Writing Excuses 10.12: Story structure Q&A, with Special Guest Wesley Chu

Wes Chu joins us again for a Q&A about this month’s topic: story structure! Here are the questions:

  • Do you make a conscious decision about how to structure your story before you begin writing?
  • Is it necessary to use multiple structures (three-act, Hollywood formula, etc) in order to ensure that your story works?
  • What tools do you use to view your story’s structure?
  • What do you think about cliffhangers?
  • How do you come up with plot twists for your stories? (Answer: A blast from the past with Michael Stackpole! Season 1, Episode 19!)
  • What structures should I use to add variety to my writing?
  • Is there a specific amount of time you should spend on your introduction before getting to the inciting incident?
  • What do you do when you’re halfway through with a story before you realize the structure is wrong?



Make a list of all the awesome things you want your story to accomplish. Then put them in the order in which you want them to happen.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, narrated by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin

17 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.12: Story structure Q&A, with Special Guest Wesley Chu”

  1. One good example of a nonstandard structure is The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson. My favorite book, and it literally has no continuous plot. It stands entirely on the strength of the characters as they go through life, divided into four loose “parts” centering more-or-less around the adventures of the protagonist. Or just him hanging out at his house with his wife and kids. It’s a beautiful work and I highly recommend it both for it’s own sake and as an example of how to get away with alternative book structures.

  2. The structure Mary talks about around 13:00 sounds like it may be, or be related to, kishotenketsu. The article that introduced me to the concept was http://stilleatingoranges.tumblr.com/post/25153960313/the-significance-of-plot-without-conflict

    A google search will find many more references, of varying utility. The concept fascinates me, and it’s caused me to reconsider some of my stories and characters. If nothing else I consider it helpful as an exercise in thinking differently, trying to break out of some modes that my reading history (a lot of mostly Western SFF, particularly in my youth) have inculcated. It can be difficult, but I think that’s proof that it’s necessary.

  3. The story structure linked to by Kerry Benton is intriguing and reminds me of some non-genre literary fiction I have read over the years. Perhaps the use of conflict is a defining element of genre fiction?

  4. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a great book: I was ecstatic to hear the recommendation. However, no one mentioned that it isn’t just a biography or science book: it’s a social justice work, too. What the researchers did is now considered unethical and laws have been passed to make it illegal.

    The history of science is one of those very fertile grounds for story ideas that I haven’t seen tapped too often.

    Regarding the podcast itself, excellent questions. I’d just add, in relation to the last question, that it might be particularly important for new writers to follow Mary’s solution of making notes about what needs to be changed and then continuing with the story as if those changes have already been done. It can be hard for new writers to know when the structure really is a problem and when they’re just hitting the Great Swampy Middle.

  5. The inciting incident can happen at the very beginning of the story. It isn’t necessarily the same as the Call to Adventure/Plot Turn 1. It sets up the story problem, but the protagonist might not be a part of it yet.
    The original Star Wars starts with the inciting incident of Vader kidnapping Leia and the droids escaping with the plans of the Death Star. The inciting incident catches up to Luke when he finds the message hidden in R2 and then gets his Call to Adventure from Obi-Wan. Luke then gets caught up into the plot and Act 2 begins when they cross over into the “special world” of Mos Eisley.

  6. @Kerry Benton – thanks for posting this link. Fascinating stuff. Giving it a second pass.

    I’m eager to listen to this episode tonight. I’ve been asking myself some questions about what I am writing – trying to decide if episodic or another format would fit better. It is a fantasy / sci-fi-ish write but I find that despite the looming world-level dangers in the background I am spending a lot of time on the daily struggles of the characters. When I read other writers it feels like I would need to prune a lot of thier struggles and focus on the main conflict but truthfully I find the characters and their daily struggles interesting and want to explore them more. This sounds like a relevant episode.

    Thanks as always.

  7. The author Mary references is Nnedi Okorafor. (I had to google a bit to find the name.) I’m looking forward to reading her!

  8. Inciting Incident (aka the HOOK): There’s a new Writing Excuses podcast up!
    Plot Turn 1: hah, it’s a Q&A session!
    Pinch 1: Drat, I’m sleepy. Enough for today.
    Midpoint: When are they going to get to the book of the week? Wow…
    Pinch 2: How many questions are they going to do? Nine?
    Plot Turn 2: There are so many good questions?
    Resolution: A proto-outline? Oh, you’re out of excuses, now go write!

    And… another transcript hits the electrons! Right over here


    you can read all about it. Or look for it in the archives!

  9. The software that Mary mentioned, Aeon combined with Scrivener is amazing. Such a lifesaver, especially since the two can merge on a Mac. NaNoWriMo winners (and maybe participants) can get a discount on their purchase.

    “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” sounds fascinating. I’ll have to add that to my list.

  10. I managed to finish two novels. They were big heartfealt projects of mine. Sweaty, but great. Until… I always seem to loose them after finishing the first draft and then start do edit again. I loose control over them while rewriting the beginning (I never get that right) or adding new scenes to the beginning. ‘Loosing them’ for me means: It gets chaotic. I discover so many problems and weaknesses. I have to edit the first written draft and then have to add many new scenes (which then have to be edited and polished as well). So, the workload piles up and up and up and it will eventually never be finished, because, hey, theres this new idea.

    Am I just too new to this?

    Maybe it would be good to establish a structure?!

  11. Very interesting story structure posted by Kerry – seems like it would be difficult to use, but that’s probably my eurocentric bias talking. (Plus, I tend to prefer action writers to the more philosophical works (for SF novels, guys like Scalzi and Myke Cole over guys like Niven and Asimov…which is certainly not to malign either of those latter authors.); it’s pretty hard to find a war story that lacks conflict.)

    I have to say I’d disagree with Andrew about conflict being more a genre thing…while I don’t read a lot of “literary” works, the ones I’m familiar all have at least one major conflict defining the story. A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, everything by Shakespeare, Homer, Canterbury Tales….I can’t think of anything that’s based around a premise of non-conflict. Most of them probably don’t have much in the way of epic battle scenes (excepting Homer, of course, and certain of Shakespeare’s plays), but they’re all built on conflict.

    That said, I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing. In most cases, conflict is what defines our lives, whether its on the grand scale of nations at war (or active diplomacy, which can be just as vicious, if less deadly), or the micro-scale of our internal conflict about uncertainties in our lives (the fear of rejection, the feeling of being trampled by the vast uncaring machine of the economy, etc) It seems like a rich story would inevitably encounter some form of conflict. In the 4 panel example given, my question is not “how can we make the vending machine an adversary?” as they describe, but “why is the person getting the other a drink? Are they at a hospital with one of them afraid to leave and miss the surgeon coming out to announce his success/failure? Is it a romantic gesture? Who are these people, where are they, what do they want…etc. Unless you’re describing a utopia in which there is no conflict at any level, (a concept so absurd that the term for it is derived from the Greek for “No place”), it seems inevitable that the more questions you ask, and the more details you give, the more conflict there will be. And given that life’s triumphs, from VE Day right down to someone with depression deciding to get out of bed today after all, are generally the parts of our lives that are most interesting and make us feel good, the conflict almost by default becomes central to the entire story. Can the conflicts be more subtle? Certainly. Can they be excised entirely? Probably not.

  12. @Rashkavar – I haven’ read any ‘non-conflict’ books myself so I can’t say with certainty whether you are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but I can imagine a scenario where the central themes are not about conflict, but about contrast. Contrast can be as powerful and jarring as conflict I think. I think there can be conflict in a story without it being the central part of the story, in some ways equivalent to describing the attributes of the characters clothing or hair color.

    For example I recently read Patrick Rothfuss’s novella “The Slow Regard of Silent Things”. I personally would be hard pressed to define this as a story centered around conflict. Yes, if you bend and push and pinch it a certain way you could say that the protagonist’s struggles to align the world and so on are conflict but they don’t seem that way to me.

    I imagine that a story could also be crafted about uncertainty as its core – which I guess could be read as a conflict to acquire certainty but that would seem like a stretching of the concept of conflict to make it fit; define anything broadly enough and anything would fit within its boundaries.

    I hadn’t given much thought to this until I heard this podcast – and read your comments – so I acknowledge that I may be totally wrong.

  13. If you struggle against something, that’s conflict. I would love to hear your definition of the word “conflict” that makes that be incorrect.

  14. I am dumping my thoughts here as I respond, so correct me if I am wrong. I believe that here, we are talking about conflict in its role as a driver of story. So we are talking about conflict as the central struggle. If you abstract or reduce anything down far enough, breaking down the layers of categorization which we use to make sense of the world, you will end up with a single box that everything fits into. For example, in many graphics programs you can take an image, let’s say a jpg that can contain 16 million colors, and change the color mode to one that supports less colors for a particular application – let’s say 256, 16 or 8. You will still be able to recognize the image at the end of the process but it has lost definition, clarity and ‘precise-ness’ in the process.

    My point is that while you can define almost interaction or situation as a ‘conflict’ on some level – perhaps in the same way that you can abstract any human action as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ if you reduce it enough – the very act of doing that makes the definition of questionable worth. You loose the contextual binding and nuances.

    So when we say ‘conflict’ here, in the context of this conversation about story, we may not be interpretting the word in the same way.

  15. Dear Howard, I was going to comment on your latest comic about the typo there, but there’s no way to do so. I considered tweeting you, but you blocked me. Enjoy looking typo-ish. Ed

  16. Another great episode. So much helpful stuff here for someone like my self who is just starting out as a writer.

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