Sunday, January 06, 2008

On Structure

One of my friends who happens to be a fine YA novelist often finds herself bewildered by the notion of structure.

"I suck at structure," she laments each time she reviews one of her works-in-progress. "What is structure, anyway?"

It's a question every writer has to ask at some point in the writing process... in order to understand why a story works or fails to work.

If you feel your story lacks something but can't figure out what exactly--why your attention is flagging, say, or why you fear your reader's attention might turn back to the TV screen--maybe it's time, like my friend, to examine your story's structure.

What is structure?

Well, structure is like a ladder that your characters climb, rung by rung. Or maybe a better way to think of it is like an envelope holding the elements of your story in place.

It's the skeleton...the bones...on which the story is built.

What's the key to building a solid structure?

Well, it's not just a matter of assembling a random sequence of scenes. No, the scenes need to increase in tension, rising in action or drama or mystery, building suspense over the course of the story.

The characters and the events of the plot must fit together like the interlocking pieces of a suspension bridge whose structure is designed so the tension actually holds the pieces together and strengthens the bridge.

Character and plot together form the structure for your tale. How? By setting up a confrontation of opposites (i.e., tension) based on two questions: 1) what does your character want, and 2) what's keeping her from getting it?

How you answer these questions will determine whether your story's structure is strong and sturdy... or weak and flimsy.

What makes for a strong structure?

Struggle and desire.

That is, what a character wants, and how much she must struggle to overcome greater and greater obstacles that stand in her way of attaining the object of her desire.

Not every desire, however, translates into a compelling story.

Nor is every struggle of interest.

Searching for a box of frozen peas in the freezer, for instance, is less compelling than searching for the key to buried treasure.

And struggling to climb the monkey-bars in a playground is less compelling than struggling to scale the side of a 100-story skyscraper in a lightening storm.

Structure--a sturdy structure--is formed by finding a way to meld these two factors (what your character wants and her struggle to obtain whatever it is she wants) in a compelling way.

To make your story compelling, you have to find a way to make life difficult for your character. Why? Because the more difficulties she encounters, the more sympathy you will arouse in your reader.

You'll know your story's structure is sound when your reader begins to worry about the character... and starts to care about whether she reaches her goal.

One way to understand structure is to study how other writers build tension into their stories.

Try to define what the character wants as early as possible.

Then look to see what's keeping the character from reaching her goals.

That spark of conflict (or tension)... between what the character wants and what keeps her from getting it... is where you'll find the foundation-stone of a story's structure.

To learn more about structure, take a look at these sites:


Barbara O'Connor said...

Great post, Bruce.

I often study screenwriting to help with structure. One of my favorite books is MAKING A GOOD SCRIPT GREAT by Linda Seger. I find that scripts are similar to children's books in that they must be well-paced and relatively short - and the action carries them along.

Thanks for all the great links.

Bruce said...


You're so right. Screenwriting books are an excellent way to study structure.

Thanks for suggesting the Seger title. (She has more than one, I think, that readers might enjoy.)

Syd Field has written a number of books on screenwriting and seems to have a loyal following, too. I've got his books on my shelf to turn to when I get stumped on a structural issue.

One of the best books that I've found is Screenwriters on Screenwriting: The Best in the Business Discuss Their Craft, ed. by Joel Engel (Hyperion, 1995). Try to get a copy if you can. I think you might enjoy it.


Rose Green said...

Excellent points, Bruce. It's those two things together that give you the emotional heart of a story as well, and tie the reader to your characters. Thanks for the post!

Jude said...


My plan was to take the Christmas tree down today...then I sat down to read this week's Wordswimmer.
I have been submerged for the past two and a half hours in the sea of information you presented in this post -- taking notes on everything from Aristotle to plot strategies (including a wonderful plot checklist from Cheryl Klein -- a site I've added to "my favorites.") I've resurfaced for air and to send this fan letter, but I'll be going back for more. Thank you for this wonderful gift, Bruce! If my tree is still up by Easter, it's all your fault! : )

Bruce said...

The emotional heart of the story... that's a subject well worth exploring in a future post! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.


Glad to help out. Maybe you'll start a new tradition with a tree at Easter! :)

Eric said...

I just found you. Thanks for the well-composed and helpful article.

Bruce said...

Thanks for stopping by.