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Wordstruck - Claire Scobie, Why successful authors write into a structure

Jennifer Richardson - Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Are you a planner or a pantser — a fly-by-the-pants writer? Either way if you write your stories or books into a structure you’re more likely to finish them.
People often worry about structure. They worry that it will hamper their plot or stifle their style. Actually structure does the opposite. It gives you a framework in which to write. It stops a story becoming unwieldy.

Imagine trying to build a house without a plan? Or without a foundation. It wouldn’t hold up.

Structure gives you the form and then you can play with the content. There’s a rule of thumb. Anything over about 2 – 3,000 words requires storytelling craft in order to keep the reader reading. So for those short blog posts, you can be a pantser. But doing long form, planning and structure are your best friends.

Here are 5 structures to make your writing more compelling

Chronological — the most straightforward for a memoir piece or a life story (fiction or non-fiction). Also works for a history of a place or an autbiography. If you’re new to writing, start chronologically and then you can always move scenes around later.

Thematic— often evolves as you are writing. Or you can decide on the themes as a way to tie loose strands together. In Sarah Macdonald’s Holy Cow she used the many faiths of India as way to organise her narrative.

Three act structure — follows a traditional formula that dates back to the Greeks and has been adapted to Hollywood by Syd Field. You have the set up, an inciting incident or catalyst that leads to the first major turning point. This pushes the story to the second act and the climax, a second major turning point and ultimately a resolution.

Hero’s Journey — another version of the ‘three act’ based around the work of mythologist Josesph Campbell, author of A Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell studied 100s of myths from around the world and realised that they follow the same pattern. Now widely used in Hollywood following Christopher Vogler’s The Writers Journey, you can simplify it and adapt for fiction. It can also be applicable to memoir if any of the stages of the Hero’s Journey — often a form of coming of age story — are applicable to your life.

Collage – takes its cue from visual art. This structure works well for disparate subjects that you are weaving together. It’s not right for a story with a beginning, middle and end. The entries are often short – separated by a ‘#’ or a gap or in numbered sections. Michael Ondaatje does collage very well in Running in the Family.


There are others… but that’s a post for later.

If you’re planning ahead and the idea of a writing retreat in Italy sounds utterly gorgeous, my dates for Writing in a Palace are now confirmed: 19 – 26 September, 2015.  

Best, Claire Scobie