Name the Big Parts
All good stories have parts: Beginnings, middles, and endings. Even writers who achieve a seamless tapestry can trace the invisible stitching. A writer who knows the big parts of a story can name them for the reader, using such techniques as sub-headlines. The reader who sees the big parts is more likely to remember the whole story.
The best way to illustrate this effect is to reveal the big parts of a short, and seemingly simple, children's song, "Three Blind Mice."
Part I is a simple musical phrase repeated once:
Three blind mice, three blind mice
Part II builds on that phrase but adds something:
See how they run, see how they run
Part III adds three more complex phrases:
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
did you ever seen such a sight in your life
Part IV repeats the first phrase, Three blind mice, closing the song into a tight circle.
We remember songs, contrasted to stories, because of their transparent structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, instrumental, verse, chorus, coda. The delightful sounds of songs often distract us from the mechanics of structure, but the architecture of music becomes perceptible with more careful listening.
Which brings me to the dreaded O-word.
Many writers of the Old School were required to hand in outlines of our work with drafts of our stories. Such outlines looked something like this:
And so on.
Here was my problem: I could never see far enough ahead to plot what the third part of section C was going to be. I had to write my way to that point in the story. In other words, I had to discover what I was going to say.
So, as a survival mechanism, I invented the "reverse outline." I would write a full draft of the story, and then I would create the outline. This turned out to be a useful tool. If I could not write the outline from the story, it meant that I could not discern the parts from the whole, a symptom of disorganization.
Here's a plan for an obituary of entertainer Ray Bolger, the beloved Scarecrow of "The Wizard of Oz":
I. Lead with image and dialogue from Oz.
II. Great moments in his dance career other than Oz.
III. His signature song: "Once In Love with Amy."
IV. His youth: how he became a dancer.
V. His television career.
VI. A final image from Oz.
I constructed this reverse outline from a close reading of Tom Shales's award-winning obituary of Bolger in The Washington Post.
When a story grows to any significant length, the writer should label the parts. If the story evolves into a book, the chapters will have titles. In a newspaper or magazine, the parts may carry subtitles or sub-headlines. Writers should write these sub-headlines themselves -- even if the newspaper or website does not use them.
Here's why: The sub-headlines will make visible to the busy copy editor and time-starved reader the big parts of the story. The act of writing them will test the writer's ability to identify and label those parts. And, when well-written, these sub-heads will reveal at a glance the global structure of the piece, indexing the parts, and creating additional points of entry into the story.
In 1994, the great American editor Gene Patterson wrote an essay for the St. Petersburg Times titled, "Forged in Battle: The Formative Experience of War." The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy. Patterson fought in World War II as a young tank commander in Patton's Army.
Patterson's mini-epic begins in medias res, in the middle of things:
I did not want to kill the two German officers when we met by mistake in the middle of the main street of Gera Bronn.
They somersaulted from their motorcycle when it rounded a corner directly ahead of my column of light armor. They scrambled to their feet, facing me 20 yards in front of the cannon and machine gun muzzles of my lead armored car, and stood momentarily still as deer. The front wheel of their flattened motorcycle spun on in the silence.
This passage introduces a meaty memoir of war. Five strong sub-headlines index the body of the work:
- A Man of the 20th Century
- Lead with the Heaviest Punch
- From the Georgia Soil
- Senseless Dying
- Two Certainties about War
Notice how the reader can almost predict the structure and content of Patterson's essay from these subtitles alone. They divide the story into its big parts, name the parts, and make visible a movement of theme, logic, and chronology that readers can perceive and remember.
1. Shakespeare's plays are divided into five acts. The acts are then divided into scenes. Read a comedy and a tragedy, such as "As You Like It" and "Macbeth," paying special attention to the structure of the play and what Shakespeare tries to accomplish in each of the big parts.
2. Find the longest story you have written in the last year. Using a pencil, mark up the story according to its parts. Now label those parts using headlines and sub-headlines.
3. Over the next month, pay more attention to the structure of stories you read. Notice the point in your reading where you begin to perceive the global structure of the piece. Notice any differences between stories that have sub-headlines and those that don't.
4. Listening carefully to music helps writers learn the structures of composition. As you listen, see if you can recognize the big parts of songs.
5. For your next story, try working from a plan, an informal outline that attempts to plot the three to six big parts of the work. Revise the plan if necessary.