Wednesday, November 2

Organizing Stories: Writing The Mushy Middle

There are hundreds of articles and blog posts that tell people how to write better. Most of them are pretty good, even if they make the work sound easier than it might be, and are overly reliant on a formula.

I poked around yesterday and found several decent ones (and most of the decent tips aren't in the top ten on search engines, but that's a different story). Here's one for blog posts. Here's one on news releases. Here's one on articles. None of them are wrong; not really. But they are all so very boring, which is probably why writers and would-be writers who apply them never seem to reach their full potential.

Maybe we can look at organizational structure differently.

All in all, stories (which includes all writing) are pretty simple animals. They have a beginning, middle, and end. And many writers, myself included, tend to tell people to think about the lead paragraph (the beginning) and the conclusion (call to action or concluding point) because they are so very important.

Well, we're right. They are so very important. But that is not to say the middle isn't important. And the more I think about it, the middle might be more important than most writers give it credit for, because it can influence the lead paragraph and often dictates if anyone will ever make it to the end.

How to structure the mushy middle and tell a better story. 

Several years ago, I was working on various news releases, articles, and advertising copy for one of the largest art events in the region. So, I was exposed to dozens of artists with different artistic styles.

One of them made these amazing wooden sculptures, animals and people cut into crude wooden branches, stumps, and driftwood. And I remember asking him how he decided what he would make on what seemed like random bits of found wood. He laughed and told me I had it all wrong.

"The wood tells me," he said. "It already knows what it wants to look like."

I think written communication is very much like that. You have to look at the entire context and have some semblance of the organizational structure, especially the middle. Most stories already know the best way they could be told, but most writers don't listen — especially those who force every one of them into the formula. (I suppose it's better than no organizational structure at all, but not really.)

It's also why I decided to call the piece the mushy middle. It's mushy because, just like the wood, it can be carved in any number of different ways. The challenge, however, is to find the best way possible.

Nine common options for writers to experiment with to make the middle work. 

• Chronological. Some stories work better in chronological order. For example, personal narratives and imaginative stories that don't concern themselves with topical constraints. The telling is as important as the content and context. Information stories are sometimes written chronologically too, especially if the writer is asking someone to do something step by step.

• Reverse Chronological. Some stories, like biographies for example, frequently work better when they start with the position someone possesses right now, and then work backwards to reveal how the person arrived at that point. Depending on the person, it's not necessarily that cut and dried but reverse chronological is a pretty good start.

• Importance. Even though they don't have to be, most news stories are written using an inverted pyramid style, sharing the most important details up front and then drifting into the remaining details. It provides readers with a big picture before adding details that might be important to the story. It works, but many writers struggle with it because they sometimes pick the wrong details to keep people reading.

• Reverse Importance. Features articles sometimes do the opposite. They might lead off with a fine detail or event before breaking into another structure, including some of those that follow. It works best when one of those fine details is something that people can relate to or feel immediately empathetic about like the example of one homeless man before breaking into a story about homeless people.

• Topical/Classification. Stories that want to share large amounts of information, like a company website or children's book (all about dogs), are generally arranged in a topical format. And while this isn't always the case, most topical structures have a pattern that flows from one point to the next. The real challenge for most writers is that they have to choose topics that naturally fit together instead of simply trying to cover all the bases.

• Spatial. Although spatial is very similar to topical, the categories are generally thought out in advance and rely on specific characteristics. A very obvious example might include motor vehicles or even hotels. Generally, when we read anything about cars, the content is broken up into interior, exterior, and engine. Hotels generally talk about property amenities, room amenities, and nearby attractions.

• Comparison-Contrast. While there are several ways to approach a comparison-contrast story, the most common is to preset various points that the writer wants to highlight while comparing two objects. It's very similar to a topical structure, except the writer might shift back and forth among the two or more objects being compared. Analogies also tend to use comparison-contrast for great effect.

• Problem-Solution. Some writers lay the foundation of a story drawing in readers to something they can all relate to, usually something annoying or even tragic, and then offering a solution to avoid the problem. There are millions of classic advertising examples that use this model. Ergo, if you are tired of "this," then maybe it's time to try "this." Personally, I love problem-solution stories that diminish the problem or don't even bother to state the problem because the problem is already understood.

• Relationship. While this structure can be more challenging for some writers, it can be extremely effective in revealing how things might work, especially in areas that involve sociology. I used it the other day to work through a bigger picture on behavior during a down economy, specifically why people might believe home value appreciation delivers a high return despite their negative feelings about the economy. But this style can be more direct too, tying together ecosystems and ancestral trees.

Those are the most common nine, but there are more structures. 

It really doesn't matter what the purpose of the story might be (blogging, advertising, journalistic, fiction, informative). All good stories eventually develop a structure, and some of the best stories develop very complex structures that weave in several smaller ones.

This column might qualify. Obviously, the bigger structure of this piece is problem-solution based. But contained within the obvious structure, you can also find: chronological, importance, topical, and relationship. Its intention is two-fold: it creates a more conversational tone and helps break up the monotony of reading (and writing) the same inverted pyrimid day after day.

It's also one of the bigger picture concepts I'm integrating into Editing & Proofreading Your Work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) this year. The session is scheduled for Friday afternoon.
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