Getting to the heart of the organising principle

Last time I introduced the idea of the organising principle in writing.

It’s what sits behind even the structure of anything you write. It’s the bar against which content is judged – the idea around which the structure is wrapped.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. His organising principle often revolved around using his plays to make political points about the Elizabethan police state he lived in.

Organising principles can be as simple as Winston Churchill’s in his mammoth History of the Second World War – ‘history shall remember me as a great man’. Or as complex as Arthur Miller’s in Death of a Salesman, in which he plots the self-destruction of Willy Loman – a complex, proud family man in the face of his business failure.

Organising principles, then, should be the first thing an author thinks about. But often they’re not. And the question then is how to identify it?

Sometimes the principle is obvious – ‘showing the epic battle between good and evil, on a scale we can all identify with’. From this flows The Lord Of The Rings, where the narrative pivots – by and large – around the hobbits.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t so obvious to the author – and has to be wrung out. Some good questions to ask along these lines include:

1. What fundamental idea am I trying to show in this book? This is very large-scale stuff, for instance ‘what aspect of the human condition am I showing here’?

2. Can I reduce it to a sentence? Don’t confuse this sentence with the ‘logline’, which is  something else – and, incidentally, operates at a higher level.

3. Does the cool idea I had for a scene involving X actually fit in with this principle?

4. Can this fundamental idea or theme be expressed in a narrative sequence at all? For instance, if we are exploring the idea that cowardice, by nature, inevitably leads to bullying, what sort of broad story could be wrapped around that?

Basically what you are trying to do is see what sort of narrative – or non-fiction argument, for that matter – can be wrapped around the basic idea or question you’ve posed.

From there it becomes possible to launch into the higher level exploration of the idea – if fiction, figuring out the characters and how they might express this principle you’ve identified – and from that the narrative plot. Always referring back to that original organising principle as an anchor point for whatever you are trying to say.

Does this work for you? Have you ever thought of using organising principles like this in your work? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science geekery, history, humour and more. Watch this space.


3 thoughts on “Getting to the heart of the organising principle

  1. I start out with a basic theme (organizing principle) for a project that is superficial on the first draft, and then deepens through the subsequent revisions. I admire authors who can weave a theme through their stories seamlessly, an art I haven’t mastered yet. But I’ll keep working at it. What I love about writing is that there is always room for improvement 😉

  2. Interesting article and quite coincidental to come across it now. What you call organising principles I refer to as the theme: the driving force behind the story, character behaviour and overall purpose of the novel. Having just finished the first draft of a novel I’m now analysing it to see if the theme is running through it consistently. I’ll start with the chapter scenarios and situations, then the principle characters and how they embody and are motivated by the theme, which in this novel is loss and searching, the various forms they take and how they drive people’s actions and feelings. Once I’m satisfied the theme is standing up to scrutiny I can move on to checking other elements of the novel such as structure, plot, characterisation, and prepare things for the second draft. But the theme has to be nailed down first. If anyone isn’t sure what their theme or organising principle is I think they should consider the difference between two questions: 1 – what is your novel about? (theme); 2 – what happens in your novel? (story).

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