What do you see when you picture an architect? They might be sketching building plans using rulers, protractors, and pencils. Or they might have finished their design and now have their plans rolled up and tucked under their arm. Are they making a model of their building projects? Long before the construction process begins, architects are busy planning and designing what the finished building will look like. And it often takes a lot of trial and error.
Writers also spend a lot of time planning and designing their work. As part of the process, they decide what structure their writing will take. Will the writing be a narrative with a main character, setting, and conflict? Is it a “how to,” which uses a sequential, step-by-step structure? Or does this piece of writing have description structure? Like creating a building plan, choosing writing structure is full of trial and error and experimentation.
Let’s look at some of this month’s books from the Architecture Book List to see how authors have structured their writing.
Narratives focus on a main character and follow a chronological structure. This month’s book list features several narratives, including MAYA LIN: THINKING WITH HER HANDS by Susan Goldman Rubin. The first chapter begins with May Lin’s birth, and each chapter traces her projects in chronological order, ending with her “What is Missing?” project – her latest. Along the way, Lin encounters obstacles as she struggles to achieve her dreams. If you look at other biographies of architects from the book list, you’ll see a similar pattern.
Narratives frequently use the “story spine” popularized by Pixar to organize them. The story spine starts with “Once upon a time…” introducing the main character and their world before the inciting incident, the moment everything changes. And it ends with “the moral of the story is…” which shows what the main character learned from their journey. Writers can use the story spine to both preplan and revise their narratives. You can learn more about the elements of the story spine here.
How To (Step-by-Step Structure)
ADVENTURES IN ACHITECTURE FOR KIDS by Vicky Chan uses a “how to” structure. If you’ve ever cooked or baked using a recipe, you’ve encountered how to structure before. How to books give step-by-step instructions for doing or making something. They may include a list of ingredients or materials. Then the steps are in the exact order they need to be completed. If you choose this structure, think about what the reader must do first, second, third, and so on. Your writing will probably even include those words as cues.
Expository Books (Description structure)
In expository books, authors describe or explain something to the reader. Since the ideas are not necessarily presented chronologically or step-by-step, writers have to organize their ideas in a logical way that readers will understand. In HOW WAS THAT BUILT? Author Roma Agarwal describes how various structures are built from the bottom up – literally. The first chapter, “Building Flat,” focuses on foundations, the bottom of the building. Chapter Two is “How to Build Tall,” focusing on the framework for building skyscrapers like beams and columns and the machines used to do so. “How to Build Long” focuses on bridge-building, “How to Build a Dome” describes dome construction, etc.
In description text structure, a writer’s chapter headings and subheadings can reveal their plan. For example, in Nancy Castaldo’s BUILDING’S THAT BREATHE, the first subheading in chapter one is “city life” where she explains the problems of city living, including pollution and traffic creating carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. This comes immediately after the opening hook, which describes a treescraper designed by Stefano Boeri.
Next up is the subheading “planning for change.” There she explains how scientists, planners, and architects met in 2018 to discuss the urban greening idea and how architect Stefano Boeri focused on trees. In “why trees?” she covers why trees are an ideal source for greening designs. “Is there a downside?” explores issues like allergies and other drawbacks from greening cities. The final subsection “The Green Builders” explains more types of green building. Then Castaldo moves to the history of green building in the next chapter.
Throughout the book, Castaldo’s ideas unfold logically, giving the reader just the information they need at just the right time, as if anticipating reader’s questions. She also builds upon what readers already know and what have learned previously in the book.
Look at other expository books in this month’s book list, like WILD BUILDINGS AND BRIDGES by Etta Kaner, illus. Carl Wiens to see how other writers have used description structure their writing.
What’s the best structure for your writing? There’s no right or wrong answer. Remember, writers don’t always see their structure from the start. Sometimes it just takes rolling up your sleeves and jumping in, drawing and erasing your plan, just like an architect. You can use this month’s books as your mentor texts.
For an overview of text structures, see this handout from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
About the blogger—–
Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of the picture books: WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, 2021), THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, February 2023), and THIS IS HOW YOU KNOW, illustrated by Cornelia Li (Little, Brown 2024). She also is the author of the middle grade, graphic nonfiction, THE LIGHT OF RESISTANCE, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, (Roaring Brook, 2023), along with 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Kirsten lives near Los Angeles with her husband, lhasa-poo, and two curious kids. Learn more at kirstenwlarson.com.