Four Ways of Structuring Fiction or Nonfiction

By Dorothy Blackcrow Mack

Dorothy Blackcrow Mack has a BA from Oberlin, an MA from Yale, and a PhD from Michigan. She dropped out of academia and married a Lakota sundance leader and moved to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to raise the sacred buffalo herd. There she lived in a one-room log cabin with no running water and joined an ancient oral traditional culture. She now lives in a small house on the Oregon coast where, she says, she writes full time, studies the ocean, and watches the sky.

Although Jim Frye talked about fictional essays and dramatic novels, I believe that both fiction and creative nonfiction (memoir, essay, narrative nonfiction) can fit into any of these four categories below. That is, all four categories are used in structuring both fiction and nonfiction; what distinguishes fiction from nonfiction is not so much the structure as the process of discovering, selecting and shaping raw material.

The fiction writer imagines and creates characters, settings, and scenes; these elements may be closely autobiographical or wildly imaginative. The nonfiction writer remembers characters, settings, and scenes; added to these elements may be historical facts, hypothetical explanations, or conflations of time and characters. Each writer then selects and arranges these elements depending on a primary purpose, using one of these four forms:


Both the episodic novel and the episodic nonfiction (essay, memoir) are chronological, presenting events of a life on a timeline. The events may be told as scenes, anecdotes, vignettes, or summary. The events may or may not be linked causally, but they occur one after another. Often there is a journey, which ends when the goal is reached. Life is seen as a series of adventures or travelogue. The order is chronological.


  • Picaresque novels like Don Quixote
  • Comedies in which "life happens"
  • Many biographies, autobiographies and travelogues


In the dramatic novel and the dramatic nonfiction (essay, memoir) a series of scenes, interspersed with narrative summary, rise to a climax demonstrating a single premise. Each story leads causally to the next, presenting a series of struggles, transformations and change. Life is seen as a series of struggles, character transformation and change. The order is causal and climactic. If there is a journey, it is the Heroís Journey.


  • Suspense
  • Thrillers
  • Murder mysteries
  • Narrative nonfiction like Into Thin Air
  • Some memoirs


The thematic essay or "fictional essay" (that is, thematic novel) is organized by topic or theme, and frequently uses the retrospective, reflective voice. Under the topic of "trust," for example, the writer presents examples, anecdotes, scenes and stories demonstrating aspects of trust, usually in a rising order of importance rather than chronology. These are linked together by transitional sentences, symbols, images or motifs. Life is seen as a series of ideas of increasing complexity reflected on and refined over time. The order is by importance.


  • Soul on Ice
  • Most essays and many memoirs


The nonlinear novel or nonlinear nonfiction (essay, memoir) focuses on a central event, metaphor, or meaning of life, which is divided into tiny moments or slices of a scene. These slices are then interspersed with narrative leading up to and following this key event in a rising order of significance so that at the end we arrive at the meaning or understanding of that key event in shaping the characterís life. Readers are gripped even though they know what happens; the authorís focus is on why. Often the result is a powerful tragic tale. Life is seen as a mosaic, a collage of forces and events, recurring images that acquire meaning through repetition, leading to a deeper understanding. The order, used for shock value, is nonlinear, with a rising order of significance, and is meant to imitate or reflect the human process of thinking and absorbing experience.


  • The Death of Ivan Ilyitch
  • We Were the Mulvaneys
  • "Discovery" essays (author gradually discovers meaning of key event)
[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]