Story Structure Gives Readers a Path to Follow

Whether it’s a novel or a fact-based essay, your story needs a structure, dscn6769-smallera logical flow that’s like a winding path through a wilderness of ideas and details. Readers want assurance there’s a clear direction for this journey.

Structure is an integral part of the planning process, flowing out of your premise and theme. (For more on theme see:

What Does a Story Structure Look Like?

Marion Road Smith, in The Memoir Project, cites Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir of self-discovery, as a book with a clear structure. It has 108 chapters (the number of beads on a Buddhist prayer-bead string), and follows the three topics of her title in order.

Chronological order, moving from the story’s inciting incident to its conclusion, is a tried and true form, especially for nonfiction—but, as in Eat, Pray, Love, there are other ways to approach it. Maybe the theme and subject are best illustrated by a back to front delivery? Or maybe a back and forth flow would heighten the tension and impact.

If reading it felt like trying to hold pudding, instead of, say, a sandwich, they lacked structure. When the contents ooze out in all directions at once, with no recognizable shape, the thing would benefit from some structure.–Elizabeth Roach Smith, The Memoir Project

What Does a Non-linear Story Look Like?

For a short piece about a Bunyanesque hero of BC’s Cariboo Gold Rush in the 1860s, I zigzag stitched the threads of my own misadventure of getting lost in a thunderstorm as I retraced Moses Ireland’s steps over Bald Mountain, where he rescued miners lost in a blizzard. The pace and tension sparked back and forth, building and falling in tandem.

Clarity Should be a Writer’s Foremost Goal

Dipping back and forth over time, however, did not work for  the story of a murder/suicide. In an early draft, the story (a) opened with the discovery of the bodies; (b) flipped back to precipitating events; (c) did another backflip to the protagonist’s troubled childhood; (d) and leapfrogged back to the present. This allowed me to work with a surprise twist in the protagonist’s past—but my sage test readers got lost in this tangled flow. I rewrote it in good old chronology and the who, what and when became clear. [See]