When you are faced with a ton of material, it can be hard to see where to start let alone, try to organise all of these things into some semblance of a narrative. The stories I'm talking about are, of course, your longform, deeply reported narratives which, if done well, can illuminate a larger theme through their structure as well as their content.
As most of my writing -- especially over the past few months -- has averaged at around 2,000 words, I tend not to delve too deep into structure. Usually, after I imagine a lede (this is before I put anything to paper), I begin writing and later come back to sketch out a plan if things are not going well. It's not the best way to approach structure but for shorter pieces, it generally workds.
While working at Bay Nature, however, I wrote several longer features that forced me to plan their structure -- at least a little. It was through that experience, with help from my editor, that I became fixated on learning more about non-fiction story r. But I'm no master. So, this post is the first in a series that will look at the nuts and bolts of writing from the perspective of someone with a little experience, and a strong interest in learning more.
A Sort of Tree
My editor at Bay Nature once explained story structure to me with this diagram:
If you ignore my terrible penmanship, it resembles a tree of some sort and is perhaps the most basic structure of a feature story. Basically, you are alternating between close-up, individual scenes (beginning with the lede) and explanatory paragraphs which bring in reporting, research, interview quotes, data etc. Of course, most stories including news stories employ this technique in some way. The main difference with a feature/long form piece is that each individual scene is highly detailed, may reveal something about a character and contributes to the story's contention/theme.
From my own portfolio, a good example is the Selling the Americas story. Here, I alternated between a scene -- such as the atmosphere of the hall -- and the broader argument/research about the World's Fair/tourism industry. However, this story starts in the middle rather than following a chronological structure (Homer's the Odyssey, also begins this way. Along with millions of other stories. You can't mess with a classic). Given this story could only be 1,500 words, however, I didn't have much room to go in another direction. I did consider opening with Elvis, again.
Another great example is the lede of Gene Weingarten's The Peekaboo Paradox. As he describes the Great Zucchini's mannerisms, Weingarten adds "as is his custom" and "as is his want," turning it into a highly reported piece rather than a large section of description. (This is highly recommended reading).
All Roads Lead to the Sea
Two recent stories, Another Caribbean and Literary Cities: Tangier, are structured in such a way that the ending loops back to the lede. It's not so obvious that I return to the same scene but rather, there is a repeating motif.
In the Tangier piece, the motif is the sea -- starting with the ferry and later, returning to the Strait of Gibraltar. Initially, the Tangier story was going to end back on the ferry heading across the Strait to Spain. However, I decided against this because I preferred the open-ended, more whimsical ending.
In Another Caribbean, the motif is the bus -- first the cross-border bus and later the tap-tap -- that propels the story forward and gives it a sense of movement. However, as the story was much longer (around 3,000 words), there was a minor theme of walking through the city which propelled the story forward. This was then broken up by a few major scenes that divided the piece into sections, I like to think of these as the high points of the story, hence the mountain diagram below. The flashback to the Dominican Republic (the section labeled Hispaniola) also breaks up the chronology and gives the back story as to why I was sitting on that first bus.
Next in the series, I'll be looking at the relationship between writing and music. Or, what we can learn from Fleetwood Mac...