Structures

Structure is what gives overall coherence to a piece. Many devices and techniques exist for achieving coherence between sentences and paragraphs, but the governing element is the grand, overall structure. Coherence cements together the individual bricks that make up the structure.

The architecture analogy is a good one. Given the purpose of a building, the number of people who will use it, what those people will do in it, and the area allotted it, the architect makes an overall decision on design. Will it scrape the clouds or hug the ground? Once all of the decisions that determine the structure and foundation have been made, the architect brings in other people to make it work. The engineers, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers give it coherence—they cement it together to give it strength and functionality. Then the architect goes another step and invites in the interior decorators who give each floor and the total building an aesthetic unity. The writer constructs a story in much the same way. Within the grand structure of an article or book, the writer works to make each section cohere within itself, cohere with other parts, and to give some measure of aesthetic beauty and unity to the whole. A more delicate metaphor says that good writing requires a thread of coherent logic along which are strung beads of thought. Done well, the necklace coheres (doesn't cascade all over the dance floor) and gives beauty to its wearer and the evening.

Nonfiction writers will often spend a great amount of time considering structure before beginning the composition itself. Some writers just start writing and claim that a structure gradually imposes itself. The trouble with this method is that it may result in a lot of wheel spinning, revision, and rewriting once the structure magically emerges from the mist. Most professional creative nonfiction writers have a structure well in mind before writing at length. The advance consideration of structure is not wasted; in fact, it has value beyond the most obvious: By continually turning over the compost of the mind, the materials become firmly entrenched in memory—and by being in the brain rather than just on paper, the material is promoted in the subconscious. There's no predicting what will grow in this repeatedly plowed and harrowed ground with all its varied nutrients. In such fertile soil sprout the seeds of serendipity.

Faced with the search for structure, sit back and sift, shuffle, and stack. Do any patterns, or things that look like possible patterns, take shape? Is there even a vague shape that promises structural potential? Keep at it for as long as possible. And don't stop sitting and sifting just because one structure occurs to you. Whoever said that the first idea is the best? Consider as many as come to the surface, and think about the possible implications and ramifications of putting each into effect. Don't consider only the problems each presents; think about the positive possibilities. Anyone can think of negatives; think creatively about the possibilities. Any idea will have both negatives and positives. It's a matter of imagining and weighing, discarding, and keeping. It could go on forever, but at some point, usually dictated by deadline or economic pressures, you have to fish or cut bait. Just trust that the waiting and weighing pay off.

I believe that you should know the ending before you begin writing. Knowing this and knowing how to open the piece make the middle rather easy to write. After all, the middle must somehow take off logically from the opening, and it must lead with some inevitability toward the ending you've decided on. Not that you'll necessarily know the actual words of the ending (although you may), but the general thought behind the ending will have been in mind all along, guiding your choice of words and ideas. If the ending is there, it'll act as a magnetic pole drawing everything toward it, at first gently, and then, as the ending nears, irresistibly.

When you know reasonably well how the piece will end, you can relax in the knowledge that everything is nailed down (well, tacked down). You can then concentrate your focus on one section at a time. Returning to the architecture metaphor—the steel is up and the foundation poured, and you can now put all your thought into creating one floor at a time, secure in the belief that things won't fall apart before you can get to them.

Establishing the structure before you start writing may sound terribly mechanical and too linear for the creative mind, but I don't believe that's so. Having the security of structure (even just some structure) enables the writer to relax and play with any number of creative possibilities to perk up each floor (paragraph). To solve any problem creatively you have to let the mind periodically go wild and woolly. This is difficult to do when you're uncertain about what will come next, and what after that, and how it will all end. You are forced to keep asking yourself: If I go with this crazy but interesting idea that right now seems to be evolving, where could I go from there? This continuous, haunting uncertainty dampens our ability to let loose the fetters of conventional thinking. If, however, you are safe within one small segment (floor or paragraph) of the overall structure, and the free-thinking, wildly imaginative moments turn up nothing, all is not lost. You can either try some more of that kind of thinking, or you can simply turn to conventional solutions, the predictable kind some writers turn to right at first for fear of falling fetters. (See—sometimes the playful, alliterative mind dredges up something you'd just as soon it didn't!)

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