How Structure Can Loosen You Up

by Robyn Groth
published in Writing

Structure. Constraints. Boundaries.

Are you already withering up a little and looking for an escape? The idea of being fenced in by rules and structure can feel stifling, but it shouldn’t.

Adding structure can actually be freeing.

In one famous experiment, preschool children were observed playing at a playground without a fence around it, and later the same children were observed playing at a fenced-in playground.

Were children wildly running into the street when they had no boundaries? Nope. Without a fence, the children stayed close to the teacher. With a fence, the children freely played and explored the area. Boundaries make us feel safe. With them, we’re not kept guessing just how far we should go in each direction. And we’re not frozen in place by uncertainty.

In a writer’s life, this fear and uncertainty can manifest as writer’s block. The blank page is daunting, and the idea that you could write anything can overwhelm you so that you write nothing. Writers might not want to try a structured technique due to fear that writing that conforms to a structure will end up sounding trite and contrived. However, we have ample evidence that creativity can thrive within bounds.

Take a Cue from the Experts

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Robert Frost famously stated that “writing free verse poetry is like playing tennis with the net down,” and he wrote amazing and timeless formal poetry. In their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books) give us a great quote from romance author Lisa Kleypas:

“But after twenty-two years of being published, I’ve come to realize that what makes a romance novel successful…is to think inside the box. The constraints, the limits, the structure of the romance novel is what allows a good writer to soar creatively.”

In his Poetics, Aristotle explains the various structures of the tragedy, what works and what doesn’t. The structure of the reversal and the recognition hasn’t stopped stunning readers. For a contemporary example, read Karin Tidbeck’s short story “Beatrice” in her book Jagannath.

Let’s take a look at some ways you can work structure into your writing.

1) Try writing a sonnet, a villanelle or a nonet.

Even if you’re not a poet, this type of exercise may be just the way to get your brain going. And it’s a good way to build facility with language; it can force you to think of different ways to arrange words and to use words you don’t normally pull out when you write.

2) Make up your own poetic constraint.

For example, in Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings,” he wrote with the self-imposed constraint that each line would have only five words. This created unfinished sentences that worked as an analogy of a life that ends early. Create a constraint for your own poem. It can be meaningful or arbitrary.

3) Copy Sentence Structure

Pick a sentence you like out of a book. Take a look at its structure. Write your own sentence using the same structure. For example, in Call It Courage, Armstrong Sperry wrote: “His voice, cracked but triumphant, shattered the dead air.” My son and I wrote these sentences:

Her son, fat and pleasant, ate the sweet chocolate. (mine)

Her mind, broken but dark, burst the glass forest. (his)

4) Re-plot your current story.

Take a look at some of the common plot patterns listed in a book like James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure. Does your current story fit into any of these molds? Consider how your story would change if you put it into a different plot-pattern mold.

5) Don’t Sweat It

After you’ve done an exercise with structure, you can keep the format you used or change it. Maybe you wrote a nonet that you almost love. When you revise it, you can leave it in its original structure or find something else that better suits what you’re trying to say. If you’ve written an interesting sentence that turned into a story, you can get rid of the initial sentence if it no longer fits the completed story.

Remember that a self-imposed structure or constraint is a tool you can use to help your mind work freely and in new ways, but you don’t want to give it control of your writing. Make good use of it, but when it stops working for you, ditch it.

Structure, constraints and boundaries are not to be feared or rejected. Learn them. Use them. Create your own even. They are important tools every writer can use to create writing that flows logically, generate ideas, improve writing skills and rework current projects.


robyn book credits 250x375Robyn Groth is a writer for She believes education is a lifelong pursuit that should be personal. She uses writing to help people become passionate, empowered learners.

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