For Poetry and Fiction
From Aristotle through to today, structure has been defined and redefined in a number of
ways, but let’s try a somewhat simplified approach that should help us dig into our poems and
stories to develop interpretations that are interesting and perhaps useful to us. Let’s make some
distinctions among terms but without holding the feet of those distinctions too close to the fire of
rigorous critical theory.
Structure is important to critical reading because we assume that a text is “about” something,
that not only is a text expected to be entertaining but that it contains one or more messages that
careful readers can discover. We are used to discovering these messages by looking at a text’s
content which we typically think of being contained in a text’s words. But our issue with
structure is to understand how those words get presented to us because this has everything to do
with helping us discover and understand the messages.
We begin by arbitrarily dividing a text into two parts: its structure (framework) and its
content; put another way, the message-bearing parts and the message parts. This division is
indeed arbitrary because the same kind of literary elements can contribute to each part, often at
the same time. But it is useful to the critical reader to recognize when those parts are acting like
the delivery truck and when they are acting like the cargo. Since our concern here is with
structure, let’s dispense with discussing content/message/cargo and emphasize the
framework/delivery truck aspect of a text.
Throughout the history of structure’s definitions, it has often been equated with the term
“form,” and for our purposes we can treat the terms as synonyms. At higher levels of critical
theory, critics have made interesting distinctions between the two terms that we don’t need here.
So if “structure” is the message-bearing part of a text, what can it look like? The answer is
diverse, but let’s try a few things. Critics often talk about “mechanical” structure and “organic”
structure. “Mechanical” essentially means that a previously devised format is imposed upon the
content with established conventions (half the fun in writing is in violating those conventions).
The most widely recognized mechanical poetic form is the sonnet; others include the epic, the
villanelle, the roundel, etc. We can even consider the formulas used to write modern day romance
novels, or the 18th century’s “well-made play” as forms deliberately imposed on a content. Also,
devices such as acts and scenes in plays, chapters in novels, and sections in short stories fit here.
An obvious way to see the structure of a novel or textbook is to look at its table of contents.
“Organic” structure is different. Here, composing occurs without an external or preconceived
format in mind. The structure grows, so to speak, as the story or poem does. We might say that
sometimes content determines form in this case, and, at other times, the writer forms the structure
as he or she goes. Obviously, an organic structure can be considerably more difficult for the
reader to perceive at first. It doesn’t take much literary competence to count that a poem by
Shakespeare has 14 lines divided into three quatrains that develop an idea and one couplet that
comments or completes the idea, thus making an English sonnet. But it will take a bit more
perception and persistence to recognize the form when there are shifting narrators, or a plot that
violates normal time schemes, or no uniform stanza pattern.
We’ve already used the analogy of structure as delivery truck and content as its cargo. Here is
another analogy that may help clarify the idea: the human body. The body contains parts that
make the it work and think such as the brain, other organs, muscles, nerves, etc. These parts are
held together (unified) and given a form by the human skeleton. As structure, the skeleton gives
the body its particular form. For we humans, that means a vertical or upright shape that moves on
two legs and performs work (function) with two arms and hands. Without this form, we would
have to do things in different ways; for example, a dog carries a stick with its mouth while we
use a hand. This “means” that a dog functions one way while we function another. Without the
skeleton, we could not, easily at least, have our body parts (content) in some form of proper order
(coherence). Thus structure is about keeping parts in some form or order that is useful to us. This
same is true for a text: its structure presents the content in some useful or interesting order that
helps us understand the message.
Whether a text’s structure is mechanical or organic, a number of story elements help build the
framework. Many of them can be grouped under the general headings of Time, Place, Action,
and Pattern. Let’s try to define some key elements to which a critical reader should be paying
One of the most important efforts a reader should make is figuring out the text’s “Movement
in time.” This movement can be revealed in a number of ways, but certainly the writer can only
unpack a little content at a time, and how the writer does so is largely a function of structure.
Here are a few time-related elements:
Plot, in its simplest form, means that a text has sub-units (Episodes are one important type of
sub-unit) that are arranged in an order different from, and presumably more interesting than,
mere chronological order. Thus a story’s plot is its structure. A common example of a story-teller
re-ordering his story to achieve a desired effect is by starting with the ending: “Honey, guess
what. I got broad-sided today at Malfunction Junction. I was leaving the school about 2 when....”
Story-line is what we would call a text’s set of events when revealed in chronological order.
This is important to the police officer writing a report, but not usually entertaining to readers.
Nonetheless, if the critical reader can develop a sense of the chronological sequence, he or she
can often better envision the arrangement of the Plot.
Let’s make a distinction between “story-line” and “story” because the word “story” is
ambiguous. Sometimes we mean story as a narrative of events as when we say, “The story of
Lord Jim (the character) is fascinating.” Other times, we use story as a synonym for content, as
when we say, “The story of Lord Jim (the novel) is ‘about’ a young man who discovers what
honor means.” So let’s refer to the chronological sequence of events in a story as the “story-line.”
Episode refers to a block of time within a story that contains a sequence of events that is
more or less self-contained, a sort of mini-story all its own. In a series, each individual story is
called an episode, as in the Star Wars movies, which has six episodes. A novel can be organized
as a series of mini-stories linked by some common element: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn is such an episodic novel, linked primarily by the character Huck as he
progresses through a series of barely connected adventures (mini-stories).
Flashback is the (plot) devise of going back in time to reveal background or old information
that is now needed to help make the content understandable. (Any background content is called
Exposition.) A flashback is useful for filling in gaps in a character’s personality or history, or in
establishing causal relationships between present events and past ones. It is not time travel but is
history brought up for the reader when needed. Our story-teller above might use flashback this
way: “The guy who hit me is married to Sue Ramsey; you remember when we were at Acapulco
last year and met that crazy blonde who was dancing on the tables. The whole family is crazy that
way....” Flashback is not normally mere digression because, instead, it is a carefully used way to
establish important relationships between pieces of story information. In our example, it begins
to establish why Mr. Ramsey may have been driving in a crazy manner when he hit our story-
teller, who returns to present story time by saying “Well, anyway, I was pulling out when....”
Flashforward is less commonly used; it is an imagined leap into the future – that part after
the story is over – to explore possible consequences of today’s actions. Usually these
consequences are only talked about by the characters or narrator, but they can be played out in
someone’s imagination, as they sometimes are in television sit-coms where a character imagines
or dreams the consequences of a considered action: “If I do this, he will....” [start dream
Place or Setting can also help divide a story into parts, especially when place is somehow
made relevant to the actions of characters. Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim is partially structured
by what happens in the several places where Jim stays. At the very least, the first half of the
novel occurs before Jim moves to Patusan, and the second half (almost exactly midpoint in the
novel’s pages) begins with that move. Thus the novel is often discussed in terms of Jim’s “leap
from the Patna” (an ocean-going ship) and his “leap into Patusan (an interior southeast Asian
So one way of seeing how a text is structured is by keeping track of places (at least the major
ones) where story events or incidences take place and by noticing when a character’s behavior
changes in different locations. Jim, for instance, behaves cowardly and with false confidence
while living on or near the sea; after moving inland he behaves with honor and with a true
confidence – this, of course helps develop the content.
We’ve already mentioned how Jim acts differently on or near the sea than he does while
living inland. So in this example, Place and Action have a clear relationship. Seeing this
relationship helps the reader see the novel’s structure more clearly and understand the content
better with an eye toward discovering possible meanings.
In other stories, a character’s action or behavior may change regardless of location; that is to
say, because of the events he lives through. So here the careful reader wants to notice important
changes in behavior or personality. These changes mark an aspect of the structure. Significant
changes (including reversals) in a character’s behavior or attitude typically occur near the end of
the story-line since they are a result of the story’s events; however, certain plot arrangements may
reveal that change near the beginning of the text. In that case, the bulk of the story then explains
what caused the change. We must keep in mind, though, that many characters do not change
within a text – this is particularly true in short stories and poems. Prufrock, in T.S. Eliot’s “The
Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” behaves the same way throughout the poem’s 132 lines.
By Pattern we mean any device or story-telling element that gets repeated throughout the text.
Music, especially symphonic music, uses “motifs” that are repeated at various points during the
performance. The most recognized motif in the world is from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – the
four notes that go Dum Dum Dum dum. Motifs can signal the beginning of a passage, the ending
of a passage, or the return of some theme or character.
The important word under the heading of Pattern is “repetition.” Virtually anything that can
be repeated, brought up at least a few times, within the text creates a pattern. One of novelists
Edna O’Brien’s favorite techniques is to end chapters with a paragraph that redirects the reader’s
attention to something in nature. She will draw our attention to the weather, or to animals, or to
the landscape. Sometimes these references to nature have a symbolic or quasi-symbolic value;
other times they just direct our attention away from a character and the previous action before
starting the next episode. In either case, they have the effect of being transitions that clearly
divide the episodes through the use of new content.
Symbols can also be repeated. A symbol is usually an object or a quality (such as color) that
acts in a normal way as itself yet at the same time indicates a special additional meaning. For
example, when it rains in Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, it is a guaranteed bet
that someone is about to die. The symbol itself is not a part of the structure, but the pattern of its
repetition throughout the novel is.
The use of natural cycles can also be used in a pattern to create structure. A story might be
organized by the seasons, the times of day, or weather. Kate Chopin’s short-story “The Storm” is
organized by weather. Before the storm, Calixta is a dutiful and faithful wife; during the storm
she has a passionate and liberating but loveless sexual encounter with another man; after the
storm she lovingly greets the return of her husband, but now has an enlightened attitude about
female sexuality. Her change is, of course, symbolized by the storm’s passing and the return of
Themes can also be repeated to create pattern, especially in longer works. Themes, to
oversimplify it somewhat, represent an author’s attitude or position on some concept such as
honor, love, jealousy, bravery, etc. The presentation of events and the words chosen to express
those events in “The Storm” suggest that Chopin believes that women should be able to fully
enjoy sexuality – a concept contrary to the social mores of her time, the late 19th century.
In shorter works like poems and short stories, major themes tend to be constantly in the
foreground and seeing how a theme gets developed in stages can be an indicator of a pattern, as
in the three parts or stages of “The Storm.” The patterned use of theme in longer works may be
more apparent, in part because longer works can and usually do use sub-plots and thus can
explore a greater number of themes. In Hamlet, the character Hamlet suffers from an inability to
take a desired action (to kill the murderer of his father). One productive way to view the play’s
organization is to see the pattern made by the many times the play leaves then comes back to an
exploration of Hamlet’s indecisiveness about taking action to revenge his father.
While emotional quality is not exactly a standard literary technical term, it will serve our
purposes as a catch-all term to suggest various tonal or attitudinal aspects of a text. The standard
labels at issue here are “tragedy” and “comedy.” Simply put, a tragedy has an unfortunate ending
for the main character and tends to create a feeling of pity within the audience. A comedy has a
happy ending and tends to create the feeling of relief. Both require a series of Complications or
problems for the chief character(s) to endure and overcome. These complications constitute a
pattern of obstacles that lead to a final complication called the Climax, which is not always
momentous like the grand sword fight at the end of Hamlet, but must be the final struggle that
leads to the resolution of the story’s set of problems. (Yes, some stories have “false” climaxes
and even multiple climaxes – the movie Space Cowboys has two: getting the nuclear warheads
into outer space and the safe landing of the space shuttle. Technically, only the last complication
is the actual climax, so sending the warheads into space, while it is the true resolution of the
story, is a false climax.)
Most modern stories use a blend of tragic and comedic elements to create tragi-comedies or
comic-tragedies. Thus a story with an unhappy ending might use a pattern of “comic relief” to
give the readers (or viewers) an emotional respite as Hamlet does. Or, we can get the reverse:
create a pattern of tragic elements as Space Cowboys does to give the sense that even a story with
a happy ending should be taken seriously.
Let’s consider one last type of Pattern which, for lack of a better word, we’ll call Borrowing.
Here the author organizes the text using conventions and devices from other genres. One
technique borrowed from cinematography is Zooming (Panning). Movies often zoom in from a
panoramic or wide-angle view to a close-up – a great many cowboy movies start with a tiny
cowboy and his horse seen crossing the wide plains then zoom in for a close-up. And, of course,
we can zoom out from a close-up to a wide-angle view. We are, of course, looking for these
techniques used as a pattern of repetition.
Another example of borrowing occurs in T.S. Eliot’s long poem, The Four Quartets where
the poem is organized exactly like a symphony. The basic structure has four main parts (called
“movements” in music) with each part consisting of a series of passages of differing tempos and
emotional qualities. Each succeeding part follows the same structural pattern as the first but
varies the content. Thus Eliot’s poem is divided into four quartets (movements), and each
quartet is further divided into “cantos” (passages). Each canto mimics the symphonic use of
tempos such as largo, allegro, andante, etc. So Eliot’s poem is essentially a symphonic poem
scored with words the same as Beethoven’s Fifth is scored with notes.
* * *
So it doesn’t matter whether a text has a mechanical or organic structure so long as it is
somehow organized in a way that delivers the content in an entertaining and interesting way. To
truly understand a text’s message, the reader must also discern how the message is delivered
because structure is ultimately part of that message. It takes both structure and content to make a
good story, and the reader needs to recognize both.
Figure 1 is a graph that identifies structural elements in Frank O’Connor’s short story “The
Martyr.” Its main theme is “Civil war starts with noble intentions but always degenerates into
personal affairs,” and its related sub-theme is “Discipline is difficult to maintain once civil war
A Graph of Structure in “The Martyr”
Major Recollection Interrogation Summary Mick told Hartnett tells Trip to hide-out; Report of Execution Murder of of
of past event of suspect of court- of Hartnett’s what really capture of real possible of real innocent
martial request happened and murderer escape plan murderer suspect
Themes Sub-theme: Sub-theme: Sub-theme: Main theme & Sub-theme: Main theme & &
Appear Discipline Discipline Discipline Sub-theme: Discipline Sub-theme:
Setting Hartnett’s Mick’s Court Mick’s Hartnett’s Farm Mick’s Mick’s 1 1 Mick’s home
Grave office office cell house office office 2 2 Moorlough
3 3 Barracks
4 4 Barracks yard
5 Mick’s office
5 Mick’s office
Some years Start of A few A week Later that That A few The next 2 days
Line after the Irish sequence days later later day evening days later day later: Nov.
Civil War of events 18, 1922.
Frame story Narrative of the sequence of events in chronological order
Figure 2 illustrates mechanical structure in the sonnet form.
The Mechanical Structure of a Sonnet
Iambic Pentameter Rime Stanza
Sonnet 130 by W. Shakespeare Stanza
_ _ _ _ _ a 1
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; 1
Meter: a consistent rhythm Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
_ _ _ _ _ b If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
each line. If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
_ _ _ _ _ a I have seen roses damasked red and white, 2
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
_ _ _ _ _ b Rime Scheme: a sound
And in some perfumes is there more delight
pattern imposed on the ends
of the lines. Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know 3
_ _ _ _ _ c 2 Stanzas: content divided into That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
sections each ending with
periods: three quatrains
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
_ _ _ _ _ d (Stanzas 1, 2 & 3) and one My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
couplet (Stanza 4). And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare 4
_ _ _ _ _ c As any she, belied with false compare.
Thematic Movement: Stanzas
1, 2 & 3 move through a series
_ _ _ _ _ d of physical comparisons, all
unfavorable; the couplet
reverses the tone and indicates
_ _ _ _ _ e 3 his true love regardless of her
lack of physical charm.
_ _ _ _ _ f Thematic Pattern: Mistress is
constantly compared with
_ _ _ _ _ e objects of beauty. For example
_ _ _ _ _ f
_ _ _ _ _ g 4
_ _ _ _ _ g