Being told that what you write must have a ‘beginning,’ middle’ and ‘end’ must be the oldest and stalest tip in the book.
Made worse because it’s true. Every written piece needs structure, whether it’s a 300-word blog entry or a 600,000 word magnum opus, fiction or non-fiction. Even lists need an organising principle – giving structure.
But what does that really mean?
Over-arching structure varies depending on what you’re writing. Academic essays must have a ‘tell you three times’ structure – abstract, argument and conclusion. In fiction – let’s say the ‘hero journey’, the beginning is the normal world; the middle the second act, where the hero learns; and the end the third, climactic act. Think Star Wars or Wizard of Oz.
Blog posts or feature articles (same thing, writing-wise) use the inverted pyramid – broad-spectrum grab-line, expository, and punch-out, usually on a specific point.
The trick is being able to express it – to make ‘what’ you are writing fit in with ‘how’ you want the work to be structured.
Let’s say you’re writing a novel and you’ve got a list of cool scenes for your character. Or an idea for non-fiction. What do you do?
First off, set the scenes aside. The first steps in the journey from germ of idea to published work have little to do with the ‘what’ of the content, and a lot to do with the ‘how’.
Start by creating a log-line – the sentence that describes what you are trying to do. In non-fiction or academia it’s called the ‘thesis’ – but it’s functionally the same thing. (Academics call a document with supporting argument a ‘thesis’, but technically it is the sentence defining what they’re trying to argue).
I’ve posted many times before about the importance of having a log-line first as a start point. This is why.
The log line gives you the journey, which means you can plan out ‘how’ you are going to do it. This is the key step. Let’s say your logline reads ‘Downtrodden girl has to find strength in herself to save a kingdom and so make her dreams come true.’
Focus on the emotional side – on the character arc – for example:
1. Beginning. Introduce characters from the POV of the downtrodden girl.
2. Middle. Follow experiences of main character as she begins to grow and realise she can break free, if only she knew how. A challenge is laid down; she so wants to meet it, but is prevented by her oppressive family. She is shown how to break free by a mentor, who helps her achieve what seems to be her dream.
3. End. What appeared to be her dream is not her true dream; but because she has gained new confidence she is able to step out and seize the moment when it comes. Her character arc is complete and the story ends.
Notice how I managed to not mention fairy godmothers, wicked witches, ugly sisters, handsome princes, tin men, lions or wizards in emerald cities. The details of the plot – come later –Wizard of Oz or Cinderella, depending on choice. But that’s the point. At this over-arching structural stage, the ‘scene by scene’ details are less important.
They come later – well, next week, in fact.
Meanwhile – have you had experiences with structure? Do you start with a logline?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013