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Levels of Structure in Fiction
by Victoria Grossack
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This column describes the different levels of structure that should be considered and mastered by the writer. Each level provides different opportunities and pitfalls. We will go from the lowest level to the highest, and give a few thoughts describing each.
Words. Words are an obvious element of structure for the writer. First of all, the writer needs to know the precise meanings of words. I once read a sample where someone wrote: "He rumbled his brow." Given the rest of the writing, I don't think this was a typo, but a misunderstanding of the language; the author did not know the difference between rumpled and rumbled.
Knowing the meanings of words is the first requirement, but you should understand more about the words you use for your books. Words have fascinating origins: embedded in them is a history of the development of the English language. We can go back to 1066 AD and the time of the Norman invasion, when French-speaking invaders conquered the Saxons, who spoke a Germanic variant. From our language today, you can tell who was inside, dining on good meats, and who was stuck laboring in the fields. For example: pork resembles the French word porc, which means pig. But what is the word for the poor fellow minding the pigs? Swineherd, which is very similar to the German word, schweinhirte.
Some words are considered vulgar, some words may be too difficult for your readers, while others may be too easy. Some words are associated with particular periods of time: groovy. Some you can use frequently, because they are common and the reader is not struck by them, such as the, said, and it. Others are uncommon and must be used sparingly, or their repetition will jolt the reader out of your story and back into the real world. For example, you would not want to use the word flabbergasted repeatedly, would you? The meaning of others have changed over time: gay means one thing now and meant another a century ago.
Phrases. Phrases are somewhere between words and sentences, but they still deserve your attention. Phrases can illustrate how your characters think, and can demonstrate metaphors that belong to your character's way of life. For example, Augustus Caesar used to say "as quick as boiled asparagus" when he meant something would be done speedily. Phrases follow many of the same rules as words, in that you don't want to repeat the uncommon ones too often.
Sentences. Much can be written -- in fact, has been written -- on the art of writing sentences. You need, of course, to have a firm command of the rules that govern sentences, so you know what is acceptable and what is not. Beyond that, the options are numerous. Long sentences slow down the reader and the story, which may be good occasionally; shorter ones speed things up. Varying your sentence structure is also good, to avoid a monotonous beat in your work.
Paragraphs. A paragraph usually contains one or more sentences. I believe paragraphs are often not given enough attention by writers when they're editing. The sentences within a paragraph need to be organized logically, supplying your readers what they need to know, in the correct order.
To help you better understand paragraphs, let me refer you to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, from section 13: "If the subject on which you are writing is of slight extent, or if you intend to treat it briefly, there may be no need to divide it into topics. Ordinarily, however, a subject requires division into topics, each of which should be dealt with in a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader."
Scenes. A scene is usually composed of several paragraphs, and serves to show some piece of action or reaction on the part of your story and your characters. Again, there are numerous books and articles that describe how to write scenes, including setting the scene, build-up, and the climax.
Chapters. Breaking from one chapter to the next often includes a change of scene. In fact, some writers choose now to put only one scene in each chapter, which often makes for many, many very short chapters. These books don't usually end up on my list of favorites, as the writing seems too choppy, but some of them make the bestseller lists anyway, so one scene per chapter is an alternative.
What if you prefer to have more than one scene per chapter? How do you decide which scenes go into a chapter, and when the chapter should break?
Scenes that contribute to a single event in your book may be grouped together for a chapter. A chapter break implies a greater shift in your story than is implied by just a shift in scene.
You may have greater goals for your chapters. One goal might be to have them all be about the same in size and scope, which helps your readers relax into a rhythm. I confess to writing cliff-hangers at the end of most of mine, although I occasionally mete out mercy and conclude a chapter on a less dramatic moment.
Books. Books are organized into chapters, and when you look at the chapters of your novel, the structure of how you have told the story should be obvious to you. Are you giving enough time and space to the events that matter? Is there a pattern to the book? For example, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy's first proposal takes place at a point which, at least in my edition, is exactly halfway through the book's pages.
Series. Perhaps your ambitions are great, and you want to write not just one book, but several that are related to each other. Some of the same issues apply: how do they relate to each other? Should they be similar or should they be different? Do they stand alone or must they be read together?
Other Literature. You may think about how your books relate to each other, but have you also considered how they relate to other pieces of literature? After all, even if you are not creating the other pieces of literature, your readers are presumably reading other books than those written by you. That means that when they read your book, they will be influenced by their reading experiences with other novels.
There are many ways you can analyze how your works fit in with other pieces of literature. Perhaps you are writing genre fiction -- for example, cozy mysteries. Will your mysteries satisfy the readers of that genre? You can analyze your work in a competitive way: is it better or worse than other contenders in the field? Or you can view your writing as complementary, or even as part of a conversation. I consider my novel, Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus, as a 3000-year-overdue reply to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.
Writing, of course, can be analyzed in other ways as well, for there are many ways to study structure. What I have described is a vertical approach, starting from the least with meaning -- words, and moving up to your book's or series' place in the universe of literature. I have given only a short description of some the issues at each level; many more exist. Being aware of these different levels, and having some mastery of them, can benefit your writing immensely.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.