Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.
You look down at your English assignment and groan. You are completely baffled. Your teacher told you to pick out three books, at least one of which is fiction, and identify their structures. Right now, you don't even know where to start. Never fear! By the time you get to the end of this lesson, you'll have all the tools you need to complete your assignment, and who knows, you might even find it relatively fun. Let's start by defining a few terms.
First, the structure of a text is simply how it's organized. Writers make deliberate decisions about how to order and present their information and ideas. To analyze a text's structure, you need to think critically about those decisions and try to discover the organizational plan the writer is using.
Second, we need to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. A work of fiction comes directly from the author's imagination. Fiction books include fantasies like the Harry Potter series, mysteries like those written by Agatha Christie, and other novels and short stories. Nonfiction, on the other hand, deals with facts, people, and events from the real world. History books, biographies, science texts, and self-help books are examples of nonfiction. Fiction and nonfiction texts feature different kinds of structures, so that's what we'll talk about next.
The structure of a work of fiction includes four basic elements:
- The plot, or story line, which is the sequence of events in a story
- The characters, or the actors in a story
- The setting, or the place or places of action
- The conflict, or the primary problem of a story
Think about one of your favorite stories, perhaps Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and let's analyze its structure. The novel's plot goes something like this: Harry discovers he is a wizard, and a very special one at that. He enters the Wizarding World and has all sorts of interesting adventures as he adapts and learns how to use his magic. Along the way, he runs right into a mystery. Someone is trying to steal the powerful Sorcerer's Stone, and he and his friends have to figure out who before it's too late.
In terms of characters, we meet and get to know Harry Potter and his best friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. We also follow the stories of other characters, like Dumbledore, Hagrid, Draco Malfoy, and Neville Longbottom. The story's action takes place mostly at the wizarding school Hogwarts, but we also see secondary settings, like the Dursley home and Diagon Alley. The story's primary conflict, we discover as we read, is the battle between good and evil, between Harry and the dark wizard Voldemort.
Now let's turn our attention to nonfiction texts. These are a bit different because they're written primarily to convey information or interpretations of information. Authors choose from various structures according to their purposes. Let's look at five common structures or organizational patterns:
- A chronological structure presents events in time, usually in an ordered sequence from start to finish.
- A cause-and-effect structure examines the causes and effects of a particular event.
- A problem-and-solution structure explains a particular problem and offers a solution or solutions to solve it.
- A compare-and-contrast structure explores the similarities and differences between two or more people, places, things, or events.
- A descriptive structure presents information to the reader using details that appeal to the senses or offers a set of directions to perform a specific task.
You've probably seen these structures in your reading lots of times. A book about the events of the Civil War, for instance, would have a chronological structure, while an article examining the causes of the American Revolution would have a cause-and-effect structure. A problem-and-solution structure would work well for a newspaper article that explains the problems of an outdated local recycling center and argues that the city needs a new one. A book examining the similarities and differences between the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton would almost certainly use the compare-and-contrast structure. Finally, the descriptive structure would be appropriate for texts illustrating the characteristics and habits of tigers or telling the reader how to build a bookcase.
To analyze the structure of a nonfiction text, you need to determine which of the five patterns are present in the text. Sometimes there will only be one and sometimes you might find more than one. The book about the Civil War, for instance, might include some descriptions of battles and generals along with a sequence of events. In any case, you need to read carefully and think critically about how the author has chosen to organize his or her information.
Let's take a moment to review. The structure of a text is simply how it's organized. Fiction (imaginative works) and nonfiction (works that deal with the facts, people, and events from the real world) have different structures.
When you analyze the structure of a work of fiction, you identify its plot, or storyline; characters; setting; and conflict. When you analyze the structure of a work of nonfiction, you determine which of the five organizational patterns are present in the text: chronological, cause-and-effect, problem-and-solution, compare-and-contrast, and descriptive.
See? Analyzing the structure of a text isn't so hard after all!
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