One of the most often overlooked tools in the storyteller’s toolbox is the organizing principle. All kinds of stories can benefit from organizing principles—from memoir and literary fiction to creative nonfiction and genre fiction.
An organizing principle is not the same as a plot.
It’s not what happens in your story, but rather how you choose to frame what happens in your story.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert—a memoir about an unhappy divorced woman who sets out on a journey of self-discovery and learns to feed her body in Italy (Eat), her soul in India (Pray), and her heart in Bali (Love)—is the perfect example of this. In a sea of self-actualization memoirs, Gilbert’s became not only a bestseller, but a phenomenon. (Bali is still awash in single women looking for Javier Bardem.)
I maintain that the structure of this story—right there in the title—is much of the reason. In addition to this perfect three-act structure, Gilbert writes the story in parts corresponding to the beads in a mala. Her ingenious use of organizing principle gives what might have proved just another whiny divorcee’s rambling into a transformative pilgrimage that has resonated with readers all over the world.
Benefits of an organizing principle
I’m always singing the praises of the organizing principle. As an agent, I recognize the marketing value of a good organizing principle, as it can help set a story apart from the competition. As a writer and an editor, I know that an organizing principle can give a story more layers of meaning, enhance its setting, deepen its themes, and more. As a reader, I know that many of my favorite books have strong organizing principles, because I—like most readers—am a sucker for structure. Think of a story like The Secret Life of Bees, in which each chapter begins with a snippet from various texts on beekeeping, beekeeping being the metaphor of this fabulous novel.
There are as many kinds of organizing principles as there are stories:
- The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler (the works of Jane Austen)
- Wild (the journey)
- Bridget Jones’s Diary (diary entries)
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (epistolary)
- The Know It All (the encyclopedia)
- My Horizontal Life (one-night stands)
- Julie and Julia (blogs and recipes)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (the serial)
- (500) Days of Summer (time)
- And Then There Were None (characters disappear one by one)
- The World According to Garp (the whole life of a hero, from conception to death)
- Star Wars (the hero’s journey)
- Dalloway, A Single Man, Saturday (the whole story takes place in one day)
It’s all in the title
Organizing principles are so popular with editors, publishers, and readers that as we’ve seen, writers often base the titles of their works on their respective organizing principles. Here are a few more examples designed to inspire you:
- How to Make an American Quilt, by Whitney Otto
- Shiloh, by Shelby Foote
- The March, by E. L. Doctorow
- P.S. I Love You, by Cecelia Ahern
- The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
- The Knitting Circle, by Ann Hood
- The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom
- Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard
- Accordion Crimes, by Annie Proulx
- The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor
- On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
- Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, by Elizabeth Bard
If you’re having trouble coming up with a title, look to your organizing principle.
And if you don’t have one, maybe you should rethink that.
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