What’s Structure Got to Do with It?

More years ago than I like to count, when I was but a first year graduate student in creative writing, I came upon a slim volume in a bookstore titled Shakespearean Design, by Mark Rose. I pulled it off the shelf and gave it a glance, because I was taking a summer literature course on the Bard and soon found myself deep in a book that would influence me as a writer for the rest of my life.

Not many people know this, but Shakespeare never divided a single play into five acts. As Mark Rose notes, “In Shakespeare’s lifetime not one of his plays was published with any division of any kind.” And yet all his plays, as we know them today, go hummingly about their business from curtain rise and act one on through to act five and curtain close. These divisions were added to the plays many years after Shakespeare’s death.

So if our greatest playwright never tinkered with five acts (or any acts), what sort of structure did he use to shape his narratives—surely he didn’t simply scribble away?

It turns out he was influenced by late medieval and early renaissance diptych and triptych paintings. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, as an example of a triptych (click to enlarge),

and here’s an example of a diptych painting, by Hans Memling:

In both forms, the individual painting can stand alone, but is given greater meaning and context when seen as part of a series. And in his plays, Shakespeare used the diptych and triptych as his basic units of structure. Here’s a diagram Mark Rose has worked up for the opening of King Lear:

Here’s a classic triptych structure, with the brief prologue and epilogue framing a much larger scene in the middle. Notice how the first and third scenes have very nearly the same number of lines, creating an elegant symmetry, while their very briefness is juxtaposed with the large court scene, the one where Lear has a fit and divides his kingdom. Also, the prologue and epilogue are private scenes, where characters gossip or conspire, in contrast to the grand public spectacle of the middle scene.

Shakespeare was never one for cookie-cutter regularity, and was more than capable of interesting change-up when it came to framing scenes. This next diagram is from Othello:

Here Shakespeare uses an arch form to shape the narrative, two framing diptychs that surround a central scene. Again, notice the elegance of how the paired scenes (Iago and Othello; Othello alone/Iago alone) are nearly the same length. And it’s the center scene, Iago’s discovery of the handkerchief, which sets off the drama, the single act around which these two characters’ fates will revolve.

Rose’s beautifully written analysis is filled with smart diagrams like the two above, and reading through the book one gets a sense of the infinite possibilities of structure, how manipulating the placement of small units can lead to a greater whole. And once you’re clued into these Lego-like building principles, you can find them in many different art forms. The Fourth String Quartet by the 20th century composer Bela Bartok, for example, has a structure nearly identical to the opening of Othello:

The first and fifth movements share musical themes and material, as do the second and fourth movements, and the middle movement stands apart, its eerie musical material particular to itself. One could see this as a kind of rhyme scheme: ABCBA.

This arch form was an influence on the structure of my second book, The Art of The Knock, though I built mine out of seven sections. David Mitchell’s magisterial Cloud Atlas employs a grand version of the arch structure, which can be read as: ABCDE F EDCBA, an arch, but also an elaborate triptych.

We structure our fictions, and we also structure our memories. Sven Birkerts, in his marvelous book The Art of Time in Memoir, describes the “time frame” of Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception. Wolff begins his memoir with the sudden announcement by phone, as he’s vacationing in Narragansett, of his father’s death, then employs the bulk of the book to tell the narrative of his life with his father, and then ends with a return to the site of Narragansett. Another triptych.

Yet must structure always aspire to symmetry? Yann Martel’s first novel, Self, serves as an effective counter argument. The novel is comprised of only two chapters. The first is 329 pages long. Chapter two is a single page. It’s hard to imagine a more lop-sided diptych than this, but that final second chapter more than holds its own with its bulkier companion.

Did any of these writers have their structure set in mind from the beginning? Maybe. I like to think, though, that these various shapings come about through the writing. If conceived of too soon, a structural plan could easily turn constricting. But if an architecture arises from the thicket of writing’s multiple discoveries, then it gives shape to what might otherwise remain amorphous.

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12 Comments

  1. Cheryl Savageau says:

    thanks for sharing this terrific analysis. I’m wondering if the five-acts derived from the idea of the “well-made play,” or did it precede this?

    Certainly it argues for artists to be aware of what’s going on outside the literary world, in other arts, the sciences, etc. I agree that deciding too soon on a particular structure would probably make for a contrived piece, but if you carry in your subconscious many ways of structuring the world, they are there for the muse to choose from. I’ll look for the books you mention.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks, Cheryl. According to Mark Rose, the division of Shakespeare’s plays into the five acts that we are so accustomed to today are “by and large the product of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editors thinking in terms of an illusionistic picture-frame stage rather than the more flexible platform stage.”
    Rose’s book is unfortunately out of print, but can be found easily enough from online used book sellers.

  3. [...] via Philip Graham » Blog Archive » What’s Structure Got to Do with It?. [...]

  4. Brad Green says:

    Wow, thank you. You’ve given me an entirely new eye with which to see. That Rose book is on its way to me now.

  5. admin says:

    I think you’ll enjoy the book, Brad, it’s chock full of pearls like this: “Shakespeare’s scene divisions generally define units of meaning as well as units of narrative.”

  6. [...] Philip Graham, on narrative structure. [...]

  7. tatiana says:

    This was awesome! Are there any other books on structure that you’d recommend?

  8. admin says:

    Thanks, Tatiana.
    Right now I’m using as a textbook for a writing workshop Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, which employs the wonderful extended metaphor of novels, poems and stories as maps an author creates and a reader can travel.

  9. [...] is a link to Philip Graham’s second post on structure in writing (see the first one here). These are both gorgeously wise meditations on the nature of structure and its uses. But this one [...]

  10. tatiana says:

    Thank you for sharing! I’m checking it out as we speak.

  11. JM says:

    Hello,
    Someone left this website address along with a comment on my blog. Yours is a very interesting investigation on this topic. It makes a great deal of sense.
    I found out about the lack of act divisions from another angle many years ago from one, investigating copies of the First Folio, and two, a little known book, “On Producing Shakespeare”, by Ronald Watkins,1950. Watkins conjectures rather smartly on what it was like to stage a play at the Globe, based on the Folio structure of the plays, some of which have no act/scene divisions. Proscenium architecture is what has given us the arduous five hour Shakespeare, with attempts at realistic settings and interminable scene changes. Imagine standing for 5 hours in the midday sun? The action moved much more swiftly and was continuous and flowing, not halting and chopped up as we know it. It makes so much more sense from both an acting and auditing viewpoint. Whenever I direct, I attempt to convince the producers to stage it with as few breaks as possible–generally only one act break–and along the lines of what we might assume to be original ones format wise. It moves so much better that way. Believe it or not, audiences don’t mind sitting for longer lengths as long as we hold their attention. The rhythm and tempo achieved from the continuity, while incorporating scene changes into the action, is much more able to support their interest for greater stretches of time.
    If it was the blog owner here who left the post on my blog, thanks for stopping by. VERY interesting stuff that led me here.
    Cheers, JM

  12. Big fan of this blog post, but I’ve got to engage in a friendly debate about the last two lines…

    “If conceived of too soon, a structural plan could easily turn constricting. But if an architecture arises from the thicket of writing’s multiple discoveries, then it gives shape to what might otherwise remain amorphous.”

    I find that it’s exactly this sentiment that leads to the bulk of abandoned novels, shipwrecked writing careers…and even failed business content marketing campaigns. Sure, there are those naturals out there who can organically find the story through the writing. But for so many others, having a structure to hang ideas on would save a ton of time and pain.

    Yet, the romantic vision of the muse-inspired artist or even the Don Draperesque genius copywriter causes far too many people to reject structure. The results are often extremely unfortunate.

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