Writing Excuses 10.9: Where is My Story Coming From?

This month’s syllabus topic is story structure, and we’ll be starting with the part we start with. And that part usually isn’t the beginning — that’s where the story starts for the reader. We’re going to talk about where the story starts for you. It’s the answer to questions like “where is my story coming from?”, “What kind of a story is this?”, or  “What questions does it seek to raise, and subsequently answer for the readers?”

Structurally, it may help to revisit our discussion of the M.I.C.E. quotient. Knowing that your story is primarily a milieu story, as opposed to a character story, is a pretty big thing to know before you start writing.

Of course, if you’re not outlining, this whole discussion may seem irrelevant to you, but ultimately if you discovery-write your way into a good story, you’ll have answered these questions during that process. Knowing that this is a thing you do will likely help you do it better.

The Sherlock Episode Howard referenced was “The Sign of Three”

Homework For an upcoming “Project in Depth” — you may wish to acquire a copy of Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, because we’ll be digging into the bonus story, “Parallel Perspectives,” which plays with POV in some ways that required significant re-writing during the collaboration process.


Take a favorite piece of of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.

Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie, narrated by Celeste Ciulla. This book has won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Clarke award, and is a great listen. (note: In the ‘cast, Mary says that this book was narrated by Adjoa Andoh, who actually narrated Ancillary Sword.)


19 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.9: Where is My Story Coming From?”

  1. Oh man, this looks fun.

    I’m actually thinking I might, for some extra fun, take that reverse-engineered outline and do a few of the tweaks for the second Idea assignment. I can just see genre-flipping, gender-swapping and opposite-character-choice-ing (urg?) it to see what I come up with.

  2. Ideas, characters, and now where does your story come from? For that matter, where is your story going?

    Over here, there’s a transcript! A round-robin discussion about where your story comes from, where you are going with it, and just how that ties into outlining or discovery writing, and how you keep the reader turning those pages… Go ahead, tickle your optic nerves and read all about it.


    Also in the archives.

  3. You mentioned it again this time… and indeed, it has been repeatedly references over nine seasons.

    So, can we at some point please, please, please have an episode on Promises. (What they are. What they look like. — Say taking the opening couple of paragraphs of one of your stories that the others haven’t read and analysing that for promises.)

    Or am I the only person who doesn’t get what you mean by promises?

  4. They actually did do a podcast on promises back in Season 5:

    Promises are guns on mantelpieces: if the storyteller goes to the trouble of putting something in a story, the reader expects it to be relevant to the story.

    A (perhaps extreme) example of a promise is the very first chapter of the very first book of The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. One character sees the spirit of a boy she’s never met before, and is told that it means he will die within a year; in the very next chapter, we meet that boy.

  5. Hey Rick,

    I never kept track of promises to readers until I started listening to Writing Excuses. So, for instance, I have a story where one of my protagonists’s best friends is very smart, reads lots of books, is always trying to invent crazy new contraptions, etc. In the beginning of the story, my main character’s opinion of this bookworm is that he knows a little about everything and can always come up with a clever solution to most problems… but there are no big problems in the first few chapters. So, a promise is born: at some point in the story, this smarty-pants is going to need to use his big brain to come up with a really clever solution to an obstacle that no other character would be able to address.

    I keep a spreadsheet now of all the Promises I am making the reader, and where those promises are fulfilled, to make sure I do not forget any. I tend to find the first half of the book has WAY more than the second half. It is helpful to keep a list of the Questions you are raising , too, both in your protagonist’s mind and the reader’s, to make sure you don’t leave any lingering loose ends. I have over 500 Q/A’s for my current story :) No way I could wrap things up satisfactorily without the master list.

  6. Rick,

    Think of a promise as “Anything that sounds important to the reader that isn’t resolved immediately.”

    They could be character traits like the example before me- readers assume that if a character has unique traits, and will contribute to solving a conflict, then they’ll use those traits somehow.
    They could be plot elements- foreshadowing is a pretty explicit form of making a promise, for you are deliberately teasing future events, though you need to keep room to surprise the reader.
    They could be vague, thematic things- if readers believe they’ve got an upbeat adventure story in their hands, and the ending of the plot becomes crushing and nihilistic, readers will be more likely to feel cheated out of the story they wanted to invest their time in, rather than surprised by a clever plot twist.

    I recently watched a film called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which is a modern adaptation of an old short story. It began with a lonely man filling out an online dating profile and realizing how boring of a person he is. He calls customer support for the website, discusses a specific woman, and winds up missing a train while daydreaming bizarre, fantastical things. It’s made a string of promises to the viewer in just that scene:

    His daydreaming causes problems. The missed train turns out inconsequential, so this will probably be a recurring concept that was just introduced to us this time.
    Any genuinely impossible stuff we see on-screen is only in his head.
    He’s single but looking to change that, and likes a particular coworker.
    He realizes he hasn’t had any major eye-catching life adventures. Given that there’s a film to watch, he must be about to do something relatively interesting, even if it doesn’t literally wind up written into his dating profile.

    There’s also format-specific promises. If I am watching a standalone movie with no chance of a sequel, there’s the promise of a tidy ending in most cases. If I’m reading book one of a series of ten 800-page epic fantasy novels, I’ll be forgiving if some of the things turn out to be series-long promises rather than current-novel promises, or if some of the subjects mentioned in passing are just there for the sense of scale rather than to contribute to Mr. Hero’s Odyssey to Do Whatever.

  7. I’ve had a revelation in doing this exercise that I found interesting, and thought I’d share it here. It’s probably worth mentioning that I’ve been writing for about 25 years (i.e. since I could hold a pencil), and, for better or worse, I’ve always been a discovery writer. While I’ve tried many forms of outlining, they’ve always resulted in a trainwreck or disenchantment with my story before I could get it off the ground… but give me a blank page and I’ll crank out 1000 words an hour for 5 hours a day, every day, and find at least some of it workable by the end.

    For a warmup, I reverse engineered an outline for a West Wing episode. I was done in five minutes, and I didn’t even have to watch the episode to get my engine running. (I did watch it when I was done to make sure I hadn’t missed anything). That says nothing about my writing skills. What it *does* tell me, loud and clear, is that Aaron Sorkin is a heavy duty outliner – something I already knew due to being a fan of his work. As dense as his dialogue is, everything he writes has a crystal clear, rarely-departed-from structure. In The West Wing, that takes the form of three (occasionally four) stories in each episode. One is some form of political intrigue, one is a character plot (someone is in trouble, there is a relationship afoot, or two characters are having a debate about something.) The third plotline is almost always a “comic relief” plotline – CJ’s woot canal, the Ukranian ambassador is drunk in the chief of staff’s office, etc. In the episodes where there are four plotlines to follow, they are either “political intrigue A, political intrigue B, character, comic relief,” or “political intrigue, character plot A, character plot B, comic relief.” If you’re a fan of the show, try it, you’ll see what I mean – the outlines almost literally write themselves.

    Then I decided to reverse engineer an outline for Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon (selected because it’s one of his shorter novels with a relatively simple plot). Identifying the threads was harder, but doable. I finished in about half an hour. It was clear to me that Stephen King is not an outliner (again, something I knew) but that in the process of crafting, he’s very careful to prune the right bits, so to speak, so that the structure is clear.

    Then I took a deep breath and decided to tackle something by my favorite author, Roddy Doyle. Roddy was an English teacher before he became a writer, and I don’t think the man has looked at an outline since. I couldn’t care less, because there’s an immediacy and a *vibrance* to his books that I think few other modern authors achieve, and those who do equal it take five times the words to achieve the same end as he.

    Here’s the thing… I’ve been trying to reverse engineer an outline for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha for three *days*. I’m getting there. It’s not impossible to do. But *man*, is it hard. That book *clearly* wasn’t written to an outline… Roddy sat down, opened a vein, splashed his guts on the page and walked away, job done. (And, incidentally, Booker Prize won, so I’m not the only one who loves his style.)

    I’m not saying discovery writing is better than outlining or vice versa; I think whatever works, works, and I often wish I *could* outline my stuff a little before I start – it’s true that discovery writing does mean a lot more pruning, much more “killing your babies” and sometimes tackling things many more times than you anticipated before you find the right one.

    But I found it fascinating that reverse-engineering an outline could tell me within a few *minutes* whether a given author was a hard-core outliner (Sorkin), an effective pruner (King) or a “damn the torpedos” discovery writer who cares not a whit for literary conventions of any type (Doyle). I strongly suspect I could now pick an author I’ve never heard of, read a book of theirs, and know which camp they fall in just by starting to reverse outline… and that’s pretty neat!

  8. While I really enjoyed this episode (listed to it four times already… these master class ones seem to be ideal for replaying because they’re dense), I’m not sure I could succinctly state what the Podcasters were talking about. On one hand, it seems like they are talking about structure at the level below genre (hence, a tea cosy mystery vs something like John Cleaver) but above formats like Three Act or Seven Point. Yet then there was also a focus on individual scenes and the questions that drive those scenes forward, which seems like that would be more specific than Three Act format.

    Of course, all that might be the result of viewing structure as a strict spectrum from broadest (book) to smallest (sentence), whereas from a non-linear, non-legibilizing viewpoints, it might be more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly outliney-winey… stuff.

    I think what this episode is about (though I hope someone might be willing to correct me if I am wrong) is wrapping one’s brain around what emotional/gut reactions one wants the reader to have. To use an analogy, it’s like a painter needing to decide on their color palette (cool, warm, contrasting, etc) and the paints that will comprise it.

    Assuming that I am interpreting the podcasters correctly, then, it seems that they are recommending students decide on the types of questions that their story and scenes will ask, rather than the specific questions that will drive a specific scene. To use Dan’s book as an example (since he used it himself), if one of his tones (like a painter’s palette) is “John is all alone,” then he might plan to ask the questions (like specific colors comprising that palette) “Is John bothered by being alone (and is he okay with the answer)?” and “should John be alone regardless?”

    Hopefully I’m not too far off the mark as to what this episode was about.

  9. To Meg~

    That was an interesting post! I had not heard of Roddy Doyle but I am going to bump him to the top of my reading list. I wonder if you can begin to tell, after doing this exercise enough, which specific pages or minutes of a show are outlined or discovery’d as you are reading/watching in real time, even before seeing the ending? What do you think? And would that maybe take some of the fun out of it, or, as a writer, make the experience more engaging?

  10. JT:

    I’d say that the main point of this episode is that reader response and authorial objectives need to be considered when structuring a story, rather than purely focusing on the mechanical functions of the plot.

  11. Hi WE Team –

    I’ve listened to nearly all of your podcasts and this has got to be one of your best. So thank you for this one… and thanks for all the rest over the past years too.

    My stories are all emotionally driven – plot is just a tool I use to drive character emotion. You’ve done a fantastic job of articulating the value and necessity of emotional investment.

    …..side note … For a long time I couldn’t see what was so great about Orson Scott Card. And for some reason I picked up the Alvin Maker series. Yes, his writing was very very good, but very thing else was so-so…. until I hit the scene here part of Alvin’s bone had to be cut away. … Wow! That was powerful storytelling and an impeccable example of maximizing on readers emotional investment. Had I not ‘connected’ with Alvin first, it wouldn’t have been so gripping.

  12. J. Evans – That’s an interesting point, and I have no idea what the answer would be! I do have a way to test it, funnily enough. For a very brief period, I was lucky enough to correspond with Mr. Sorkin – I asked him some craft questions, he responded (!) I asked a few more, he responded again (!!)… that kind of thing. Anyway, buried somewhere in my ‘awesome emails I don’t want to lose’ folder, he’s bemoaning working on an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and the fact that he is permanently, horrifically stuck, and that he’s going to have to resort to discovery writing, because none of his characters will ‘cooperate’ with his outline.

    Since Studio 60 hadn’t even premiered yet, and therefore there was no danger of spoilers, or, for that matter, me really having any context for what/whom he was describing, he laid out his quandary and the eventual fix in considerable detail. I remember roughly which episode it was, but I can’t for the life of me remember which *scene* it was; only that he ended up discovery writing that scene and the one following, which successfully brought him back to his outline. Sometime in the next day or two, I’m going to pull out my Studio 60 DVDs and see if I can pick out which scenes those were, and then check it against those emails and see if I’m right. I’ll keep you posted.

    I suspect that I *will* be able to correctly identify the scenes, and as such, I do think that reverse outlining too many things runs the risk of sucking the enjoyment right out of things as a reader/watcher… but as a writer, it’s been *enormous* fun, and it’s made me think a lot about outlines, how they work, why they work, the rhythm and tone and arc of a story, and whether there might be a form of outlining out there that works for me after all.

    Previous to this exercise, when I thought about or discussed craft, it’s been essentially about how to prune, because rhythm and tone come very naturally to me, and getting into how I initially do my voodoo always led to overthinking and writer’s block… but I’m seeing things from a different angle now, and it’s been a refreshing experience. I suspect, as the “character first” writer I’ve always been, that the two most valuable pieces of writing for *me* will always be “Just tell the story, and tell it the best you can,” (King) and “Listen to people” (Doyle – by which he meant that you can’t write authentic dialogue without paying attention to how real people speak, and when and how and under what circumstances they say it)… but there’s always room for new guideposts, so to speak.

    Re: Roddy Doyle, he’s criminally unknown in the US and a *very* well known writer in his native Republic of Ireland (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is part of the school curriculum there). I always recommend Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha as an entry point for those new to his work – his style is entirely unique, and it can put off readers who are expecting a more “standard” novel. The best way I’ve ever been able to describe it is that he works in third person, but at an *extraordinarily* close “camera angle”… for the entirety of his books, you are walking around in his character’s skin. He takes that concept to delicious extremes; there’s stream of consciousness sprinkled throughout, and you have to learn to how hang on for the ride, because *unlike* a lot of authors who employ that device (Joyce, Falkner, etc), with Roddy, everything is pedestrian… and I mean that as a compliment, because Roddy writes about the everyman. So, when ten year old Paddy describes a mouse in the toilet, there’s no preciousness about what the mouse looks like – you get the push-pull of a ten year old boy’s reaction – Gross! Cool! Both!

    For me, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is his *second* best book… I think his best book is The Van, but The Van is third in a four part series, and as such I think it’s best read that way. The reason I don’t recommend the *first* book in the Barrytown series (The Commitments) is because The Commitments was his first book, period, and probably the hardest of his books to read – partly because he was finding his feet, and partly because it’s a book about a band, so there are long passages throughout where he’s trying – not always successfully – to convey music through text.

    Luckily for all of us, The Commitments was made into an eponymous movie, and in my opinion it’s the only movie adaptation in history wherein the movie is *better* than the book, primarily because you can *hear* all the music… so if you want a brilliant film to add to your watch list that will give you a feel for what Roddy’s work is like, check it out. (Rated R for prodigious swearing, a sex scene or two, and a little violence. It’s about a working class bunch of Irish lads trying to bring “Dublin soul” to the uneducated masses, so this should all be considered an “as expected,” but it’s worth noting that this is not a movie to watch when the kiddies are around.)

    If you like Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha or The Commitments, you’ll very much enjoy the novels that continue the story of The Commitments’ protagonist and his family (The Snapper, The Van, and The Guts). I waited 20 years for The Guts to be written (Roddy kept swearing that he was stopping at a trilogy), and the wait was 100% worth it… if you enjoy his work, he’s that “I’ll wait decades if I have to!” kind of writer.

  13. Thanks Chris, J. Evans & Cory,

    In part, your responses demonstrate why I think an episode on what a promise *is*, is needed.

    Resolving them is one thing, but as was covered in the episode on fulfilling, many a guns on the mantle piece is a decoy. So… how do you know which elements are promises, and which simply make the world, and the characters, richer? (In my view, J. Evans’ know-it-all character is not a promise: that is simply a more rounded cast; indeed, if everything mentioned is considered a promise, then it will all be far too contrived.)

    Your arguments suggest that promises are nothing special – it is simply about an appropriate balance between foreshadowing (the things that turn out to have been promises) and the vibrancy/richness of setting and characters?

    However, I find that answer unsatisfying. The authors I find most enjoyable – amongst them Guy Gavriel Kay, whom Brandon has several times referred to as one of the best authors working today – are those who round out their settings and characters with incredible detail; a fullness that would be superfluous if there were a certain optimal ratio between promises and fullness.

    So, my question still stands. How do we know which bits are promises, and which are something else? Or does it only become a promise once fulfilled? And there just needs to be a certain cadence of them as we approach the climax?

  14. Rick~

    Those are great questions! Suddenly I knew less than I thought I did a few minutes ago! Shoot.

    I would love to hear what the Podcast masters have to say on this, now. Looking at my mega-list of 100+ promises for my novel, there are tons of categories–some relate to character arcs (not all of which must necessarily be fulfilled; say, if someone dies an untimely death), some are plots threads (a lot of which follow the generic promise-formula: such-and-such will play a big role later on) and some are a lot more specific, which probably are the ones that would best speak to this discussion (example, a magic lock is introduced that cannot be opened by any key, and later, a key that is introduced that can pick any lock. The promise bell rings.)

    For me, and it sounds like maybe for you, too, I don’t quite think the gun-on-the-mantle is a promise. I don’t quite know the term for it–foreshadowing, sometimes, but not always; seems like more of a way to make sure nothing ends up as a deuce-ex-machina in the end… but, like you point out, what IS the difference between a well-rounded world full of rich detail and a background overstuffed with promises? Some characters just like to collect guns–they don’t all have to be fired!

    I would especially love to know what the podcasters think of the difference between that type of foreshadowing and a promise, as I think the contrast is subtle and hard to put my finger on. I remember Dan commenting on this with the first John Cleaver book, saying he felt some of his readers felt misled, originally, when what began as a murder mystery turned into a supernatural thriller halfway through. So maybe (just spitballing here) whereas foreshadowing is laying groundwork to prevent any dreaded deuce-ex’s from popping up, a promise may be best identified as a sort of road-sign along the way which, if ignored, might lead readers to feel misled? Is there a girl riding a horse on the cover of your book? There had best be some horseback-riding inside! That is obviously a pretty obvious example; I am not sure I can pin it down better than that. And I’m rambling…

    I think maybe the answer lies somewhere along the lines of: as long as you are paying attention to what you are writing, and thinking about these things, you will catch them as they come, even if the terminology sometimes overlaps or veers into gray areas. Thoughts?

  15. @Muskaan: Reverse-engineering is the process by which you take a finished product apart, figure out how it was built, and then build a new one from your notes.

    Restaurant recipes get reverse-engineered all the time.

    For this exercise we’re essentially asking you to take someone else’s finished story and create an outline of your own that exposes the story’s structure in a way that would let you write that story. But stop yourself before you actually re-write someone else’s story. :-)

    @Meg: I’m surprised that you’re able to pigeonhole Sorkin’s outlines, but can’t build a structure around something more complex. If PADDY DOYLE has any sort of narrative to it at all (e.g. it is not a book of prosodic tone-poems on unconnected subjects) then that narrative should be something you can describe in terms that are an order of magnitude less verbose than the book itself. Note: you’re not trying to assign “three act format” or “seven part story structure” to PADDY DOYLE. You’re trying to outline it.

    @Rick: Promises, promises… we’re doing another episode on those pretty soon here. For me, “promises I make to the reader” or “promises” is a shorthand for “reader expectations that arise from their reading the first third or so of the book, whether or not I deliberately meant for them to expect such things.” Of course, you can make promises to the reader much later in the book, but typically (at least within the narrative structures we’re accustomed to) those later promises are fulfilled rather quickly, and are smaller than the ones set earlier on.

    Ultimately the acid test to discover the promises you’ve made is the Alpha Reader. Ask them what their expectations are for the rest of the book. What will they be disappointed to NOT get. What will they be happy, but not surprised, to get. Do they expect to be surprised in a big, “Million Dollar Baby” sort of way, or in a smaller, “surprising, yet inevitable” sort of way?

  16. Thanks Howard

    So, all told, it’s far easier to tell a broken promise than it is to intentionally engineer a kept one. (Examples of broken promises being the likes of Tarantino’s From Dusk till Dawn, which was really two half-films that had nothing to do with each other; or the closing scene of Matrix 2, which screamed nested matrices, but instead it was solved with a magical cross-over between real and electronic.)

    So, if I want to have my main character use the opening line of the story to his advantage at the very end, despite it being clearly stacked against him, I have to build up his devious, twisted way of thinking… And then, when he puts those two pieces together, everyone has an a-ha moment…?

  17. I noticed the Stormlight structural weirdness. In fact, I stopped reading the first book for almost a month because I was weirded out. I’m glad I came back to it (I had a promise from a trusted author friend that it was awesome, or I might not have), I’ve enjoyed (and learned from) it. I’m afraid that I don’t understand structural convention enough to really get what was a breach from the normal, though.

  18. I was lucky enough to be in Mary’s “Short Fiction Explained” workshop at last year’s Surrey International Writers’ Conference, which focused on the MICE quotient. That workshop, this podcast, and a listen to the Season 6 ‘cast on the MICE quotient, have inspired me to write a MICE story cycle of my own. I already have the “I” story written, so I’m working on the others.

    QUESTION: Does a milieu story have to be about a human character in an unfamiliar milieu? Or can it be a non-human character in a human milieu that will be recognizable to the reader, but not to the character? Any thoughts on that?

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