Giving Context to Structure

Reprinted from an article that appeared in Flash Fiction Chronicles in June, 2009

Content, structure, and language work together


No one element can make a story work. Many writers use a series of steps—brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading—to juggle content, structure, and language. The order of each step is a matter of choice and fluctuates with story ideas. Here is my preference:

  •  To create content: brainstorm, free-write, draft a first draft
  •  To apply structure: outline first draft, then draft second draft
  •  To perfect language: revise, edit, and proofread

Content refers to the subject matter of a story


Allow the story to blossom
The who, what, when, where, and how of a specific idea.

A character (the protagonist) finds himself in a difficult situation at a certain time and place and must deal with that situation. 
How the protagonist deals with the situation depends on the protagonist’s wants, character, and the nature of the obstacles he must overcome.

Content provides the “story question or problem” that propels the protagonist through the plot and ultimately reveals a universal theme, a jolt, an epiphany, some small observance of life.
Content evolves from a premise, notes, a rough draft, research, observation, plus the attitudes and concerns of the writer.

Structure refers to the basic organization of a story


Unfold the story for maximum effect
Just as a play is divided into three acts, most stories have three main segments.

The opening (Act 1) gives a story focus and meaning by providing the premise, setting, and tone of the story as well as hints at the nature of obstacles the protagonist will face.

The main body of the story (Act 2, which I like to split into 2A and 2B) focuses on the protagonist’s actions to resolve the story problem.

The conclusion (Act 3) reveals the results of the protagonist’s struggle and infuses that struggle with meaning.

Each segment of a story has a similar structure: the overall story as well as each chapter, each scene within the chapter, each beat within the scene

Structure also involves other devices such as set-ups and pay-offs, sub-plots, and the shaping of structure specifically to content.

Structure evolves from outlines, note-taking, drafts or a combination of the three.

Language refers the diction and style used to express a story’s idea


Choose precise language
Diction refers the specific words that are chosen.

Style refers to how those words are combined, the order, the length of sentences and includes the use of literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allusion.
Grammar keeps writing clear and understandable.
Language evolves from revision and rhythm.



Process is what brings these three basic components of composition together


The rough draft is about content…making it up.The second draft is about structure…making sense.The third draft is about language…making it clear.The fourth draft is about perfection…making it publishable.

Actually, the steps to the writing process bleed into each other like ink dropped from a leaky pen over one spot. The blotches don’t land in exactly the same place, but they seep beyond each other’s borders, and create a new kind of art.

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