Hidden Architecture: Using Structure to Reinforce Story

Novelist Wendelin Van Draanen offers advice on how to choose the best story structure for your novels and provides compelling examples from her award-winning books.
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Novelist Wendelin Van Draanen offers advice on how to choose the best story structure for your novels and provides compelling examples from her award-winning books.

story structure

Aside from the words you use on the page, there are lots of ways you can create a vibe or mood for your story by manipulating how and where you choose to place those words. A great example of that is a story told in free verse. You know, where an author…

Takes a thought

And breaks


Into lines that

Flow and tumble and fall

Down the page.

Free verse can be very dramatic. It can also feel like the author totally cheated, turning a fifty-page manuscript into three hundred artsy-fartsy choppy pages.

The decision to use free verse should be made for its contribution to the storytelling, not as a way to appear cool. Or pad pages. And all decisions you make on where to place or how to break up your words should be done with the big picture in mind. Ask yourself: Does it improve the telling of my story?

Sometimes simple is better, and if that’s the case get out of your own way.

And sometimes artsy really does contribute, so if that’s the case, use it.

My first novels were written with the straightforward structure of even-length chapters. It was the style I was most familiar with, and once the first book in my Sammy Keyes mystery series was written that way, the die was cast for all eighteen titles.

My romantic comedy Flipped was also written in standard chapters, but here the two point of view characters switch off, chapter by chapter, each telling their side of the story.

Then, when considering ways to write the story of a homeless girl in Runaway, I settled on the journal format with touches of poetry throughout to give it a structure very different from the Sammy Keyes books from which the character originated.

With my Shredderman series for younger readers I wrote with an eye toward white space on the page to appeal to and encourage kids who were becoming independent readers, recognizing that the absence of words can also serve as a structural device to keep young readers engaged.

But here I want to dig into the structure of my stand-alone novel The Running Dream because I think it serves as a solid example of what considered structure can contribute to the telling of a story, even when the reader doesn’t recognize it’s there.

To set things up, here are the pertinent basics:

Story Premise: Jessica, a star high school runner, loses her leg in a horrible accident and feels like her life is over.

POV: First person.

Tense: Present.

Takeaway: Sometimes the finish line is actually a new starting line.

The story opens with Jessica in the hospital after the accident/amputation. The sentences—her thoughts—are short. Choppy. Incomplete. The whole first section is that way, and it’s done in an effort to capture the feeling of breathlessness. Have you ever had a panic attack? That. Terror and racing heart and the inability to breathe…all of that is projected to the reader with the assistance of structure.

Then, as Jessica adapts to her new reality, the sentences lengthen. So do the paragraphs. Her thinking and her view of the world change and expand, and this is reflected in the easing flow of the language.

Most readers don’t even notice the specifics of this because, like Jessica’s recovery, it’s gradual and never fully evolved. But they feel it as they move through the pages, catching their own breath along the way.

More obvious in this book is the use of sections. Sections are commonly used to signal a change in time or location or viewpoint character. They help introduce a shift that’s difficult to achieve with a segue or chapter break.

In The Running Dream, each section begins with its own Chapter 1 … because in anything hard, you have to go back to the beginning, pull yourself together and try again.

What’s not so obvious in The Running Dream is the underlying purpose of the section breaks. There are five of them: Finish Line, Headwind, Straight Away, Adjusting the Blocks, and Starting Line.

They represent a race run backward.

They represent that sometimes a finish line is actually a new starting line.

And the choice of five sections? That’s for the five stages of grief.

I don’t expect the quick reader to pick up on this, and that’s okay. It’s more like a backdrop to the action on stage—once it’s noticed it becomes clear how much it contributes, but even if it’s overlooked, it impacts the experience of reading the story.

So think about different ways you might reinforce your story through structure. There is absolutely nothing wrong with straightforward chapters—if that’s what works best for your story, don’t mess with it. But there’s no harm in considering alternate or supplemental ideas, and you may hit on something that contributes—even as unseen support—to the power of your story.

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