Structure:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Let the material dictate the form.” William Sloane

“Contents dictate form.” Jacques Barzun

“You will have to invent the form that will best serve the subject.” Philip Gerard

“I like a chapter to have design of tone, as well as of form. A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone.” John Steinbeck

“Form is the aspect of the story that can be abstracted from everything else and expressed in some other medium, for instance, a graph, or some other geometric figure.” Madison Smartt Bell

“The structure of the various sections of the events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence of something has no discernible effect, it is not part of the whole.” Aristotle

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” Ernest Hemingway

“Form is of primary importance, always. Ingredients of fiction from the other three groupings [plot, character, and tone] (regardless of appearances, which may often be to the contrary) are always subordinate to form, to design. Indeed, any or all of these ingredients can and do function as elements of design. We are accustomed to thinking of plot as what defines structure in a story. But elements from other categories—point of view, imagery, shifts and alterations of tone—may also be used structurally and often are. In reading and writing, you must consider (consciously or unconsciously) all of these aspects of fiction in terms of their relationship to the overall design. Even the overall meaning or theme of the narrative cannot be separated from this relationship. In a properly realized work, form and function are one and inseparable.” Madison Smartt Bell

“All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.” William Zinsser

“Fiction is made of structural units; it is not a great rush. Every story is built of a number of such units: a passage of description, a passage of dialogue, an action, another passage of description, more dialogue, and so forth. The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he is working on a description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality; he works on the store as if it were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or too short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to the next unit. Thinking this way, working unit by unit, always keeping in mind what the plan of his story requires him to do but refusing to be hurried to more important things, the writer achieves a story with no dead spots, no blurs, a story in which we find no lapses of aesthetic interest.” John Gardner

“No one can hope to write really well if he has not learned how to analyze fiction—how to recognize a symbol when it jumps at him, how to make out theme in a literary work, how to account for a writer’s selection and organization of fictional details.” John Gardner

“In music as elsewhere, structure, not texture, is primary, though it cannot stand alone. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue is about equally successful played on an organ or played by a symphony orchestra and might even be successful transposed to a new key, as Bach frequently transposed his work for some new combination of instruments. If we are annoyed when it is played on a Moog synthesizer the reason is only partly textural. The electronic sound is unsubtle in the extreme, raising wrong connotations (comic and mechanistic). But a greater part of the reason for our annoyance has to do with structure. The synthesizer kills dynamics, smashes through nuances, and equalizes the music’s progression of events so that we can feel no dramatic profluence.” John Gardner

“There is no rule about how detailed or concise to make your outline. Train yourself to know how much you can carry in your head, and how much you need to write down in order to see the total and keep the structure of your story clear in you mind.” Ayn Rand

“The plot is exciting and may be beautiful, yet is it not a fetish, borrowed from the drama, from the spatial limitations of the stage? Cannot fiction devise a framework that is not so logical yet more suitable to its genius?” E.M. Forster

“If you have chosen the worst clash possible, and if the values are important, you have a good seed for a good plot structure.” Ayn Rand

“The novel with its formal outline, appears for a moment, and then the life contained in it breaks out and obscures it.” Percy Lubbock

“The best form is that which makes the most of its subject—there is no other definition of the meaning of form in fiction.” Percy Lubbock

“The well-made book is the book in which the subject and the form coincide and are indistinguishable—the book in which the matter is all used up in the form, in which the form expresses all the matter.” Percy Lubbock

“I dislike intensely the notion that a perfect form, like a sort of god, hovers over all of us, which we either cling or pay lip-service to.” John Fowles

“I certainly try to make the form I put things in suit their matter, but I agree totally with Forster that forcing that matter into some supposed general ideal of the form best suited to it is wrong.” John Fowles

“A chapter is only an incomplete or dependent article. All chapters depend on what has preceded them, except of course the first, and all chapters also presuppose what is to follow. Except of course the first.” William Sloane

“Since the workings of the reader’s mind depend altogether on what is physically presented to his eye, it follows that arrangement is the basis of effect.” Jacques Barzun

“Most long works conform to an implicit three-act template. (As with any general principle, there are plenty of variations and exceptions to this structure.) Act one, the setup—one quarter of the book. Act two, the main action—one half of the book. Act three, the finale—one quarter of the book. . . . There’s nothing that says you have to write this way, but the structure is intuitively right and has stood up in many cultures over the ages.” Philip Gerard

“Structure creates the surface design that carries theme.” Philip Gerard

“Structure is supposed to be so intrinsic that it becomes invisible to anyone not searching for it. The reader should simply feel a natural, almost inevitable movement toward fulfillment.” Philip Gerard

“I like a chapter to have a design of tone as well as of form. A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone. If this is done then the breaks we call chapters are not arbitrary but rather articulations which allow the free movement of the story.” John Steinbeck

“The novel’s length is an artifact of the different way scenes, characters, and events are used in a novel. The novel encompasses a broader scope, which may require a longer period of time, a deeper reflection into the back stories of characters and the histories of events. . . . It requires the pace of the long haul, a different sort of faith on the parts of writer and reader.” Philip Gerard [My italics—UW]

“The effect is of accumulation—not of sheer detail, but of detail meaningfully augmented by repetition, which deepens our understanding of the events. As in a symphony, motifs reemerge in minor keys and variations, creating a sense of movement and return.” Philip Gerard

“The novel is the cathedral of great subjects, which, like a mountain, makes its own weather through effects of scale; indeed, it can support issues and subjects that would overwhelm a short story.” Philip Gerard

“The [short] story is a more lyrical form, the novel by definition a more prosaic one.” Philip Gerard

“[A novel is] the great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence.” Milan Kundera

Great—you don’t hear that word much anymore. But the novel is great—in the sense of being larger than other things of the same kind, namely novellas and short stories. Not just longer—larger. Because the reader lives with it for an extended period, the novel comes to take on an accrued reality, like a snowfall. The fully realized world of the novel is a big undeniable fact operating in the reader’s mind. It deeply engages the reader on every level—intellectual, emotional, artistic, and spiritual.” Philip Gerard

“A cathedral, complete in every detail but only as large as a country chapel, might evoke admiration but it cold not evoke grandeur, the breathtaking realization of interior space on a larger-than-life scale.” Philip Gerard

“The novel doesn’t delivery the hit-and-run satisfaction of the short-short, or even the brilliant flash of insight or grace that a short story offers. The form presents a prosaic challenge in literary engineering.” Philip Gerard

“The novella shares more in common with the short story than with the novel: Ordinarily it is characterized by a unity of character, place, time, and action unusual in the traditional novel. A novella commonly follows the fortunes of a single character through a limited time in a circumscribed local, focusing on a central action. In conceptual terms, it is more of a long short story than a short novel. . . . The challenge is more lyrical than structural.” Philip Gerard

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