In the last few weeks we’ve been exploring the ways writing is structured. Last week we looked at large-scale structure – the big-aim content defined by log-line or thesis.
This week we’re moving on to how that is done – the detail of how these over-arching ideas are translated into written content, chapter by chapter or – if it is a short piece – paragraph by paragraph.
Like the over-arching structure, the broader content starts with a single sentence or phrase, which we might for convenience call the ‘organising principle’.
This principle tells you what to include when translating that over-arching idea into a longer work – what’s relevant to the thesis or logline, and what isn’t. It also offers ways of organising the argument – or the character arc – or the theme and idea.
Take Bill Bryson’s recent book At Home, which is about domestic lifestyles and how they’ve changed through time. To do that, he takes the reader on a tour of his own house, room by room, exploring its history. The organising principle is the fact that he is doing it room-by-room, in sequence. He doesn’t do it floor by floor, or cover dozens of houses, house by house – he’s doing it room by room, in a single house.
This is very distinctive, and through it Bryson efficiently tells us a much broader story. That combination of content and organising principle is what gives the book its angle – and sets it apart from every other book on housing and lifestyles.
That’s true of fiction, too. Take Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows, for instance. The theme is Grahame’s take on the nature of different classes in his Edwardian-era society – especially the working classes (Rat), the bourgeoise (Mole), and the nobility (Mr Toad). The key logline is Toad’s character arc – ‘Mr Toad, through a series of adventures, is taught by his friends how to be a reformed character.’ However, Grahame’s organising principle is episodic; Toad’s character arc – and the subsidiary arc of Mole – unfolds through a succession of self-contained short stories (actually, I believe, starting life as letters to his son).
So – the ‘logline’ tells you what you are doing. The ‘organising principle’ tells you how to do it. It’s plannable too, and means novellists don’t end up barking up the wrong tree or following dead-end plot lines that fail to advance the story. And non-fiction writers get to achieve what are often elusive in that genre – relevance and angle.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up: the real Moon hoax, translating simultaneous ideas into linear writing; sixty second writing tips – and more. Watch this space.