17.13: Structuring Around a Thing

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

Our exploration of sub- and micro-structures continues with guest host Peng Shepherd. This week we’re talking about how a story can be structured around a “thing.” The simplest explanatory example would be structuring around a map, which is where we start the episode… kind of like how The Lord of the Rings starts in The Shire.

This episode does not end with even one of us climbing a volcano.

Liner Notes: 

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


Is there a “thing” in your project that could function as a natural structure?

The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

5 thoughts on “17.13: Structuring Around a Thing”

  1. The technique of structuring around a thing has been around for a really long time.

    In 1883 Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote “Treasure Island”, a map-based story if there ever was one.

    Even earlier (1873) is Verene’s “Around the World in 80 Days”, a classic countdown story. It can also be seen as being map-based, as you can follow Fogg and his retinue as they move from place to place on a map of the world.

    And a close reading of Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” reveals that at critical inflection points in the story he used casts of the I Ching to determine what direction the next chapter of the story would take. So, although infrequently used, letting chance determine the next move in the story has also been used before.

  2. This week, our guides, Dan, Mary Robinette, Peng, and Howard, took a look at building stories around a thing, a map, a location, or whatever. Lots of examples, and thoughtful homework, too! And you can read all about it in the transcript, available now in the archives.

  3. Mary Robinette talking about the structure of a place with 100 floors reminded me of something else that used that used that exact structure but executed it poorly: Sword Art Online. In that case, the author got tired of the story he was writing and wanted to do something else, so instead of getting the heroes all the way to floor 100, they end up only getting to floor 75 when they have the final fight against the big bad. Unsurprisingly, a good portion of SAO’s audience found this deviation from the established pacing of the story to be to its detriment.

  4. One Piece is a good example of this in action. Every island on this ocean planet is part of the path to the final MacGuffin, and each has its own cast of side characters and its own semi-contained subplot.

    Another good example that goes highly underappreciated (because the structure isn’t really stated explicitly) is The Elder Scrolls series. The Towers are giant reality warping constructs that stabilize reality and help enforce the cultural ideals of those who control them as embodied by the climate and wildlife. The first game starts with collecting the scattered pieces of the Staff of Towers (itself a good example of structuring around a thing), introducing the various regions of the continent and how they interact. The second takes place in the domain of the First Tower (the most fundamental lynchpin of reality), giving a deep dive into the cultures of the region; and details the reactivation of the Walk-Brass Tower (collecting the parts again being an example of structuring around a thing), which was made to unmake reality; it leaves Time at the end and remains a Sword of Damocles that’ll reappear in the epilogue. The third through fifth games each detail the deactivation of one of the other Towers while also giving deep dives into their surrounding cultures and structuring around a thing by collecting MacGuffins or fulfilling multipart prophecies or both. The fourth game involves an invasion from another multiverse, and when counterinvading one must also deactivate a series of Towers by retrieving their respective Stones, recreating the structure of the series in miniature (“as above, so below” is a major series theme). Various other Towers have deactivated in the background lore and there may or may not be any left active aside from the First; we’ll have to see how the plot changes next game. The spin-offs don’t usually interact with this Tower deactivation plot, but Elder Scrolls Online does do some very interesting things like introducing a failed Tower.

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