Building Structure

Structure and Intuition

The essential nature of “story” is discovery. At some point that discovery happens. That is the moment when information has accrued to a sufficient point for revelation. That this will happen, that this point will be reached, is the reader’s expectation when a story begins, because otherwise it would not be a story. In order to structure a book or essay, we need to have some idea where this moment is located, what happens exactly, and what it might mean. I am using vague language here purposely. Our understanding of our story’s structure begins with intuition.

Two Trajectories

Every story has two trajectories: the subject that moves from beginning to end in time, and the meaning that deepens as we move along, that gains in significance. In poetry it’s called vehicle and tenor. I’ve called it the subject and its relevance. It is the complexity of these two movements that makes our work sufficiently dense to capture our reader’s interest.


Structure is based upon the work’s “climax,” which has everything to do with this rising action, the result of these two trajectories. It is impossible to think of structure without understanding the interplay of subject and meaning. You can’t, in a sense, have one without the other. So, it can be a little difficult to approach. We know our reader is looking for transformative experience. And we know that experience is felt as catharsis.

Tradition and Expectation

We know there is a formal literary tradition—and this tradition is based on biological truth that we experience reality through our senses and in linear time—that we ourselves have experienced countless times situations where the accrual of information brings us to understanding. This repeated experience creates an expectation. We can play with that expectation if we choose and fulfill it in different ways, and this is where some of our “newness” comes from.

The fulfillment of expectation is the climax of the book, and structurally it comes at the peak of what we can call the “rising action.” However we choose to visualize this, we know, intuitively that this climax comes late in the work because the reader must be prepared for it—and that preparation is what comes earlier.

Structural Logic

How we arrange information in our book has more to do with how it must be arranged to logically and understandably bring about this accrual of information than any other consideration—including chronology. Even if we don’t have a complete understanding of the meaning of our book, even if we don’t know what the revelation is going to be (because we have yet to discover it), we can still have some sense of how the book will be structured. It can be a little uncomfortable, but we have to operate with intuition and faith—and add a little speculation, not unlike the scientist’s hypothesis. We need to have some faint glimmer of where the book is going in order to have some idea where the book begins.

An Example

OK, so indulge me with an example. Let’s say I was writing a book on the Challenger Disaster (I haven’t read a book on this subject, so this is just the way I would do it). OK, in this hypothetical, I’m interested for reasons I don’t necessarily know. I feel certainly that something “happened,” though I don’t know what exactly. There was the explosion but explosions and other acts of god don’t mean anything in and of themselves, and without both action and relevance, I don’t have a story. Still, I trust my intuition on this. I do research. I think the logical climax is the explosion of the Challenger, but as I research and think, I realize that what the book is really about is our aspiration to be God, to have complete control of our destiny and our fate, and in that aspiration we do become God, sealing our fate in our own foibles.

When does a book end? When everything that comes after is inevitable. So it is with this book. The revelation is the climax, and it comes before the Challenger Disaster proper. There will still be a dénouement, but essentially at the moment of revelation the book begins its downward slant—rising action for the majority of the book and descending action for the last pages. The peak of that trajectory is where it all becomes clear: My story is about fate.

So my beginning is going to introduce the problem of fate. I mull this over. I decide I’m going to begin with the explosion itself, those few fateful seconds, but render it as objectively and with as much process oriented detail as possible—as if human beings have not been involved in the moment at all.

I will begin this way for several reasons. First it will allow me to demonstrate some of my powers as a writer. I’ll cram it with specificity of detail (demonstrating my expertise in a world that is unfamiliar to the reader) and immediacy. I’ll demonstrate my knowledge of science and my ability to render complex notions for a lay audience. Together with presenting the problem, I am building my authority to tell this story. I’m getting my reader to trust me. And, I’ll also show that I can write without making myself the subject—in a sense that I can put my ego in check (something editors will want to know early on). So, I would, in this instance, completely absent myself from the description, although I may not during the course of the book. I will write like the wind—no narrative intrusion slowing down the process, the chain reaction, from lift-off on. I’ll build momentum. This is the bait.  Then I’ll set the hook. What is that hook? It might be implicit or explicit—only explicit if necessary. In any case it can be valuable for the writer to write it out. It should be that perfectly formed sentence that tells the reader why it matters. This hook falls at the end of my first chapter.

This beginning could be arbitrary except this beginning is the beginning—aloof objectivity is the subject of the book—the aspiration of scientists and engineers and pilots and a whole society to absent itself that is undermined by the very desire itself.

OK, so much for my hypothetical book. No great shakes here. Someone could as easily have said, “Making the end the beginning.” And in a sense that is what I’ve done. But I would like you to know why—and more importantly, I’d like you to understand how I will proceed from this point onward—that we will now be accruing information in service of the revelation I have in store. So, in chapter 2: introduce character.

No Copyright on Structure

This book I’ve described has probably been written—if not about the Challenger, then about something else—the atom bomb. I’ve probably read this structure in some form. My structure is not novel. Nor is it novel to a discussion of science, engineering, or this subject in particular. There are a limited number of structures, and all must work with some form of “beginning, middle, and end,” and “rising action” culminating in a climax. Some structures have worn deep grooves in our cultural consciousness. Others have not.  There are probably others still yet to be found—but in all events, you can’t copyright a structure, and there is nothing wrong with appropriating a structure. In fact, I suggest it. Structures that have rutted in our consciousness can work in our favor—think of romantic comedy. Our hope that things will turn out as expected heightens our worry and anxiety that things won’t turn out well (I know, we’re kind of funny that way). That things have turned out as we knew on some level they would feels like completion and meaning, and leads the audience to a sense of satisfaction.

So when it comes to structure, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The three act play works. This is not where originality lies. My structure might not be novel, but I hope my subject or my slant on that subject is. And I also hope that I write it better than anyone has ever written it.