How to Structure a Story

How to Structure and Use Paragraphs

Story: “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay, published Artifice Magazine and Mixed Fruit

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities.

How to Use a Sequence of Events to Create Structure

Novel: The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God by Owen Egerton, excerpted at Amazon

Put characters in a situation that will be repeated, but each repetition is slightly different. The reader develops an expectation for how a situation will play out. But of course, there is a twist in the final repetition; the sequence goes awry. The success of a story is often determined by how well its sequence goes off the tracks.

How to Scramble the Chronological Order of Events

Novel: Threats by Amelia Gray, excerpted at Newfound

The novel mixes up the order in which information is revealed. Rather than telling us that Franny is dead at the beginning, we’re first shown Franny’s magazines, her height, and the backstory of how she met David. Even her death scene is scrambled. As a result, we’re disoriented. We know we’ve seen this premise before, but it’s so unrecognizable that we’re forced to slow down and pay attention.

How to Structure a Story With Close Description

Story: “The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor, published by Timber

Here is the story: Steve is dead, and the narrator is searching through the items left in his apartment. With each discovered item, the narrator begins to piece together the story of Steve’s death.

How to Use Repetition to Write about the Act of Remembering

Novel: In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell, excerpted at The Good Men Project

“As the passage develops, the narrator must not only confront the darkest memories from his marriage but also see them from every angle. He (and through him, the reader) begins to see fully a life that was lived in the rush of real time and initially recalled only in snapshots. That is the beauty of a strategy of repetition: the character or narrator can’t leave until all has been revealed or confronted.”

How to Let the Story Speak for Itself

Essay: “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance” by Kiese Laymon, published in Gawker

Kiese Laymon’s essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance,” illustrates not only that some stories do not need to be explained but also that some efforts to explain add a layer that can, at times, falsify the story itself. As Laymon writes, “I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don’t want to lie.”

How to Distinguish Fact from Fiction in an Essay

Book: The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez, published by Verso

Some stories have been told so many times that they become a genre with rules: when a particular thing happens, the character reacts a particular way. But what if those rules are wrong? For some stories, it’s not enough to tell the truth. You must also consciously distinguish the facts from the fiction that your readers expect. What hangs in the balance is often the humanity of the people you’re writing about.

How to Begin and End Chapters

Novel: Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson, published by AEC Stellar

Most writers have a sense for how a novel is structured. But what about chapters? We tend to make a few common mistakes, like beginning a chapter with a character waking up and ending it with the character going to bed (or getting knocked unconscious). In other words, the chapter doesn’t know where to begin and when to end, and so as long as the character is awake, the chapter keeps going. Different kinds of novels handle chapters differently, but it’s usually the case that genre novels contain short chapters.

How to Reach Out to Hostile Readers

Essay: “Blues on Wheels” by Jess Stoner, published by The Dallas Morning News

Stoner writes about the systematic abuse that she and other carriers faced at the USPS. She was screamed at and threatened, forced to work off the clock, and required to work as many as 12 days in a row without a day off. When she was bitten by a dog (off-leash, unfenced), her supervisor told her she’d likely be fired—because getting bitten was her fault. All of these abuses are unethical, and some of them are illegal. It would seem reasonable to assume that Stoner could tell these things to anyone and find a sympathetic ear. But that isn’t the case.

Why a Story Should Show Its Dramatic Elements Twice

Story: “Youse” by Nicole Haroutunian, published by The Literarian

When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.

How to Write a Quick-Starting First Paragraph

Story: “Are You Running Away?” by Bess Winter, published at Covered w/ Fur

Literary journals receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions every year. These submissions are read by volunteers—on the weekend, at night, when they could be reading a favorite novel or, who knows, parasailing. Imagine yourself in these volunteers’ shoes, a tall stack of submissions in front of you and an approaching deadline to complete them. As a writer, these are not the ideal conditions for appreciating your carefully crafted manuscript. But this is the world you’re sending your stories into, and so it’s important to consider the audience. What will make your story easier to read? What will catch this busy volunteer’s attention? One answer: a quick-starting opening paragraph.

Why a Story Should Show Its Dramatic Elements Twice

Story: “Youse” by Nicole Haroutunian, published at The Literarian

When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.

How to Direct the Reader’s Attention

Story: “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stephanie Freele, published at Tahoma Literary Review

In his epic story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” Adam Johnson uses a strategy for writing descriptions that has fundamentally influenced how I write my own. It’s also a strategy that I see everywhere, in books of all kinds, and I recently came across it once again in Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans.”

How to Use an Omniscient Narrator

Novel: On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman, published by Graywolf Press

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. None of than the critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).

How to Challenge a Reader’s Sense of Reality

Television Series: Making a Murderer, available on Netflix

In Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form,” he explains that suspense is built by manipulating the reader. He gives the example from Hamlet, when Hamlet and a friend go to a platform to meet his father’s ghost, but then Hamlet hears his uncle drunk in the streets. So Hamlet rants for a while about drunkenness, and we the readers are nodding along—and that’s when the ghost shows up. We’d forgotten all about it, and because we’d forgotten, we’re surprised at its arrival and eager to know what will happen next. Here’s the takeaway: Shakespeare delivered exactly what was promised, the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The thrill, as a reader/audience member, came from having it given to us in a way we didn’t expect. Once you understand that such manipulation is possible—and necessary—you will see it at work in every type of narrative.

How to Create Structure with Images

Novel: Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano, published by HarperCollins

When working on a novel, writers often reach a point where the thrill is gone. Whatever impulse that kicked off the project has vanished, and all that is left is plot: who did what, what they will do next. The novel begins to resemble an outline. One way to solve this problem is to create a structure that doesn’t hinge on the next plot point. This is why you often see flashbacks and backstory at the beginning of chapters: that information provides an emotional context for the present action that follows. Another strategy to provide that same context is to use images.

How to Create a Literary Touchstone

Essay: “The Rebirth of Black Rage” by Mychal Denzel Smith, published at The Nation

I teach college composition classes, where students like to write “in today’s society” or “nowadays,” as if what follows could possibly sum up all of society or these days. It’s not just college freshmen, either. When faced with difficult-to-visualize things like societal trends, most people fall back on generalizations or false comparisons. (Someone, right now, is almost certainly comparing something to socialism or someone to Hitler.) Our impulse is good. Comparison is an incredibly useful tool for understand the world. Mathematically speaking, it’s how we figure out how far away the stars are. The key, though, is in finding the right touchstone for a comparison and in convincing your audience that it’s applicable.

How to Direct the Reader’s Gaze

Essay: “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” by Steve Adams, published in Notre Dame Magazine

If anything defines great writing, it’s the ability to control chronology and time. Inexperienced writers will start a chapter or story with an alarm clock and end the piece when the character goes to bed or passes out. In other words, their structure is driven by time and consciousness. A few weeks ago, I wrote about creating pockets of narrative as a way to avoid the chronology trap: the tendency to kill tension by narrating a story blow-by-blow, one thing after another. But that’s only one method for corralling time. Another great strategy is to step outside of chronology to point the reader toward what is important.

How to Create Structure with Teasers

Novel: Cutting Teeth by Julia Fiero, published by St. Martin’s Griffin

I often argue that, from a craft perspective, there is almost no difference between literary and genre fiction. The novels may be pointing their readers toward different things (character development versus plot, for instance, though that’s mostly a false distinction), but the strategies used to direct the readers are often the same. For example, genre books often use plot spoilers to create structure; if we know someone will end up dangling from a clock tower, we’ll read to find out how it happened. This same strategy is also used by literary writers. The content may be different (domestic strife rather than terrorist plot, though, again, that’s an oversimplification), but the technique is the same.

How to Frame Chronology

Memoir: Epilogue by Will Boast, published by Liveright

When we sit down to write about our real lives, it’s easy to fall into the chronology trap. We write, “This happened and then this and then this.” The essay or memoir becomes, simply, one thing after another. This structure might sound logical; after all, isn’t that how our lives happen, one thing after another? Not really. At any moment, the complicated machines that are our worlds contain many moving pieces, some we see and some we don’t. But we only think about a few of them at a time, and it’s not always the pieces right in front of our faces. We tell stories to ourselves about our lives and histories, and those stories help structure our sense of what is happening to us and around us. When writing these stories down, chronology can actually be the enemy of good writing. What we need is a way to frame it, just as we do in real life.

How to Structure Plot around Lack of Change

Story: “The Window” by Christine Grimes, published in 2 Bridges Review

Most stories are about change. A character goes about her business, and then an asteroid, dead body, love interest, child, or zombie shows up and everything changes. As a basic narrative structure, the change story is hard to escape. Politics revolves around game changers. At the coffee shop where I write this, KT Tunstall is singing “Suddenly I See,” which suggests that she didn’t see it before, meaning something has changed. But what about those people who never really change? The wonderful poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.” If this is true, and if we want to write stories about people trapped in that one damn thing over and over, then we need a new structure.

How to Write from Multiple Points of View

Novel: See How Small by Scott Blackwood, published by Back Bay Books

Anyone writing a novel with multiple points of view probably finds it easy to identify the characters to follow—you simply follow the plot lines and see who’s involved. The tricky part is figuring out how to signal the POV shifts. In his beautiful novel Plainsong, Kent Haruf made the shift at the beginning of each chapter and titled the chapters with a character’s name. The voice or tone of the chapters was basically the same, despite following different characters. This is one way to handle different POVs, but it’s not the only way. You may want your POV sections to sound different, but it can difficult to create a different voice for each character—let’s face it, it’s hard enough to create one distinctive voice, let alone three or four. Therefore, we need to play with more than voice if we’re going to create distinctive sounding POVs.

How to Bridge Between Scenes in a Novel

Novel: Cities of Men by William Jensen

When you move from writing short stories to writing a novel, you quickly realize that the novel’s length means that one or two hard-hitting scenes can’t carry it. More is needed. Each scene must immediately suggest another scene, again and again, until the end. In a way, it’s the opposite of the famous epiphany ending we all learned when reading Joyce’s “Araby”—the concluding sentence to a scene that makes us all grab our hair and sigh. In a novel, a scene must resist epiphany, even if it’s tone and momentum seem to be taking it toward that sort of ending.

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