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.
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 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.
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.