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

17.13: Structuring Around a Thing

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler

Our exploration of sub- and micro-structures continues with guest host Peng Shepherd. This week we’re talking about how a story can be structured around a “thing.” The simplest explanatory example would be structuring around a map, which is where we start the episode… kind of like how The Lord of the Rings starts in The Shire.

This episode does not end with even one of us climbing a volcano.

Liner Notes: 

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

Homework: Is there a “thing” in your project that could function as a natural structure?

Thing of the week: The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Building your story around a map, place, date, or other thing can help your story in various ways. E.g., a map tells the reader where you are going, or a date gives you pacing. A deadly maze. This kind of structure may be especially helpful for pantsers, since it gives you a kind of automatic outline. Be aware that when each chapter is a new location, sometimes you need to flesh out the locations more to support the story. 

[Season 17, Episode 13]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring Around a Thing.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Peng] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Peng] I’m Peng.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] Today were going to talk about structuring around the thing. Whether that thing is a map or a location or an object or a whatever. Peng, I find this an absolutely fascinating idea which I can think of so many examples of, but it had never occurred to me that it was a type of structure. Talk about it a little bit. What do we mean when we say structuring around a thing?

[Peng] Yeah. So there are several different types of things that you can structure around. So, like you said, a map or a place, for example, like everyone is contained within a spaceship or a train, or you can structure around something that’s got a set of rules, like a game, or some kind of a built in countdown, like a date that we’re headed towards. So all of these different types of things that you can structure around will benefit your story in a different way. We can talk about the different types. But, for example, if you’ve got a story that you’re structuring around a map, that will automatically give your readers a little bit of an idea of where you are like literally going. Versus, if you’re structuring around something like a date, like a countdown to a date, that will give you kind of an automatic pacing bonus, I think, because if you know where the story is ending, then you know exactly how far you have to get there. It will just create this like natural propulsion that will pull you through towards the end.

[Mary Robinette] I just realized that Dan’s Makeover does exactly that thing.


[Mary Robinette] It is structured… Every chapter begins with a countdown to the end of the world. So, yeah, congratulations, Dan, on using a structure you didn’t realize…

[Dan] A structure I didn’t realize was a structure. Yeah. I did that on purpose in part because I… It helped me to keep the timeline correct when I first built the book. I wanted to make sure everybody knew when things were taking place, how long… How much time had passed between chapters, and things like that. But structuring it specifically as a countdown to the end of the world helped me set proper expectations for the book, which still surprised a lot of people, because we’re accustomed to happy endings and everyone thought I was going to save the world. Nope. We’ve been counting down to the end of it since the very first chapter. This is how it’s going to end.

[Howard] I told you what was going to happen. Why are you mad?


[Mary Robinette] Yeah. This does not count as a spoiler, since he tells you at the beginning of the book. End of the world comes. But there’s… So there’s… The calendar that the all of these… But there’s a specific trope in science fiction, often in science fiction, which is sometimes called the deadly maze. Where… A really classic example of this is Diamond Dogs by Alastair Reynolds, where they go in, and they have to get through this tower, this alien artifact. So each segment is getting deeper into the artifact. You’ll see other examples of this. Planet Fall by Emma Newman also has an element of that. I think it’s… Again, it’s not something that I’ve thought about as a way to plan my structure, but it is absolutely… There, I think also there are elements of that in Piranesi which was last week’s book of the week, which is a really interesting idea of using that… The physical constraints of something to also… To affect your story.

[Peng] Yeah. I think it’s especially helpful for, if you like the term plotters versus pantsers. I would describe myself as a pantser. I think it, this kind of building your story around the thing, especially if it’s location-based or time-based, can really help you figure out where you’re going if you’re not very good at outlining, which I’m not. So there’s another really great example. It’s called… I think the whole series is called The Tower of Babel it’s by Josiah Bancroft. The first book is called Senlin Ascends. The main character’s name is Senlin. It’s about a husband and wife that go to the Tower of Babel. Which, in this book, is this kind of like giant part, almost… Like, it’s huge, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of levels. Of course, they get separated at the beginning. One of the last things she says to him is, “If we get separated, meet me at the top.” So he spends the whole book trying to get to the top. It’s just such a great device, because you… Even though you don’t know, whether you’re the reader or the writer… So I was thinking about it as a writer, the whole time I was reading this book. So, even as a writer, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do on every level, you know your end goal, which is to get to the top and hopefully find your wife. But you’ve got… It’s just such a great structure, because the Tower of Babel has, I don’t know, say 100 floors, and you’re going to go so many floors every chapter, or so many floors every book, I think, because it’s a four book series. So it’s just such a… It’s like an outline just gifted to you.


[Dan] Yeah. The movie Diehard is structured in a similar way. Not that it is a quest to the top, but it’s so easy to watch the movie and think… I’ve written scenes that way before, where I’m like, “Okay. They’re in this building. They cannot leave it. That means they have these resources, they have is this method of moving around, they have these restrictions. How am I going to get them out of here?” For a writer, it really is, like you said, it’s like having an outline just gifted to you for free in some ways. Because you get to think your way through that location in a way that is not only kind of… The restrictions make it both easier and they force you to be creative and they also make it very relatable. We’ve all been in a building before. We know how they work. So we can kind of, with John MacLean or with these other characters, kind of think our way through, well, what would I do? If I were stuck in a building with terrorists? I think it’s no accident that after Diehard came out, the action movie genre exploded with a million Diehard clones. This is Diehard but on a bus. This is Diehard but on a cruise ship. This is Diehard but in a small town. Where they were very location based, because that makes the story a little easier to tell and also very relatable.

[Mary Robinette] Another really kind of fun thing to base a story around is a deck of cards. I have someone… I wish I could tell you to go read this, because… But it’s not published yet. But one of my… Someone that I… Another writer that I know is working on something for each story is actually based on a tarot deck.

[Peng] Oh, cool.

[Mary Robinette] It’s working through this tarot deck. Cecilia Tan has a spread… And we’ll put the Storyteller’s Tarot spread, where she takes a deck of tarot cards and puts down the spread which has the left-hand which is the path of change and the right hand, the way things are going. So literally uses a tarot deck to help her plot her novels. Sometimes. We’ll put the link in the liner notes to her blog post about it. But it’s really interesting to think about that kind of thing. The artifact as a way to find your way through something.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Howard] There’s a feedback aspect to this that I’m super aware of because I’m usually doing the space opera version of this, which is… Each… The story is location-based and each location is a new chapter. Occasionally I’ll realize we only went to this location because it was the only place where this piece could unfold. But I didn’t flesh it out enough. It’s not… This location doesn’t feel real yet. It doesn’t feel like… I, as a reader going through this would think, “Well, that was lazy. We should have just found a way to do that task at one of the other locations. Why is this chapter even here?” So when you are using structuring around the thing is a structure, you may realize that it’s reflexive and you have to look back at the thing and make the thing more fleshed out in support of the story you’re trying to tell.

[Dan] Let’s pause here and do our book of the week. Peng, you’re going to talk about The Flanders Panel.

[Peng] Yes. The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. I think it’s from 1990 or something, so it’s a little bit older. But it’s a perfect example of building your story around the thing. The thing in this story is a chess game. So it’s about this… She’s a young art historian. I think her name is Julia. She’s hired restore this 15th-century painting that depicts a couple of players locked in a chess game. While she’s working, she uncovers this kind of like hidden inscription under the paint, and it says, like, “Who killed the knight?” Or who killed… I think it’s who killed the knight. So she realizes that… Because she starts to investigate the work more. She realizes that the chess game that’s depicted in the painting isn’t just a game, but it’s actually a riddle, like a puzzle, that was constructed to answer that question. That somebody in this painting was murdered and the pieces, the chess game, is the answer to who did it. Then, of course, as she starts to dig, her own friends start to turn up dead one by one. Then somebody starts sending her advice for chess moves to continue the game in the painting. So she has to figure out how to win the game based on the moves that she already has before… Basically, before the killer gets to her. So in the book, every couple… It’s usually like every chapter, every time Julia decides to make a move… The next move, the author has included a diagram of the chess board with the move done. So, you can follow along with the game as you read and watch how the pieces move. So it’s just… It’s just incredibly addictive, especially if you play chess. But even if you don’t play chess, you have… We’re all vaguely familiar with check, and then checkmate, and then that’s how the game ends. So it’s just such a great… Perez-Reverte uses the structure of this book by focusing all around this game, so you kind of know… You know where you started and then you can follow every chess move and then you know where you’re going to end, because when the game is over, either she’s won or not.

[Dan] That sounds so cool.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] It’s a great book.

[Mary Robinette] I am very excited by this.

[Peng] It’s a wonderful book.

[Dan] All right. Well, let’s hear some other examples. What are some other books or stories you can think of that have been structured around the thing, and how has that affected the story itself?

[Mary Robinette] I’m actually going to jump in and try to do a practical example of how you might explore this idea. Because, as we’ve been talking, you’ll note that at the beginning of this sequence, I talked about how I was struggling with The Martian Contingency. So, for us, in real time, only about three hours… Two hours have passed since I said that. But, for you, it’s been several weeks. But as we’ve been talking, I’m like, “Ah. In The Martian Contingency, one of the things that’s happening is that they are building the new base on Mars. An interesting structure that I might… That I find… That hadn’t occurred to me as a way to structure it is as they build each module and it unpacks. Because what that would allow me to do, and I’m talking my way through it hopefully is a useful representative example, also because I’m excited. But what that might allow me to do is every time they get a new module built, another set of the passengers, the colonists, come down to join. So it’s going to be… Wind up being this… It would wind up being… Making it a little bit more expansive each time with a larger cast of characters. It would also allow me to pace adding in the hundred people that I need to bring down to the planet, without overwhelming the readers all up at the front. So it would allow me to start with something kind of familiar. Anyway, this is very interesting. But this is the kind of noodling that you might find yourself doing as you’re listening to these episodes, that if you’re stuck on something you might go, “Oh, wait, wait, wait. This could let me do this thing.” What were you going to… Peng?

[Peng] I was just thinking… My greatest fear would be that somebody says something brilliant during this podcast, and then I just totally tune out, because I’m like, “Oh, my book…” And then I forget to say anything else.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, it happens to me.

[Peng] I mean, it would be great. Like, I really want it to happen, but also I don’t want to…

[Dan] I would so much rather have people listen to their own muse than to me.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] What you’re describing, Mary Robinette, really sounds to me like the way that a lot of boardgame rules are structured. Where there’s almost different tutorial levels. Like, here, play through this little scenario of it. Now, we’re going to add in this new thing, this different deck of cards were this extra board for this thing that will make the game more complex once you’ve mastered these first little bits of rules and concepts. So now I’m thinking about how I could structure a book around a boardgame rule set or a tutorial for a videogame kind of thing.

[Peng] Yeah.

[Dan] Slowly increasing the complexity over time.

[Mary Robinette] I mean, that’s what Jumanji is, right?

[Dan] Yeah.

[Peng] Oh, yeah.

[Howard] Yeah, the first Jumanji movie, we know we are at the endgame when someone has rolled the dice and could land it right on the finish line. You know, it’s right there. It’s a progress bar.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] So…

[Dan] The recent Jumanji movies have done the same thing with a videogame. They establish right up front, these are the rules of the game, this is how this works, this is how your powers work, this is how many lives you have, and then uses that structure throughout once it’s set the expectations to create humor, to create tension, to let us know what their end goal is. Peng, this was a really good topic.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah.

[Dan] I am delighted that we had a chance to talk about it.

[Peng] Well, thank you.

[Howard] I hope our audience has had half so many epiphanies…


[Howard] During the course of the episode as we’ve had.

[Dan] Howard, you have got the homework here. Tell us what we’re going to do.

[Howard] I have got the homework. I’m going to open first by saying that in reading Peng’s notes for this episode, I realized that my current work in progress has two things, two elements, which can function as structural cues, structural scaffolding, for the plotting. One is the chassis that an AI has just been allowed to move into, and the other is the space station, which is an agglomeration of smashed together spaceships, so the architecture is very different from module to module. I realized that both of these can function as ways for me to pace and structure the story. Your homework is to look at your work in progress and identify a thing or things, whether it’s a map or a boondoggle or a MacGuffin or whatever. Thing or things that can function as a structure to help you unfold the story.

[Dan] All right. You are out of excuses. Now go write.