10 Useful Ways to Unlock Your Story's Structure

Your ideas can easily get lost without a frame

Less than three weeks until my wedding now! It feels like it’s gone unbelievably fast even though we’d originally planned to get married in May (ah, COVID).

In between wedding plans this month, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about structure. (It’s the theme this month in the Creative Nonfiction Writing Academy.)

As someone who’s been writing professionally for over 12 years, structure isn’t something I have to consciously think about much any more—especially when I’m writing magazine-style 1000 word articles.

But when I was new to writing it was crucial. Structure is crucial! And it’s been fun to explore some new ones: like spirals, spatial form, and different personal essay formats.

Even though it’s pretty easy for me now, for each new publication I still have to learn the structure they prefer. Editors are fussy people!

I thought I’d share with you how I do this so you can give it a go too.

Dissecting a story

First off, I read a number of stories from the publication I’m writing for or want to pitch.

I also read the submission guidelines.

Then I take one or two stories, copy them into a word document and find out the word count. Sometimes I print them out as well.

Then I do the following:

It could be helpful to turn this into a checklist

1) What sort of titles do they have? Length and style.

2) What hook does the writer use? Do they start with a statement, a personal anecdote, a summary of what it’s about?

3) How long is the introduction? I often count the words.

4) What subtitles, if any, do they use? Are they descriptive, creative, or simple questions? Are they numbered?

5) Are there different sections within the piece?

6) Are there many quotes from experts, interviews, research links or other data?

7) What tone does the article have? Is it conversational and informal—do they seem like a friend having a chat? Or is it formal and serious?

8) Do they use first (“I did…”), second (“you…”), or third-person (“they, he, it”)?

9) How do they sum up if at all? How many words for the summary? Do they end on a statement, a question, a thought-provoking idea?

10) If it’s a personal essay, does it finish with a takeaway for the reader or stay a narrative through-out?

After I’ve dissected it, I outline my own article idea using the same format and tone. (Make sure it’s a very different idea! You don’t want to plagiarize.)

Sometimes a submission calls for creativity and originality in structure (like the one below from Creative Nonfiction Magazine) but usually editors want what they like.

Dissecting structures will help you get more yes replies!

Call for Extra Creative Essays

If you want something fun to try, Creative Nonfiction Magazine has a call out for experimental essays under 4000 words:

Creative Nonfiction is currently seeking fact-based writing that is ambitious, pushes against the conventional boundaries of the genre, borrows forms, plays with style and form, and makes its own rules.

Send us your prose poems, your hermit crabs, your word collages, your speculative nonfiction. Surprise us!

Find more details here