When I taught elementary and middle school science there would always be a place in the school-year where I would ask something like this: What is the function of the skeletal system? What would you look like if you had no bones? Inevitably, there would always be one student who said, “Like a blob.” Just as our skeletal system provides structural support for the entire body, and, along with muscles, enables movement, stories also need bones in order to not be “blobs” of words.
Over the next three weeks we will take a deep delve into story structure. We’ll look at basic story structures, ways to use structure to add interest, and ways in which structure itself can create meaning. In The Magic Words, Cheryl B. Klein states, “Plot is simply the selection of events and structure in which these events unfold to create the desired emotional effects.” My hope is that by the end of this series, we will all have a better understanding of structure, and will give our story skeletons as much thought as we give plot development or character building.
Basic story structures include linear and circular. There are elements that can be incorporated to both these structures to add depth, teach concepts, or reassure readers. As those who write for emerging readers, we should also be aware that internal structure provides “coat hooks” or place markers for students to gather their thoughts and make necessary connections. When our stories have well-built structures, they offer support for young readers to navigate a text.
Usually linear structure is connected to a timeline. The passage of time in a story can be brief, like in most picture books. However, a short timeline doesn’t necessarily imply a short text. The action in the middle grade novel Miss Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson mostly takes place over the course of one day. Periodic time stamps and other time references help establish the structure. The YA novel Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles is also set in a single day, with time stamps at the start of each chapter.
The internal structure of Wonder by R.J. Palacio is stretched over the school year. References to holidays and typical school calendar activities provide the skeleton for the story. Books with a linear structure can also be built around specific holidays, sporting events, competitions, or life-events. The autobiographical graphic novel Smile by Reina Telgemeier takes place over many years, yet its linear structure follows the author’s childhood dental injury and recovery.
Romance novels also typically follow a linear structure. There is the introduction of the main characters and growing friendship, the fall-out, and the happily ever after (or not).
In concept books, linear structure often helps to teach the reader something specific. Alphabet books such as Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, number books like There’s a Dinosaur on the Thirteenth Floor by Wade Bradford, days of the week books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and season books, like Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak are linear by nature of their subject.
Retellings, fractured fairy tales and nursery rhymes typically have linear structure. As the new story is based on the structure of the old, familiarity with the original texts help readers navigate the new. Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood (PB) and Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail (MG, based on Cyrano De Bergerac) are examples.
Linear structure is helpful, especially to emerging readers, because it connects text with familiar timelines and provides them road markers as they experience a story. In picture books, linear structure can also help reinforce concepts under the cover of a fun story.
Next week we will look at circular structure as well as ways in which linear and circular structures can be made more interesting. As you read this week, consider the internal structure of your reading material. What provides shape under the surface to help you make sense of the story, characters and emotions?