How To Create Great Things: Find a Structure

Len WilsonCreativity, Story1 Comment

Last week I wrote about my friend’s revelation to me to be willing to ruin the romance and dissect my favorite writers. Her advice that day had been to do some research on how they do what they do. At the time I was deep into a Malcolm Gladwell phase, and so I decided to see if there was anything I could learn about how he constructs a book. So I pulled three of his books off my shelf (yes, I still do paper) and began to take them apart.

First up was Outliers. I scribbled anything interesting I could find on a legal pad. I wish I still had the paper, but I will try to reconstruct what I learned from memory. Here are the big take aways:

Each chapter more or less followed a formula.

There are variations, but I saw a pattern in his approach: Each chapter leads with some kind of quote to create intrigue. Each chapter consists of a series of vignettes. The chapters build on each other, reinforcing the previous conclusion and adding layers of nuance and understanding.

Here is the formula I found, using chapter 1.

1. The first part used a story to ask a question. He tells a story about the Canadian junior hockey league championship game. The vignette is around 500 words. Its purpose is to set to the stage for the chapter’s main concept by hooking the reader with an intriguing question that suggests things are not as they seem. (And also the book’s main concept by pointing to the destination.)

2. The second part is an essay. It is also around 750 words, and explores the question that establishes the main concept of the book.

3. The third part returns to the story.  He pulls back the curtain a bit on the  junior hockey league. It’s also about 750 words. It shows a pattern that sheds light to an alternative way of thinking about the question in part one.

4. The fourth part is an explanation to the question. It’s about 1000 words and offers explanation with support for the chapter’s main question.

5. The fifth part is the thesis. It wraps together the premises of part two and part four, using the story from parts one and three as anecdotal support. It’s also about 750 words.

6. The last part returns to the story for a short conclusion kicker. It’s about 250 words.

In total, the chapter follows an A-B-A-B-C-A framework. It uses a total of about 4000 words, which is about 20 pages with charts and footnotes.

After studying The Outliers, I picked up another Gladwell title, and saw that he used the same structure in it. I returned to my scrambled mess of notes. What could I learn from this? Here’s what I already knew about what I was writing:

  • I wanted to write about how people lose their creativity.
  • I wanted to write about how to get it back.
  • I wanted to introduce a typology or way of thinking about the creative process.
  • I wanted to help people get started again with the thing that had once, many years ago, come naturally.

I had an interesting study about the longitudinal loss of creativity in children as they age, which seemed like a good hook. But Gladwell’s structure provided something just as valuable as the hook.

His pattern unlocked the key for me to frame my book’s ideas.

I was inspired now. For years when writing, I’d simply scooted stories around in a open document on my screen until they made some kind of progressive sense. Now I had something better. I started a spreadsheet and began to lay pieces into a similar A-B-A-B-C rubric.

After a period of playing around, I had a spreadsheet full of notes. Here are  a few of the chapters mapped out:

Chapter A B A B C
4: Why Somewhere Along the Way We Lose It Mark Twain, part 1 4th grade slump Jesus in the wilderness and the three lies Stay in the space between self-loathing and delusions of grandeur.
5: The Lies That Steal Our Creativity lie of lowered expectations lie of self-glory lie of control how we lose it The antithesis of creativity is control.
6: The Secret to Rediscovering Our Creativity. Saddle Your Donkey (Abram) Twain Pt 2 Tapped Out. Coaches. Go for it more often.

My chart had holes, and I as review it again it was pretty rough, but it represented a significant pruning of my writing’s wild growth. With a frame in place, the rest of the creative process opened up to me. I knew exactly what I needed to do to finish the manuscript, what stories I was missing, and what concepts needed help.

I thought of my euphoric moment again recently as I read Shawn Coyne’s post about story, which included an off-hand comment that he was studying Galdwell’s story structure, which Shawn calls a grid. Shawn’s a real pro. He has been thinking about story structure much longer than me. I can’t wait to read what gems he discovers buried in Gladwell’s mind.

My humble suggestion to you, fellow creator, is that you learn from my ignorance and Shawn’s intelligence: Identify a favorite creator (writer, musician, product developer) and study from her or him. Ruin your romance and figure out what hooks you. And then apply whatever structures you spot to your own next work.

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Len Wilson

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