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.
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.