The Art of Structure

John McPhee has been writing about writing in The New Yorker in the past few years and one notable essay was about the centrality of structure to non-fiction writing. Sarah Koenig, the writer and producer behind the podcast hit Serial, says that the appeal of the series rests on knowing how to structure a story. And Frederick Wiseman counseled those of us at a recent seminar about his work to look closely at the structure in his films as a clue to how he made decisions to use which image or footage where.

What’s so magical about structure?

It’s obvious that all art, all thinking, needs order. Form is another name for structure, perhaps, more used in painting or sculpture but perhaps too tied to endless debates about modernism and postmodernism. Structure is more keyed to time than form: it is arrangement by one element following another. Hence the use in time-based storytelling, in writing, audio, and film.

McPhee nabs the tension between chronology and theme as the need for structure, especially in non-fiction. Usually chronology dominates. As in the investigation of the crime in Serial, chronology can be not only helpful in revealing cause but it can produce its own drama. In one episode of the podcast, Koenig and her colleague retrace the journey from Woodlawn high school to Best Buy parking lot where murder allegedly occurred 21 minutes later. They determined that it could have happened, even if the timing seemed incredibly tight.

Wiseman demonstrated the use of structure as argument in the opening of his documentary Welfare (1975). After a big plain spread of that word across the screen, photos of people getting their pictures taken followed. Who were the people? Why had he chosen these particular people? He had dived immediately into the debate of the moment: most of the people on welfare were not African Americans but white folks. Some were veterans. Some old, some young. And all needed a headshot for an I.D. card to enter into the bureaucratic system that doled out money. Branded, carded, caught. Argument engaged.

McPhee famously tells his writing students to head to a dictionary rather than a thesaurus for ways of thinking about words that go beyond mere replacement of one for another. So: to the dictionary on structure. To give form is to build – a house, an artwork, texture, intelligibility. Chronology, theme, and argument are more convincing when intertwined. To separate the parts is to dry out the glue. The ways in which parts are arranged implies a whole. McPhee often first writes the beginning, then orders the notes, and writes the ending sentence. The start, the order, the end: then fill in the (non-linear although sometimes chronological) journey.

I think McPhee, Koenig, and Wiseman would say that structure does not solve all problems or guarantee compelling storytelling. But it’s a place to start, particularly in working with prickly shards of evidence rather than the infinite imaginative play of fiction. The shards can be glued together, cracks visible, into a vase that enchants the reader, listener, watcher, and holds the world.