Archive for December 4th, 2007

The poet and novelist Robert Graves once said, that, if asked on his death bed, he would say that the secret to writing poetry is to control your “s” sounds. I’m not in his league, but if I were to give any death-bed secrets about writing prose, mine would be to learn all you can about structure.

Turns of phrases are easy. From my years of teaching first year composition at university, I’m convinced that most people of average intelligence can learn to write a literate sentence. With a little extra effort, many can produce wit. If they’re stuck, reading their favorite writer – or, better yet, typing out a page or two from their favorite work – will influence them into efforts beyond their usual range.

Structure, though, is another matter. The typical high school model of an essay with an introduction and conclusion and three points in between isn’t nearly enough. Then, just to make matters worse, we don’t have a vocabulary that describes different ways to open or conclude a story or to deal with opposing views in an essay. As a result, most writers begin to work almost blind to structure, and without the words to think about it consciously.

For some writers, these conditions aren’t a problem. They learn about structure on an unconscious level through trial and error – that is, many drafts – and are happy. However, for most writers, these conditions mean uncertainty and wasted effort, especially when they are just learning their trade.

If you are one of the majority, you have only two ways to move beyond such uncertainty and waste: Constant practice, and at least a temporary obsession with structure.

The practice part is easy enough if you’re disciplined. Write every day and after a few hundred thousand words or seventy or eighty pieces of prose, and you are likely to arrive at a point where the necessary structure becomes clear to you as soon as you have your main idea or plot.

Meanwhile, though, you are apt to become frustrated. What’s worse, if you miss a few days of writing, you may lose your sense of structure to a degree and need to build it up again.

A more solid approach is to study structure consciously, so you get in the habit of thinking about it. That means, whenever you read a novel or an essay, spending some time thinking about the structure. You may even want to create a diagram, summarizing not only the main plot developments or points, but how they relate to the rest of the work.

Works that you especially like or dislike are especially useful, because you have the motivation of trying to understand why you have the reaction that you do. However, you can also work with stories that leave you relatively unmoved one way or the other, trying to create a new or alternative structure for them.

For any work that you spend time on, you can also experiment with how reordering them affects the result. If the work is really successful, you’ll find that you can’t change the structure without changing the plot or the argument. If you can rearrange the parts, then the work is likely flawed (or, possibly, you’ve misunderstood it).

This sort of study is difficult. You have to do it without support and very few resources outside of your own powers of observation. Moreover, for a time, you may be uneasily aware of reading everything you encounter on two levels: First, as a reader, and second as a writer-in-training who wants to dissect the structure. But keep on with the study, and you’ll soon start to build a repertoire of structural strategies you can apply to your own work. You’ll start to have the sense of the different ways you can put a work together, and even, at times, of when there’s a gap in the structure of what you have written.

Difficult? Of course. But if you really want to write well, you have little choice. Either you discover structure on your own, or you learn the craft from other writers – there are really no other choices.

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