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The Structure We Can Not See

It was a fascinating revelation for two little boys. A plastic, see-through model of the human body that my cousin got for his birthday. It was stiff and hairless but glowed inside with blue muscles, purple organs, a white spine, bones, and red blood vessels.

"This is us," my cousin would say, pointing inside the model.

He became a doctor. And it was one of the first things that came to mind when I thought about what to write this month.

What is apparent exists only because of the structure we can not see.

The challenge is this: How to keep an article, story, or book hanging together, threaded expertly, as it bounds through different alleyways, entertaining and informing the whole trip? How best to present the material at hand and come out the other end filled with more value than when you went in?

Are you telling a story? Or are you analyzing an event or series of facts?

The narrative needs some kind of conflict and chronology to keep it structured.

Every writer wants a narrative that, "writes itself," but that is difficult to come by. If it doesn't "write itself," then you need to choose the structure that will carry the piece from beginning to end. The chronology is one such technique, using a dominant theme is another. Raw content needs to be organized by conscious decisions.

Give yourself a head start by thinking about these things as you are collecting the raw material and roughing it in.

In journalism we learn about the inverted pyramid style. We learn about writing ledes, nut grafs, foreshadowing, set-ups, tie-backs and the like. We learn that the raw story is jumbled post-it notes and scribbled copy, and that to successfully execute an article we need to think through and then apply some of these techniques. Where does a transition need to take place? Where is it appropriate to foreshadow something later in the story?

Later on I will suggest two books that bring great understanding on how best to structure a non-fiction article or book. And, as always, there are very useful, informative articles in the resource box. Read them to get the fullest appreciation of structure in non-fiction writing.

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There's no handy formula to apply structure to a specific piece of writing because each story deals with its own complication. And the nature of the complication is going to make demands on the writer in different ways.

Non-fiction narrative, as many observers point out, is changing quite a bit. Most articles, however, still have a lead, a structured narrative as the body, and an ending. And it's still the best practice to take these three elements apart and work on them separately before putting them back together.

Structure is often a mysterious interplay between the words on the page, memory and the internal narrative structure of the reader.

* * * * * * * *

Structure is often a process of asking questions of what you've written. It is reflecting on the piece and asking, "does it makes sense? Why am I doing this? Would this work better?"

The first word a writer writes is not so important. But, the first moment he or she ascertains a structure to a raw work is very important.

The writer has to think through the totality of the writing, beginning to end, and make sure that, at least, she understands what is taking place.

Think of each section of your piece as a zone of concentration passing to successive zones. Each zone is equally notable. The management of this creates story.

Jon Franklin advises to write "active images." That is, the image driven by active verbs so that an emotion is being expressed. I think that is a sound principle.

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The intention of the writer is very important. What are you attempting to do? What do you want the reader to see or feel at the end of the piece? Edgar Allen Poe had a famous formula that structured a story from the "effect" a writer wanted the reader to experience and then working back through the narrative to get that effect.

We know there is an implied intention of "selling the piece," but what effect do you want it to have for the reader?

The great thing about the principles of structure is that it frees the writer, once he's confident, to riff in any number of directions, knowing that ultimately the whole is subject to the structure he chooses for it.

This interplay is one of the more engaging acts in writing.

Just to get a sense of structure one of the best things to do is study an art like painting or music. Study the structure of a favorite tree. Study a bit of cosmology and what keeps a star from imploding. There are all kinds of structures outside the writing world. Study the ones that have meaning for you.

When I was a young writer I found painting, of all places, the best place to "get structure." The surrealists, cubists, abstract expressionists and so on always worked from a plan however chaotic the result.

One last piece of advice. Simply stop writing at some point, after the raw material has been spilled on the paper, and think about what is happening. Who are the actors? What is happening to them and why? What are some of the implications of what is happening? What anecdotes, quotes, or background material can come in to get the piece flowing swiftly for the mind of the reader?

The ability to reflect on a piece that is being built is a good gift to give to yourself.

And done right you end up, not with a plastic, transparent toy but a flesh and blood piece of writing that runs far into the mind of a reader.

<<<<<<<....never regret spending money on good books>>>>>>>>

Last month I mentioned "The Journalist's Craft" to get a writer up and running. The two I recommend now are "Writing For Story" by Jon Franklin and "Follow The Story" by James B. Stewart. Both writers bring a lot of experience to bear on writing non-fiction.

Franklin makes the point that non-fiction has incorporated many of the techniques of fiction. He says this is important because it gives the writer a fertile area of training for larger works, temporarily lost when the literary short story fell from grace. His book is an attempt to synthesize the fiction and non-fictional narrative.

Stewart runs passages from a story he wrote on the Vince Foster suicide that are still haunting. And we know that the life of a piece of writing is measured in dog years.

What both these books emphasize is, "take care to do the good, necessary and difficult work, and the results will follow."

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David Eide
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David Eide
copyright 2000-2005