Wednesday, March 2, 2016

What is Structure?

Notre Dame Cathedral, Bayeux, France

Documentation Center, Nuremberg, Germany

Writing a story is like assembling a building. The two structures pictured above are both made of stone, but they look very different.* They also had different purposes. One was built to worship God and the other was built to worship the Nazis. Similarly, writers can use the same story elements to create vastly different tales.

But both buildings and stories must have a structure if they are to succeed. Without it, buildings will crumble and stories will lose their readers.

Here is Jon Franklin’s explanation of structure. These quotes are from pages 92–93 and 99 of Writing for Story (Plume, 1994).

The most fundamental truth about the cosmos is that big things are composed of little ones. Quarks combine to form intermediate particles; intermediate particles fuse into protons, neutrons and electrons, which become atoms, which snap together into molecules, which combine into rocks and clouds and so on, and so on, and so on, until we have planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, galactic clusters, clusters of clusters, and ultimately the universe.

This is not just a matter of physics. Stones and bricks form buttresses and walls, which enclose rooms and chambers, and so on unto Winchester Cathedral. Likewise atoms make molecules, which compose organelles, which form cells, which become organs, which combine into men and women, who organize themselves into societies. Everywhere you look big things are constructed from littler ones, and those from littler ones yet.

The principle applies equally in what we call the arts. Plays are composed of acts, which, in turn, are conglomerations of scenes. Great symphonies are amalgams of movements, poems are composed of stanzas, and stories are structures of . . . well, that’s what this chapter is about.  

That structure is pivotal to storycraft is obvious, or at least it should be, but if you’ve been steeped in the mysteriousness of art (as most of us have) it’s difficult to think about writing in those terms. They seem too abstract and reductionistic to have any emotional relevance, too alien to have any appeal. So there is a natural tendency to turn away.

Don’t. For it is here, in the coldly logical prefrontal realm of the mind and not the heart, that the secrets of the masters are kept. He who would comprehend stories, no less than he who would understand universes or temples, must first grasp the nature of their component parts.

As we look closely at structures, whether they be physical or artistic, natural or manmade, we soon notice something rather odd and very important. The big things often don’t relate to one another the way the littles ones do.

The forces that allow mortar to stick bricks together, for instance, are different from those that keep arches and flying buttresses stable; the laws of psychology that cement a family are not quite the same as those that solidify nations.

* * *

A story is constructed in this fashion. Clusters of simple images form focuses, which in turn are joined by simple transitions to form larger focuses. Those larger focuses then combine to form still larger focuses that are glued together with increasingly complex transitions that guide the reader through changing times, moods, subjects, and characters.

Ultimately, the focuses combine to form several “major” focuses that compose the principle structural subunits of stories . . .

Or, if you want a shorter explanation, try this definition by James Scott Bell:

Simply put, structure is what assembles the parts of a story in a way that makes them accessible to readers. It is the orderly arrangement of story material for the benefit of the audience. (Plot & Structure, pg. 22, Writers Digest Books, 2004.)

You wouldn’t want to live in a house without supports to hold it up. Readers don’t want stories without structure, either.

So stay tune to this month’s posts about structuring your story.


* The pictures are © 2015 by Kathryn Page Camp. Used by permission.

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