Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Sorry—I Mean Structure—Seems To Be the Hardest Word

There’s an old Elton John song titled, Sor­ry Seems to be the Hard­est Word. Well, I won­der if he’d mind if I changed the title to, Struc­ture Seems to be the Hard­est Word.

Struc­ture is a lot like voice; it needs to be present, yet it must be invis­i­ble and unforced. With­out it, the writ­ing may fall down just like a kindergartner’s block tow­er. My cur­rent non­fic­tion project has great mate­r­i­al with plen­ty of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources for me to search, but that’s not enough. It needs a sol­id struc­ture to sup­port it, or it will tip over.

There are a few basic ques­tions I am ask­ing myself to uncov­er a struc­ture:

  • What is the sto­ry I want to tell?
  • How does this sto­ry move along chrono­log­i­cal­ly?
  • What are the themes in the sto­ry?
  • Why does this sto­ry mat­ter?

Bold Women of MedicineWith Bold Women of Med­i­cine: 21 Sto­ries of Astound­ing Dis­cov­er­ies, Dar­ing Surg­eries, and Heal­ing Break­throughs, Chica­go Review Press, 2017, the struc­ture and theme were inher­ent­ly in place. Themes of per­se­ver­ance and edu­ca­tion as well as hav­ing a good men­tor aid­ed the med­ical women in their suc­cess­ful careers. The nar­ra­tive made sense to me, prob­a­bly because I was writ­ing indi­vid­ual chrono­log­i­cal sto­ries about lives well-lived.

Recent­ly I dove into Draft No. 4: On the Writ­ing Process by John McPhee. He says, “The approach to struc­ture in fac­tu­al writ­ing is like return­ing from a gro­cery store with mate­ri­als you intend to cook for din­ner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.”[1] One struc­ture he writes about is the ABC/D struc­ture, where he pits the sto­ries of three sim­i­lar peo­ple against some­one dis­sim­i­lar. And that fourth ele­ment the “D” appears through­out the whole sto­ry. By pro­fil­ing peo­ple in this way, he adds a new dimen­sion or con­flict to the piece. And accord­ing to McPhee, theme plays a larg­er role. Hmmm, okay so there’s one way to go.

One of my favorite works of adult non­fic­tion is The Immor­tal Life of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks by Rebec­ca Skloot. If you’re not famil­iar with it, pick it up and read it soon. In this book Skloot tells the sto­ry of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks, a poor African Amer­i­can woman strick­en with cer­vi­cal can­cer. As Lacks was being treat­ed in 1951, her cells were tak­en with­out her con­sent. Ulti­mate­ly, HeLa cells, as they have become known, have trans­formed med­i­cine as we know it today.

In struc­tur­ing her book, Skloot uses a braid­ed sto­ry structure—a dif­fer­ent approach from McPhee’s. Dur­ing her research, she dis­cov­ered count­less mov­ing parts to Henrietta’s sto­ry, and the ques­tion was how best to uni­fy them into a sin­gle nar­ra­tive. What she fig­ured out was to take all the impor­tant nar­ra­tives and weave them through like a braid, jump­ing back and forth in time. Sim­i­lar to the struc­ture of the nov­el Fried Green Toma­toes at the Whis­tle Stop Café by Fan­nie Flagg. And because Skloot’s research was embed­ded in the sto­ry, she includ­ed her sto­ry with Deb­o­rah, (Henrietta’s daugh­ter) as one of the strands. That cen­tral nar­ra­tive car­ries through the whole book.

Skloot used three dif­fer­ent col­ored index cards, one for each of the three cen­tral nar­ra­tives. She arranged them on a large table and moved them around in time. She intro­duced all three strands in the begin­ning, so the read­ers knew what to expect. What she fig­ured out was that she was spend­ing too much time on each nar­ra­tive and not jump­ing around in time fast enough, thus bog­ging down the sto­ry. As soon as she moved more quick­ly from nar­ra­tive to nar­ra­tive, the book began to take shape.

My non­fic­tion sto­ry takes place with­in sev­er­al months, so I don’t have the lux­u­ry of jump­ing back and forth between decades as Skloot was able to do. But, there are mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters: steam­boat cap­tains, Native Amer­i­cans, explor­ers, nat­u­ral­ists and botanists, and of course set­tlers and farm­ers all telling their own sto­ries. So per­haps I can braid these nar­ra­tives togeth­er.

Since only a few inter­act­ed dur­ing the his­tor­i­cal event and can­not be pit­ted against each oth­er direct­ly, I need a way to con­nect them. So back I go to John McPhee’s ABC/D struc­ture, and it dawns on me that all of my char­ac­ters con­front the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er. Per­haps I should pit the sto­ry around the riv­er. A cen­tral nar­ra­tive to car­ry the read­er through the book. A eure­ka moment? I hope.

Final­ly, in reread­ing You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Com­plete Guide to Writ­ing Cre­ative Non­fic­tion From Mem­oir to Lit­er­ary Jour­nal­ism and Every­thing in Between by Lee Gutkind, I found an addi­tion­al way to look at struc­ture.

Gutkind writes about the Cre­ative Non­fic­tion Dance where you cre­ate a rhythm for the sto­ry:

So here’s the dance that is dia­grammed. The scene gets the read­er inter­est­ed, (okay I have many good scenes) and involved, so you can then pro­vide infor­ma­tion, non­fic­tion, to the read­er. (I have good infor­ma­tion as well.) But soon­er or lat­er, a read­er will get dis­tract­ed or over­loaded with infor­ma­tion, and you will lose him. But before you allow that to hap­pen you go back to the scene—or intro­duce a new scene—and reen­gage.[2]

It’s even bet­ter, he says, if you can embed infor­ma­tion in the scene then you can trav­el from scene to scene with­out stop­ping.

I may need a com­bi­na­tion of these struc­ture ideas, or maybe a dif­fer­ent struc­ture alto­geth­er, we shall see. Am I over­think­ing it? Prob­a­bly, but struc­ture, for sure, seems to be the hard­est word.

I won­der if Elton has any words of wis­dom for me.

________________________________

[1] McPhee, John. Draft No. 4 On the Writ­ing Process. New York: Far­rar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017, p. 20.

[2] Gutkind, Lee. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Com­plete Guide to Writ­ing Cre­ative Non­fic­tion From Mem­oir to Lit­er­ary Jour­nal­ism and Every­thing in Between. Boston: DiCapo Press, 2013, p. 139.

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