What Home Does Your Writing Live In?

By Leah Velez

We’re talking about infrastructure today: What building best serves the story you’re trying to tell?

Is your story a hundred-unit apartment building? A cottage in the woods? A skyscraper? A hut? A Victorian mansion? A pyramid? A tent? A temple?

Structures can be visible and attention-grabbing (like chapter titles, or sections that switch us back and forth in time) or they can be nearly invisible to your readers eye on a first read (for example, putting the sequence of events in time order, or the movement of a character from one emotional state to another).

The containers we live in impact the ways we experience the world. No matter what, structure is doing work: On you the writer, on your characters (fictional or nonfictional), on the world of your work, and perhaps most importantly, on your reader.

Do you want to draw your reader’s attention to the architecture? Or do you want them to get lost in the characters without paying attention to the rooms?

Take five: Next time you’re watching a show, what patterns do you notice in how it’s being told? Next time you’re reading a book, pay attention to the chapters! What order is the story told in? Who or what is being centered?

Writing exercise: take some notes on that show or book, and then write a short story that copies the pattern you noticed. (Just the pattern! The story itself should be all your own.)

Follow up questions: (Only after you write!) What is the history behind that pattern or structure? What traditions does it borrow? What associations might your readers have of it? Do you want to embrace those associations or challenge them in the piece you’re writing?

These patterns you create in your story create reader expectations. What are you promising? Are you living up to the promise? Are you selling a skyscraper and delivering a leaky tent? Sometimes a tent is the perfect thing. But when you need to house hundreds of businesses and apartments, that might not do. Your structure helps you create an experience for your readers as they enter, navigate through, and ultimately exit your story–and these frameworks can help you both start, and keep writing as well.

Don’t stop thinking about this when you’re done writing–this building concept applies to giving feedback in critique groups, too. When you’re reading your friends work, ask yourself the same questions–What kind of house is this trying to be? Try to tailor your feedback to this goal. If they’re creating a temple, giving detailed instructions on how to fix a yurt won’t be the most helpful–although there are certainly things they can apply.

Structure in writing can get a bad rap but it doesn’t have to be boring or stifling! Great architecture adapts to the shape, size, and purposes of the lives it holds.

About the Author

Leah Velez is Wordcrafters in Eugene’s Content and Curriculum Coordinator. Born and raised in Chicago, IL, she is a graduate and former high school teacher in Chicago Public Schools. She has an MFA from the University of Oregon, and graduated from Northwestern University’s Fiction sequence. In addition to her work with Wordcrafters she is the founder of the teacher collective, Teach Write Now, and is at work on a short story collection.