In response to an earlier series, Cynthia wrote, ‘How do you know what structure to use for a particular story? Do you ‘see’ it before you even begin writing? Or does it start to take shape with subsequent drafts?’
Great questions! Sometimes writers structure their stories intuitively, following their instincts. The multiple point of view structure for my novel, In Leah’s Wake, happened this way. As I wrote, the multiple points of view emerged without my giving it thought.
Given the endless possibilities, how do you choose the best structure for a particular story?
First, consider your purpose. What is your story about? What is the central conflict? What is your theme? What do you hope to get across to your readers? Sometimes, structure is dictated by genre or plot. Mysteries, for example, usually begin with an event caused by an unknown entity – a murder perhaps. Following a series of clues, the protagonist figures out the identity of the person or thing that caused the event.
Romance plots usually begin with a single or newly single protagonist. By chance our heroine meets the man of her dreams. The problem is, he either doesn’t like or isn’t attracted to her or he’s already in a relationship. A cat and mouse chase ensues, with a series of complications keeping them apart, until finally they end up together.
Structure can also be used to develop or reinforce theme. Tim O’Brien uses a list of as the structural device in his masterful war story ‘The Things They Carried’:
Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twenty pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism.
The men also carried ‘grief, terror, love, longing’. . . and ‘cowardice.’ In the end, it’s not the physical weight of the things they carried, or ‘humped,’ that weighed them down; it’s the emotional weight, the burden of war. The reader feels this as the list grows.
5 sure-fire ways to structure a story, and how and why writers use them
This is the classic story structure. The story begins in action, with some sort of conflict. We’re given context – in other words, the background information readers need in order to understand the story or characters – and then the conflict is developed, played out and resolved, in chronological order – moving from A to B to C – and the story ends.
Because we’re accustomed to hearing or reading stories told in chronological order, this is the easiest structure to use: no complicated trick or sleight of hand involved. For this reason, emerging writers often have the most success with linear structure.
Complicated plots, because their storyline can be hard to follow, are also well served by linear structures.
Chronological structures generally follow from beginning to end, but they may also work backward, from end to beginning. This structure works well for stories whose central conflict, or driving force, involves figuring out a cause – the protagonist finds herself in jail on a Saturday morning, no idea how she got there. The story begins at the jailhouse and moves backward as she slowly figures out the events leading up to that morning.
In this variation of the linear structure, the story begins with narrative or description. The haunting masterpiece ‘The Father’s Story,’ by Andre Dubus, begins with the narrator, Luke Ripley, stating his name. Ripley, a divorced father of three sons and a daughter, lives alone and runs a riding stable in northeastern Massachusetts. Luke’s wife left with their kids ten years before. A solitary man, a Catholic, he attends daily Mass and is close friends with the pastor of his church. This information precedes the events of the story, an accident involving Ripley’s daughter.
In ‘The Father’s Story,’ as in many classic tales, character is destiny. Knowing who Ripley is, having this insight into his character, helps us to understand what drives him to act, later in the story. Had Dubus inserted these details as the story unfolded, they’d have gotten in the way of the action, and decreased the narrative tension. This structure requires a deft hand. The details or description have to be interesting, and have enough tension to hold the reader’s attention until the actual story begins.
The framed story begins and ends in the same place, with the frame setting the stage for the story about to unfold. Writers often use this structure for stories told by an emotionally invested narrator, raising questions in the reader’s mind about the narrator’s reliability and perceptions.
Example: a story begins with an old woman rocking in a chair on her front porch. The town she lives in has changed, and her friends have all passed away. She sees a hearse across the street, coming for a gentleman ten years her junior. As she’s watching the stretcher being carried into the house, the scene fades and we’re brought back to the day she and her husband and small children moved into the neighborhood. When the story ends, we return to the front porch, where she’s still rocking, watching the hearse drive away.
The old woman’s emotional response to the hearse calls to mind the story of her past. Without the frame, the same story would have to set in the past and told by an omniscient narrator or from the point of view of the protagonist as a young woman. In other words, we’d experience the story from the perspective of the woman as an actor in the story, rather than as a reflection colored by the sight of the hearse.
Writers also use frames for stories narrated by an external character, or a character uninvolved or only marginally involved in the events that take place in the story. In this story, a teenage babysitter tells her young charge a ghost tale. The story begins and ends with the sitter and child in a dark room, huddled together. Here, the frame is used to show the relationship between the babysitter and child. The ghost story, or story within the story – a variation of the framed story – may be metaphorically important, but the theme involves the child’s response to the story the sitter tells. The frame spotlights the change in the relationship between the beginning and the end of the ghost story.
In epistolary stories the events are told through a series of documents. Sometimes, the correspondence between characters creates narrative tension. Let’s say, your story takes place in 1952. Your protagonist, a college freshman, lives at a school five hundred miles from his childhood home. Reading his girlfriend’s daily handwritten letters is the highlight of his day. One day no letter arrives. Panicked, he scribbles a note, and waits eagerly for a response. In the letters, we learn about their relationship.
The characters don’t have to live far apart. This structure would work beautifully in a story about, say, a young working couple on opposite shifts. Their only daily communication is the notes they leave for one another on the breakfast counter. The story, relayed through those notes, reveals something about the relationship.
The documents could also be diaries or journal entries. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ a depressed woman is locked in an upstairs bedroom of the summer home her husband has rented. She keeps a journal, which she must hide from her husband. The journal documents her descent into madness. In this case, the documents portray the workings of daily life, and the tension builds through the events that happen as time passes or as the recorded events progress.
How do you choose the right structure for your stories?