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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Crafting for Structure - Writing Series Week 4

First things first, if you glance down, today’s lesson will look very long. But feel free to read the opening segment then skip to the genre that applies to you once you reach the bold headings.

Today as we talk about form and structure in writing, I want to begin by talking about the importance of story in our contemporary culture. For the past five hundred years or so, the Western world went through a time known as the “Modern” period. Modernism was marked by rational thinking, a belief that we could know everything through science via the five senses, and clear authority structures. With the scientific and technological advances of the last 40 years or so, we have suddenly undergone a radical cultural shift into the Postmodern period. Philosophically speaking, Postmodernism poses many problems, particularly in its marginalization of truth. Okay, this topic deserves its own graduate level class, but suffice to say that like it or not, we are now living in the midst of a Postmodern culture.

The generation which has grown up in this culture, primarily those under age 35, show significant psychological shifts from the previous generation. Whereas logic and reason reigned supreme for hundreds of years, these individuals show a marked increase in their awareness of and need for spiritual realities. This can be used to lead them to Christ. However, we need to rediscover Biblical truths in light of the areas that hold sway with this generation: image, experience, relationship, and intuition.

Story is the most powerful way to communicate to this. Story employs images. It allows us to intuitively experience a situation through our relationship with the characters. In fact, there is a move these days away from systematic (logical) theology and towards narrative (story) theology. In narrative theology we imagine ourselves living out Biblical stories. We begin to see how our personal narratives fit into the grand meta-narrative of God’s story upon the earth. For more on this subject I highly recommend the book Story: Recapture the Mystery by Steven James.

Stories show us characters facing conflicts. Most stories end happily with the character overcoming the conflict. Through the story, we learn something about life. If there is no conflict, there is no story. The same basic story or plot structure is employed in everything from fairy tales to epic sagas. You have a beginning where we meet the characters and are introduced to the problem they face, a middle where the conflict escalates, a climax where the characters face their greatest struggle leading to a turning point, and the end or resolution where the story is wrapped up. For more on understanding story and story structure, I recommend A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller.

Now that I’ve given you my rant on the importance of story, I will look at form and structure in several genres of writing. What I will be presenting is merely the tip of the iceberg on each of these subjects. Please use what you’ve learned today as an impetus to continue studying and learning the writing craft in your chosen genre.

Plot Structure
In the novel or full length script we take the basic story structure mentioned above and turn it into a more elaborate plot. There are many different models available to help you plot your story. Personally, I like the “Plot Skeleton” by Angela Hunt. You can find a full article about the “Plot Skeleton” in a collection called A Novel Idea.

In the beginning of the book or script you want to introduce us to the characters, setting, and problem, but you also want to get the story going right away. Show us your main character or primary protagonist in action. This main character needs a goal, and the struggles they will face in achieving their goal will provide the needed conflict to propel the story forward. In order to get the story going, it is helpful to have this main character dealing with some sort of obvious external problem as we get to know and care about them.

Next we enter the body of the story where the character is thrust into the story world and the real problems they face. Ideally, they should face both internal and an external conflicts which interrelate. Throughout this section of the book they will face a series of conflicts or complications, each with its own miniature climax and resolution. And, as you go along the conflict and tension should continue to mount.

Finally, the character should face their darkest moment. This will propel us into the main climax for the story as a whole. If the author has done their job well, the internal and external problems should both resolve as the character faces this major turning point. They will learn something that will allow them to face their challenge. In most cases they will overcome the external problem in a way that will also resolve their internal dilemma. This leads to the ending or resolution where the author wraps everything up.

Keep in mind that in order to meet today’s current trends in novel writing, all of this should be constructed in scenes with each scene occurring in a specific time and place from a clear character point of view.

Biography or Autobiography Structure
A good biography will use a plot structure and story arc similar to the description given above for a novel or film script. The job of the writer is to find the main story arc within the person’s life and focus on that as they write the biography. Another related option would be to write the biography as a series of short stories and link them together with introduction, transitions and conclusions, moving along in a basic chronological fashion. The final option for a biography will be discussed below in the narrative nonfiction section. It is basically taking random stories and weaving them into thematic chapters.

Essay or Nonfiction Structure
The classic essay structure is introduction, body, and conclusion. In other words: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. Most nonfiction books follow this same basic pattern. The introduction should start with something exciting to pique the readers interest in the subject. It should state the thesis or theme, and it should give a brief hint at the main points that will be covered in the essay or book. The body includes main points and details to support the main points linked by transitional sections. The conclusion restates the thesis/theme, shows how the author has proven their thesis or illustrated their theme, and sums everything up. In a nonfiction book, this essay structure should be apparent in the book as a whole. In addition, each chapter should repeat this structure on a smaller scale.

These days publishers and readers are looking for story and quality fictional elements in their nonfiction as well. A great way to supply this is to use short stories to support your individual points within the chapters. These stories could be autobiographical, biographical, or even fictional. The more artistic elements you can include, like description, character, dialogue, etc…, the more these stories will come to life. In addition to using story within your nonfiction as examples, publishers also like to see a story arc of beginning, conflict, climax, resolution in nonfiction if at all possible.

Narrative Nonfiction
Narrative or creative nonfiction is a term given to a genre which has become very popular in recent years. The autobiographical version is also referred to as memoir. This is an eclectic mix of story, nonfiction, and poetic elements. Usually these collections include random stories woven together around a central theme. Like a nonfiction book, this is generally true for the book as a whole, but also on a chapter by chapter basis. The most famous Christian example of this style is Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Other great Christian authors in this genre are Steven James and Anne Lamott.

Allow me to give you an example of how this might work from my own narrative nonfiction, Secrets of the Teddy Bear Indian Dance: Mysteries Unveiled While Spinning Between Earth and Sacred Praise. I start with an introduction about the book, why I wrote it, and a brief overview of the types of topics I will cover. My first chapter is called “Trapped in Time.” It begins with a short poem by that same title. I then introduce the topic of being trapped and give a few brief examples from my life. Scene break. I tell part one of a dramatic story where my family is stuck in a war. Scene break. I have a scripture passage about being trapped. Scene break. I offer some reflection and transition. Scene Break. I tell a different story about being trapped. Scene Break. Part two of the story in Lebanon. Scene Break. I conclude the chapter by reflecting back on how the stories and the poem link to the trapped theme and tie them together with a strong conclusion. I continue that basic pattern for sixteen more chapters. In some cases I include essays, devotionals, and even short stories. My last chapter has its own stories and theme, but also serves to wrap up the book and all the themes within the book.

The key idea of narrative nonfiction is weaving or braiding and then tying it up tight as you come to your conclusions. I like to pull ideas, images, and refrains from previous chapters to keep a sense of continuity throughout the book. Notice that in addition to including actual poetry, I am using poetic techniques of image and refrain to structure the book. I also like to have a sense of rhythm to my writing.

Note on Personal Experience Stories
Creative nonfiction books are usually based on personal stories. Anytime you use personal experience stories in your writing, be careful not to make yourself out to be the hero or the victim. You should be the mistake maker. The lesson learner. In fact, as much as possible, write yourself out of the story so that we are focusing on the theme rather than on your own amazing life. When choosing personal experience stories, try to think of moments that changed you in some significant way. Focus on what went wrong, in other words the conflict of the story. For more on this genre I recommend a collection of essays titled Writing Creative Nonfiction.

Poetic Structure
Poetry is the art of language. Poets should pay attention to four major elements as they write. 1) The look on the page. Poetry is typically written in verse, meaning that the author controls the length of the line. Spaces between segments of the poem create stanzas or strophes. Poems can be written in closed form, meaning a preset pattern or in free verse where the writer makes their own decisions about line lengths, stanzas, etc… 2) Images. All poems should offer clear images that spark the imagination through the five senses. Often through the use of simile and metaphor these images become symbols for deeper issues in life. 3) Sound. All poems should give special attention to the sound of the words. Older closed form poems use meter, a set rhythmic pattern. However all poets should pay attention to the sounds and rhythms of their words. Rhyme, or use of matching sounds, is also employed by many poets to varying degrees. 4) Meaning. Poems should mean something. They should say something about life through the interplay of image, sound, and word choice. Even choices about the structure on the page can add to the meaning of the poem. If you think a literary poem is a bunch of random, meaningless nonsense, chances are the poet was making a statement about the randomness and futility of life.

Homework: Your homework is to continue studying to form and structure of your current genre. Begin applying what you are learning to your theme or premise. If possible, create an outline or summary based on what you are learning. If you haven’t chosen a genre yet, try writing a personal experience story with a theme.


  1. Great class last night. It is good to know that a good bit of it is science, structure, practice and more practice. Excellent and very clear presentation.

  2. Loved this class probably the best thus far that I have enjoyed of your teaching.I found it to be very interesting as I am part of the under 35 Post-Modern Era so yes I have to say that you are dead on with what reaches my generation.I am so glad that I came to the class.

  3. Dani, I never thought of it as science, but you're right, there is a very left-brained, logical part of the process. That's the hard part for me.

  4. Glad you enjoyed it Liz. I threw a lot of practical info at you last night. More in the live class than here.

  5. LOVE this post! As I am beginning to plot my story idea, this is extremely helpful! Thank you.

  6. Sherrinda, look into that Plot Skeleton by Angie Hunt. It really helped me a lot. That's when I figured out my inner conflict in my first novel came about 50 pages before my outer conflict. Once I fixed it with a really powerful climax, I found an agent right away.

  7. After completing a mammoth like I just did, it's almost funny to see plot boiled back down to the basics. Right on the money as usual, Dina.

  8. You know, Roseanna, JoP is such a conflict-ridden historical saga that its rolling right along and never a boring moment. But I'm trying to name Kasia's inner conflict, and I'm not sure. Outer conflict would probably just be to survive in that crazy court.

  9. Louise, I have a post about postmodernism on Inkwell Inspirations at

    You might enjoy it.

  10. If I had to put it into words (which I rarely actually do), I'd say it boils down to having to reconcile her love for Xerxes with her love for God. She has to make that choice midway through to stay true to God rather than her husband, but then later (don't know if you've gotten there yet) she has to choose whether or not she'll keep loving Xerxes at all. It's a conflict that has long periods of dormancy (during which there's plenty of external), but the two loves of her life being in such contrast is even what leads her to stoop to intrigue when it comes to getting Esther towards the end.

    And that's a long enough comment. =)

  11. I was thinking about it yesterday, and that's pretty much what I came up with. Might be good to look for opportunities to strengthen that. Maybe link it to some internal struggle she's always faced, maybe as a Hebrew in a foreign culture.

  12. Sorry to ramble, but I'm still thinking more about Roseanna's book which I've had the privelege of critiquing as she's writing it, although she is by far the more experienced novelist.

    Roseanna, I think a major theme you could pull out even more would be about how we should love. Parsisa and Artayante use love as a weapon. Ruana's love is purely selfish. Xerxes, Darius, and Xerxes brother don't know how to love properly because they've been worshipped and pampered all their lives. Kasia and Esther would represent true Godly love, yet Kasia continually struggles to love properly while still maintaining boundaries with the powerful Xerxes. No wonder this book is so interesting.

    But pull it out even more. Put more attention and focus on it. This inner conflict is way below the surface right now. You don't want to be too obvious, but bring it up closer so we don't have to struggle to find it.

    Oh, and definitely weave it into your blurbs and marketing info. This is where the book moves from straight historical to something that really touches our lives. That makes it timeless and relevant.

  13. Excellent thoughts Dina (and ha ha on you posting longer comments on it than I did). As I'm reading through it these next few weeks, I'll definitely do that. Hopefully as I delete the fluff, that'll come forward more anyway. I like the idea of using it in the blurbs and marketing stuff. We'll have to work it into the tagline somehow. =) (Notice I say "we." I stink at taglines, LOL.)

  14. I'm enjoying your 'class' and the comments.
    And a sneak peak into Jewel of Persis!

    Oh, well, I have to say that the under 35 thing threw me. Of course, that doesn't include me but does include my next generation. Lots to think about.

    thanks Dina!

  15. Well, Deb, I definitely identify with the postmodern gerenation although I'm a few years too old. Really, I think this comes into play more with nonfiction, and is the reason narrative nonfiction works so well with the 20 somethings. Fiction writers have been using story all along. But I think as writers, it's good to understand the needs of the upcoming generation.

  16. @Dina, I think the lightbulbs are actually starting to click and I will check out the blog on Post-Modern Era this week.

  17. The climax seems to be where I stumble around some, but I didn't realize that until I started reading this info. Looking forward to tonight.

  18. Rob, I think this could really help give a power punch to the stories you use for your sermons as well. Giving that strong climax and resolution is what gives the story its effectiveness.

  19. Henrietta FrankenseeMarch 27, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    I remember the delight of discovering the 'introduction, exposition, recapitulation' scheme in essays and sonatas. Also the plot scheme you outlined here which is found in stories AND musical forms. It was pure magic to me, a lover of systems.

  20. Dina,

    My novel has two main characters, male and female, and I'm going through this edit and really trying to make each chapter from only one of their perspectives like you mentioned at the BRMCWC. They have the same goal, so it's really difficult to make it one or the other's perspective. I need both. Is it okay to switch perspectives after a chapter break as well? And do you know of any books that do this really well that I could refer to as an example?

  21. Pretty much any book written in the last ten years should do a good job keeping point of view straight. Category romance like Love Inspired novels provide a great example of this. They're always from male and female perspective. And if you feel a need to switch point of view, all you need to do is give a scene break. You can switch point of view several times in a chapter. Just make sure you orient us at the beginning of the scene so we know which point of view you're in right away. It's hard to do this editing for the first time, but from now on you'll know to limit to one point of view the first time you write, which is much easier.

    As for a book that teaches this well, The Art and Craft of Christian Fiction by Jeff Gerke does a really good job teaching point of view. However he says you should stay in one point of view for the first 50 pages of a novel, which I absolutely disagree with. Maybe its helpful for the action type stories he writes, but not for books that focus on relationship and character.

    Also, Allison, about your genre, did you look into the definition of "speculative"? Sometimes when you have a book already written it's hard to figure out the genre and you need to tweak in one direction or the other. My first novel was borderline between historical and historical romance, but my publisher tweaked it to bring out the romance more.

    Think long term for your career. What genre will you want to write the next 10 books in, not just this one, and then tweak in that direction.