A few years ago, I adopted a puppy. I’d picked the runt of the litter and in the weeks that I waited for him to wean, I made a list of a dozen or so potential names. In the end, I used none of them. I needed to spend time with the dog before I knew whether he was a Baxter or a Jack or something else. Turned out, he was Oskar, a name that wasn’t on my list. I simply knew after a day or two that this was the perfect name for my dog.
For me, structuring a narrative feels like naming the dog. The structure falls out of the story itself. I can’t outline it in advance; I need to get deep into the story and the reporting first. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it. Sometimes I recognize as it’s happening that a scene will become the lede that sets the stage for the story (like when a source’s father slapped me on the head); other times it’s something seemingly random, like a David Bowie tune on the radio that helps me articulate a story’s theme. Once I know what the story is about and have decided on a lede, I look for the ending. With those pieces in place, I start writing. Afterwards, I can look at the story and see that I’ve used a particular structure, but I find it impossible to set a structure and then write to it.
This process of mine works fine, but it can seem haphazard, and I’ve always had a vague notion that there must be a better way to approach structure. If anyone has a method, I figured it would be Sandy Blakeslee, the author of eight books and countless articles for the Science Times. Blakeslee was one of my first mentors, and she’s always struck me as a particularly organized and efficient writer.
When I called her recently to ask about her process, she confirmed that she always sketches out a structure before she writes. “It’s like a crutch for me, I need something to hang on to or else I’m wandering,” she says. “Some people say, ‘Oh, just start writing and don’t worry about how you put it together right away.’ I think that’s the worst advice you can give anybody, because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re lost.” Before she writes, Blakeslee outlines the story’s beginning, middle and end and then relentlessly sticks to her outline.
Unlike Blakeslee, I never outline, but I do spend hours thinking about my story’s lede and narrative arc before I ever sit down to write. For every hour I spend writing, I spend many more fidgeting (or running or skiing) while turning the story over in my mind. Often I’ll deliberately focus on finding a lede and it’s no accident that my best ones have come to me while running or biking or walking the dog. Blakeslee admits she does this too, and our approaches may not be as different as they seem.
“You’re actually thinking about structure much earlier than you think you are,” says Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who teaches at Indiana University. “The moment you decide on the universe of your story, you’re making a decision about structure.” As an example, he points to his book, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives. He wanted the book to explore the notions of freedom and captivity, and when he learned that Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa was preparing to load 11 previously free-roaming elephants into crates to fly them across the ocean to their zoo, he decided that this elephant transfer would play a central role in his story. French’s decision to focus his book on this incident and the Tampa zoo in particular was a major structural decision that he made before he ever started writing. Read more »