Dreaming is a form of planning. — GLORIA STEINEM
Each finished piece of writing is made up of parts—words, sentences, lines, scenes, and stanzas. These building blocks can be combined in many different ways to create different effects. How the writer chooses to arrange the building blocks is called the structure. Think about what you enjoy reading the most, and you’ll find you likely prefer some structures over others. Do you love long, dense, formless rants? Spoken word? Short snappy character-driven plots? Poetry that rhymes? Paying attention to the parts of a piece—the building blocks—allows you to expand your technique as a creative writer. Learning a little bit about each of the parts helps you create inventive, workable structures for your own readers. The more you know about the building blocks of creative writing, the more you can create.
Structure in creative writing, as in building, does its work mostly invisibly—behind the scenes. Structure is in walls, in the ceiling, underneath the floors. It’s the framework that holds the building together, and then when we enter the grand hall, or your poem or story, our attention as readers is carried by the details, the feelings, the emotions of the experience. Structure doesn’t constrain your writing; rather, it lets you create an experience for the readers so they can move around in your piece easily. In fact, if the writer has done a good job putting the building blocks together, many times readers will not even notice the structure.
Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash. —VLADIMIR NABOKOV
The chart below provides a general overview of structure in both narrative (which includes stories—both fiction and nonfiction—plays, and graphic works) and poetry. Note that many pieces you read or write don’t use all the building blocks. But good writers consider them all as they work, deciding what they need and what they don’t. And creative writers sometimes mix and match the parts, as Dinty W. Moore does in his essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans” (p. 305) or Carolyn Forché does in her prose poem “The Colonel” (p. 185).
|Parts of Narratives (Fiction, Memoir, Creative Nonfiction, Graphic Narratives, Plays, Screenplays)||Parts of Poems|
PARTS OF NARRATIVE
Narratives are composed of three parts: sentences, conflicts, and scenes. You will need a beginning piece and an end piece of course, and a middle and stuff to happen along the way, but all the components of your narrative are built using sentences, conflicts, and scenes. Just as a house is built from boards, nails, and windows, you can arrange the parts in endless combinations. You can experiment, and not use some parts at all—there are windowless dwellings and scene-free narratives. But be aware that when you experiment (a house with no roof, no windows, no walls) some people might choose not to hang out in your creation for very long.
It’s not how life works, I know, but I think that it is the writer’s most basic job to pick specific things out of the chaos of real life and structure them in a meaningful way for the reader. —DEBRA WIERENGA
We’ll start our discussion with a straightforward, traditional structure, one that isn’t unusual or intimidating. The short story “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (p. 119) is a brilliant example of a well-constructed narrative effectively using the three basic narrative building blocks.
Read Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” (p. 119). What are the building blocks of this story? What parts make up the story? Then read Sebastian Matthews’s poem “Buying Wine” (p. 70). What are the parts of this poem?
Sentences are the basic building block of narrative (and often of poetry, too). They are the cells of the body of your piece. Each sentence matters; each sentence needs a reason to be in your story. When you tell a story, you use sentences. When you tell about your horrible day, you use sentences to show what you have gone through. Sentences are the vehicles for the images: They show us who the people in your piece are and what they are doing. Because we are trying to help readers experience our story visually, using the five senses, creative writers rely on action-oriented sentences; action sentences are the lifeblood of narrative, the tiny pieces of mosaic that contribute to the whole.
You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That’s the goal. —JAMES BALDWIN
You can use four basic kinds of sentences to reveal a narrative:
|Character Sentence||Shows, through behavior, the character of a person|
|Relationship Sentence||Shows, through actions and reactions, who people are by how they interact with each other|
|Plot Sentence||Presents an action step that is going to have some consequences|
|Backstory Sentence||Provides information from the character’s past actions and previous hopes that sheds light on the present situation|
The opening sentence might reveal something about a character (how she orders a drink, plays pinball). The next sentence might exist in order to establish relationships (a mother needles her daughter about gaining weight; a young boy is kicked out of the playground by his buddies). Another sentence might move the plot forward (your character loads boxes into her car and drives off with her best friend’s child; a teenager is wrongly arrested) so that the reader has to keep reading in order to find out what happens next. Lastly, backstory sentences are carefully chosen images from the past that give your story depth and context.
These four kinds of sentences are your most basic narrative building blocks. They are active, and they almost always make a single point. However, in a good story, the sentences may have one main focus (plot) and also be, secondarily, revelatory of character. Just as in a well-built home, the stair-rail is both beautiful and functional.
Here is an example of each of the four types of narrative sentences, taken from Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral”:
|CHARACTER SENTENCE:||She was at the draining board doing scalloped potatoes.|
|RELATIONSHIP SENTENCE:||I reached to draw her robe back over her, and it was then that I glanced at the blind man. What the hell! I flipped the robe open again.|
|PLOT SENTENCE:||“Get us a pen and some heavy paper. Go on, bub, get the stuff,” he said.|
|BACKSTORY SENTENCE:||She’d seen something in the paper: HELP WANTED—Reading to Blind Man, and a telephone number. She phoned and went over, was hired on the spot.|
Find examples of each of the four types of sentences in Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral” (p. 119). Then revisit the excerpt from Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate (p.76). Find an example of each type of sentence in this excerpt from her memoir.
Without conflict, there’s no story. If, for instance, you tell me about your day, and it was a pleasant sunny day and things went well, and food tasted so super good, and Joey was friendly as he always is, and you got your homework done a bit early, and you found a parking place right in front of your apartment; then you got to bed early and slept quite well … Why are you even telling me this? There is absolutely no story. You have created an account. It’s like reading a diary entry. It’s lovely. Really, really lovely. But it’s not a story.
I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on the mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten: happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead after another. —BRENDA UELAND
Why? No conflict. Narrative is a container for conflict. Conflicts are the essential “what happens” moments, the blow-by-blow account of the complicated active emotional track of the story. You must have problems to have a story. And the problems must matter, somehow, very much. In “Cathedral,” a man who is limited in his ability to be comfortable around others is forced to confront his fears when the blind man, a good friend of his wife’s, visits his home overnight. There’s going to be a story that arises from a highly charged encounter like that. Or when a pregnant teenager decides to take the decisions about her baby’s future into her own hands—you’ve got a story. In Pamela Painter’s “The New Year” (p. 69), an adulterous affair has serious consequences (especially for the ham). There’s a story there because there’s inherent conflict.
Learning to use that intuitive, emotional thing is important. But to understand dramatic structure, to learn what literature really is; those things are valuable, too.
— JIMMY SMITS
Conversely, imagine your four-year-old niece, reporting her dream. The dragons were chasing her and she fed them. And then they were chasing her. And they turned purple. And then she was hungry and she was chasing them. And she turned green! And they went to the store and there were dragons there, too. And she got chased … Conflicts? Well, sort of. But they don’t matter because there are no implications. One event just rolls right into the next. There is no cause and effect. There is no shape. Things go on and on and on!
Conflicts are cause-and-effect situations, rendered in image, with implications for the character who, because of this situation, now has to deal. So, in a conflict, the direction of the story changes. There’s a “so what.”
In all forms of creative writing that are story based, you want to create a narrative made up of moments that give the reader/viewer a dramatic story experience, focused on forward motion.
The building block writers use in order to give a meaningful shape to any conflict is called scene. The four-year-old’s story has no scenes—it’s one long dream. Scene is the building block you use to:
· render conflict in image
· link cause and effect
· reveal the implications of these events (the “so what”)
· keep the reader engaged
· contain the drama and shape the impact