Shape in Writing: What is it and How do you achieve it?

July 24th, 2011 | Blog, Craft, Process | 20 Comments

Sometimes when I’m critiquing a piece of writing, I find myself trying to describe the indescribable. There are certain concepts that seem to be totally necessary for the writer to grasp, but I find it hard to put the idea into words. Words, that is, that will be helpful to the writer in terms of advancing his or her writing. “Shape”– both the verb and the noun – is a word that means something to me when I use it, but I’m not always sure I’m able to get it across to the writer.  I might say something like “this material needs more shaping, or “the piece lacks shape.” But what exactly am I saying? I’m left with the task of trying to explain what I mean and how to fix it.

I should make it clear that I’m not trying to talk about structure.  David Lodge describes the structure of a narrative as “like the framework of girders that holds up a modern high-rise building: you can’t see it, but it determines the edifice’s shape and character.”  I think of structure as how the material is ordered and organized in an architectural sense, such as a classic arc or a modular arrangement.  Form may be the same thing as shape, but  is a little confusing (isn’t it all) because it can be used in the broadest sense, such as a poem, story, memoir, etc., is  a literary form, or more along the lines of a piece having found its perfect form, its essence in terms of shape and structure.  For some reason I prefer the term shape to form, perhaps because I think of it as a more active verb.  Whenever I use the word shape, my hands want to make a sphere, something three dimensional in which all the parts cohere into a tight whole.

When I asked a writer friend about shape, she said it’s something that comes well into the process, not early on when the writer is generating material.  She is so right.  It’s not something even to think about until you have a solid draft.  Louise DeSalvo, in her wonderful book Writing as a Way of Healing, has one of the best models for stages of the writing process. I’ll post about her book some time, but for now, she describes the stages as germination; working stage; deepening stage; SHAPING STAGE (“during which we find the work’s order and form”); completion stage; and going-public stage.  She says “It is at the shaping stage that we take a piece of writing and turn it into a work of art.  For it is at this stage that we can finally give our full attention to form, and we can reap the emotional benefits of having turned the seeming chaos of our experience into the order of a fully realized, carefully crafted, highly original work.  The shape of our work will contribute much to its meaning, and paying attention to its form can teach us much, too, about how we’ve come to understand our experience.” One usually has to go through some form of the previous stages to get to the later “shaping” stage.

I think readers have a felt sense of whether a piece of writing is shaped well or not. To me shape is like a centripetal force that you can’t see or point to exactly, but it is what is drawing everything together.  Most writers have had the experience of writing something in which they know exactly what belongs and what does not. Sometimes this happens when the piece is delivered whole from the unconscious workshop where it has been hammered to perfection by writing elves the writer doesn’t even know exist. It seems that the writing itself knows exactly what it wants to do and be, and it comes out fully formed and shaped.  Nothing is extraneous or irrelevant.  Obviously this is easier to achieve in a shorter work than a longer one.  Other times, the sense of a complete gestalt is only achieved over a long process as one comes closer and closer to understanding what one is really writing about.

In the Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick says, “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.  The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”  This bears rereading any number of times until it begins to sink in.  She gives the example of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called “In the Waiting Room” in which Bishop “describes herself at the age of seven, during the First World War, sitting in a dentist’s office, turning the pages of National Geographic, listening to the muted cries of pain her timid aunt utters from within.  That is the situation.  The story is a child’s first experience of isolation: her own, her aunt’s, and that of the world.” [my bolds throughout]

Hear how BIG the story is?  How universal?  The situation dramatizes the story, which can’t be put into “regular words” with any resonance. The situation is metaphoric for the story, if you follow me.  The story can’t be expressed directly; it takes the details, particulars, and action of the situation to communicate to us that BIG thing, the story.  Maybe it’s what teachers in high school English class used to call “theme” but that always seems reductive to me, as if you can trot it out.  To me it’s more like what is behind why the writer is trying to write this poem or story or memoir or novel.  It’s what the writer is trying to convey or communicate through and beyond just telling what happened.  I’m talking here, of course, about literary creative writing, about writing that aspires to being…dare I speak the word– literature!  Not all writing aspires to that, nor should it, but it was a love of literature that drove a lot of us to writing in the first place.

If the writer doesn’t get beyond the situation to the story, to what he or she is REALLY WRITING ABOUT, in the biggest sense, then he or she will not be able to properly shape the material, it seems to me.  I sometimes ask students to write what their piece is about, and they will write the situation.  “It’s about growing up gay in a small town and coming out after living half my life in the closet.”  “It’s about having a sister with cerebral palsy who choked to death when I was ten.”  “It’s about my father’s alcoholism and what it did to our family.”  Well, those are all situations.  And until they connect…either intuitively or consciously…with their stories, they will not be able to find the best shape or form for their writing.

In an earlier post, I reviewed Gregory Orr’s  memoir The Blessing.  The situation in that book is that Orr accidently shot his brother when he was twelve.  The story is his search for meaning and redemption in light of that tragedy. As my writer friend pointed out, in a piece of writing with shape and form, everything has implications.  Another way to say this is that everything functions.  Orr, for examples, shapes the material in terms of this larger story, tracing not just the surface action, but the underlying emotional experience of being suddenly cast adrift from a universe that made sense through his journey of coming to terms with his act.  He doesn’t put in stuff that just happened in his life; he shapes material that is relevant to what he is really writing about.  He understood what he was really writing about, probably, from living the experience deeply and then writing it through drafts until what he was really writing about rose up through the chaos to make itself known to him through the process of writing itself. He’s spoken of going through a number of drafts, and it was that process that probably separated the wheat from the chaff, the irrelevant from the meaningful.

Annie Dillard in her essay “To Fashion a Text” (in William Zinsser’s Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir), says “The writer of any work, and particularly any nonfiction, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.”

She says of her memoir An American Childhood, “So I thought, ‘What shall I put in?’ Well, what is the book about?  [It’s] about the passion of childhood.  It’s about a child’s vigor, and originality, and eagerness, and mastery, and joy.”

Notice the BIGNESS of her abouts above.  She is speaking of story in Gornick’s sense, not situation.  She goes onto say “the book is about two things: a child’s interior life—vivid, superstitious and timeless—and a child’s growing awareness of the world.”

By knowing what the book is about, she can then make everything in the book about the about!

That’s what shaping is.  It’s making everything in the work about what the writing is really about. 

I realize that is tricky.  Both in the telling and the doing.

How consciously does the writer need to grasp the About?

Sometimes it is completely intuitive, known from deep within the writer’s “coherence of self” (William Stafford’s term).  It often seems that the longer and more thoroughly the material has been processed by the writer, both consciously and unconsciously, the easier it is for the material to be about something and to take shape because of it.

Other times it may be helped along to consciousness by more analytical work.  Many writers think that just writing itself, the putting down of words, is enough.  If that works, that’s fine.  But sometimes writers benefit from bringing to bear some conscious, analytical thought to what they’re making.  It may help give the intuitive or unconscious a chance to speak.

If you’re struggling with what you’re writing, you might try actually writing on the side the answers to these questions (you can do it any number of times during the process):

What is this about?

(Write as much as you can, without trying to figure it out, just letting things come.)

Then again: What is this about?

(Same thing.  Answer in writing, as fully as you can, having gotten the surface level thoughts out of the way the first time you answered. See if new thoughts or insights come to mind.)

Go again:  WHAT is this about?

And again: What is this ABOUT?

What IS this about?

And finally: What is this REALLY about?

Maybe you’ll gain more insight into what you’re really after, what it is that really interests you and emotionally engages you about this material beyond the surface situation.

Once you know more about what you’re really writing about, you have a better chance of knowing what to put in and what to leave out.  You have made more knowledge available to your writing self.  You don’t and shouldn’t necessarily work too consciously to put this newly accessed information directly into the writing.  But if it is true and real, it will come out in the writing without you consciously striving to inject it.

Perhaps in the process you’ll discover the resonant metaphors, key words, repetition, structure, correct beginning or necessary ending that will help you shape the material into its best self.

20 Responses to “Shape in Writing: What is it and How do you achieve it?”

  1. I found this so interesting and true, especially since I'd just read a agent blogger who makes the opposite point, at least for pitching:

    http://www.rachellegardner.com/2011/07/pitching-y

    Her advice is very commercial, and I would say trade publishers do lean harder on the situation than the story. But I agree, to be great a narrative needs both.

  2. Paulette says:

    Thanks, Richard, for the link. I looked at that blog on pitching and I'm sure she's right about needing to summarize the plot in a query letter or "pitch." It's too bad in a way that Gornick had to use the word "story" in her "Situation and Story" idea, because normally we use the word to describe a narrative or plot and not in the way she uses it. So it can be confusing. My "shape" piece was directed towards writers who have a manuscript in process and her thing really has to do with when you have the "product"– a finished (are they ever?) manuscript you're trying to get published. I think she made a good point about needing to say what happens in a book when you're trying to sell someone on it. I found writing a query letter for my novel a really difficult task–trying to compress and distill a lot into a short letter and make a battle-worn agent want to read it!

  3. Right, this is really apples and oranges. And frankly I feel that her advice is rather superficial even as it is helpful. Maybe it applies more to commercial fiction, though I do think the trade press in New York favors narrative over what they would consider navel gazing. I agree Gornick's terminology is rather perverse! It always makes me stop and think, which is probably why she did it; she is making her point very strongly in saying the story is the inner and not the outer events.

  4. Roberta Johnson (aka says:

    As I read this blog, I am reminded of Tayari Jones's "So What's Your Book About…" on She Writes.

    I relish both the tenor of your discussion and your process for shaping this piece.

    • Paulette says:

      Thank you, Roberta, for the reference to the Shewrites piece by Tayari Jones. I'll look into it, and glad you enjoyed the piece. best, Paulette

  5. Cyndi says:

    Exactly what I needed today for an essay I've been struggling with. My beta reader asked yesterday: what do you want to say? Basically a reframing of "what is it about?" which you expound on so well.

    I know the situation; I know the superficial story. It's the deeper meaning I need to access, both in myself and in the words that finally make it into the essay. THAT's what I want to say.

    Thank you!

    • Paulette says:

      Thank you, Cyndi, for writing and telling me what is going on with you and your essay. I have never heard of a "beta reader" and now I want one! I really hope something of what I suggested or talked about in the Shape piece will prove useful to you. You're at the right/write stage to be asking those questions.

      Good luck with it and let me know how goes it.

      best, Paulette

  6. Chris Roberts says:

    I am always amused when writers try to "teach" writing. The best writing is done intuitively, absent constructs and dictates.

    • Paulette says:

      Hi, Chris,

      I'm always pleased if I can amuse anybody in any way. But I hope you're not thinking of me as a dreaded "teacher." I'm really just a struggling writer who tries to pass along whatever I have found helpful that I think some others might benefit from. I'm so glad you raised the question of whether writing can be taught, and I brought in a Big Gun, Wallace Stegner, to address it in a new post, thus sidestepping it myself. Thanks for writing.

      Best, Paulette

    • Thanks, Paulette, for a clear and useful craft essay.

      Chris, I think your claim is a fallacy. Like any art form, writing has to be a balance: 50% learning how to play the instrument, or how to apply the paint, and 50% insight and intuition. The first half of that equation can certainly be taught. The second half can't be taught, but it can be encouraged, guided, reinforced.

      I am a writing teacher, and proud to be one.

      • Paulette says:

        Hi, Dinty,

        Your reputation precedes you — thanks for writing in!

        As a child of the fifties too, I look forward to reading Between Panic and Desire (what a great title).

        And I love your "I'm a writing teacher and proud of it."

        best, Paulette

  7. I love this topic. It's a bit like the Democratic/Republican wars going on in our government right now. Each side thinks THEY know best!

    I write in fragments, which is very different than

    the way plotters write. I write shorter form stuff usually though –

    poetry, short stories, essays, Blog articles. I am working on my first

    novel, Nigh Surfing, which has forced me to learn more about structure, but still, it's always going to be about words and images for me.

    I always remember the saying, Nothing is lost on a writer. I think that holds true here as well. Why not avail yourself of ALL

    methods as a writer. As a contest Judge for several writing contests

    over the past decade, I have read thousands of stories. And the one thing I don't think you can teach is style. It has to come from who

    we are as writers at our core. Fun topic. Thanks!

    Mary Kennedy Eastham

    Author, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget

    the upcoming novel Night Surfing

    and The Girl With Sand in Her Hair – A Little Book

    of Love Stories

    • Paulette says:

      Hi, Mary,

      Loved hearing from you and about your work and process. What a wonderful title for a book: Night Surfing. Good luck with the novel. And style is the person, isn't it. Thanks for all the good thoughts.

      best, Paulette

  8. Shanti Perez says:

    Enjoyed this immensely. Couldn't have discovered it at a more perfect time in my learning process.

    • Paulette says:

      wow, Shanti, that makes me happy. Thanks for letting me know. Love your name. That's what we say at the end of yoga, right? Maybe it means peace? I have to look that up. I really hope the shape piece will prove helpful to you in your process.

      best, Paulette

  9. First visit here Paulette and well worth it. I'm going to work this into an exercise with my CNF students. Thank you!

  10. Shirley says:

    Paulette, what a helpful piece. You go to the very heart of the matter and challenge us to go there with you. Have you read Marion Roach Smith's new book called The Memoir Project? She stresses the importance of answering the "about" question also. I haven't read the book yet, but I have enjoyed some online conversations with the author. As well as the review interview on NPR :http://www.npr.org/2011/07/13/137822505/start-your-memoir-project-with-a-relatable-story

    I like the distinction between shape and structure. Thank you!

    • Paulette says:

      Shirley, I'm delighted to hear from you. I admire and enjoy your website and was just reading it this morning — no kidding! Thanks for responding — and I'm happy to know about The Memoir Project — and for the link to the NPR interview… I really value your blog, thanks for such a world of great stuff.

      best, Paulette

  11. Janice Gary says:

    For almost two years, I struggled with finding the structure my memoir would take. When I found the right voice for what I wanted to say, it helped to push me forward to write through enough to finish. And only when I read that first finished draft, did I see what the story really was about. I didn't have change everything in revisions (and yes– revisions with an "s"), but it did begin to give me clarity so I could see what needed to be included or added and what needed to go.

    Thanks for a brilliant article on so many levels.

  12. Paulette says:

    Janice, thanks so much for writing and describing your experience with your memoir so tellingly and succinctly. It makes such perfect sense — finding the voice that would let you tell the story you wanted to tell, gettting a draft down, and then seeing what it was really about! And then seeing what to leave in and what to take out. GREAT! best, Paulette

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