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

17.9: Let’s Talk About Structure

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

We’re beginning another eight-episode deep-dive series, and this time it’s a fresh approach to story structure, led by our guest host Peng Shepherd.

Join us as we zoom right through the overarching frameworks defined via things like the Hero’s Journey, Freytag’s Triangle, Save The Cat, and Seven Point Story Structure  to look at the microstructures  which both define and obscure these general narrative shapes.

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

Homework: Pick a favorite book with an interesting structure. Can you identify how the author’s chosen structure enhances the tension, plot, and/or character development of the story?

Thing of the week: The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, by Zoraida Córdova.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Beyond Freitag’s Triangle, Save the Cat, Truby’s 22 steps, and other overarching story frameworks, what are the specific techniques that fit into these narrative shapes? What is the writer’s version of copying the masters? Sometimes you have a story, character, setting first, and then try to find a structure to fit. Other times, you have a structure or element of structure, and need to develop the other parts. Think about what is the important aspect of the story, and how can the structure enhance that. Look at what you are trying to do, and think about what structure can help bring that out.

[Season 17, Episode 9]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, our structured deep dive class, Episode One, Let’s Talk About Structure.

[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 have a brand-new class starting, eight episodes, we’re going to talk about structure. You’ve heard us talk about structure a lot, so we wanted to bring in Peng Shepherd to get her take on all of this incredible stuff. Peng, tell us about yourself.

[Peng] Well, first of all, thanks for having me. My name is Peng. I am a speculative fiction writer and the author of The Book of M, which came out in 2018, and The Cartographers, which is coming out in March.

[Dan] Well, excellent. Thank you very much. Now, we are starting today to talk about structure. This is your class and your outline. Where do you want to start in this structural discussion?

[Peng] Well, I think we should just talk about… We should just talk about structure in a kind of general way just to open this deep dive series. I also just want to say how important it is, I think. So what I really want to do with this series is go beyond the Freitag’s Triangle, Save the Cat, Truby’s 22 steps, these really big overarching story frameworks and look at structure much more closely as really specific techniques that can fit into these really big general narrative shapes that often get talked about. Because I think that structure at this level of detail gets overlooked a lot. We spend a lot of time as writers talking about plot and character and world building, but we don’t often give structure the same level of attention. It’s just something that sort of happens naturally to a lot of our stories. But I’d like to talk about ways that we can be a lot more intentional with structure as we write.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I was excited about when we were talking to you and bringing you in for this was exactly that, we tend to go back to the same things. So, two things that I wanted to say. One is that I asked Peng to come because I’ve been working with her for the past couple of years doing programming for the Nebula conference. When I was president, she was in charge of that with Erin Roberts and [K. M. Szpara]. So, it’s really nice to have someone with this kind of breadth of knowledge of the industry. The other thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, which is one of the reasons I was so excited about this topic, is the idea of structure in general. When we’re talking about things like Freitag’s triangles, Save the Cat, all of that, what we’re really talking about is something in art that we call copying the masters, where you take an existing structure like what you used to do as an artist and sometimes still do is that you would take a painting and you would make an exact copy of that painting as a way to learn the techniques. Another related thing that you would do… Can do is you would take a painting and draw circles around the major elements. Then remove the original painting and put your own elements into the structures, into those circles, to kind of copy their compositional structure. I think that a lot of times what happens to us as writers is that we are constantly copying someone else’s structure as a kind of reflex. It’s like, “Oh. I’ve found Save the Cat.” That works. It works every time. Except that it… The problem with that is that it gives you… The problem is something that can give you repeatable results is that you are always going to be repeating the same kind of story. So what I’m excited about with this is that we’re going to be talking about a lot of different structures, which is going to really broaden the kind of story that you’re going to be able to tell.

[Dan] Yeah. I… On my other podcasts that I do called Intentionally Blank, we did an episode about Encanto, the movie, which follows… Which ignores a lot of what we think of as kind of structural norms, because it is based on Latin American magic realism. Which does not follow a lot of the structures that we think of. It’s been fascinating to have that conversation with a lot of people in the audience who, some people thought, “Oh, this didn’t work. The ending didn’t land. It’s because they were expecting one thing and got another. Other people in the audience were very thrilled by seeing something that was so new and different that they hadn’t seen before. A lot of that just comes from using different structural techniques. There is not one way. I do think, and I’m guilty of this myself, we often teach that the existing structure that we use is there because that’s just how brains work. It isn’t really. It’s a cultural artifact. There are lots of different ways of doing it.

[Howard] Yeah. We talked about this at great length in the setting expectations class we did at the beginning of this year, end of last year. We talked about how when people recognize the beginning of a structure in a work that they’re consuming, whether it’s a movie or a book or whatever, you’ve set their expectations for that structure unfolding per formula through the rest of the work. If you’re not seeing that structure, they will often be disappointed. It’s which is what some people who saw Encanto experienced. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. It means that we haven’t yet educated the audience to set expectations for a structure they’ve never seen before.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. A lot of structures exist for reasons that aren’t… That are just kind of encoded. Like, the three act structure that we are all very familiar with, one of the things about that is when you listen to… When you really unpack what’s happening with the three act structure, it’s like, well, there’s a beginning, and then there’s a middle, and then there’s an end. That’s not actually all that useful when you really dig into it.


[Mary Robinette] I’m wondering if we should actually pause for a book of the week, since I think we are about at the middle right now.

[Dan] Yeah. I think that’s a good idea.

[Mary Robinette] Speaking of structure.

[Dan] Let me take that one. I’ve got our book of the week this week, which is actually another magic realism novel called The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Cordova. She’s been on the show before, and she’s a really wonderful author. This is the story of a magical family with Ecuadorian roots, but living in a place called Four Rivers in Oregon. The grandmother, the matriarch of the family, calls everyone together right at the beginning of the book to tell them that she is dying and they need to come and collect their inheritance. This being a magic realism novel, the inheritance is not money, it’s several other things both good and bad that spin out over the course of the novel. It’s told in multiple timelines, we get the modern stuff interspersed with the life of the grandmother as she grows up. The woman, Orquidea. It’s a really wonderful book. I’m absolutely loving it and I recommend it very highly. It does have a very unique structure. It’s not following a lot of the rules that we expect. It’s very surprising and delightful to not see so many things coming. So, anyway, great book, check it out.

[Mary Robinette] So, I’m particularly interested in this whole topic, and I’m about to ask Peng a question. Because I am in the process right now of working on the outline for the Martian Contingency, which is book 4 in the Lady Astronaut series. The structure which I used for Relentless Moon was the seven act structure that… Seven point plot structure that Dan teaches. It will profoundly not work for what I want to do with the Martian Contingency. I’ve been like trying all of these different structural ideas to try to figure out exactly what the framework is that I’m hanging the thing I want to talk about, the thing I want to explore in the story. So, Peng, what are some… When we’re thinking about structure, what are some of the implications that are there for us when we start looking at how to pick one of these, a different structure than maybe one that we’re used to working with?

[Peng] Yeah. It’s an interesting question. I think there’s two ways to come at it. Because there are some writers who probably come up with a story or a character first, and then you have to figure out what kind of structure to use, which is what it sounds like is happening for you. The story and the characters are already really, really set. Then, on the other side, you could come up with… Or just have a structure or an element of structure that you really want your work to center around, but you don’t have anything else yet. It’s sort of like you come up with the character first or the premise first or the setting first? So, I think… I don’t know which is harder. They’re both hard. If you come up with the structure first or you come up with the characters first. But I think that if you’ve got the seed of a story, you’ve got the seed of the character, and you’re trying to figure out what type of structure would be best for that, you first have to ask yourself, what is the most important aspect of your story that you’re trying to explore? Is it the character or the relationships between characters, for example? Because then you might want to consider structures that focus on that, like multiple timelines or multiple perspectives. Or is the thing that you’re trying to emphasize most the world or your world building or the setting? In which case, you might want to focus on a structure that is built around… And we’re going to talk about all these in depth in future episodes. But you can focus on a story that’s built around a specific thing in your world, or stories that have footnotes. Or, if the thing that you want to focus on the most is maybe like a twist, if your whole story is built around a twist, there are different structures that lend themselves really well to that kind of reveal, more than others.

[Dan] In a lot of ways, I feel like what we’re saying is similar to the episode we did last year with Amal about poetic forms. That there’s lots of different forms of poetry, whether it’s a Shakespearean sonnet or a sestina or something like that, and the form you choose will help guide the poem itself and the impact that it has on the reader. We often think that there’s only one structure and we have to use it. That’s not the case. There’s lots of different ones. Like Peng was just saying, the one you choose can help draw out elements of your world building or your characters or the twist you want to focus on or things like that. They can change the pacing and the tension. I think that’s a really great point to make.

[Howard] One of the things that I… And I do it instinctively at first, and then I fall back on craft when I realize I’m doing it. If I’ve come up with a fascinating setting or a fascinating… A location or a thing or a technology or a plot twist or a character, I will begin structuring the story I want to tell around how our understanding of that thing unfolds. If it’s a character who’s undergoing transformation, then… Are there beats in that transformation? Well, those beats become structural landmarks around which the story paces itself. Are we exploring a location? Well, the geography becomes kind of a map to the structure. Once I realize that I’ve started doing that in my head, I take a couple of steps way back and say, “All right. Does this map onto an existing structure that I know how to use? Does this map onto seven points? Does this map onto kishotenketsu? Does this map onto… What does this map onto and how can I use it?” Usually I don’t catch myself soon enough, so there’s lots of slop.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The… I was actually just thinking about kishotenketsu, which is the first time that I really… When we… I had talked about, oh, there are other things, like the rule of three is very Western, but other places it’s the rule of five, the rule of nine. But until we did the episode with Dong Won Song, where we looked… Did a deep dive into Parasite, the film, and they were talking about kishotenketsu, I hadn’t really thought about what… How that worked and why that film was so satisfying. So in that structure, you have… It’s a four act structure. You have interaction, ki, development, sho, twist, ten, and conclusion, tetsu. It’s… It is… It’s really satisfying, and one that I’m… It’s the one that I’ve been thinking about, contemplating, for Martian Contingency. But it is this thing where there are so many options out there that it’s just exciting to be talking about this.

[Dan] Yeah. Well, I… Before we end, I want to point out that this doesn’t have to be a massive sweeping thing. It could be something much simpler than we’re making it sound. For example, Avatar The Last Airbender, the cartoon. It is split into three seasons, each of which follows one of the major nations that’s involved. We get Water, and then Earth, and then Fire in season three. That, like Howard was saying, that’s just the geography of the world and the world building influencing how the story is told. So, just thinking in those terms, you can come up with, well, why did they use three seasons? How did that fit their story? Well, it allowed them to explore each of the three extant nations. The Air doesn’t get one because it doesn’t exist anymore. So that’s… At some level, that’s what we’re saying. Look at what you’re trying to do and see what structure is going to help bring that out.

[Dan] Anyway, we’ve gone slightly over time. So let’s throw this to Peng. What is our homework for this week?

[Peng] Your homework for this week is to pick a favorite book with an interesting or unusual structure and see if you can identify how the author’s chosen structure enhances some aspect of the story, whether it’s the tension or the plot or character development.

[Dan] That’s wonderful. Thank you very much. We will be back next week with more talk and some specifics about structure. Between now and then, you are out of excuses. Now go write.