Whenever prose writers get together, sooner or later the conversation turns to structure. It’s the beast that keeps us up at night: How do we create narrative tension? What makes a book hang together?
I think of structure as the big metal hoop under old-time skirts, or the frame visible briefly as a building goes up. Structure is interior, hidden and therefore mysterious. Readers don’t notice it – but they know when it’s missing. Certain books just “don’t hold together” or “didn’t keep me reading.”
Because every writer gropes toward structure, we have many “meta” structures that attempt to describe the undergarments of literature. The sixth-century Sanskrit Natyasastra categorized dramatic stories by eight primary moods they elicited. Aristotle’s Poetics first outlined the western concepts of tragedy and comedy, as well as ideas we still use about conflict in storytelling.
To put these literary theories into practice is tricky, though. In my own writing and my work with students, I’ve identified five great working structures that are useful to writers telling today’s stories. Each contains inherent tension, driving a story forward.
(1) The loss that is a gain and (2) the gain that is a loss: Fairy tales and their modern descendants, romance and horror, follow these archetypal structures. Non-genre writers can benefit from them, too, to create narrative interest based on the reader’s fervent wish for the character to come out ahead. Each type of story begins with a world-changing event: The girl loses her beloved mother, but eventually gains a “happily ever after” (Cinderella). A wedding, the supposed ultimate gain for a young woman, turns out to be a nightmare in which her very life is threatened (Bluebeard). The setup propels the hope for a happy ending: How can this loss possibly be transformed into a gain? Or, what worm is hidden within this too-good-to-be-true apple?
(3) The Quest: A deliberate journey toward a goal or destination. The journey is exciting and adventurous, although difficult. It may be external, internal or (usually) both. The protagonist plans to go on the journey and then return home (The Hobbit). This is the classic “hero’s journey” described by Joseph Campbell. Working with his multi-step structure, a writer can keep a story moving and fill in gaps.
(4) Emigration: Similar to the quest, this is a one-way journey, not a round-trip. The protagonist may not begin intentionally. There is no return or, if there is, it’s not a “homecoming” but a visit. An ache of nostalgia is a constant motif in most emigration stories – a
tension that pulls us back toward the original location even as the character’s physical journey goes the opposite way.
(5) The answer to the question “Why?”: This structure drives most narrative nonfiction (other than memoir, usually one of the above types), as well as some fiction (mysteries). It relies on the reader’s intellectual curiosity: a need to understand the world, to solve a puzzle. Set up a series of compelling questions, and space the answers out over the course of the book. Presto: a page-turner.
Of course, in the end, every book creates its own shape, and pre-existing formulas only take you so far. Use big-picture ideas of structure when you’re stuck to inspire you and help you make story decisions. But let your structure be organic to your topic. Don’t lace your story in so tight that it can’t breathe.
Let it be, instead, like a larynx: a strong muscular frame through which your voice can move freely.
Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, author of the award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, and editor of the anthology Out! Stories from the New Queer India.