A Dozen Ways to Structure your Story

Here are a dozen different organizing schemes to get your creative juices flowing.

The structure of a story is its basic design or architecture. It's the underlying format on which your wondrous works of word-oriented whimsy will be built. It's what gives the story a sense of direction, ties it together, helps the reader make sense of it. A good structure pulls the reader along, giving order to the information you're providing, giving them a framework on which to hang your quotes and observations.

Deciding how to structure a story is a step that usually happens after you've gathered most or all of your information, but before you've actually begun to write the story. It's an important part of the process, and doing a good job in this step -- where you organize your story -- can make the rest go much better. One of Jeff MacNelly's "Shoe" cartoons  says, "Typists pound keyboards; writers stare out windows." There's something to that -- you need to think through your material and come up with a good organizing scheme.

Often the structure of the story will suggest itself. You want a structure that fits with the information you've gathered, and with the purpose of your story.

Here are 14 ways to structure a story:

1. Inverted Pyramid

This is a tried and true structure. It's most appropriate for basic news stories, where the reader may stop reading part-way through. It's good for stories that are going to different publications that may have different amounts of space, because editors can cut from the bottom up. It's good for stories written on deadline, because an editor may have to drop it in and cut it to fit space.

We think of the inverted pyramid as a newswriting structure, but if it fits your story go ahead and use it. The inverted pyramid structure has endured in part because it works.

2. Chronology

This structure works when you're telling a story from somebody 's life, covering an event or series of event. We experience life chronologically, moving one direction through time, so it makes sense to retell stories the same way. A "drama in real life" story, like surviving a plane crash, is a natural for chronological order. Chronology is an easy way to get from a beginning to an ending, when the two are separated by time.

Chronology also works for a how-to article. From baking a pie to building a garage, a how-to project proceeds step by step, so chronology works here.

Chronology also works for "diary" type stories. You may send a writer on a trip, or have them be a participant-observer, and then have them record their experiences in a diary. Of you may have a celebrity keep a diary, letting them tell their own story. The day-by-day structure gives order to the experience.

3. Spatial story

Some stories move through space rather than time. If you're writing about an earthquake's devastating effect on a village, you might go through the village block by block or even house by house, telling the story of each area. A process story may combine both space and time, as you follow potatoes on their journey from field to frozen french fry. If you write about somebody retiring you might go with them room by room through their office, bringing out memories that go with each place.

Something related to this can be moving from wide angle to telephoto, or vice-versa. For instance, if you're writing about changes in a small town, you might start at a distance, giving an overall description and some history, then begin to look closer and closer, ending up in the apartment or home of people who represent the change. From the distance you could see the farmer's fields, the agribusiness on which the town was built, then you move into town, see the growing retail sector, and finally wind up visiting with an upwardly mobile family who moved out from the suburbs to enjoy rural life, but who doesn't want to listen to tractors or smell manure. Or you could go the other way, starting with a close look at a cause and then pulling back to examine its effects in wider and wider contexts.

4. Hourglass

A story that begins with inverted pyramid and then jumps to chronology is called an hourglass. It starts big, goes through the basic facts in descending order, then at the "waist" of the story it switches gears to chronology and builds from the beginning to a climax. This way you move through the information in two ways, giving the news value first, then following up with the "you are there" feeling of chronology once the news value has been disposed of. You use the introduction to establish your focus and tone, and maybe to promise some surprises to the reader will stay with your through the chronology. For instance, on a crime story you could get the 5 Ws and an H out of the way up front, then switch to chronology by saying, "Police gave this account of the crime."

5. Diamond

This is a popular style for a news feature -- a feature story built around a news topic. You start with a very narrow focus on a person or group that's directly affected by your topic. Say you're writing about proposed changes in the estate tax. You could start with the story of a man who is being forced to sell a family business built up by his father so he can pay the inheritance taxes on it. You'd start by painting a portrait of the man and the dilemma he's facing, then go to your "nut graf" -- the paragraph that transitions you into your broader story and sums everything up. Like this: "Peterson isn't alone. Each year an estimated 40,000 family businesses are sold or liquidated in order to satisfy estate taxes." (Statistic made up for illustrative purposes.) From there you get into your discussion of estate taxes, the arguments for and against, the proposals that are under consideration. You start narrow, then broaden out to your topic. Then, at the end, you get narrow again. "Congress could repeal the estate tax as soon as 2003. But that won't be soon enough to help Peterson, whose inheritance taxes are due in two months." Go back to Peterson, end with him commenting on his lot in life. This is a "call-back" to the material you laid out up front.

6. Building Block

If the purpose of your story is to explain a complex subject, you build the reader's knowledge brick by brick, beginning with the simplest issues, then going on to more complex aspects of your topic. If you're writing an article about laying out a good page, you may start with overall concepts like graphic balance and reader flow, then get into more specific items like spacing and column width, and finally get into specific techniques in particular programs.

7. Scenes

Some stories lend themselves to being told in snapshots. If you're writing about an evangelistic outreach you might just stitch together some vignettes, some slice-of-life bits and pieces, rather than trying to develop an overriding theme. Pull together interesting pieces and let the reader construct their own overall meaning from the ingredients you've supplied. Sometimes this structure is used in profiles, where the subject of the story is shown in different settings, interacting with different groups of people who bring out different aspects of their personality. A big event -- like a protest march, a holiday, a short-term missions trip -- can lend itself to this treatment.

8. Cause and effect

Some stories go from cause to effect, or from effect to cause. You might do a story that shows how we got to where we are on an issue. For instance, a story about the current state of social outreach programs by evangelical churches could go back to the beginnings of the modern evangelical movement and its reaction against what was sometimes called "the social gospel."

9. Classification

Some stories neatly classify themselves by having multiple items relating to a single topic. For instance, you might write about types of family vacations, and have sections for cruises, package tours, car tours, etc., with information in each section.

A variation of this is to compare and contrast two items. Let's say you're writing an article and the purpose is to compare and contrast private schools and home education. You'd introduce your subject then go topic by topic, covering such things as cost, academic quality, extra-curricular opportunities, and parental commitment. Within in topic you'd compare home education with private schools. You can do the same in a political race when there are two or three clear choices -- compare and contrast the alternatives issue by issue.

10. Compare and Contrast

This is a little like classification, but with the added twist that you're comparing two items. Let's say you're writing an article and the purpose is to compare and contrast two Bible translations. You'd introduce your subject then go topic by topic, but within each topic you'd explain what each translation has to offer. You can do the same in a political race when there are two or three clear choices -- compare and contrast the alternatives issue by issue.

11. Q&A

You can use a Q&A format when you do an interview with somebody who's really interesting and very quotable. If your interview went really well and they have a lot to say, you may just want to present the interview itself. Of course you'll clean up the quotes a bit, eliminate redundancies and meanderings off topic, and maybe even rearrange things so the story flows better. When you interview somebody you tend to build up to the most significant questions, but in your printed story you may want to start there.

You can also use Q&A to provide background information. It makes a great sidebar to give basic information on a topic. If you're writing about ministries that try to bring Christianity to Islamic people, it may be beyond the scope of your article to describe Islam, yet you may still want to have that information available to readers. A sidebar in Q&A format is a great way to do this -- just ask the basic questions (When did Islam begin? What do Muslims believe?) and give concise answers.

You can even do a Q&A without any "Q." Interview somebody, then write the story using their own words, as a first-person piece. The byline will say "interviewed by," and the piece will look as though they wrote it, but they didn't.

12. Parallelism

You won't get a lot of opportunities for this, but sometimes it works. A repeated phrase can provide parallelism -- like Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech. You might pull several stories together this way -- say the life experiences of several missionaries. You'd use similar wording to introduce each, and that would emphasize the things they have in common, and the things that differ.

Some stories lend themselves to a more elaborate parallel treatment. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is an example -- it's structured to follow the lives of killers and victims, starting before the crime, following their parallel course, until they come together in a violent way. Other stories can do the same thing -- such as follow a boy and a girl getting ready for a big date.

13. Motivated sequence

This is a basic structure for stories that are meant to change minds, or to motivate readers to action.

  • You start with an attention getter -- something that grabs the reader.
  • You move on to a description of the need or problem, explaining why your solution is needed.
  • You present the plan that will solve the problem.
  • You use visualization to show the reader how the world will be a better place if your solution is implemented.
  • You call for action, giving a direct action step people can take.

This structure is most common in editorials and commentaries, but could also be used for a story about somebody who thinks they have a solution to a problem.

14. List

This is the easiest article structure there is. A list story often has a number in its headline. "Ten must-have programs for computer productivity," or "Six foods that boost your immune system." You introduce the topic and run through your list. The story you just finished reading is structured this way.