“You should be thinking of structure all the time — when you’re reporting, when you’re telling the story to a friend, when you wake up in the middle of the night — until you know how to tell the story.”
Michael Hall is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Structure in Narrative Nonfiction: How to Put the Pieces Together.” This class will give writers strategies for finding structure that fits their nonfiction narrative pieces and to create a cohesive final product that flows.
Scribe: Why is it important to think about and take the time to develop structure in narrative nonfiction?
Michael Hall: Unless you’re a mad genius who can keep a zillion ideas in your head at once and then spit them out in a highly entertaining and readable fashion, you’ve got to figure out some kind of structure in advance of writing your story. Good writing is good thinking. Before you even sit down to write a story, you should have an idea of how you’re going to structure it — if you do, all the work you put into figuring that out will pay off in a big way. It’s like you have a pot of molten iron, and now you can pour it into a bunch of different shapes — stars, railroad ties, lawn chairs, airplane tails. The hardest part is figuring out the shapes. The pouring comes easy.
Scribe: At what point in the writing process should writers really focus on structure? Is this something they need to think about while writing the first draft, or is structure something to consider more in depth on a later edit?
MH: Before you even write a word! You should be thinking of structure all the time — when you’re reporting, when you’re telling the story to a friend, when you wake up in the middle of the night – until you know how to tell the story. Then you need to make an outline. It doesn’t have to be the kind of outline you learned in 7th grade. Your outline can be as simple as knowing you’re going to start HERE, go HERE, then go HERE. It can be a simple arc between several points. It can be a squiggly line going back and forth between two characters. But you have to have some kind of pattern in mind before you begin.
Scribe: Is there one common decision writers tend to make in narrative nonfiction structure that you think detracts from the final piece?
MH: It’s really easy to fall into telling a story based solely on chronology, which can get boring for the reader. “And then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened.” Chronology is important, but you have to find a way to marry your chronology with the themes that are at the heart of your story, the things that will keep people reading — the main character’s fatal flaw, how a troubled childhood affected someone, how a movement grew out of a bunch of cowboys and hippies enjoying country music — to move the whole thing along.
Scribe: Structure can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned writers, making craft less fun and more of an uphill struggle at some moments. What advice or words of encouragement do you have for writers who find themselves at that point?
MH: Stop and go back and figure out how to lay your story out. Take long walks and run everything through your head. Tell the story to your wife or husband or friend. See what comes easiest, which structure creates the most tension and gets the most laughs, what sounds phony and what sounds real. If you don’t think it out in advance, you will become frustrated when you hit that wall of not-knowing-where-to-go-next, then you’ll feel paralyzed, and finally you’ll give up. But if you know where to go next, it’s easy. And that’s the point where writing is actually kind of . . . fun.
Click here to register for Michael’s class.
Click here for our current class schedule.
About the Instructor
Before joining Texas Monthly in 1997, Michael Hall was an associate editor of Third Coast magazine and the managing editor of the Austin Chronicle. He won a Texas Gavel Award in 2003 for his story about capital punishment, “Death Isn’t Fair,” which was also nominated for a National Magazine Award. Hall’s stories have appeared in the Best American Magazine Writing, the Best American Sportswriting, the Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Da Capo Best Music Writing. He has also written for Trouser Press, The New York Times, Men’s Journal, and Austin American-Statesman.