Have you ever heard someone talk about the structure of a story or an essay? The structure is the elements that the writer uses to build it together into something that holds the writing together so that it makes sense and holds together. Did you ever think about how the structure of a story is a lot like the structure of a house? Houses have foundations, walls, windows, rooms, and a purpose or function for each part.
If all the pieces are put up well, the house will last a long time and be able to weather the storms of life. If things are just slapped together and not lined up well then it will collapse under a strong breeze. In a story we have the organization as a structure that holds everything together. The structure can be very formal or traditional, but it can also be very non-traditional, and even surprising. Structure can seem rather vague, so it might help to think of it in concrete terms. As you look at your writing, ask yourself –what is the organization, the plot, the characters—everything that works together to make the story or paper effective. The mental images created by your writing can be just as real and as powerful as a physical work of art.
That is why your structure is so important in building a complete unit. To really illustrate the power of taking the mental images and transforming them into physical entities a class in England’s Columbia University has a program called “The Laboratory of Literary Architecture.” In this program students take their favorite stories and physically build a structure to represent how they view it. The creations are made with everything from toothpicks to concrete and some really surprising, yet accurate structures result.
“Javier Fuentes interprets The Falls by George Saunders: The paranoia experienced by the narrator of Saunders’s open-ended short story is reimagined by Javier Fuentes in a structure designed to encourage a heightened sense of spatial awareness. The base is punctured in the same way that the climactic events towards the end of The Falls bring an abrupt end to Saunders’s stream-of-consciousness narrative, leaving the reader in a state of suspense. Photograph: Tony Cenicola/Eyevin” (Pericoli, 2013)
The leader of the workshop, Matteo Pericoli, has a web site that gives great details about the workshop and the results of what happens when students think deeply about the structure of a story and how it would translate to a physical entity. Continue reading
“First, write an outline.”
Some people love outlines. They find it helps organize their thoughts and guides their research and writing in a way that saves time and effort. It prevents them from going down tangents that are unnecessary for the assignment. The outline also breaks a large project down into small and achievable tasks. This method becomes the virtual trail down the mountain, preventing them from getting lost in the wilderness of ideas.
However, for other people outlines are the bane of writing. They dutifully try to write rows of ideas prefaced by little Roman letters and numbers with periods after them. The dry process often only results in a paper that almost feels formulaic and forced. They prefer to write organically and just see where the writing goes.
For those doing creative writing, the thought of using an outline seems almost unheard of– that is something reserved for essays and research projects. Outlining almost seems like putting a beautiful wild horse into a corral; making sad limitations on something that should run free.
Yet, outlines can be powerful tools in ALL types of writing. It helps us step back and evaluate the content and pace of our message. We can use them to judge our structure and check for gaps in our logic or narration.
Author and instructor, Aaron Hamburger writes in the New York Times about his method of reverse outlining when he is writing creatively. He lets the story grow organically for the first draft and THEN writes an outline based on what he has already written. This allows him to evaluate the pace and completeness of the story.
If you want to improve your writing and take it up to the next level, try outlining. At any step of the writing process an outline can help bring clarity and objectivity to what your writing conveys to others.
As a student in middle school and high school, the five-paragraph essay format was hammered into my head constantly, and this became the only way that I would write an essay. However, at MSU I learned that although this format is one way to organize an essay, writing in college does not have to be so narrowly focused.
For example, following the five-paragraph essay format does not necessarily mean you will only be writing five paragraphs. You most likely will be writing at least five, but it is not limited to this number. You can think of it more as a five-section essay. This format is more a way to organize your essay in a style that is easily recognizable and fits a standard (American) convention. So, although this can seem boring to write this way, it is a way of writing which shows that you can organize information and your main points in one way that is easy to follow for a reader (aka for a professor or TA).
To organize your essay, a five-section essay will include these parts:
1. Introduction (which includes your thesis statement)
2. Supporting Idea/Main Point One
3. Supporting Idea/Main Point Two
4. Supporting Idea/Main Point Three
For a more in-depth look at what to include in each of these five-sections, look here. This resource comes from a retired teacher of literature and writing, and she also provides some overall essay writing advice too.
Look here for another explanation of what to include, and if you scroll down just a bit, you will also find a short video that will take you through a step-by-step example using diagrams; sometimes it helps to see an example laid out in action.
Finally, it may help to think of an essay as an “intellectual journey” for a reader, and this example provides helpful questions to think about while writing each section of your essay.
As always, if you have more questions or want more help with structure and organization, do not hesitate to make an appointment with any of our consultants here at the Writing Center!