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Narrative “Tradecraft” #8 – Structure

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By Reggie Marra, MA, ACC

The structure a narrator consciously chooses, or is unconsciously chosen by, most often emerges from her perspective and intention for the narrative, and may be influenced by the media available to her.

A 140-character message like Donald Trump’s November 6, 2012 “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!” composed on and sent from a phone in seconds or minutes, has significantly less room for vision, imagination, nuance and depth than does Abraham Lincoln’s November 19, 1863 concern with a divided nation that began, “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Narrative structure emerges in varying degrees from both what we choose (Trump had more media choices than Lincoln; Lincoln’s worldview allowed him more complex choices of expression than Trump’s allows him) and what chooses us – or, put another way, what was chosen for and given to us. What was chosen for or given to each of these men from birth through the day each wrote the above quotes is too detailed and long for this post – suffice it to say they were born into different times under different circumstances.

More to our point here, each of us gets to choose, and if we’re fortunate and intentional, we also get to explore that which has chosen us – and in so doing, may keep it or let it go (in effect, a choice about what has chosen us). Early on it’s less important to get into the minutia of all of these choices than it is to hold lightly in awareness that we both do have choices and we have been chosen. With this lightly held awareness, then, it’s best to just begin and notice where the writing wants to go. Does it prefer a 1st-, 2nd-, or 3rd-person perspective? Does it present us with concrete or subtle images of and/or metaphors for our illness-healing process? To what extent does it invite us to see ourselves and our experience again – to ‘re-vision’?

Absent, and often despite, intentional structural choice as we begin, narrative structure emerges as we write. See below for an example of intentional choice from the world of formal poetry.1

As with our previous narrative tools, we next shift our focus beyond the written narrative structure itself to what’s chosen and given each day of our lives – those diverse structures that inform, influence and even control aspects of our moment-to-moment existence. The structures we choose or are given from an early age include, but are not limited to: time; safety; money; work and vocation; wandering and settling; intimacy and solitude; wisdom and compassion; and justice and mercy.

What are our earliest experiences in childhood? In our families of origin, as we listened to and watched our parents or guardians, what were we given – and to what extent:

  • was time, not to be wasted, marching on, of the essence, on our side, not waiting for any (wo)man, an illusion… and to what extent were we ruled by clocks and calendars…?
  • was a sense of safety something we took for granted, never really experienced, a priority, ignored…?
  • was money abundant, scarce, a primary goal, a byproduct of vocation, the root of all evil, not growing on trees, a useful means of exchange, what we trade our life energy for…?
  • were work and vocation the same thing, very different, means of survival, food for the soul, gifts we carry and share…?
  • were wandering and/or settling intentional options, were we granted permission for either or both…?2
  • were we exposed to the respective benefits of both intimacy and solitude, was either modeled as preferred or to be avoided…? How was each defined?
  • was wisdom or compassion modeled and/or preferred…?
  • was justice or mercy modeled and/or preferred…?

You get the idea. To what extent as narrators of any piece of writing, or of our moment-to-moment lives, are we aware of, and do we intentionally work with, these and other structures, and to what extent are they still choosing us as they were given (or ignored) in childhood?

Structure is one of the tools we explore in in this Narrative Tradecraft series and in the course, “Living Poems, Writing Lives.” Stay tuned for the upcoming blog on theme – the unifying idea or underlying meaning of a narrative or a life.


1Structural choices that are available to poets and all writers are many an quite diverse.  Here’s one example of the impact of a “simple” choice made within the structure of an Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet, which differs in certain elements of structure from the earlier Petrarchan and (contemporary with Shakespeare) Spenserian sonnets. Shakespeare employed an abab cdcd efef gg end-rhyme scheme, an eight-line proposition and a six-line resolution that includes a final, distinct couplet – all written in ten-syllable lines, with alternating unstressed and stressed syllables (iambic pentameter). ‘Listen to the structure’ as you read this out loud. Try to read it as though you’re having a conversation in 2017 (not as though you’re hangin’ with the Bard) albeit with some archaic language.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?                       [a]
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.                   [b]
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,          [a]
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.               [b]
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,                      [c]
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;                         [d]
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,                      [c]
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.          [d]
But thy eternal summer shall not fade                             [e]
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;                     [f]
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,       [e]
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.                     [f]
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,                            [g]
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.                            [g]

– William Shakespeare
Next, read Eileen Albrizio’s contemporary approach to this same structure (rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter are the same). What differentiates her sonnet is that his fourteen lines all end with a natural pause for breath (end-stopped); only four of Albrizio’s lines are end-stopped – ten are enjambed, meaning they run on without a natural pause for breath at line’s end, which tends to soften, and even hide, the end-rhyme. Read it out loud and hear the difference.

The Stealing of a Winter Heart
         an English sonnet, by Eileen Albrizio3

He carries cold inside his coat beside a heart, once fanciful, at present grave.His hand, the left, is hidden, slipped inside unbuttoned folds, as if to hold and save and stroke a scared abandoned kitten, though it really cups an ebbing beat.  I see the fabric rise and fall.  He doesn’t know this desperate pulsing motion comes from me.A stolen heart replaces his.  He took it while I slept.  Disposed his own across my chest where it expired.  So now I look at vain attempts to vitalize my loss.He grips my heart in feeble fist to try and pump a life I’m sure is doomed to die.

The above simply contrasts two sonnets written some 400-plus years apart and doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s been done with sonnets, other poetry forms and other forms of writing over the years.

2See David Steindl-Rast’s Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer especially, but not only p. 127 for more on wandering, settling (and the pilgrim).

3 Copyright © 2001 by Eileen Albrizio, from Rain – Dark as Water in Winter by Eileen Albrizio. Waterbury CT: Ye Old Font Shoppe, 2001.

1. For an overview of the ongoing Narrative Tradecraft Series: http://www.teleosis.org/2017/02/01/narrative-tradecraft-and-the-conscious-liver/
2. For a look into the impact of narrative structure on larger cultural stories and current events: http://www.teleosis.org/2016/07/25/healing-our-collective-stories-an-american-health-crisis-2/

3. For an exploration of how the writer’s perspective controls the narrative: http://www.teleosis.org/2015/11/15/narrative-tradecraft-1-perspective/

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