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 coming into his 14-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. A strong framework simply allows you to communicate more effectively. It even makes 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.
Narrative or not?
There are two basic approaches: essay form (factual or argumentative) or a story form (narrative). Both require structure. I’m not about to suggest that there’s only one structure for either approach. There are many. The trick is to understand your own goal in writing. I’ll get to more of this below.
If you’re writing a webpage, your writing needs may be minimal and your design needs could be strong. Your aim may be to get as many people to your pages as possible, and I’ll urge you to work with a good designer.
If you’re trying to get people to do something, such as vote for a certain politician, or to show up at a rally, or to buy products you have, then you may need to write a persuasive or argumentative piece. Those are types of essays.
If you’re writing stories, fiction or nonfiction, there is no single approach either. However, 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 a multiple protagonist? 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.
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.
He was no mere scribe keeping track of interesting tales in Dewey decimal order, but rather he was a journeyman himself, looking for how these ancient, often religious, stories still spoke certain truths. 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 and live theatres 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 Screenwriters.
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 will show you that rhythms in stories are much like the four seasons: While certain things always happen, it’s the differences that delight.
I’d 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 recently 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.
I’ve since discovered another book that follows thoughts on living back into unpublished notes by Joseph Campbell. A Joseph Campbell Companion by Diane K. Osbon explores more deeply how the human history of stories connects to us. Says Campbell, “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 such 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. InTitanic, 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.
There are times, of course, when you need to provide “Just the facts, ma’am.” Although it is somewhat popular these days in English composition classes to consider that everything’s an argument (there’s even a book title by that name), I prefer to look at essays from a variety of approaches. I use a book in my English classes called 75 Readings Plus, by Santi Buscemi and Charlotte Smith. It outlines several modes: Exemplification, Description, Narration, Process Analysis, Comparison and Contrast (always popular), Division and Classification, Definition, Cause and Effect Analysis, and Argumentation.
Basic essay form
To be brief: Whatever mode you use still requires the basic essay form. You need an introduction with a clear statement (a thesis statement) that tells the reader what your piece is about. You need a minimum of three points in separate paragraphs that support your thesis, and you need a conclusion. At minimum, your essay should be five paragraphs.
If you were to take a let-it-flow approach to writing, and you dove into an essay, wrote five paragraphs like mad, and then analyzed it, you might find your essay meanders or isn’t as brilliant as you hoped. You might say to yourself, “Something is missing.” What is that “something”?
This is where structure comes in. You might find you don’t have a clear thesis statement, or maybe you only make two points of support, or, even, perhaps you don’t reach any conclusions. By knowing structure, you know where to focus on a rewrite.
Don’t misunderstand me: Structure is not everything—but it is necessary. You might have the thesis statement, the conclusion, and the points, but you’re missing the rich Corinthian leather, the CD stereo, and the seats that heat at the push of a button. Your essay doesn’t take you to the sun, Mars, and back. You forgot the hot breath on your neck in the back seat. 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 OK 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.