The Order of Things

Along with syntax, diction, rhythm, meter, grammar, word choice, plot and style, structure is probably the most important thing in your writing.

Think about it. When you take pen and paper in hand and sit down at your desk to write, you already have an idea of what you want to accomplish. You already know the basics, like whether your project will be a short story, a novel, a screenplay, or something else altogether. Or at least, you should know this.

What you don’t know is the fundamental structure of the work – how it’s going to coalesce to keep the reader organized and on target, and interested. You need to have the structure in place long before you start being creative.

The good thing is that there are as many different structural frameworks to choose from as there are ideas in your head, and that there are no hard and fast rules other than that your structure should make sense for the story you are telling, and that it should be consistent throughout your project.

Why is the structure so important? Because if you don’t control the structure you cannot possibly control your creativity.

I recently chatted with a client about the structure of her new novel. I had the first draft of several chapters already in hand – about 29,000 words – but there was something not quite right about the way she was trying to focus on one character who was learning from another. The hierarchy was wrong. The order was off. We talked about it and she summarized precisely what she was going for, so I suggested, ‘why not give them equal time in the first person and let the reader learn directly from them both instead of having one character teach the lessons of the other?’ It occurred to me, you see, that direct was better.

As writers we must think of our characters and the events of their story in terms which give the reader the experiences they are meant to have. Take this tried and true storyline as an example:

  • Boy meets girl
  • Boy and girl face a challenge to their relationship
  • Boy and girl deal with the challenge together – facing it head-on
  • Boy and girl triumph, and live happily ever after.

Great. Fantastic. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. We meet them, they triumph, and we exult in their future happiness.

But a story needs twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. Not since kindergarten have we been content with the linear – and the boring – in our storytelling, and as writers we must absolutely insist on complications – after all, no story is complete without conflict, mistakes, misdirection, and deliberate obfuscation.

But does this change the basic structure? Not at all. It is the elements of complication within the structure which change. Thus:

  • Boy meets girl
  • Parents don’t approve
  • Boy and girl run away
  • Boy and girl get separated, or discover incompatibilities
  • Boy and girl figure out through a process of cleansing and learning that they are in tune with each other despite their problems
  • Boy and girl reunite, face the challenge together
  • Boy and girl tell the parents “I told you so”
  • Parents accept that maybe they were wrong, and
  • Boy and girl live happily ever after.

A structural complication can thus be an external issue, such as an evil competitor or interfering parents, or an internal issue, such as a dirty little secret. Problems are ultimately a source of satisfaction and happiness for the reader. Think of Forrest Gump, or Professor John Nash and what they had to go through.

So can you see the A and the Z? The A is the beginning, the Z the triumph and the living happily ever after. The rest of the alphabet is the story itself.

If you forget everything I’ve said so far, at least remember this: being organized will save you a lot of time over the course of your project. It won’t reduce the amount of creative work you have to do, but it will obviate several of the re-builds that would have resulted from inadequate forethought.

Photo 10-3-2013, 12 59 09 PMSo start with the structure. What is your A, and what is your Z, and how are you going to get your protagonist from one to the other?

Next time, Write what you know.