Write it now: part 11, introducing the organising principle

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.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medThis 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.

8 thoughts on “Write it now: part 11, introducing the organising principle

  1. I appreciate how you discuss different types of writing in the same post. Having more training in academic writing than creative work, I sometimes feel lost in translation, moving from one style to the next. It’s not an easy transition on some days, but now that you point out the way the forms connect I can understand what works when it does. Insightful! Thank you.


    1. Glad to be of help. A lot of my own writing devolves from my own academic background, but it seems to me that there are principles that apply across all genres and styles. Ultimately all writing is the same; an effort to take the reader on an emotional journey of some kind – whether informative (non-fiction) or entertainment (fiction) or both.


  2. Reblogged this on Naimeless and commented:
    Such a great piece. It and reading @reloweeda ‘s latest story are what triggered me into writing the organizing bits of a very long story.


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