel, I had to find a way to fit in a story that covered the background of one of the main characters. After complete frustration and then desperation, I broke that story into tiny chapters and inserted them between the larger chapters.

3. Tips on Structure:

- Cutting back and forth between points of view heightens tension. It's also a very cinematic technique, and leads people to visualize the piece quite vividly.

- It always helps, whether you are structuring primarily by time or not, to keep us clearly oriented as to where we are in time. Ideally, make this clear to the reader in the first sentence of each new section. That way, we can keep clear on how close we are to the first events in the story, and how far from the end. Without ensuring that the reader can always tell when one thing happens in relation to another, you might well lose your reader.

- As Charles Baxter once told me: You make the rules, you break the rules. Just because you've set up a certain structural pattern doesn't mean you have to stick with it for the entire piece. Sometimes the jolt we get from falling out of an expected structure is part of the story itself (like in Forrest Gump). Don't let yourself get locked into a corner if changing the structure is what you need to get yourself out.

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