Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.52: Structure is a Promise

Your Hosts: Howard Tayler, Kaela RiveraSandra Tayler, and Megan Lloyd

The structure you’re using for your story isn’t just helping you organize your plotting. It’s telling the audience what’s going to happen. Story structures make promises to audiences, and these audience expectations are, in large measure, outside of our control.

In this episode we talk about the expectations set by various story structures, and how we can make sure we use our structures to satisfy our audiences.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Liner Notes: We’ve done episodes on the M.I.C.E. Quotient, Seven Point Story Structure, The Hollywood Formula, and many, many more of the structures mentioned in this episode. We haven’t done any on Kishōtenketsu, but we probably should!

Homework: Look up these structures. Now, pick a favorite thing, sit down with it, and map it onto which structures it fits. BONUS points! Do this again with your least favorite thing.

Thing of the week: Eragon, by Christopher Paolini.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: A structure you pick may set expectations and make promises you didn’t expect. Kishotenketsu. Police procedurals. Mysteries have clues! Three act structure, and hero’s journey. Be aware of the structure you use, because audience satisfaction may depend on it. Save the Cat! M.I.C.E. Quotient. Use the structure, but paint over the color-by-numbers, too. Younger readers may need to be taught about the structure. Consider using the nesting of M.I.C.E. Quotient because it is satisfying to audiences.

[Transcriptionist note: Again, I may have confused the labeling. Apologies for any mistakes.]

[Season 16, Episode 52]

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Structure is a Promise.

[Kaela] 15 minutes long.

[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Megan] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Kaela] I’m Kaela.

[Sandra] I’m Sandra.

[Megan] And I’m Meg.

[Howard] I’m here to tell you that whatever structure you picked for the thing you’re working on is making a promise that you may not know you’ve made. For instance, if you’re using the hero’s journey, you may have promised people that the nice mentor character who is helping your hero is totally going to die. If you haven’t decided that they’re going to die, your audience may actually be disappointed when your Gandalf or your Yoda survives all the way into Act Three. We’re going to talk about how the various structures we use set expectations for audiences and make promises. Often, these are cases of audience bias where we have no control of what people are expecting when they pick up what we’ve made.

[Kaela] Yeah. I kind of have a fun story about this. When I was younger, I watched Spirited Away for the first time. I’d watched a few Ghibli movies, but I wasn’t really much into anime. So I was really unfamiliar with non-Western story structures. So I started watching Spirited Away, and it was this delightful charming thing, but I got about a third of the way into it and I started feeling this underlying anxiety about where is this story going. I don’t… Like, we just keep… Like, ah. It actually interfered with my ability to enjoy the movie at all. Because I… My story brain was expecting three act structure with peaks and climaxes and pinch points and all of these things. Instead, Spirited Away is a much more kind of kishotenketsu, which is long slow buildup, world changing event, and then resolution. Because I as an audience member had no idea that that structure even existed, it was so hard for me to engage with the story that was on the screen. Because my brain was like, “What is happening here?” That is, to me, a beautiful example of the way that the structure creates a promise, and because I, as an audience, brought an expectation with me that the story didn’t deliver on. I’ve since watched it multiple times and I love it for exactly what it is now that I know where it’s going.

[Megan] Something you find in a lot of especially Hayao Miyazaki’s films is that sort of exploration of the world before we get to what you were saying, with the structure wise, because he does not start with a screenplay. Hayao Miyazaki storyboards his whole movie. I’m not going to say like free-form stream of conscious, but he’ll just start with the images of a theme, and he’ll build just right in a row the whole film before he turns it over to the animators.

[Kaela] Oh, that’s a fascinating process.

[Megan] You can buy books of his storyboards. You can see his hand drawings of the entire film. He does it all himself. It’s incredible.

[Howard] Well, sadly, we are recording this too close to Christmas for me to say that’s what y’all should get me for Christmas…


[Howard] And have it actually arrive. I think that the story structure underpinning a lot of Hayao Miyazaki is kishotenketsu, which is a four-part structure that we haven’t talked about much in Writing Excuses. We talk a little bit about it in Xtreme Dungeon Mastery. But it wasn’t until I looked at that story structure that some of the Miyazaki films actually made sense. I was like, “Oh. This is why this happens here instead of happening here.” Because my expectations were wrong. But let’s talk about some other structures. What are some other structures that make promises and what are those promises?

[Megan] I love hour-long police procedurals. Detective procedurals, murder mysteries. I like, in any language, any like country, I love watching hour-long procedurals. One of the things that that usually promises…

[Howard] By hour-long, you mean like 47 minutes?

[Megan] Yeah. 47 minutes with breaks for commercials. Because those commercials or act breaks are an important part of the structure. That cliffhanger you’ll get three act breaks in, where you’re like, “Oh. There’s another body. What are we going to do now?” [Garbled] there. One of the frustrations I had with watching the BBC Sherlock is that show is all about, of course, what a genius Sherlock is, so it didn’t drop the audience clues the way most procedurals would. Sherlock just knows the answer. Or he paid someone offscreen to do the research for him. Instead of somebody dropping a line early on about, “Oh, yeah. Diatomaceous earth. It’s used for tropical fish, and is used for this, and it’s used for this.” And the murder tool has diatomaceous earth on it. Then somebody in Act III casually mentions, “I love my tropical fish,” and if you’re paying attention, you’re like, “That’s the murderer.”


[Megan] Because I’m someone who likes to guess along with it.

[Oh, yeah.]

[Megan] So shows that break that storytelling, or telling a different kind of story, like BBC Sherlock, it’s very hard to guess what happens next, because it’s not relying on the structure I was expecting going in.

[Kaela] yeah. I would say the BBC Sherlock is not actually a procedural in any way. Which is a surprise for a Sherlock show.


[Howard] But this actually kind of steps across the line from structure to genre. Because… That’s okay. But police procedural is its own kind of genre that comes with an embedded structure. It’s weird to me that Sherlock failed to adhere to that, because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented…


[Howard] The police procedural with the Sherlock Holmes books. We circled back around and BBC said, “Pht! We don’t want to do a police procedural, we want to do Sherlock Holmes, who is also Doctor Who and Merlin.”

[Yeah. Chuckles.]

[Howard] But that’s me [garbled]. Kaela? You had something you wanted to…

[Kaela] Yeah. So I guess the three act structure’s probably my bread-and-butter as a writer. Like, that’s how I do… And the hero’s journey. Those are like two of my favorites. I guess I like that the hero’s journey is just something that you do find embedded in all mythology. Mythology is my… That’s my house, man. Mythology… I love the way it speaks universally. But also, it gives you a pretty strong structure for character growth and, like, that’s the number one thing for me in stories as well as… Character growth in the hero’s journey is just so good. That’s why I think that when I watch a show that’s kind of promising a hero’s journey structure and then they don’t really grow, I get frustrated. I’m like, “Ah, that was kind of the whole point, is that you change, but you didn’t. Now I feel a little bit cheated. Can I have my refund for this Netflix?”


[Howard] Oh. Oh, goodness. So, book of the week. I’m going to pitch to you Eragon by Christopher Paolini. Because this is a book which unapologetically draws from the three act… Or not the three act, the hero’s journey structure as deployed by Tolkien and George Lucas. To the point that a friend of mine was reading, I think, book 2 and his friend was reading book 1. His friend picked up… Looked up from his, and he says, “Hey. Have they met Yoda yet?”


[Howard] “What do you mean, have they met Yoda yet?” “Well, because I…” These were guys who were super familiar with the form. I’m not knocking Christopher Paolini. He was incredibly successful by delivering a hero’s journey which telegraphed the fact that it was a hero’s journey and made it super approachable for audiences. So. Eragon, the book.

[Yeah. Chuckles.]

[Howard] I’ve been told that the movie is not something we speak of in our house.

[Laughter. What movie?]

[Howard] Eragon, the book, by Christopher Paolini.

[To me]

[Howard] Let’s talk about some other structures. Sandra, you had something?

[Sandra] [garbled what I was going to say] is that… Taking this back to the whole idea of what can we as writers do, it’s important to be aware that the structure you pick is going to create an expectation for the story you’re creating. That means that when you are pulling back and looking at the craft and looking at… You had a head full of ideas and characters and what have you, you need to pay attention to the structure, the framework that you’re going to stretch your characters and stories across, because that will determine some of the satisfaction of the reader when they’re done reading your story, and that kind of thing.

[Howard] Meg.

[Megan] When I was first reading the Eragon books, they actually ended up not being for me, because I loved the original Star Wars trilogy so much that I felt like the books were too close. So, there’s that precarious balance of “Yeah, I wanted something like Star Wars in a fantasy world, but. Not. This. Close.” I remember getting really frustrated and not finishing the series, because I’m like, “Well, I know everything that’s going to happen anyways, so why should I even…” So that’s something about… I’d like to segue a little bit into Save the Cat! That I deal with a lot working in the animation industry. Because you will have people that’ll be like, “Okay. Make it Save the Cat, but a little different.” Because now everybody knows it, and everybody reads it. I have some development friends who, when they’re reading a script go… It’ll actually be marked against you if you hit all the Save the Cat beats on exactly the pages that Save the Cat recommends you do it in your screenplay.


[Megan] [garbled] feeling that, “Oh, this writer is just painting by numbers and they’re not telling an emotional authentic story.”

[Oh, that’s…]

[Howard] When you take a structure… When you use… We’ve talked about this in our episodes on M.I.C.E. Quotient and hero’s journey and Hollywood formula and whatever else. I’ve used this metaphor before. When you adhere to the formula so closely that every beat is predictable, it’s like people can see the lines in the color-by-number. You just filled in the little spaces with color, you didn’t actually paint over it and make your own picture. It’s the difference between canned beans and fresh beans. It still beans, but if you can taste the can, something’s gone wrong.


[Sandra] Which is interesting. I mean… This… I think we’ll get more into this talking about genre, but there are certain audience segments where… I’m sorry, but they want to taste the can. Like, they showed up for canned beans, and they want to taste the can.


[Sandra] That’s, again, a thing where you’re paying attention to your audience, who are you speaking to, and is this an audience who really wants like to taste the can as they go through their media or are they going to be grouchy because you didn’t cook fresh?

[Megan] Knowing your audience I think is definitely an important part of how you handle your structure. Like, who are you speaking to, and things like that. We’ll get more into that in the next episode with the genre and media promises, too.

[Well, I mean…]

[Kaela] It can be frustrating…

[Go ahead.]

[Kaela] I was going to say, it can be frustrating as a creator when the person who’s in charge of publishing your book or distributing your film project, where you’re like, “No, listen. Fresh beans are so good.” They’re like, “Ah. But the can sell so well.”


[Kaela] That sometimes it can be hard to break expectations and conventions and still get a large enough audience that’s interested in your niche fresh organic beans.



[Howard] This is a case where I err on the side of understand the structure first. Know how the structure works. Apply the structure in your writing or your rewriting. Then, if your alpha readers or your beta readers say, “Your structure didn’t make promises and then keep them, it telegraphed your punches and sucked all the energy out of them.” Then you know that it’s time to go back in and over paint the color-by-numbers so people can’t see the grid. Sandra.

[Sandra] Another factor to consider… We have three authors here who write for young audiences. You have to remember that what is old and tired and uber familiar to an older audience is brand-new for someone who’s 12. They’ve never encountered it before. One of the reasons that Eragon succeeded so well is because it hit a generation that hadn’t grown up with Star Wars. They may or may not have been exposed to Star Wars. But, like, for example, my kids just all rejected Star Wars, which meant Eragon was amazing and fresh and they’d never encountered this before. So our oldest child latched onto Eragon as this brilliant, brilliant thing because it was the first encountering of that hero’s journey and it really spoke to her. So when you are writing for younger children, sometimes you need to teach them what beans are.


[garbled new product]

[Sandra] You are te… You are… As you’re writing for young children, you are teaching them the story structures that they will then have in their head as expectations for the rest of their life, which is amazing and scary as a creator.

[Howard] One of the structures that I want to mention here is the M.I.C.E. Quotient because M.I.C.E. works so well. It’s milieu, interrogation, character, and event. This structural formula in which you determine what types of sub stories are being told in your story based on these elements. One of the principles of structuring things by M.I.C.E. is that… It’s the FILO principal, first in, last out. If you open with milieu, then your story ends with milieu. Milieu was first in, milieu is last out. It’s this whole idea of nested parentheses. If you go milieu, idea, character, then it ends character, idea, milieu. This is something that audiences are not typically conscious of when they’re consuming a story that’s… Because those things are so blurry by the time you’ve backed all the way away from it. But if you keep that promise, if you adhere to that structure, it’s inherently satisfying and it’s subtle. It’s something that audiences often don’t know has been done to them. That’s one of my favorite things. That’s, for me, the difference between the fresh beans and the canned beans, is that, hey, I delivered the beans, and I delivered them fresh, and you can’t tell that I used the recipe off the back of the can or whatever. The metaphor’s falling apart.


[garbled second metaphors do that]

[Howard] Metaphors do that. Especially from my lips.

[Howard] Hey, we’re 18 minutes in. Kaela, do you have homework for us?

[Kaela] I do. Get your pencils ready everybody. I’ll be grading.


[Kaela] No. So, your homework for today, of course, is to first you want to look up all the things that we talked about today. M.I.C.E., the three acts, Save the Cat, hero’s journey, kishotenketsu, all of the good stuff. Then, I want you to take your favorite thing, like, if it’s your favorite movie, your favorite novel, your favorite web comic, whatever it is. Sit down with it, have these structures out in some way. You can pick one at a time if you want, and watch it all the way through and reverse engineer what it’s doing. So you can see how it is hitting or you can even identify which structure it’s using or going off of, at least as a skeleton. Then, for bonus points… You want those bonus points, right? Go ahead and take your least favorite thing. I recommend it be a short thing, just so you don’t have to spend too much time with it. Then look at the structure again. Reverse engineer why it’s not working. You’ll learn a lot by reverse engineering things. I highly recommend that process.

[Howard] Thank you, Kaela. Thank you, Megan and Sandra. We’re out of time. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.