Underneath all good writing is a strong structure. You may not see it, but it’s there.
The word “structure”—to new writers, especially—can sound like a quick way to make something dull. It’s the teacher at school who makes you diagram sentences and create outlines. It’s Dad stepping into his fourteen-year-old’s slumber party to oversee charades. It’s the volleyball coach pointing at you to move somewhere when all you want to do is bean the ball. It’s the lifeguard shouting, “No splashing in the pool!”
Why can’t you just have an idea and write? You can. I constantly urge that there is no bad first draft. Even so, structure exists whether you see it or not. You can feel the structure when you start a compelling piece. If you saw Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception or Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman, or, going back, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might not know what’s going on at first, but you feel you’re in an expert filmmaker and storyteller’s hands. You know you will be rewarded.
The same is true for a great essay you stumble upon or your favorite novels. Nothing is wasted. Every moment is used well. That is thanks to structure.
A strong framework simply allows you to communicate effectively to your reader. It also can make writing easier because you have a path to follow as you write. You may choose to stray off the path; that’s fine, but the structure you create, the path, can help you find your way. It’s worth understanding structure.
Narrative or Not?
Writing as taught in college has two basic approaches: essay form or a narrative form. Both require structure. I’m not about to suggest that there’s only one structure for either approach. Here, I’m focusing on narrative. For whatever writing you do, the trick is to understand your own goal in writing.
If you’re writing stories, fiction or nonfiction, there is no single approach, but I’ll offer mine. Before you start, you need to clarify your aim. Will your story be from a single POV? First person or third? If your story is not from a single POV, is your intention still to have a single protagonist or multiple protagonists?
Maybe your intent it to be experimental and have no protagonist. The more you get away from a single protagonist, the fewer readers you may have, but readership may not be your goal. Once you decide why you’re writing your story and what you want from it, you are likely to find your structure.
In a notebook, on a napkin, on your computer, or somewhere, you might write down what you hope to do. I first got this idea from a book, Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It, subtitled, “Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking.” It’s about what he went through to make his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. Included is his journal that launched him into writing his screenplay. In his first day’s entry, he writes that he wants this film “different from my other work. First of all, the protagonist will be female, a change for me. It will be told through her eyes. I’ve been thinking about some narration. It will have a happy ending.”
The journal goes on for over two hundred pages and covers over a year and a half. I now write a journal for each of my big projects. When I get lost on the way—typical—I can go back to the beginning and remind myself what catapulted me into the project and my hopes for it. If I get stuck in a particular scene, I can go to my notebook and write about why I can't write--and solve my problems.
With the journal, I also create an outline. My outlines are never carved in stone. Rather, when something in a story surprises me, I go back to my outline and see how that affects what’s coming up. I then change my outline. I keep my outlines on the computer, as it’s easier to change that way.
Follow Your Bliss
Mythologist Joseph Campbell spent years of his life gathering, reading, and understanding ancient myths from around the world. He found many commonalities, one of which he called the hero’s journey. He wrote about it in the book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It’s about the structure of myths.
These ancient, often religious, stories spoke certain truths. Today we might call them “lies,” but he saw them as metaphors for how a group of people thought and felt. He shows in the book that stories fulfill an absolute human need. They tell us things and provide a genesis to understanding our world and what it means to be human.
As I’ve pondered the need for story, I’ve come to see the long lines at movie theaters, live theatres, and author readings go beyond the need to be merely entertained. People are there, subconsciously, to get something more, to learn something. We are voracious for clues on how to more than just muddle through life. Good stories help us understand the chaos around us.
What You Bring to It
Another author, Christopher Vogler, applies Campbell’s ideas to how to write in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screen-writers.
Don’t read his book as a simple formula to narrative. If you follow the structure exactly, you will get a predictable and drowsy tale. Rather, it’s a book that shows you that rhythms in stories are much like the four seasons: While certain things always happen, it’s the differences that delight.
Some years ago, I brought Christopher Vogler to speak to my “Writing for a Living” class twice. The last time, in fact, he said he was starting to see that the hero’s journey is all of our journeys. The same structure that applies to myth, in fact, applies to life.
He said to notice that when you travel, such as he did to Spain, something unpredictable is bound to happen. The unpredictable experience is likely to be the “Supreme Ordeal” in myth. It’s the low point of your trip. It is what will become, in future years, the tale that you tell around dinner tables.
On one of his trips, for example, the low point was when he drove onto a beach following the well-worn path of other cars. When he drove slightly off the beaten path, his rented car sank into the sand, and he and his wife were hopelessly stuck.
“Surviving the ordeal becomes the reward,” said Vogler. In Spain, beach-going strangers, curious about a car sunken into the sand, gathered until there were enough people to lift the car out. After that, everyone partied and got to know each other. It became a great time.
In A Joseph Campbell Companion by Diane K. Osbon, Joseph Campbell says, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” He also writes, “In choosing your God, you choose your way of looking at the universe. There are plenty of gods...The God you worship is the God you deserve.”
We like to see truths in action in our stories. As a novelist and playwright, I look for ways to create drama.
While talk of mythic elements such as “refusing the call” (when the protagonist rejects getting involved in a situation at first) in Vogler’s book are interesting, I look at storytelling in another classic way: Stories are about need and conflict. Your protagonist has to have a deep desire, and then people or events stand in the way of that desire.
In Sylvester Stallone's Rocky, for instance, a third-rate boxer wants a chance at the world championship, but a number of things stand in his way, including his own self-esteem. In James Cameron's Titanic, Jack and Rose want to love each other, but so many people, including her fiancé and her mother, impede their desires—as do the events after the ship hits an iceberg. As soon as you give your protagonist a deep need, things start to happen.
George Bernard Shaw, in his time, saw that dramatic conflict meant social conflict, and that stories needed to be “a presentation in parable between Man’s will and his environment.” In his story Pygmalion, which became My Fair Lady, for instance, there was the struggle of nature vs. nurture. Was grace and elegance inherited or learned? “Learned” is the answer, but the hilarious and inspiring struggle between men and women in the course of love seems to be inherited.
If your protagonist has no need, you’re not likely to have a story. If no one or no event stands in his or her way, no stunning tale arises. “I want a chocolate malt; I made one; I am happy,” is not much of a chronicle.
This isn’t all that goes into “story”--more to talk about in the future. A great book for dramatic structure, by the way, is Story, by Robert McKee.
How to See Your Structure
By knowing structure, you know where to focus on a rewrite.
To see your structure, you need to analyze what you have on the page. First, you might go through your story and underline where one scene ends and where the next one starts. (Yes, novels and short stories are in scenes like plays and screenplays, and if you’re not writing in scenes, you may be losing your way easily. I recommend Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book.) Look at every scene and note where turns in the story take place. If a scene doesn’t have a turn, consider getting rid of it. If you burn through many pages before the next turn, then perhaps your pacing needs fixing. Add turns or delete text.
What I’m suggesting is clearly see what each section of your writing does. Analyze it. Even if you use an outline when you write, don’t look at the outline, but look at what ended up on the page.
Now you can play with that outline, crossing out sections you may not need and moving other sections around. If something does not seem clear on the outline, that may be a spot where you have to write more for clarity. In an outline form, you should be able to see where you stray and where you miss.
Don’t misunderstand me: Solid structure does not mean your story will be brilliant—but it is necessary. You might nail your main points, but you may be missing the rich Corinthian leather, the navigation screen, and the seats that heat at the push of a button. You forgot the hot breath on your neck with your lover on the front porch. In other words, the writing still needs to be vivid and active. Structure, though, helps carry readers along and makes them feel they are on a definite journey.
All in all, it’s perfectly okay to write without notes or an outline and see where inspiration takes you—but then it’s a good idea to analyze your structure and improve on it. Launch us on an amazing journey.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.