All writing needs to begin with the technical basis: it needs an understanding of techniques to help form a backbone. The following series of writing advice blog posts will focus on the technical elements of writing. From structure, to grammar and punctuation, all the way through to how to write appropriate conclusions and introductions. So: Let’s Get Technical!
This series we will begin by looking at the concept of structure and how to improve structure. If you have been reading these writing posts consistently, you will have noticed that it is strongly recommended you follow a 4-Step Process when writing Essays. The beginning of this process involves planning, and the concept of working with structure on a technical level in your writing does to some extent require that you plan your writing before you begin. However, you can include the concept of structure in your planning and plan around the type of structure you choose to utilise. After all, many famous authors are notorious for keeping detailed plans from J.K. Rowling to Robert Jordan.
Your structure will change depending on the type of piece you choose to write. For example a report format is structured differently from a typical essay format. A report would typically include a Heading, Introduction, Hypothesis, Body and Conclusion, and it may include a list of References or Ingredients/Required Tools, depending on the format of the report required.
However let us take a look at two forms of writing and the structures employed for these forms: Essay Writing and Creative Writing.
Essays have certain rules in place when it comes to structure. The simplest of these is the five paragraph essay structure: One Introduction, Three Body paragraphs, One Conclusion.
Within this structure the Introduction would: 1. Introduce the argument or focus of the essay, 2. introduce the three main points argued in the essay’s body paragraphs, and 3. link into the next paragraph. Another possible way of explaining the purpose of the introduction in an essay format however is to use the following acronym: TACO. Topic sentence, Author information, Contention of the essay, Overview of the essay.
In this five paragraph structure the Body paragraphs typically use the following acronym as a basis for their content: TEEL. Topic, Evidence, Explanation, and Link. The topic sentence introduces the particular argument of the paragraph. Then the writer should include evidence to support this argument, and an explanation of how any evidence supports the argument. The final sentence of a body paragraph should, furthermore, finish by linking in one of two ways: either back to the overall prompt, or to the next paragraph.
The Conclusion then follows very similar structure to the Introduction or Body paragraphs. However its topic sentence focuses on summarising the overall argument across the essay. The Conclusion then summarises the three arguments of the Body paragraphs in separate sentences, before finishing with a final summarising idea. The Conclusion should be structured so as to not include any new ideas, but its final sentence should serve to promote the audience to think about the validity of the overall argument.
However, the five paragraph essay structure is only one of the more simple essay structures you can use and should only serve as a starting point to any structured essay.
Writer’s Digest feature Six Logical Writing Structures over on their site. They focus on more complex essay structures such as the: Categorical (structured work around a series of categories), Evaluative (analysing the positives and negatives for an issue), Chronological (more likely used for creative pieces – chronological structure is about a structure that tells the narrative than follows a sequential order), Comparative (a structure that focuses on deeper explanation of why one solution to a problem is far more appropriate than another or why one novel is a greater work of literature than another), Sequential (step-by-step) and Causal (cause and effect focused) structures. It is also worth keeping in mind that essay structures will need to adapt to the type of essay that is being written. There are some small but distinct differences between: a book review essay, a discussion essay, a comparison essay, and a literature review essay, for example.
One key element to remember is that however you adapt the five paragraph structure, try to avoid including too many main arguments (or Body paragraphs) in your essay. The suggestion, according to George A. Miller’s The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, is that the human mind can only hold seven (plus or minus) pieces of information at once. This means that going overboard on your number of body paragraphs may end up confusing your audience, rather than convincing them that you are making a powerful argument.
The idea of structure often seems incongruous with the idea of creativity. How can something be both structured and creative? Here is a popular term that might explain precisely how: The Three-Act Structure.
The Three-Act Structure is a structuring tool used by many authors and screenwriters to help structure and organise their writing in a technical manner. Act 1 is the Set Up or the Beginning; Act 2 is the Confrontation, Middle or Conflict; Act 3 is the Conclusion or Resolution.
In a Three-Act Structure you start with Act 1 as your Beginning. The reason why this beginning point is also called the Set Up is because this is where the author introduces their main characters, the world of their story and any other important elements. Remember of course Chekhov’s Gun here: and anything that is introduced must have a purpose. As seen in the diagram above, Act 1 involves some foreshadowing of future events with the inclusion of an ‘inciting incident’ – an event which sets up future conflict. After all, all excellent stories need conflict.
Act 2 as the Confrontation and Middle is where the author focuses on conflict. Act 2 may begin with some sort of reflective moment, where the character explores how far they have come and how the world has changed. Act 2 is where character development is drawn out and focused upon in response to various obstacles and challenges.
At the midway point of Act 2, there may be some sort of major twist or revelation. This is the point at which any conflicts start to accelerate and find real traction. The middle of Act 2 should add to the major conflict, any encounters with the source of conflict, and should continue to add to that conflict progressing forward by providing possible solutions that may fail in a sudden moment of disaster (as seen in the diagram), leading to a terrible crisis. This may mean that during the end of Act 2 the climax (the highest point) leaves the heroes in great and terrible danger regarding the conflict of the plot.
However, Act 3 is all about Resolution. Therefore, while Act 3 may begin with characters in ‘peril,’ and focus on the climax of the conflict (a final encounter with the source of conflict), it will quickly begin to resolve these conflicts. In a war novel at the beginning of Act 3 hope may seem lost and victory inevitable, however the climax of this part of the novel may lead to a miraculous rescue or the arrival of reinforcements.
Once the climax of Act 3 has begun, this leads to the winding down of the conflict as part of the ‘descending action,’ up until the Denouement. In the Denouement, all conflict is ‘wrapped up’ and resolved – whether this is a neat or untidy resolution depends on the plotting and the writer of course. Once the Denouement has taken place the story finishes then with a final conclusion – potentially in an afterword or epilogue.
Say for example you chose to write a (admittedly cliched) book about two female best friends in love with the same young man. Act 1 would introduce these three characters, their lives and their world. Act 1 may directly introduce or only hint at the love interest thread in the book. Act 2 would start to explore this love interest thread in greater detail – perhaps exploring each of the friends’ perspectives on their love interest. Act 2 would then lead to a major twist or revelation in which each friend discovers their love for the same man. This would lead to the developing conflict and series of obstacles as the two friends fight over the same man. By the climax of Act 3 everything would have reached a terrible scene of desolation, as the two friends have become bitter enemies, then in the climax the love interest would reveal he is in love with someone else and the two ladies are left to resolve their differences, leading into a conclusion in which they forgive one another.
As an elegant summary for the purpose and beauty of the Three-Act Structure:
“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.” – Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars Episode IV and V.
In brief, even though the Three-Act structure has been used successfully by many authors and screenwriters it is not the panacea of all writing. As a writer you must be aware of the technical skills involved in structuring your work in order to be able to escape the confines of a structure. If you were to analyse many famous works of fiction you would discover that even though they may use the Three-Act Structure, they do not hold rigorously to this structure. Instead they use the idea of Three-Act Structuring as a tool to inspire the development of their characters and conflict.
And that is the importance of structure – that it assists in the overall writing process rather than constricts or confines.