This summer we remodeled our house. As I watched the architect, contractors, and workmen plan and bring in materials and tools, I realized that building a house is like writing. It’s like writing in a way that the Greeks realized thousands of years ago, but that is relevant today. In my area of study, rhetoric, there are five principles that guide the process of writing: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Not surprisingly, those five principles also relate to building a house and the Greeks even used a house as an example for one of them—memory. I’ve found these principles to be useful in creating just about everything from baking a cake to writing a novel.
First, invention—we have to have an idea of what we want to write. As a writer, I often see scenes in my head that I want to have in my story, I hear bits of dialogue, I have a sense of the characters’ personalities or what they do. These bits and pieces add up to the beginning of a story, but in the form they’re in, they don’t quite achieve a story.
Second, arrangement—we organize our bits and pieces until a form emerges that we can recognize as a story. Some writers are outliners. They have to see this form written down with many of the parts in place so they know where they are going. Outlines are good ways to defeat writer’s block, because writers know what comes next. A good way to outline is to start with three parts: beginning, middle, end. The beginning is where the problem, characters, and setting are introduced. The middle is where the action builds, where characters develop, and the problem becomes more complex. The end is where the problem is resolved, destinations are reached, relationships come together, and anything else that brings a sense of completion. Once these three parts are in place, the bits and pieces can be assigned to one or the other of the parts. New ideas can be added to the outline, but the basic form is still there. Not everyone is an outliner, though. Some people would rather just start and let the story build organically. There is a principle for these writers as well that will be discussed with the fourth principle. Some writers are a combination of outliner and organic writer and some writers choose one or the other at different stages in the writing process.
Third, style—once the form has emerged, the style can be determined. The writer should ask if the story is lighthearted, comical, dramatic, dark, or any one of hundreds of variations on the vast range of human emotions. People alter their style to suit the occasion all the time. They speak one way to their best friends and another way to their bosses. They even dress differently for different occasions. Writers’ likes and dislikes, purposes, and habits, determine the types of words or word phrases used. Whatever the style, writers can be aware that they are making these choices and do it deliberately to achieve the results they want.
Fourth, memory—while we write, we often hold the memory of the form we are trying to achieve in our minds, the characters’ personalities, the way the setting looks and feels, and all the things that are necessary for the story to progress. The Greeks had a memory device that helped them remember the order of a speech: a house. The front door represented the introduction and each room represented another point that would be made. How the rooms were furnished represented details to be told that support the main points. The speaker progressed through the rooms until reaching the conclusion represented by the back door. The Greeks’ house device is also useful for writers who do not want to outline. Many writers who may not be outliners hold a form in their heads of where they want to go, perhaps an ending scene, but allow the story to take them where it will until it gets them there, or not, if they think of something better. They are constantly going through the first three steps of invention, arrangement, and style as they write. This is not a bad thing. Sometimes they come up with wonderful inventions that delight their readers. The point is that writers may benefit from knowing which kind of writer they are and make the most of it.
Fifth, delivery—storytellers deliver stories in many forms from oral storytelling to bound paper books to electronic format. Today, there are more kinds of delivery than the Greeks would have ever thought possible. In this fifth step, writers gather the results of all the previous steps to achieve the story to be delivered to readers.
These five principles are not meant to be restrictions. Knowing them and making them habitual can be freeing, which shouldn’t be hard. They are really how humans are hardwired to create—we get an idea, arrange our resources, determine what the
outcome will look like, keep our ideas in our minds, and then deliver the final product, just like the architect, contractor, and workmen did for my house. I really like my house now. I didn’t before we remodeled. I look at the remodeling much like revision in writing, but that’s a topic for another blog entry entirely.