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

17.16: Miscellaneous Structures

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

Thus far we’ve attempted to organize our discussion of sub-, micro-, and other alternative structures  with specific categories, but this domain is a lot larger than that. This final episode with our guest host Peng Shepherd has been titled “Miscellaneous Structures” because, y’know, sometimes the last bucket in your row of carefully, taxonomically-labeled buckets needs to be “miscellaneous.”

Liner Notes: Howard mentions “LTUE” during the episode. Hey, guess what! The next few episodes following this one were (will have been?) recorded at LTUE!

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

Homework: Take the project you’re working on (or just an outline of it) and try to reframe it using one of the micro- or sub-structures we’ve discussed during the last eight episodes. Consider how it changes your work. What aspects of the story does it heighten, and what does it diminish?

Thing of the week: Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries (defaced edition), by Howard Tayler.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: What other types of structures can you use? The choices are nearly infinite. Stories told backwards. Vignettes, letters, guidebooks, almanacs. It’s easy to get trapped into using the same structure again and again, but take time to explore others. The structures we use to create something and the structures that we use to consume something may be different, and creators need to be aware of both. Structures aren’t necessarily exclusive, you can use them to complement each other. How do you decide what to do? What’s fun and exciting! Consider the outlining technique “10-year-old boy excitedly tells you about his favorite movie.”

[Season 17, Episode 16]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Miscellaneous Structures.

[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] We’ve spent the last seven episodes talking about different kinds of structures. We’ve been taking a very different tack on it than we often do on this show, and it’s been wonderful. But there are so many other types of structures we haven’t talked about yet. Peng, what have we missed so far?

[Peng] Oh, well, I mean, I guess the choices are nearly infinite. There are just so many fun things you can do with your work. You can… For example, we haven’t talked about stories told backwards.

[Mary Robinette] Momento.

[Peng] Or… Yeah. Well, wait. Is Momento the end or the middle? Right?

[Mary Robinette] I thought it was told backwards. Anyway.

[Dan] Totally told backwards except for the end.

[Peng] You know what. We should talk about that when after this, because that’s a great example…


[Peng] But… Yeah, so we’ve got stories told backwards, we’ve got stories told all as vignettes, or stories told entirely as letters or guidebooks or almanacs. So, I mean, I guess the lesson is just that the possibilities are limitless, and it’s just more about finding what works best for your story.

[Mary Robinette] To circle back to something that I talked about at the beginning, about how… That when you’re copying the Masters, that you reach for a structure that you know works. What I’m personally hoping that we all take away from this is that there are a lot of structures out there, and that it’s very easy to get trapped into doing the same kind of structure over and over again. So it’s… I think it’s worth exploring whether or not there are other things to play with.

[Howard] When I was a college student studying music, in my form and analysis class, we had a… We’re analyzing this piece, and the professor, who was very.. I don’t want to say combative, but he always wanted you to defend anything that you said. He asked, “How do we know that this is the beginning of the second movement?” Me, being glib and stupid and 21, said, “Because the double bar line right there indicates that it’s…”


[Howard] He says, “Yeah, fine, that’s how we see it reading the music. But how does the listener know that it’s the beginning of the next movement?” I looked down at the double bar line, deeply repentant for having opened my mouth to begin with, and realized oh, wait, there’s a key change and the very first note after that bar line is a note whose… Is now a B-flat instead of a B. I said, “Well, the key changed and this first note is a B-flat. I bet the listeners can hear that.” And I was a hero for the day. The point here is that the structures that we use to create a thing are visible to us. The structures that we observe when we consume a thing are going to be different. You can’t see the double bar, you can’t see the accidental, all you can hear is the new note. That lesson, any time I’m deploying a structure, there are aspects of the structure that are there to help me write. There are also aspects of the structure that are there to help the reader consume what I’ve written. I need to be aware of both.

[Dan] That is a really wonderful thing to bring up here, because it does come full circle back to our very first episode of this class, where we talked about things like Encanto which are using an unfamiliar structure and which some members of the audience felt was strange and unfamiliar. There’s absolutely ways to introduce new ideas in a way that the audience knows what to expect and doesn’t go into it saying, “Oh, okay. Disney movie. I know exactly how this one’s going to end.” No you don’t, because it’s different. I also want to point out that a lot of the structures, I think all of the structures we’re talking about, aren’t necessarily exclusive to each other. Or to other things. You can tell a story that is entirely done in vignettes and also follows three acts and also follows Save the Cat. Like, these are all things that can complement each other. You don’t have to pick just one and then throw everything else away.

[Peng] Yeah. I think that’s a really good way to put this, that all of the structural techniques that we’ve talked about in these episodes, they’re really… That’s what they are, they are techniques that can be used within these larger kind of overarching frameworks. So, even if you’re building your story based on Save the Cat, the overarching framework of Save the Cat, you can have multiple perspectives alternating back and forth or you can have multiple timelines or you could also have footnotes. So you don’t have to limit yourself, yeah, to just one of these. You can have… I mean, I guess you could even try to have all of them. Should that be our homework?


[Dan] Use every structure at the same time. We didn’t think that the shuffling story would break your brain. This one will definitely break your brain.

[Peng] Yeah, yeah.

[Dan] Completely. Now… This… I do want to get into the question of… Since we’re talking about choosing which structures to use, how do you choose? How do you decide? Maybe you start with the idea of, well, I’m going to tell a frame story. Or I’m going to tell an epistolary story. Or maybe that comes to you later. So, Howard, we’ve been talking quite a bit about your in-world books for Schlock Mercenary. The 70 Maxims and the RPG are both written as in-world artifacts that are telling their own story on top of what’s on the page. At what point did you decide with either or both of those, okay, this is the weird structure I’m going to overlay and this is why I’m going to do it?

[Howard] Um… I… Honestly, Alan Barr and I had been trying to get the right hook for the Schlock Mercenary role-playing game for almost a year and a half. Then, at LTUE, a local sci-fi-fantasy convention, which is actually happening right now while we’re recording, and I’m not there. Big sniffle. We are at LTUE, in the hotel having breakfast, and I had this wacky idea. I say, “So, hey, Alan. What if the book, the RPG book is an in-world artifact?” His eyes lit up, and he’s like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s the best thing ever.” I’m like, “Well, it’s not original. Monster Nomicon and Privateer Press, they did that.” He goes, “Oh, I know it’s not original, I don’t care about that. What I care about is that this sounds like fun.” So for us, the in-world artifact aspect of it was fun and got us excited. Then, any idea I had that deepened the in-world artifactness of the book was a thing that went into it in order to help sell that idea. As structural principles go, as scaffolding goes, the measuring stick of does this sound like fun for me to do? Does this sound like fun for people to read? Is a really good one that I come back to a lot. If I’m not excited about doing a thing in a certain way, no amount of money is going to…


[Howard] Make me do it. No amount of money. Enough money, and I can start having fun again. But, yeah, I chose those models because they entertained me.

[Dan] Yeah. Well, I think… I mean, I’m glad you mentioned money because that’s something that I talk about all the time when I teach classes is nobody gets into this business to get rich. Because that is not the natural outcome of anyone’s writing process. We do this because it’s fun and exciting to us. Ultimately, I think many if not most of the decisions we make with what we write and how we write it are, well, this sounds really exciting and this is a toy I want to play with. 

[Dan] Let’s pause here and do our book of the week.

[Howard] We’ve done this as a book of the week before. The 70 Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries, which has a wacky story structure to it because of the handwritten margin notes and whatnot. It’s available at Boy, if you want to look at something that is a weird story structure, we got you covered.

[Dan] Sounds awesome. I just finished writing something with a very weird story structure, but I can’t pitch that to you all until October. So…


[Dan] You can look forward to that one.

[Peng] Good foreshadowing, though.

[Howard] Well, if we go back for some multiple timelines episode, can you do it then?

[Dan] Then I…

[Howard] I’m sorry, I said that wrong. Can we have done it then?

[Dan] Can we have already done it then? Yes. We will have already done it there.

[Dan] Okay. So, what I want to talk about now is let’s get into some of these weird things. We talked about stories that are entirely composed of vignettes. Peng, give us an example of one of those, and why might that be a cool structure to use.

[Peng] Yeah. I think my favorite example of that is probably Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It’s… I think it’s Marco Polo talking to Kubla Khan. It’s just a series of very, very short stories. They’re just descriptions of every city that Marco Polo has visited in Kubla Khan’s Empire. It’s so… It’s fascinating because there’s really not much of a story in the traditional sense, because each one is just a really small self-contained description of a new place. But it’s really interesting and frees us up to read, I think, because you can take it at your own pace. You probably could skip around if you wanted to. So it’s more about just all of these stories and the beautiful places taken as a whole, rather than anything in particular that happens in each one. So it’s got a very different affect on you then reading a traditional narrative. But that goes back to what we were saying about how sometimes we… you don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over. Sometimes you do want to write something different, or you want to read something different.

[Dan] Well, that’s very cool.

[Howard] The outlining technique that I’ve fallen back on from time to time, which I call a 10-year-old boy excitedly tells you about his favorite movie…


[Howard] Complete with lines like, “Oh, oh, oh. I forgot to tell you. The hero has a magic gun strapped to his ankle.” Or something.

[Peng] Footnote.

[Howard] Yeah. Footnote. Whatever. But that outlining technique is itself a form of structure that comes back to the oral tradition. I mean, it sounds silly to say it, but 10-year-old boy tells you about his favorite movie is an oral tradition that we’ve probably all at some point taken part in. As a kid has tried to tell us about this thing that they love. The oral tradition of us sitting around the table telling stories to one another is itself a structure that you can use to tell of the things. The more familiar you are with story structures… And this was a big eye-opener for me, the better you become at sitting around the table with other people telling stories, because before you open your mouth, you’re like, “Oh, I know where the beginning, the middle, and the end is. And the end of this story will adjust this conversation to a new topic. This conversation needs a new topic.” So we’re off to the races. Then you tell your story, with its beginning, its middle, and its end, and you steer the conversation to a new place. Storytelling is powerful stuff.

[Peng] It is. It is. I also think that that excited 10-year-old boy tells you a story might be a really good way, if you’re unsure about what kind of a structure you want to use, to figure out the kind of structure that you might want to use for your story. Because if you are, if you pretend to be the excited 10-year-old boy telling yourself the story that you’re about to write, and you can just listen to the excited 10-year-old boy as he… Whatever his oh, oh, oh’s are. So if he keeps saying, “Oh, oh, oh,” about this other character, or “Oh, oh, oh,” but 10 years before this, this also happened, or “Oh, oh, oh,” and he keeps returning to a thing that this story can be built around, you kind of can get a feel of maybe what I’m missing is a second or third character perspective, or maybe what I’m missing is this whole other alternate timeline it’s going to happen in the past or the future, or maybe what I should be doing is structuring my story around this map or this timeline countdown or this artifact that’s in the world. So I think figuring out what you’re most passionate about in the story, and then asking yourself questions in that way to see what your story keeps asking you to explore further is a really good and natural way to figure out the kind of structure that would be best.

[Howard] It’s also helpful to have a discussion of structure versus form. The three act versus the form of a cozy mystery. Yeah, cozy mystery can be told in three acts, or a cozy mystery can be told in kishotentetsu. Cozy mystery obviously could be written with seven points, or with 10-year-old boy or… Well, 10-year-old boy is unlikely…


[Howard] To be super excited about the cozy mystery…


[Howard] Unless it’s set in space. But I don’t want to give away what I’m working on next. The… But the point here is that as we look at the huge jumble that is story structures, I always try to resist the temptation to map one onto the other, and to say, “Oh, three act is just seven point story structure without extra information.” Or “Hero’s Journey is just way too much detail on a five act play.” I resist doing that because all of these structures exist to help the brain of the creator and the brain of the consumer get from I don’t have a story yet to I have reached the end.

[Dan] So, there is such a lot to think about here. I think that that is fascinating. I want everybody to try these out, and we’ve got homework that is going to help you with that. So, Peng, give us our final homework for this wonderful structure class.

[Howard] Break our brains!

[Peng] All right. Well. For your final homework, you are going to take the project that you’re working on or an outline of the project you’re working on and try to reframe it using one of the structures that we’ve talked about during this deep dive series. Maybe especially ones that you didn’t try before. So, take your outline or take your project, reframe it with one of these techniques, and then consider how that changes your work. Ask yourself what aspects of the story does it heighten or what did it diminish, and you know not every structure is going to work for every story. But, by doing this really intentionally instead of just letting some kind of a structure fall into place naturally, seeing what it does for your draft and what aspects of these techniques you might want to keep moving forward, I think could be really helpful.

[Dan] Cool. Hey, Peng, thank you so much. These episodes have been wonderful. This whole class you put together for us has been great. Do you have any final words?

[Peng] I just want to also say thank you so much. I had such a great time this season.

[Dan] Cool. Well, thanks for joining us. We want you all to go out and buy Peng Shepherd’s and try all of these techniques in your writing. So, anyway, this is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.