The Tent Pole Structure

The tent pole structure described by Linda Sue Park during one of her presentations at the Highlights Foundation Workshop, Books that Rise Above, is the focus of part three in this series.

Here's how Linda Sue explained being immediate and providing back story at the same time, a process she describes as the Tent Pole Structure. Begin by placing your finger at the bottom of the tent pole and tracing it to the top. That's the the action and dialogue, the backbone of your story. While proceeding upward go back and forth, leaking your back story in dribs and drabs.The base of the tent pole where you first placed your finger is the middle of your story, the strongest part. That's where your story begins. It's how you hook your reader. Action and dialogue move your story forward. But what does Linda Sue mean by back story?

Find the back story in a conversation Amy and Dan are having in Chapter 1 of Linda Sue's book, The 39 Clues: Storm Warning:

                "Jamaica was the last place anyone ever saw or heard of her," Amy said.
                She had already researched Ann Bonny online. "So that's where we should
                start looking."
                "But--" Dan stopped, trying desperately to think of a way around Amy's
                reasoning. She was good at this stuff, at seeing the big picture. He was more
                a detail guy, and right now he was very interested in one particular detail
                about the Bahamas.


Back story reveals only what is needed. It is intimate and personal. A drib of character description here, a drab of setting there.Woven seamlessly into the action and dialogue in the above excerpt are background, thought, and characterization. A lot of work gets done in few words.

Parting thoughts: Linda Sue suggested telling your story to your best friend. Get your story down then ground it. Have passion for your story and characters. What I took away: I'd heard this process called "weaving" a story in the past. I understood what that meant but hadn't mastered it. Something clicked for me during Linda Sue's explanation at the workshop. The technique suddenly became clear. I've been applying the tent pole structure ever since.

If you would like to read past posts in this series, please visit:

Part One: Two Ways to Hook and Keep Your Reader
Part Two: Nouns Need to be Concrete and Appear More than Once

For biosketches of Linda Sue Park and Patricia Lee Gauch, please visit:

Next month:  Leonard Marcus: Maurice Sendak as Storyteller and Artist

In future posts: A link to the complete list of "Books that Rise Above" will appear at the end of this series.

Sources: Park, Linda Sue. The 39 Clues: Storm Warning. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2010. Print; Photo: U.S. Military Pup Tent; Diagram by author.

Labels: Parts of speech, children's writing workshop, Highlights Foundation, writing, writing tips


Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-10 year olds. Follow Linda on Facebook.  


Magdalena Ball said...

A useful structure to think about Linda. I like the weaving metaphor for backstory.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks Magdalena, I hope it helps you and those who read the post as much as it helped me.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

A useful concept for weaving your story with just enough backstory. Thanks

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks Mary Jo, and fun to craft, too!

Anne Duguid Knol said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed the series of articles, Linda, and shall be bookmarking this one for reference. I so hate reading wodges of undigested back story in books. This is a clever reminder.

Linda Wilson said...

That's great, Annie! It is rewarding to have such a receptive group of writers to share what I learned. I'm with you on bulk back story. Linda Sue's works are so seamless and her writing is so tight, I feel fortunate to have been the recipient of some of her technique and certainly her wisdom.

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