Debbie Lee Wesselmann



Structure is one of the most difficult concepts to teach, primarily because each project requires its own peculiar organization; however, since a story’s impact depends as much as ordering as on content, aspiring writers would be well advised to analyze professionally written fiction to determine the effect of the structure.  If you are just beginning to write fiction, please note that this is an advanced topic.

1.  Not all stories need to unfold in a linear––that is, chronological––manner.  While genre fiction usually depends on a linear progression, more theme-based literary fiction may not.  Non-linear narratives must maintain internal logic by making certain that each scene or section leads emotionally or thematically to the next.  In this last case, the story’s tension arises in part out of the reader’s desire to assemble the entire puzzle of what the story means beyond the individual scenes.

2. The first paragraph of any story/novel must contain conflict.  A novel has the luxury of establishing a “false” conflict that only hints at what will become the main one, while a short story must begin at once to expose the core of the emotional tension.  Both, however, must start with tension.

3.  The final scene must offer emotional resolution.  This does not mean that you must tie up all loose ends, but rather that you must create a pivotal moment when the main conflict ceases to exists.

4.  When structuring your fiction, make sure that switching points-of-view, flashbacks, parallel action, and new scenes all make sense within the context of the story.  Whether you are writing a short story, a novella, or a full-length novel, everything must count by either complicating the conflict or leading to the resolution. 

5.  Learn to recognize when your organization interferes with your storytelling.  The reader requires a sense of continuity for him to turn the page.  Too many cliffhangers, followed by a complete switch in action/characters/plot, can be frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying, especially if a consistent level of tension is not maintained.  If you leave a character in a perilous situation, you should begin the next section with equal, or nearly-equal, conflict, albeit it in another circumstance.

6.  Fictional structure can be defined both as its organization and its shape, both of which are determined by the internal logic that the writer establishes.  Without logic, the fiction has no consistent shape or compelling organization.  Note that in some stories, the logic is the absence of logic.  A perfect example of this is the novel Catch-22.

Copyright 2007 by Debbie Lee Wesselmann