Writing Structure

Writing Structure

In our writing group, there was at one time an ongoing discussion between two members on structure: one plotted out the entire arc before writing; the other jumped into the stream and let the story cut its own course.

I have read several books on writing. The first is from John McPhee, one of my favorite writers. (His essay Los Angeles Against the Mountains is a wonderful description of the connections between plate tectonics, the San Gabriel mountains, El Niño, fire and mudslides. Montecito is a testament to its truth. “The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose.”)

In Draft No. 4, McPhee has a chapter on structure. He describes how he arranged his essay Encounters with the Archdruid:

When I was through studying, separating, defining and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood – four feet by eight feet – on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face-up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece. I didn’t stare at those cards for two weeks, but I kept an eye on them all afternoon. Finally, I found myself looking back and forth between two cards. One said “Alpinist.” The other said “Upset Rapid.” “Alpinist” could go anywhere. “Upset Rapid” had to be where it belonged in the journey on the river. I put the two cards side by side, “Upset Rapid” to the left. Gradually, the thirty-four other cards assembled around them until what had been strewn all over the plywood was now in neat rows. Nothing in that arrangement changed across the many months of writing.

This delighted me, as Maude and I did something similar for our first book. We blogged for a couple of years, exploring the aspects of our relationship, then printed out the blogs, cut them into pieces, laid them on the glass dining-room table and shuffled them into place.

The second book on writing is Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. They, too, have a section on structure. I was entranced to find that he used McPhee’s same essay as illustration:

McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid is a paradigm of structural complexity. It’s like a piece of fine carpentry, fussy and great, and great in part because nothing in the writing calls attention to the structure. The book, from the early 1970s, is in essence an extended profile of David Brower, then the nation’s most prominent and controversial environmentalist. The story is told in three parts, each of them an “encounter” showing Brower in confrontation or debate with people who represent for him the forces of environmental destruction.

The final section takes place mostly on a raft trip down the Colorado river. … At one point, the conversation turns to the river’s water levels. These are controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam, upstream from the party of rafters. McPhee breaks away from the central narrative and after a visual break on the page writes:

What seemed unimaginable beside the river in the canyon was that all that wild water had been processed, like pork slurry in a hot-dog plant, upstream in the lightless pen-stocks of a big dam.

Then he tells us that “some days earlier” Dominy had taken him and Brower to see the dam. … It is worth pausing over how McPhee manages this transition, from the river to the dam. Not the prose itself, elegant though it is, but the timing. He waits for a logical moment when he, the narrator, would be likely to remember that earlier trip. … If a story is well-designed, the writer should be able to go from one subject to a rather different one, from one time to another time, without giving off a scent of arbitrariness or struggle. Sometimes two parts of a story can simply be placed next to each other and the structure fits together like one of those New England Stone walls that have stood for centuries without mortar in the joints.

I was gratified to read McPhee’s description of his structure and Kidder’s analysis of how artfully it was assembled. I am challenged in my writing: to justify the table-top of my premise, I must first describe the legs that support it, and these books have helped me in organizing my ideas.

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