From Leaves to Forests: Levels of Structure in Writing
Victoria Grossack

Writers need to be aware of their writing at many different levels. I’m not talking just about the story and the characters, but the different structural elements of their work. Writing can be examined word by word – rather like a tree approach – or it can be viewed globally, that is to say, the level that is more like the forest.

This brief article describes the different levels of structure that should be considered and mastered by the writer, for each level provides different opportunities and pitfalls. I will go from the lowest level to the highest, and give a few thoughts describing each.

You might expect that words would be the lowest level of structure, but remember that letters comprise the words. After all, you have to type each letter, one at a time, and if you don’t pick the right letters you can change your meaning completely.

Typos and misunderstandings aside, letters have significance in other ways. Perhaps you are describing an alien culture. Could these people say all the words which we can say? Or should you restrict the alphabet which you are using? Or if you are naming your characters, you may want to make sure that the names begin with different letters, to make the reading easier on your audience.

Words are an obvious element of structure for the writer. First of all, the writer needs to know the precise meanings of words. Recently I 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. What the writer really wanted to say was: “He rumpled his brow.”

Knowing the meanings of words is the first requirement. But you should understand more about the words you use for your books. Words also 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, Schweinehirt.

Some words are considered vulgar; some words may be too difficult for your readership; some may be too easy. Some words can evoke a period 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?

Phrases are somewhere between words and sentences, but they are still worthy of your attention. Phrases can illustrate how your characters think, can demonstrate metaphors which 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.

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 which 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.

A paragraph usually contains one or more sentences. Paragraphs, I believe, 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 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 within a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader.”

A scene usually is 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 which describe how to write scenes, including setting the scene, build-up, and the climax.

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 which contribute to a single event in your book may be grouped together for a chapter. A chapter break implies, also, 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 does help 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 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 which 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’ pages.

Perhaps your ambitions are great, and you want to write not just one book, but several which 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, i.e., you are not responsible for them; your readers are presumably reading other books than those written by you.

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, Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, as a 3000-year-overdue response to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

If you are submitting a non fiction book proposal, you are often expected to include a competitive market analysis, in which you explicitly compare your project with other books on the market. Even though this article presumes you are writing fiction (after all, this is Fiction Fix), the same sort of competitive market analysis will help you.

Writing, of course, can be analyzed in other ways as well, for there are many other levels of structure. What I have described is vertical approach to structure, starting from the least – letters, and moving 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 issues exist. Having a thorough understanding of each level – preferably a mastery of each level – will benefit your writing immensely.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.

Victoria also teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.