The Art of Narrative Structure
by Christie Aschwanden, The Open Notebook
A few years ago, I adopted a puppy. I’d picked the runt of the litter and in the weeks that I waited for him to wean, I made a list of a dozen or so potential names. In the end, I used none of them. I needed to spend time with the dog before I knew whether he was a Baxter or a Jack or something else. Turned out, he was Oskar, a name that wasn’t on my list. I simply knew after a day or two that this was the perfect name for my dog.
For me, structuring a narrative feels like naming the dog. The structure falls out of the story itself. I can’t outline it in advance; I need to get deep into the story and the reporting first. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it. Sometimes I recognize as it’s happening that a scene will become the lede that sets the stage for the story (like when a source’s father slapped me on the head); other times it’s something seemingly random, like a David Bowie tune on the radio that helps me articulate a story’s theme. Once I know what the story is about and have decided on a lede, I look for the ending. With those pieces in place, I start writing. Afterwards, I can look at the story and see that I’ve used a particular structure, but I find it impossible to set a structure and then write to it.
This process of mine works fine, but it can seem haphazard, and I’ve always had a vague notion that there must be a better way to approach structure. If anyone has a method, I figured it would be Sandy Blakeslee, the author of eight books and countless articles for the Science Times. Blakeslee was one of my first mentors, and she’s always struck me as a particularly organized and efficient writer.
When I called her recently to ask about her process, she confirmed that she always sketches out a structure before she writes. “It’s like a crutch for me, I need something to hang on to or else I’m wandering,” she says. “Some people say, ‘Oh, just start writing and don’t worry about how you put it together right away.’ I think that’s the worst advice you can give anybody, because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re lost.” Before she writes, Blakeslee outlines the story’s beginning, middle and end and then relentlessly sticks to her outline.
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Unlike Blakeslee, I never outline, but I do spend hours thinking about my story’s lede and narrative arc before I ever sit down to write. For every hour I spend writing, I spend many more fidgeting (or running or skiing) while turning the story over in my mind. Often I’ll deliberately focus on finding a lede and it’s no accident that my best ones have come to me while running or biking or walking the dog. Blakeslee admits she does this too, and our approaches may not be as different as they seem.
“You’re actually thinking about structure much earlier than you think you are,” says Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who teaches at Indiana University. “The moment you decide on the universe of your story, you’re making a decision about structure.” As an example, he points to his book Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives. He wanted the book to explore the notions of freedom and captivity, and when he learned that Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa was preparing to load 11 previously free-roaming elephants into crates to fly them across the ocean to their zoo, he decided that this elephant transfer would play a central role in his story. French’s decision to focus his book on this incident and the Tampa zoo in particular was a major structural decision that he made before he ever started writing.
Which story to tell is often the most difficult structural decision a writer faces. “When you do the research you have this enormous bolus of information and you could probably write five or six stories, but you’re only writing one and you need to know, what is this story about? What’s the central idea?” says Blakeslee.
Environmental journalist Bruce Barcott uses an old screenwriter’s adage to help him find the story. “Somebody wants something,” says the former Guggenheim fellow and National Magazine Award finalist. This wanting can be a scientist seeking a breakthrough, or maybe it’s two camps arguing over a disputed piece of land or knowledge. In some cases, it’s simply a species that wants to survive. Whatever the desire, it should drive the narrative, Barcott says.
Most stories, French says, fall into one of five basic narrative structures: boy meets girl, there and back (a journey), us versus them, making it (transcending an obstacle), rescuing the princess from the underworld, and the most popular story of all—the Cinderella tale. Kurt Vonnegut called these structures the shapes of stories, and the theories of storytelling he describes in this entertaining lecture can easily apply to science narratives too.
“If you look at these patterns, they’re each a way of seeking meaning—either through love or friendship, the defeat of the enemy or the transformation of the self,” says French. “One of the primary functions of stories is to find meaning out of the randomness around us. That’s why structure is so hard—it’s a way to create order out of something that’s not so orderly.”
For advice about story structure, French recommends the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. “Some of it applies only to comics, but the other 80 percent applies to any story, page 32 to 78 in particular,” he says. French advises his students to avoid unnecessarily complex structures. “What you want is for the structure to be as simple as it can be so that the reader has the best chance possible to think about the complexity of what you’re trying to get across,” he says. “The more complex the material, the simpler the structure should be.”
New writers sometimes shy away from a chronological structure out of fear that it will seem pedestrian, but that’s a mistake, says French. John Bennett, an editor at the New Yorker, has said that writers for the magazine can use any structure they want, but at the end of the day they will change it back to chronological. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn.
There’s a reason certain structures turn up again and again—they work, says French. One example is the A-B story, in which the narration switches back and forth between story lines A and B, which are told in parallel until they intersect. The Beatles song Eleanor Rigby is a classic example, French says.
In her award-winning New York Times Magazine story What Broke My Father’s Heart, Katy Butler uses another common structure, the broken line, which in this case zig zags between Butler’s personal narrative about the death of her father and then her mother and her reportage on end-of-life issues. Butler chose this structure early on in her writing process and the decision guided her writing.
“[What Broke My Father’s Heart] is basically a bummer,” says Butler. “My father got a pacemaker, it was a terrible idea, his dying was prolonged and it exhausted my mother and then she died.” Butler knew she needed to counteract that prevailing downward arc with some kind of upward narrative. One of the positive narratives she chose concerned her own progress from ignorance to knowledge about the health care system. Another concerned her mother’s journey from naive trust of the health care system to a kind of moral autonomy. “Our taking back that ability to make our own choices became a type of upward narrative,” Butler says. “My mother was still alive when I began writing. Her death became, in an odd way, a positive ending. She faced her death in a very clean and courageous way. Her death becomes a triumph.”
The broken-line structure is especially effective for weighty science stories. “The reader needs a break from the hard science every so often,” says Blakeslee. “I might be writing about something deeply neuronal and I’ll write eight or nine paragraphs and then I’ll go back into something more entertaining to give the reader a rest. I won’t want them to have to work too hard.” French refers to this strategy as dessert and vegetables. “If you do it well, the reader is glad to have both,” he says.
Some stories lend themselves to a structure involving distinct acts. “I tend to think in terms of parts,” Kahn says, adding that she rarely outlines. In her New Yorker narrative about a controversy surrounding the death of a 9/11 worker, Kahn, a contributing editor at Wired and an instructor at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, talked with her editor before she started writing and realized that this felt like a three act story. “There was the setup and then visiting with the medical examiner and then visiting with the family.” Once she decided on the three acts, she could focus on the parts and the story came together without a rigid outline.
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Barcott just finished a story that used a style of broken line structure found in many magazine features. (For a template of the typical nature essay structure, see Author Brian Doyle’s 2008 Orion piece, The Greatest Nature Essay Ever.) Barcott’s piece opened in the middle of the action, then proceeded to a nut graf followed by a history of the issue, then returned to the present day story and from there, built toward the resolution or the future of the issue. “Usually I don’t outline. I have a groove in my head,” says Barcott. “I’ll know what the general theme of the story is, but a lot of the finer points and sub-themes emerge in the writing. I wrote something last week where I realized, oh, this foreshadows what happens later. Sometimes that only comes out in the actual writing process.”
For the writer sitting on a pile of research and a sense of panic as the deadline closes in, Barcott offers this advice: “Find some similar articles and diagram the hell out of them,” says Barcott. “Figure out that this section does this and this other section does that and then copy that structure. Don’t copy somebody else’s words, but you can use their structure.”
If you really get stuck, watch some movies. Rebecca Skloot finally worked out the structure of her award-winning book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks after watching (and storyboarding) the movie The Hurricane. If that doesn’t work, spend some more time with your dog—either literally or figuratively. Nothing provides a more reliable source of “a-ha” moments than a walk outside with the dog.
Christie and the expertly named Oskar.
Christie Aschwanden is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, O, the Oprah Magazine, Mother Jones, Health, Skiing, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, National Wildlife, Reader’s Digest, and New Scientist. She was a National Magazine Award finalist in 2011, and she blogs with some science writer friends at The Last Word on Nothing. She lives in western Colorado. Follow Christie on Twitter @cragcrest.
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