From Leaves to Forests: Levels
of Structure in Writing
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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
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.
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
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.
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.