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What to Think About When You Think About Story Structure

The best advice I ever got on structuring a story.

YEARS AGO I READ a book by Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map, which is the story of a cholera outbreak in Victorian London that led, among other things, to the development of the modern sewage system. It’s a great book. When I finished it, I googled Johnson’s work to see what else he’d written and came across this essay, about, coincidentally, how he structured The Ghost Map.

The essay had a profound impact on my writing life. I’m betting it’ll have the same on yours.

Johnson wrote how good writing and great reporting only take you so far. If you don’t present your story well — think through the sequences and narrative arcs, outline them even — no one will read it. Johnson calls this thinking and planning Deep Structure, and it’s best to let him explain things from here.

“When I was writing The Ghost Map, I had this wonderful breakthrough where I realized that I could structure the book where each chapter would simultaneously be a day in the chronology of the epidemic, but would also naturally connect to one of the book’s major themes: in other words, day one was cholera, day two was John Snow, day three was miasma, etc. That allowed each chapter to advance the narrative clock, but also work as an almost standalone essay. I was — and still am, actually — as proud of that deep structure as I am of just about anything else I’ve written. But not one single review mentioned it, and to this day, not one reader has brought it up in conversation about the book.

“The funny thing about it is that I’m sure that people who enjoyed the book were in fact enjoying that deep structure; they just weren’t fully aware of it. Maybe the best analogy isn’t architectural, since you don’t actually perceive the foundation of the building, even though it makes everything possible. Maybe a better analogy is music: I suspect most non-musicans aren’t fully aware of chord changes the way they are conscious of melodies. Most of us can readily hum a tune from memory, but it’s much harder to recall the chord progression. And yet the chords define the song as much as the melody does. Change the chords and the song changes dramatically.

“So the real question — a question I don’t have the answer to — is what happens in our minds when we enjoy something like a book or song, without being fully aware of what makes it enjoyable. On some level, there is something like an unconscious processing of the information, but it’s not an unconscious that looks anything like the Freudian version. Our brains unconsciously process external information all the time, of course, but usually these are hard-wired skills, more nature than nurture. But a chord progression or a chapter from a non-fiction book are pure works of culture; our brains didn’t evolve dedicated resources designed to appreciate their subtle arts. Yet somehow we appreciate those deep structures, even as they fly beneath the radar of our consciousness.

“The funny thing is that people will reliably perceive that deep structure in one context: when we get it wrong. Mangle the chords in a popular song and the background will suddenly become foreground. That, at least, is the consolation prize I give myself for the fact that no one ever mentioned Ghost Map’s deep structure. If no one notices it, it must be working.”

A couple points:

1) In my course on longform storytelling, we talk about this collective appreciation of deep structure, even though we often don’t notice it or have a name for it. Carl Jung named it, though, and in the course I teach how the theories Jung proposed influenced so many successful storytellers, among them George Lucas, when he was writing the first Star Wars script.

2) Read The Ghost Map. It’s fantastic. Johnson is an astounding thinker, his books often moving between multiple disciplines, and often in the same chapter. But The Ghost Map — a narrative account whereas most of Johnson’s books are idea-based — is still my favorite.

Its structure inspired me when outlining my first book and inspires me still.

New to my writing? I’m a best-selling author and award-winning journalist who’s written for The New Yorker, GQ, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a book for Celadon on a pivotal 10-week period that changed the Civil Rights movement and the course of American history.


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