Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Five Fundamental Forms of Writing

I’ve had this idea rolling around in my head for a while. Everything that has been written, from a ransom note to Shakespeare to a technical manual to the blog post can be broken down into just a few fundamental forms.

  1. Story
  2. Argument
  3. Instructions
  4. Dialog
  5. Summary

So, take Romeo and Juliet, or the latest episode of your favorite T.V. show. They both are stories told primarily with dialog. And they both start out with a summary. “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,” and “Previously on…” are really the same thing.

Plato used the character of Socrates in dialog to make and explore philosophical arguments.

A parable or fable is an argument hidden in a story.

I am making an argument by providing examples, and providing summaries the forms by way of definition. In fact, all of my recent blog post are a special kind of argument with myself — an essay — which takes its name from the French verb essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt”. I’m literally trying these arguments out. (The fact that I am now doing this in public means I’m either brave or foolish. Perhaps both.)


Story form is hard to pin down. We are creatures of story and it’s the form by which we most easily understand things. Even when this understanding is in error. What are those flashes in the sky? Oh, that’s guy named Zeus. He gets angry and throws them.

I think it’s hard for us to understand story form for the same reason that fish have difficulty understanding water — we’re immersed in it. But, for my essay, I will use Pixar’s description.

Once upon a time there was a _______.

Every day she would ______.

Until one day _________ happened.

Because of that she _________.

And then __________.

Because of that _________.

Until finally, she _____________.


Argumentative theory is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, this is writing that makes a case and attempt to persuade or prove.


Writing good instructions is very hard. Right now, I think this is the best way to structure instructions. Often time we skip the first step and it’s always a mistake. To explain a game you should start with the object, then talk about the rules. As explainers or instructors, it’s too easy to get lost in the minutia. But starting with the goal gives the reader or student a conceptual hook on which to hang all of the information that follows.

  1. End Goal
  2. Important Warnings
  3. Required Components
  4. Steps (1..n)


A spoken interchange. But I think this category (maybe it needs a different name) also encompasses monologues. A character is having a chat with themselves or a party or entity that can’t respond.

“Who’s on first?”
“That’s right.”
“What’s the man’s name?”
“The man on first base!”
“The first baseman!”


Biggest thing first. Then supporting points.

Less like this:

For the last 150 years, the Galactic Empire has pushed the frontiers of weapons technology. Malicious will, plus a limitless Research and Development budget, has resulted in the construction a fully-functional weapon of planet destruction. Grimly named ‘The Death Star,’ this is the most significant strategic issue facing the Rebel Alliance. This paper will explore our options for dealing with this horrible new weapon of oppression.

More like this:

The Death Star is very big and very powerful, but it has a fatal flaw. It won’t be easy to destroy, but it is possible. This document will show you how. (many Bothans died to bring you this memo)

Continuing to Think

Try my scheme on for size and see if it fits. Can you think of any other forms I’ve missed.

One of my questions is, what about poetry? It’s gotta be a fool’s game to try to contain and reduce the rare power of great poetry, but I’ll go out an a limb and say that lot of it fits. It’s just that poetic expression, for me, is always pushing the limits of what meaning can be contained in words.

Here’s a bunch of very good, but very different poems to try on for size.

The Second Coming — Yeats
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — Stevens
Hope is the Thing with Feathers — Dickinson
Epitaph on Tyrant — Auden
Jabberwocky — Carroll
Bluebird — Bukowski
Ready to Kill — Sandburg

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