In architecture, there’s an expression: form follows function. This means that the way something is used dictates the shape of the building (or components of it). So, for example, stairs on a stair case are designed the way they are so that they can function the way they are supposed to: to allow a person to scale them with relative ease. If a designer decided that the distance between stairs should be doubled so that they looked cooler, they would not work as well. In that case, form (what they look like) trumps function (how it works). To honor this principal, a designer should not make the structure secondary to anything else.
This idea applies to a number of things we use every day. Style matters, but if style makes something non-functional, there would be no point. Now, of course there are examples that refute this—take an 8-inch high heel or a jacket made of cellophane. People do wear these items as fashion statements. And if your purpose in wearing these types of exceptions is to make a fashion statement, rather than be able to walk or stay warm, knock yourself out. You might give Lady Gaga a run for her money in the press.
How does this relate to writing?
Structure can be like one of those things some writers prefer to pay little attention to. Think of structure as the spine of the story, with necessary components satisfied along the way, such as introducing key characters, establishing what’s at stake, challenging the characters as the story moves, and having them be changed by story’s end. Because of this—having all these boxes to check while you revise your story—it’s too constricting, some believe. It encourages formulaic writing, I’ve heard.
Structure can be a bad word, like grammar. But it exists for a reason.
Let’s return to the building metaphor to explain how important structure is. In a building, structure is necessary—would you stand in a building that lacked a structure to hold it up? Sure, you might find a structure-less building intriguing from the outside, but would you climb a few floors in it? Invite a group of people to join you on the top floor? Probably not.
If it doesn’t function as a building, then what’s the point?
Think of this an even different way: a kid may create a tree house with some friends—it’s cool for them, but it might not be the sturdiest structure in the world. But you let them play in it, as long as it’s safe enough. Not the place for adults to hold cocktail hour, however.
Just because it’s present, however, doesn’t mean that structure has to be visible. In a building, most often, the structure is covered: the metal/steel/wood frame is enclosed with aesthetically pleasing layers, starting with drywall or plaster, and then enhanced with interesting paint, and perhaps a picture or two that adds further character. Inexperienced decorators hire professionals.
But when you write, you are the designer, the decorator.
You adorn the structure with setting, dialogue, scenes, characters, plot, etc. You decide what colors your pages. The process you employ to decide what stays and what goes where should start with picking the structure that will best showcase your story (at least when you revise)
But whichever structure you choose, it should be THE one that will do what you need it to. Do you tell a linear story, beginning at an important moment in your character’s life? Do you start en medias res, and then shift backwards and forward? Do you start at the end and then move all the way to the beginning? Whichever decision you make, you should do so consciously because it is the ONLY structure choice for THIS story. Do you need to build sympathy for one character over another? How about withholding a secret until late—one that if you started in the beginning of the story could not have been avoided?
Also consider how you distribute the action, the drama, the details throughout your story.
To return again to the building metaphor, consider how an architect distributes the weight through a building. In a ten-story building would you want the majority of the weight on the top floor? Would you want it in the middle? Or would you hope that whoever designed the building understood that the weight—more or less—should be evenly distributed throughout the building? Your stories should distribute the weight, to some degree. Don’t front-load the story so that everything that is interesting unfolds on page one; make sure you don’t save everything worthwhile for the final paragraph. How can you make use of every stage of your story so that every section is integral, accomplishes something crucial for your story? Distributing your content also allows it to stand out better—the good stuff won’t have to fight for attention packed together.
You might be one of those people who write and let the story tell itself. A freeform, perhaps; one that lets the readers piece everything together in their own way. There’s a lot of use to this, especially in the drafting stages. But when it comes time to revise, you should find the structure. In this sense, the early drafts reveal the story’s structure. Unless you want to make readers work harder than they should through your story—offering instead something that is more art than story-telling. Several authors have created outstanding stories in this way.
If you’re not there yet, perhaps you should get really proficient with structure first.
If you want some thorough breakdowns on how Fitzgerald and O’Connor use structure well in “Babylon Revisited” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge” (respectively), check out the out these special editions on 5Writers.com devoted to these stories: