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

17.40: Questions & Answers About Structure, with Special Guest Peng Shepherd

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, with special guest Peng Shepherd

Peng Shepherd joined us aboard Liberty of the Seas for WXR 2022, and returned with us to the topic of story structures. In this episode we answer questions from our live audience. The questions include:

  1. How do you make sure you’ve got the right number of plot threads?
  2. How do you spread the structure of a given plot line across multiple books?
  3. How do you avoiding having subplots distract readers from the main plot?
  4. What are some strategies you can use to better align character goals with the overall problem of the story?
  5. Are there clear dos and don’ts with regard to story structure?
  6. How do you prepare or color-code bits for running a role-playing game? More broadly: what organizational tools do you use for story structure?

For the answers, you’ll have to give the episode a listen…

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

Homework: Write a piece of fiction (or an outline) outside your usual length. See how that changes your structural choices.

Thing of the week: The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal, (pre-order now! It releases on October 11th!).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:

Q: How can I avoid putting too few or too many plot threads into my story? How do I know when I have the right number of them?

A: Put them in priority order. Big overarching storyline, big B story, then… Every MICE Quotient major thread makes a story roughly half again as long. Practice. If you lose track of the plot threads while writing, there are too many threads.

Q: How do you spread the structure of a plot line over several books? How do you know when to split it structurally in order to get the right payoffs?

A: Beware publishers splitting books. Each book, and each section, needs a satisfying ending. 

Q: How do you ensure that smaller plots or smaller POVs don’t make the reader lose sight of the main plot or feel like the subplot is an unwanted diversion?

A: Character attention can direct reader attention. Watch out for repetition. Make your A plot your shopping trip, and any subplots are impulse purchases that need to be attached to the shopping.

Q: What are some strategies or lines of questioning we can use to better align the character goals, the villain goals, and the overall problem of the story?

A: The character and villain goals should come into conflict. Think about why the character and villain want these things, and how those come into conflict. Often the character needs to give up the want for the need, and you need to tie that to the greater need. 

Q: Besides studying successful story structures for guidance, are there clear do’s and don’ts when it comes to story structure? What are they?

A: No. Whatever works for you and keeps you writing. Watch out for characters that do what’s in the outline, but it hasn’t been motivated or signposted for the reader. 

Q: What methods of assembling structure do you use? 

A: 3×5 cards laid out based on plot thread elements. Cat plotting. Scrivener notecards. 

[Season 17, Episode 40]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Questions & Answers About Structure, with Special Guest Peng Shepherd.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] We have our special guest with us, Peng Shepherd.

[Peng] Hi, everybody. I’m Peng. I’m very glad to be here.

[Mary Robinette] Remind our listeners a little bit about who you are. You did a wonderful master class with us about structure, and we wanted to bring you back to do a questions and answers. So can you just remind folks a little bit about who you are?

[Peng] Sure. I am a novelist. I am the author of The Book of M, and most recently, The Cartographers. I’m very excited to be back, because I just love… So we did the whole master class about structure, and I had said many times in many of the episodes, “I am such a structure nerd.” I went away and I thought about it and I wondered, why am I such a structure nerd? I think that because I’m also a discovery writer, structure is kind of my outline in a way that an outline is an outline for an outliner. So I think I might… I depend on it the way that a plotter might depend on an outline.

[Mary Robinette] Yep.

[Howard] I loved the structure master class. My only regret is that I came away from it a day later with all kinds of epiphanies about microstructures, and ended up deploying brand-new techniques that I didn’t even have names for through the current project, my current work in progress, as a result of having a podcast conversation where we’re all supposedly knowledgeable and stuff. I just learned things and didn’t say any of them into the microphone.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that listeners who listen to that podcast might remember is me having a moment where I said, “Oo, I think you just solved the next novel that I’m working on.” I am pleased to report that the… That is true.


[Mary Robinette] And that I did use the calendar structure. I am using the calendar structure that we talked about for The Martian Contingency. Now you might be wondering where these questions are coming from and how you can ask questions on a podcast. The answer is that we are doing this podcast live in front of the attendees of the Writing Excuses workshop and cruise.


[Mary Robinette] So, these are their questions. Dan, what’s our first question?

[Dan] Our first question is very basic, but it’s something that a lot of people have. This is a common one. This comes from Corinne Flynn. How can I avoid putting too few or too many plot threads into my story? How do I know when I have the right number of them?

[Peng] That’s a good question. I would advise putting them, I think, in priority order first. Because you’ve got to have one overarching storyline that’s going to carry you through. Then there is usually a pretty big B story. Then, after that, there’s not necessarily a lot of room. I mean, how many plot lines have you had in a…

[Mary Robinette] Well, it depends on the story. The thing that I… Because you all know that I talk about the MICE Quotient incessantly. But the thing that I say is that every MICE Quotient ele… Like, major thread can make a story roughly half again as long. But not every plot thread is a major plot thread. So. How do you handle it, Brandon?

[Brandon] My last Stormlight book first draft was 400… 520,000 words long. I have a lot of plot threads going on…


[Brandon] In one of these books. But I would say, early on, practice is just what got me there. Unfortunately, that’s the answer to so many things. My first book that I tried writing when I was a brand-new baby writer, I got like 200,000 words in, and I’m like, “That feels like an ending,” and then just had a fight.


[Brandon] Didn’t resolve very much at all. I’m like, “And it’s book one!” I didn’t know I was writing book one, but there it is. Over time, the more I wrote, the more I came to understand what a plot thread requires from me to do it in a way that I find a satisfying narrative. That’s why I can now, decades later, right 400+ thousand word books with a lot of different plot threads, because I know how much they each take.

[Mary Robinette] I just want to double check. Was that 400,000 words in addition to the five secret novels?

[Brandon] So this is the Stormlight book I released before I launched into those.

[Mary Robinette] Okay. Great.

[Brandon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] Thank you.

[Brandon] So…

[Mary Robinette] I just wanted to know where to…

[Brandon] Sounds cooler. Each of the secret novels were between 90 and 110,000. I’m sure it’s kind of the same with you folks, that as you write, you get a feel for how long a story takes you. So you’re like, “I know that this one’s going to be around 100,000 words,” and you just launch towards that, whether you have an outline or not, and you are consistently in that same range. This is an experience thing.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] If I’m losing track of the plot threads while I’m writing it, then structure notwithstanding, that’s too many plot threads. Maybe I’ll get better at it and be able to do more, but for my own part, it’s what fits in my head and works for me.

[Dan] All right. I want to have a follow-up question, because something Brandon just said is right in line with another one of our audience questions here. This one comes from Roy Radien. How do you spread the structure of a plot line over several books? How do you know when to split it structurally in order to get the right payoffs? Now, Brandon, you said when you first started, you just kind of stopped when you were done. But how do you know when is the best place? How do you do that now?

[Brandon] Yeah. So, I can tell when an author has done this. These days, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but it happens more often when the publisher’s like, “Yeah. Split this book.” Then it’s just… It’s always unsatisfying. Okay. I say always…

[Mary Robinette] No, Brandon…

[Brandon] Mary Robinette’s like, “Wait. I may have done it once.”


[Brandon] But for me, I’m always looking at each book needs a satisfying ending, and each section of a book needs something satisfying. So when I’m building a novel, I’m asking… When I’m building a series, I’m asking what is the satisfying part of every installment. We’ve seen a lot of people try to launch, in movies recently, big long series where the first one wasn’t satisfying. This is, I think, a huge misstep, a huge mistake, and a huge mistake I made in that first book that I tried writing, where I just kind of ended it. So, if we’re talking structure, knowing what your book is trying to do, knowing what’s going to make a satisfying ending, and knowing that’s your primary job. Then you can start saying, “All right, these sub threads I can raise, hang a lantern on the fact that I’m not going to answer them yet, the characters are too inexperienced.” Then that will be sort of the passes, the balls I’m throwing to myself to catch in a future novel.

[Mary Robinette] So the… The reason I raised my hand, like wait, was that I… Calculating Stars was originally supposed to be one book that we split into two. The reason that I knew I needed to split it into two was because I was having to jump important emotional beats…

[Brandon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] In order to save them for the second book, or the second part of the story, in ways that were going to be unsatisfying and frustrating.

[Brandon] Yeah. I should define that better. When it’s poorly is when you turn in the book and the publisher splits it.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Brandon] I’ve split books before, as I’ve been working on them. I’ve been like, “No, no. This is a trilogy,” and expanded them. That works just fine. It’s when you turn them in and the publisher’s like, “No. Too long. Here’s the halfway point. Now you’ve got two books.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Because when I split mine, as you say, I had to unpack and expand.

[Dan] The most egregious example I can think of of the publisher quote unquote splitting a story partway through is the end of the second hobbit movie, which is named after Smaug, the entire thing is about Smaug, and the movie ends five minutes before they kill him, which happens in the third movie. It’s shockingly incompetent.

[Dan] Here is another question. Once again talking about subplots and how many plots you have. This is from Sarah Hippel. How do you ensure that smaller plots or smaller POVs don’t make the reader lose sight of the main plot or feel like the subplot is an unwanted diversion?

[Brandon] That is an excellent question. I would say one quick tip is character attention is something that often directs reader attention. When the characters care about it, particularly in books we can show from their viewpoint how invested they are, if you can take that character and have them spin it into the larger story in some way, this helps a ton.

[Peng] Yeah. They also have to be… I love writing multiple perspectives and I often end up with far too many. So I do have this problem where I’ve got like 15 people and I need about four, and I think it really is as you go back, you can see when you’ve got too many people, some of them are repeating each other in some way. Like they’re both looking at the same thing with the same mindset. So you want… You only want that one mindset or from that one perspective or only that one person has that knowledge. So that has helped me clean it out, to make sure there’s no repetition and that everyone has a reason for being there.

[Howard] I layer it and I think about it in terms of the impulse purchase on a shopping trip. The shopping trip is the A plot. The impulse purchase is the C, D, E, whatever plot. But because it is attached to the shopping trip, we haven’t lost sight of things.

[Mary Robinette] Let’s take another question.

[Dan] All right. So this one comes from Daydream. What are some strategies or lines of questioning we can use to better align the character goals, the villain goals, and the overall problem of the story?

[Mary Robinette] Well, you know my favorite thing about the MICE Quotient…


[Mary Robinette] Is that it helps you define kind of the process, the types of conflict that they’re doing. So one of the things about a character goal and a villain goal, is that they… That these goals come into conflict. The character has the simplest possible goal, the villain has the simplest possible goal, and then their actions mess each other up.

[Peng] One of the ways I really like to think about character goals is what makes it unique, and it’s usually the why. So, a character and a villain, they both want something, and they both get a cost to not achieving what they want. But it’s always the reasoning behind it. Like, the mis-belief they’ve got about the world or about themselves that is preventing them from easily getting the want, and coming into conflict with their opposing party.

[Brandon] Yeah. On those lines, a lot of times, what the character is doing is revising their own goals as they go through the plot, mature, see what’s going on. In this case, showing the character giving up the want for the need, which is kind of a classic story archetype, you are very easily able to spiral that into the need is the greater need, the narrative’s need, the world’s need. The character then giving up the want becomes a great tie-in to that when you do it right. That one isn’t that hard, if you’re looking at the scope and expanding the scope of your story through the middle.

[Dan] So, I want to talk a little bit more about what Howard said, of making sure that the different plots A, B, C… The impulse buys are connected to that central thread. Because of the pop cultural medium we exist in right now, superhero movies are the examples that are leaping to mind. So, for example, Amazing Spider-Man 2 brought in so many villains. None of them had anything to do with each other. They were people who were causing problems. They each had their own plans. But they were not related to each other in any meaningful way. The story of Electro did not really connect to the story of Green Goblin, etc., etc. Compare that to the Dark Knight. The Christopher Nolan one. Where we have multiple villains, the two main ones being Two Face and Joker. In that case, the writers used Two Face specifically as a linking element between the other stories. So the goal of Batman was to get Harvey Dent on his side. The goal of Joker was to ruin Harvey Dent and turn him into a monster. So they did the same thing, they had multiple villains in the story, but they were very deeply connected because the goals were so close.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a great example.

[Mary Robinette] We are going to pause for the book of the week. We are running long for this episode because we’ve got so many great questions. The book of the week this week is actually my book. Whee hee! It’s called The Spare Man. It’s basically The Thin Man in space. So if you have not seen The Thin Man movies, they’re amazing. But this is a happily married couple, their small dog, solving murder mystery on an interplanetary cruise ship, which is definitely not at all inspired by the boat that I am on right now. There’s a small dog which lives because I know the rules. Banter, cocktail recipes, including [Vera approved] cocktail recipes, and did I mention murder?

[Brandon] Not of a dog.

[Mary Robinette] But not of a dog.

[Dan] Not of the dog.

[Mary Robinette] Not of a dog.

[Howard] And a conference room with really uncomfortable chairs.

[Mary Robinette] Really uncomfortable chairs.


[Mary Robinette] So that’s The Spare Man, available from fine bookstores everywhere.

[Dan] All right. This question is from Dorinda. This is much more of kind of a wide-angle question. Besides studying successful story structures for guidance, are there clear do’s and don’ts when it comes to story structure? I guess the follow-up, what are they?

[Howard] Two answers. Answer number one, no. Answer number two, what works for you and keeps you writing is the right answer.

[Brandon] Yeah. I mean, that’s the very… It’s the truth, right? Every… You can find an exception to every rule, except that rule.


[Brandon] Right? I… Now, I can give some pitfalls for me, personally, right? Like, I can say, “Hey, here’s things I’ve run into that my writing style… When I find that I’ve done something wrong.” With me, that is usually comes down to me knowing what needs to happen in the outline, so the characters know what needs to happen in the outline, so the characters do what’s in the outline, and that’s not properly motivated and/or signposted for the reader, and a lot of times what I’m fixing after beta reads is things like this. I’ve kind of noticed that that’s a thing that sometimes I do. It’s very common for outline writers. Right? You’ve got… There’s the joke a lot of… You see this in criticism of movies, where characters do things and the joke is, “Oh, they have the scripts, so they know what they’re supposed to do.” The characters know what they’re supposed to do, they have the outline. That I want to avoid, and I watch out for it.

[Peng] Can I ask you a question, Brandon?

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Peng] These days, how often do you ever get surprised and then deviate from the outline that you’ve written? Does that ever happen anymore?

[Brandon] So, surprised never happened to me. The way that my just psychology works, I’m always searching for the better answer. The outline is a guide to try to get there, that’s what past Brandon, the best that past Brandon could do. Without the experience of having written the book. As I’m writing the book, I’m always saying, “What can be better?” I’m working on the next Stormlight book right now. I hit a thing where I’m like, “This just isn’t good enough.” Right? It just isn’t good enough. So I dig back into it, and I dig deeper, and I’m like, “Let’s try something else.” That happens a ton. It’s not that I get surprised, it’s more that I get disappointed. I’m like, “No. This is… I need more.” Then I dig. Once in a while, I’m like, “Oh. This is a better connection.” But I don’t even see it as a surprise. I see it as current Brandon can take what past Brandon did, but has more experience now, is older and wiser.


[Brandon] By a few weeks. I can now change that up and go forward with something new that is going to work better.

[Dan] I do have an example. This was a question for Brandon. I’m going to answer it. I do have an example of something that surprised me. This was a book, a horror novel that I wrote a couple of years ago, which none of you have read because of this thing I’m about to tell you. I realized at some point in chapter 4, five, six, whatever it was, that it would be a much stronger story if abruptly the monster ate the love interest.


[Dan] On the one hand, I was right. It was way better, it was much more interesting to turn that obvious love interest into a red herring, then he gets eaten, and then we move on. The problem that I had not properly dealt with at the time was, well, what do I do about my ending now? Because the love interest was part of the thread that was going to lead their. I didn’t take the time to properly recalibrate the trajectory of the story to account for his absence which left a very unsatisfying ending. Even though he wasn’t in 80% of the book.

[Brandon] I’ve got an answer for you after the podcast. It might be too spoilery.

[Dan] Oh, I’m excited.

[Brandon] I’ve seen this happen really well. [Garbled] to say, “Oo, have you thought about this?”

[Dan] All right. I have one more question. Okay? This one was written to me about a role-playing game that I ran earlier on the cruise. But I think we can apply it more widely. It says, “Dan Wells, after playing in one of your homebrew games, I was intrigued on how you prep or colorcode the different pieces of the game.” This is something that I do when I run games in person, is, in order to streamline certain things, I take a lot of the rules of the game and a lot of the elements of character and I put them onto cards so I can just pass them out. Then that makes decision-making much easier and we get into the story much more quickly. But if we can put that into a broader question, what methods of assembling structure do you use? I’ve seen people on this cruise arranging Post-it notes in different orders. Mary Robinette, I know you do 3 x 5 cards that you can shuffle physically.


[Dan] Different people use different methods of organizing the tools that they have so that they can see the story.

[Mary Robinette] So I am going to mention, because I can’t remember if I have mentioned this on the podcast before. With the 3 x 5 cards and The Spare Man, I laid them out based on plot thread elements that I needed to include. I was re-jiggering because I had made a change about who the villain was going to be. Then my cats ran across the notecards. I looked at it and was like, “That’s actually a better sequence.”


[Mary Robinette] So, technically, part of this book is plotted by cat. Which I highly recommend is a plotting method.

[Peng] See, I would even say the opposite, because I start… I’m very visual and I like to be able to see the plot visually. I started with notecards and I also have a cat, but it didn’t go that way.


[Peng] It did not. So now I use Scrivener. I think, it feels to me like the same thing, because you can drag notecards around on the screen, and my cat can’t type.


[Peng] So it really works for me.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] Can’t type well.

[Brandon] I want to… Yeah. My cat walked across my laptop when I was working on the Wheel of Time, and I kept the letter E. So my cat typed one letter in The Wheel of Time.


[Brandon] When you’re reading those books, you can know that it was partially cat-produced.

[Mary Robinette] So what you’re learning here, dear listeners, is that if you want to be successful, you need a cat.

[Brandon] Yeah. Preferably multiples, who are trained as well as your cats, Mary Robinette. I use a Word document.


[Brandon] Even still. Just a single document that is my outline that I have built using my tools for outlining. No notecards, no fancy Scriveners, even though I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I should move to Scrivener. I believe them. I’m just old and stubborn.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Everybody’s looking at me like I have a solution here. I love the cat thing because that’s how natural selection and evolution works is the random introduction of mutations. If it’s a mutation that is successful, then we keep it. So go team random cat.

[Mary Robinette] Well, as Elsie would say, we are all done. So, if I can get a homework assignment?

[Peng] Yes. Your homework for today is to try writing a piece of fiction outside your usual length. So if you’re a novelist, try to write a micro fiction story. If you are a short story writer, try to write a chapter or two of a novel. Something that doesn’t end is long. See how the size of the idea and the length of the story influences how you end up structuring that exercise.

[Mary Robinette] Thank you so much for joining us.

[Peng] Thank you for having me.

[Mary Robinette] All right. Thank you to our lovely live audience for your questions.


[Mary Robinette] You are out of excuses. Now go write.