Invisible Architecture

Using hidden constraints to generate stories

This morning I was looking for essays on a craft subject I always think about yet never see articulated. I tossed the question to Twitter. Judging by the replies, it’s something tons of authors think about but never write about. Which is to say it’s a perfect subject for this Counter Craft newsletter. So here I go.

What I mean by “invisible architecture” is the structures that we writers give ourselves to produce the work that might not be visible—or at last not overly so—in the text. There’s a whole lot of writing about visible architecture of this sort. The most famous advocates of using constraints to produce writing are probably the Oulipo group. The Oulipo (short for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” or “workshop of potential literature”) is a group/movement that advocates using games and often extreme constraints to create literature. The most famous example is Georges Perec’s A Void, a novel written without using the letter “e.” The most popular official Oulipo author has to be Italo Calvino, who joined the group in the late 1960s and proceeded to produce wild and fascinating works like Invisible Cities (a novel consisting mostly of 55 descriptions of invented cities) and If on a winter’s night a traveler (a postmodern novel in which half the text is different first chapters to different books).

There are countless other examples of books with really visible constraints. One that comes to mind is Robert Olen Butler’s Severance, which is a series of flash pieces 240 words each about people being beheaded. The word count is based on the idea that there’s 90 seconds of consciousness after a beheading and that people can speak at a rate of 160 words a minute. 160 times 1.5 = 240.

I love these kind of books! I believe completely that formal (or otherwise) constraints paradoxically produce creative freedom. Obviously this isn’t a new idea in literature. Poets have used strict formal constraints—from sonnets to haiku—to inspire work for centuries. (Fiction writers are more reluctant to think in this way for some reason. The idea of the novel as a form that’s necessarily unconstrained, that can take any shape and constantly shifts, is part of the core appeal.)

What’s less talked about is similar kinds of constraints that are perhaps not visible to the reader yet essential to the composition process. So many writers I know will give themselves mathematical structures for a novel (three parts of five chapters each, say) or perhaps a page or word count to hit for every chapter. Some examples in the replies:

(Check out Private Citizens and The Golden State if you haven’t already!)

These are various useful frameworks. Giving yourself even a basic structure can go a long way toward helping you generate a first draft. Writers constantly talk about the terrors of the blank page, and a lot of writing advice (rightly) revolves around figuring out what to do next. If you know that your next chapter needs to have X or take place during Y, you have at least a starting point.

But these invisible architectures can also be more subtle and even more sunken into the text. I love this example:

(You can buy Hospice here.)

I often give myself constraints or rules like this, sometimes strict and sometimes not, when writing. Perhaps it is not even right to call these constraints. For me, at least, it is often more of a thematic framework or linguistic conceit that I come back to when I’m figuring out what to do next. For example, in my story collection, I have a story called “If It Were Anyone Else” that had a rather basic underlying structure of up and down. That’s it. The characters are constantly moving up buildings, going down into tunnels, looking up, putting things down, etc. Here’s the opening:

A bald man buddied up to me in the elevator, but he was no buddy of mine. He was much older than me, yet more or less exactly as tall, not counting my hair. He was holding a brown paper bag over his crotch.

“Does this go all the way to the roof?”

I made a big show of putting my newspaper down and turning my head. “What the hell do I know about the roof? What would I do all the way up there?”

We stood still as we moved up the building.

“Just a friendly question.” He licked the bottom of his mustache with the tip of his tongue. “Hey, do you like candy beans?”

Now obviously the story is about much more than this. I had my characters, a plot arc, and a voice. The architecture alone isn’t’ enough for a story. But the up/down framework though helped me when I was stuck. When I didn’t know what to do next in the story, I would come back to this and make my characters go up or down in some way. They go over a bridge or they go down into a garage. Literally or metaphorically, visibly or invisibly. The up/down well kept giving me ideas.

What I’m talking about is not the same as Nabokovian games or puzzles for readers to figure out. (Though those can be quite fun!) The kind of architecture I’m talking about is not there for the reader to figure out, but for the writer to use to generate the text. Of course, this invisible architecture can be somewhat visible—especially if you know what to look for. In my example above I’m sure you will easily spot the “up” and “down” words now that I’ve pointed it out. But I think that this wouldn’t be very transparent when reading the story blindly in a literary magazine or book.

I should probably point out here that the Oulipians themselves use both visible and invisible architecture. The main constraints of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler are fairly obvious, but each of the chapters has their own constraints that Calvino never revealed. The 55 cities of Invisible Cities are organized in 11 thematic groupings that are themselves organized in a mathematical structure that I’m sure most readers don’t notice. And also which don’t necessarily add to the text. The structure is there for Calvino’s sake more than ours.

Why don’t we talk about this more if so many writers depend on it? That last point might be part of it. These architectures are there for us, the writers, to create work. They aren’t necessarily interesting at all to the average reader or even the informed critic. And perhaps it’s a version of magicians not wanting to give up their secrets, especially when the secrets aren’t all that clever. If I write a novel in which each chapter happens in a different month or each features a different breed of dog, well, okay that’s fine. But it’s not all that interesting to talk about unless it has implications for the plot, themes, or characters.

The architecture can also be completely invisible to the point of not existing. Erased in revision, often. In this version, perhaps it is more like scaffolding. Something you use to build the building, but remove before publication.  

All that said, I do believe invisible architecture can add a thematic richness to the text. In my short story, I used an up/down structure to add to the sense of dizziness, disorientation, which was a major theme of the story. A story filled with the colors of the rainbow may feel bright and lively to the reader, even if they aren’t thinking Oh, there’s yellow. Green must be a-coming next! consciously as they read.

I would encourage writers to try and find an architecture or constraint that fits the major theme of the text. If you’re writing a story about doubling, them perhaps repeating words and phrase will add richness and coherency to the story. If you’re writing about “vision,” perhaps light and dark will add an appropriate mood.

But even if you don’t go that far, give the method a try. It can be as complex or simple as you like. If you have a story or novel you are stuck on, give yourself some constraints or structures that jump start the next scene or chapter. Word counts, settings, time periods, themes, objects, the five senses.

Anything can work, as long as it is making you work.


The bottom part of this newsletter will probably be sundry items about the newsletter or my own writing. Nothing to say on the latter right now—although I’m working on final edits for my science fiction novel The Body Scout that will be out this fall.

For the newsletter, I’ve been encouraged to enable paid subscriptions. For now, everything will be public, though in the future I’ll have some private posts, Q+A sessions, and other fun things. But if you feel like “tossing me some clams”—as the kids say these days—now, well, I won’t complain!