Hierarchy is the Key to Writing

[Author’s note: I am aware of that this is a poorly written article on how to write well. However, I struggle with perfectionism. So, contrary to my nature, I posted it instead of refining this forever.]

Unlimited Telepathy

Reading and writing is nothing short of a miracle. Stephen King notes that it’s similar to, but more powerful than telepathy. Marcus Aurelius, last great emperor of Rome, can send images, thoughts and ideas, to me and you, miles and centuries away.

But few writers really understand how this miracle works at the neurological level. And how doing so, can drastically improve their results.


Imagine you could only hold 2 things in your mind at any given time. Let’s see what reading the sentence “I went to the station.” would be like:

“I went” (Ok, sometime in the past, I went somewhere)
“went to” (Someone went to somewhere)
“to the” (Something relating to some definite thing)
“the station.” (Something to do with the station).

At no point would you be able to hold the whole idea of “you having gone to the station” in your mind. With a short term memory of 2 items, reading anything longer than two sentences would be impossible.

Things are not much better with a limit of 3 items:
“I went to” (Sometime in the past, I went to somewhere)
“went to the” (Someone went to a definite place.)
“to the station.” (What happened to the station?)

Not much better.

The incredible thing is, we do have a limit like this, and though it’s not 2, it’s not much more than that.

We can only hold between 5 and 9 items in short term memory at any given time.

So how are we able to go from 5-9 items, to being able to read Shakespeare, or the theory of General Relativity, or even a short story?

The answer lies in hierarchy, and in the fuzziness of the definition of “items”.

As we go along reading, our mind is automatically grouping and “packing” items together. “I went to” ( three words/items ) is turned into an image of you walking ( one item ). “the station” ( two words ) becomes a ‘pointer’ to everything you already know about stations. The sound of trains breaking, the smell of gravel and iron, the image of locomotives and of bullet trains.

“I went to the station, bought a ticket to Rome, and got onboard the train.” is packed into “I took a train to Rome.”

In order to understand how to create a new idea or story or image in a reader’s mind, you need to understand this process of “grouping & pointing”, and use it to structure your writing.

This idea should influence everything from how you write a single sentence, to how the overall plot or structure of your book should be arranged.


Reading is impossible if it’s hard to group items. Try reading this sentence:
“[Poor sentence that just goes on and on]”

Run-ons are illegible not because they are long, but because they have no simple groupings we can create as we read along.

This is true of sentences, but it’s also true of paragraphs, chapters, or entire stories.

You know when you’re watching a movie, and it seems to just go on and on and on? This is not due to poor characters or weak action.

That “run-on” feeling happens because the writing did a poor job on structure, giving you no simple groupings. The result is that your mind is struggling to make a clean coherent whole out of the story.

Your job as a writer is simple:
* Select words that group easily into sentences.
* Create sentences that group easily into paragraphs.
* Create paragraphs that group easily into chapters.
* Create chapters that group easily into a story.

In other words: as a writer you need to create an arrangement of words that has a clear hierarchy of ideas.

Achieving Hierarchy

Theatre and Film are extremely challenging and restrictive mediums because they take two elements of control away from the reader: time, and recap.

You can always go back and reread something, but a movie has to keep moving forward. You can always read something slowly and carefully if you find it challenging, but a play keeps moving forward.

As a result, over the centuries, this medium has seen more evolution and consideration of structure than any other (though of course, this study of structure has influenced other media).

We can learn a great deal about all kinds of writing, by looking at how screenplays are structured and written.

In a screenplay, every discrete unit of action (“He did X, she did Y”) is called a “beat”. These beats are very carefully arranged, until they amount to a scene. Scenes, furthermore, are carefully arranged until they form a clear sequence. Sequences are then arranged to form Acts, and a few Acts form the whole.

While the same can be said of any writing, the margin for error with screenplays is extremely tight.

The reader cannot rearrange all the hundreds of individual beats into a coherent story without first grouping them into scenes, sequences, etc…

But then, the writer faces the same limitation.

So screenwriters always start with the logline, the highest level grouping of the whole story. They then branch their writing into acts, branch the acts into sequences, the sequences into scenes.

If reading is the act of grouping things together up a hierarchy, then writing is the act of breaking an idea up, going down a hierarchy.

Hierarchy is the key to reading and writing, but there has been no tool specifically designed to use hierarchy to write until now.

We built Gingko to solve this problem, not just for screenwriters, but for anyone who wants to exercise their powers of transtemporal/transpatial telepathy. In other words, for anyone who want to write.

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