Writing Excuses 10.12: Story Structure Q&A, With Special Guest Wesley Chu
Key points: Story structures are tools. See if it helps you. If it doesn’t, set it aside and try something else. None of them are magic wands that will write your book. They are just tools to help organize your thoughts. Don’t expect to use the tool easily and perfectly the first time. When it’s new, it often is hard to use.
Questions and Answers:
Q: Do you make a conscious decision about how to structure your story before you start writing?
A: Yes. Although sometimes in writing, will realize the interesting central conflict is different than expected, then go back and change the beginning. Sometimes write some, then outline. I like to outline extensively, then toss the outline and make it up as I go.
Q: In the past, Writing Excuses has touched on many story structures — MICE, 7-Point, Hollywood Formula, etc. Do you think it would be helpful to try to fit your story into as many of these structures as possible, or is it best sticking with one?
A: Often, structures are more useful for diagnosing what has gone wrong with a story than for planning. Pick one and learn how that works, then another. Story structure is a tool. Use the one that works for your job.
Q: Do you use any tools to help you view the structure of a story/novel? If so, what are they and how do they help?
A: Document map, to create an outline on the fly, with goals and steps. Scrivener corkboard. Aeon timeline.
Q: What do you guys think about cliffhangers? Like them, hate them, diabolically evil? How can an author use them more effectively?
A: What are you using them for? To get someone to buy your next book? That’s a dirty trick. To surprise, to create mystery, and people buy because they are excited to find the answer? That’s good. Don’t use cliffhangers to make people wade through a POV they don’t like. The payoff on a cliffhanger has to be good. I use cliffhangers to change the rules in the game. “He opened the door and…” is annoying. “He opened the door and saw (something that changes everything)” So I want to know what is going on, what the reaction is to this new thing — that’s a good cliffhanger.
Q: How do you come up with plot twists for your stories?
A: See the podcast on plot twists.
Q: My short stories all seem to take a form of a bell curve; open, rising action, climax, denouement. What are some other forms or techniques I can use to bring variety without increasing my word count?
A: That is the structure of a story.
Q: Is there a difference between short stories and novel structure?
A: Novels are like watching the Olympics on the BBC, while short fiction is like watching a YouTube clip of the trick on gymnastics. There are other story structures besides Western European ones.
Q: Is there a specific amount of time you should do for your introduction? How do you know how long to take before your inciting incident in your story?
A: There is no hard and fast rule. “The inciting incident can happen when the introduction has told us enough to know why the inciting incident is significant.”
Q: How do you deal when you get a good way through your story and realize the structure isn’t working? Is it better to push through and finish a thing, then fix it in edits or go back to the start and start over with a new structure?
A: First, pour yourself a glass of Scotch. Set your head on fire. Eat a lot of ice cream. Then fix it right away, because the longer you go down the wrong path, the more you have to fix. Make notes about the changes to correct, then write as if you have already made those corrections.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 12.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Story Structure Q&A with Wesley Chu.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have our friend Wesley Chu back on the podcast.
[Wesley] Hello. How’s everybody doing?
[Brandon] We’re doing all right. Thanks for coming back.
[Wesley] Excellent. Thanks for having me.
[Brandon] All right. We are doing a Q&A. We have solicited questions from you guys to ask us about story structure. I’m just going to go through these and see what the podcast is come up with as answers. “Do you make a conscious decision about how to structure your story before you start writing?”
[Brandon] By Sonya Lal.
[Howard] Sonya, I do.
[Mary] I do, although sometimes I will say that, particularly in short fiction where I do sometimes less planning with long, that sometimes I will get into the story and realize that the central conflict that I’m interested in is different than what I thought it would be, and then I will go back and change the structure of the beginning.
[Brandon] I’m a planner, so a structure ahead of time is important to me to know about. There are stories that I’ve just kind of written myself into it, and those I don’t always… So I don’t plan it out, I just write and see what happens. But that’s an exercise that I’m trying to do.
[Wesley] I like to kind of do a hybrid thing, where I pant it out for a little bit, kind of get the feel of the setting and characters, then after I get maybe like three or four chapters in, I go, “All right. Now I kind of know these people, but I don’t know where they’re going.” Then I go back and I re-outline the whole thing.
[Dan] See, I do the opposite of that. I will figure it all out pretty extensively first. Then throw away the outline and make it up as I go.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right. This is a good question from Chris Dunbar that fits in with that. He asks, “In the past, Writing Excuses has touched on many story structures — MICE, 7-Point, Hollywood Formula, etc.” We talked about a bunch of these in podcasts coming up and in podcasts we’ve done before, so it’s a good question. “Do you think it would be helpful to try to fit your story into as many of these structures as possible, or is it best sticking with one?”
[Mary] Well, they are not mutually exclusive. Not by a long shot. So I would say a lot of times these structures are more useful for diagnosing where a story has gone wrong sometimes than they are for planning, particularly when you’re in the early stages. I’m a big fan of picking one technique and learning how that technique works, and then picking a different technique and learning how that technique works. So I think it depends on where you are in your career path.
[Dan] I love, love story structure systems. And I love to play with them. But they’re tools. You would not say this object that I built is better than the other one because this one I used a hammer and a wrench. Whatever tools you need for the job.
[Howard] Especially if the object is a pie.
[Brandon] I use a hammer on my pies all the time.
[Howard] I… When Mary said diagnosis, usually I’m using formula to diagnose problems with my outline. I rarely get all the way into a story and then realize that, “Oh, I need to apply the Hollywood Formula to figure out why this is broken.”
[Brandon] Wm Henry Morris asks, “Do you use any tools to help you view the structure of a story/novel? If so, what are they and how do they help?”
[Brandon] I use… Very simple. I use Microsoft Word and I use the document map function, which allows me to create an outline on the fly. I create these little cells, so to speak, of goals and what I need to achieve them. So, target goal is these two characters fall in love. Then underneath, bullet points of the steps along the way that’s going to make that work, make that relationship or this person learns to become really good at the magic. Bullet points. That helps me view structure because it lets me break down every little subplot as its own system, together, kind of viewing them all together. That’s what works for me.
[Dan] I do that same thing, but with pen and paper.
[Mary] I do very similar, but with Scrivener.
[Wesley] I use Scrivener, and I can’t write without it. It has this corkboard functionality where you create little Post-it notes, and you can write a little summary on it. Then you can label it, and then you can color coordinate it. That’s kind of how I divide all my… I check my flow, is I go action, development, plot, which point of view… I color… The pink is my female point of view, and the blue’s my man, and the red’s my villain. I kind of look at it from a very high up bird’s eye view, and then I kind of… It helps me figure out when I’m slowing down too much or when I have too much mindless action and… go on…
[Howard] Too… much… mindless action?
[Mary] I also use Aeon Timeline… It’s A.E.O.N. Which is something I’ve only recently started using, but it’s very useful for me. I will plot out when lips us which date, what time things are happening, and then mark them as onstage action or offstage action.
[Wesley] I just bought that, and I’m very intimidated by it.
[Mary] Yeah, it take… The learning curve is… It’s fairly intensive, but it’s great. If you using Mac, it can sync with your Scrivener. Unfortunately, with PC that is not yet the case.
[Brandon] “What do you guys think about cliffhangers? Like them, hate them, diabolically evil? How can an author use them more effectively?” This is from Jesse.
[Dan] Well, it depends on what you’re using them for. If you’re throwing in a cliffhanger for the sole purpose of forcing someone to buy your next book, then that’s kind of a dirty trick. Whereas if you’re using the cliffhanger because you want to surprise or because you want to create some mystery, and people buy your next book because they’re excited to find the answer rather than mad at you that you haven’t given it to them yet, then you’ve done it right.
[Howard] Internally, if you use the cliffhanger at the end of a chapter so that people are forced to wade through the POV character that you know they don’t like, you might have a problem that’s unrelated to the cliffhanger.
[Mary] Yeah. Or using a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter to get them to turn the page to the next chapter. One of the things with a cliffhanger is that the payoff has to be good. Like you cannot threaten to knock someone off a cliff and then it turns out it’s just a slight dip in the ground. That’s… Your reader will feel cheated.
[Wesley] I really like cliffhangers.
[Wesley] I mean, I think the way I use cliffhangers isn’t so much to get them to go to the next chapter or to make them by the next book, but to actually change the rules in the game. So most of the cliffhangers I use actually from book to book makes a very big fundamental change that allows me to tell a story with a different set of rules.
[Brandon] See, you’re doing cliffhangers the way I like them. I like cliffhangers that… The metaphor I use is a lot of books will be like, “And he opened the door and…” And then stop. That’s an annoying cliffhanger. I want your cliffhanger to be he opens the door and then you tell me something he sees on the other side of the door that changes everything I understood about what was coming, and then I want to read more. You’ve got to make your answers as cool as your questions. That’s the problem with a lot of cliffhangers, is they aren’t. They are the I’m going to give you something awesome next but I’m not going to tell you what it is. Then you get to it, and it’s not awesome.
[Wesley] Instead, it’s here’s the awesome, now you want to know what’s going on.
[Brandon] Yes. Now what’s the ramifications of this awesome thing happening?
[Brandon] How do you come up with plot twists for your stories? We actually did a podcast on plot twists. I think maybe we should just reference that one and say go read about… Listen to plot twists on that one. My short stories… By the way, that one was from Samuel Rowles.
[Brandon] This one’s from Nathan [Beittenmiller]. I’m not going to try and say your last name, Nathan, I’m sorry. “My short stories all seem to take a form of a bell curve; open, rising action, climax, denouement. What are some other forms or techniques I can use to bring variety without increasing my word count?” The thing about this one is, I want to tell you, that’s the structure of a story.
[Brandon] That you just described there. Open, rising action, climax, dénouement. I don’t know that you want… What you’re asking is, are there other tools perhaps that you can use?
[Mary] Well, I will say, actually that while that is the structure of a novel, that is not always necessarily the structure of a short story.
[Brandon] I’m going to stop you right here, because one person asks, Rechan asks, “Is there a difference between short stories and novel structure?”
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Mary] Yes. So there’s… This is… We’ve got one where I talk about… A podcast where I talk about short story at length, but since I can answer both of these at the same time… The denouement in novels is because you’ve been immersed in the world for a long time, and the readers want to ease out of it. They want to… They want a little bit of time with the characters where they’re warm and cozy, essentially. But in short fiction… The metaphor that I use is that it is like watching the Olympics. It’s the difference between watching the YouTube clip of the trick on the gymnastics versus watching the Olympics on the BBC. A novel is watching the Olympics on the BBC. You want to see the back story about the char… The gymnast, you want to watch her go out and warm-up, the years of practice… She goes out, she practices, she does the trick, you see her stick the landing, and you watch her walk off the mat and meet with her coach and get her scores and the reaction to the scores and the analysis. You go to the YouTube clip, it starts right before she does the trick, she does the trick, she sticks the landing, and it cuts. That is all you need. So that’s one of the big things, is where you are choosing to do that. In other ways, they’re actually very similar. You do have the beginning, middle, and end, in theory. But you’re much more likely to start… Frequently, you are starting much more in media res in short fiction, again because you’re trying to get right at the beginning. Short fiction… I don’t want to say it’s all about the trick, because the trick is…
[Brandon] Right. It’s like saying the Olympics are all about the trick. No. Yes, they are, but it’s an awesome trick, and it’s why you tuned in.
[Mary] Yes. So… But that is… That’s… Structurally, for me, that is one of the key differences.
[Howard] One of the… Oh, sorry. One of the challenges to answering this question is that the formula he’s describing is… A little bit, my stories are all part one, part two, part three, what other formulas are… Anything can be carved up into three parts. So a lot of word mincing may go on as to what actually constitutes a full denouement.
[Mary] Well, the other thing, to get to the are there other story structure question and our idea that this is a story, is that this is a very Western European idea of a story structure. There are other story structures. For instance, and I’m going to describe this badly, but in Japan, a lot of times what you’ll see when you’re looking at some of the fiction is there’s an old man and he goes to the bus stop and then there’s a young woman and then she’s making tea later, and then the story stops. You’re like, “What was…”
[Mary] But… So we’re looking for a plot, but what that story is about is the interconnectedness of small details and the way these reflect. So it’s a very different story structure. I couldn’t write one of those because I don’t know the mechanics of it. But understand that you can go and explore different story structures. One author that I’d encourage you to look at is Nnedia Okorafor, because she is writing… Her family is from Nigeria, and she is writing fantastic science fiction and fantasy, but she is not writing it from a Western European story structure.
[Brandon] That’s actually a really good point to make, because a good three or four of these questions are people saying either “My story doesn’t fit to a traditional structure, what do I do?” Or “How can I find other structures to try using?” “How can I keep my stories from becoming predictable? It seems like I’m using the same structure again and again.” There’s a good answer. You read some things from other genres, read from other cultures, and see if these present to use something new.
[Mary] Then you can also sit down and reverse-engineer an outline from that to see how that structure works.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. This week we are going to do The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. The narrator is Cassandra Campbell. This is a book that I read that I think has a fascinating structure. Now, this is a nonfiction piece. What it does is it talks about Henrietta Lacks, who was a poor black woman who couldn’t afford healthcare and had to travel to a hospital that would take Blacks. This is during the early part of the 20th century. Without her knowledge or her family’s knowledge, some of her cells, cancer cells, were harvested. She eventually succumbed and died of this cancer, but those cells were the first cells that scientists were able to make a culture from that lived for a substantial time outside the body. In fact, they’re still alive. Those very cells are the very first… It’s called the HeLa cell cycle. They’re used in all kinds of research. This one woman has become the means by which tons of different cures and things have been developed. The cool thing about the structure of this book is it’s half biography. It talks about her, it talks about the author and trying to get her story by talking to her children, it talks about the biography of her children and what they went through growing up. It’s interviews with them talking about how they didn’t even know and how they were… Without the education, they were told, “Yeah, we’re using your mom’s cells.” They’re like, “My mom’s still alive? In a lab somewhere? They’re using her… They’re testing her for these things?” They legitimately thought this for years. Just a fascinating look into the lives of what it’s like to live… What it was like to live during that time as an African-American. Then looking… Every other chapter is about the science behind it. So it’s great. It’s really cool. Interesting from a structure standpoint, interesting just from a life story standpoint. So you can get a copy of this read to you by Cassandra Campbell. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. You can find it on Audible by going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, get a 30-day free trial, support the podcast, and listen to a great book.
[Mary] Sounds fantastic.
[Brandon] It is really good.
[Wesley] How is that possible, that cells are still alive after all these years?
[Brandon] It’s a cell culture, so they…
[Mary] Constantly dividing.
[Brandon] Constantly dividing, but beyond that, cancer cells don’t have… Don’t age the same way. One of the reasons that we age is our cells have a certain number of times they’ll divide before they just won’t divide any more. So every other culture they took, died off.
[Mary] We could so talk about this for the rest of the podcast, but we have other questions.
[Brandon] We do, we do. Some of these are really good. One person asks, and I’ll get the name in a second, but “Is there a specific amount of time you should do for your introduction? How do you know how long to take before your inciting incident in your story?” This is really good because we’re going to be talking about beginnings coming up, so I wanted to get this to the podcasters.
[Dan] There is no hard and fast rule for this.
[Wesley] [inaudible — But don’t take too long?]
[Brandon] Awww… We could write a whole [garbled]
[Dan] If they’re good, then they’re good. I’ve seen inciting incidents that happen in the first paragraph, I’ve seen them that happen in the fifth chapter. I don’t know if there’s a good rule of thumb for…
[Mary] Well, even when they’re happening… I mean, it depends on how we’re defining…
[Brandon] Inciting incident?
[Howard] I’m going to make up a rule. The inciting incident can happen when the introduction has told us enough to know why the inciting incident is significant.
[Dan] That’s very well put. You need to know who the character is, you need to know their current life situation so that when the incident kicks them out of that situation, it matters.
[Brandon] That was by Elizabeth, the question was, by the way.
[Howard] Good question.
[Brandon] Hillary asks, “How do you deal when you get a good way through your story and realize the structure isn’t working?”
[Mary] Oh. Oh, that’s painful.
[Dan] How do you deal with that, is it?
[Brandon] Yeah, what do you do? She says, “Is it better to push through and finish a thing, then fix it in edits or go back to the start and start over with a new structure?”
[Mary] Well, the first thing that you do, or at least the first thing that I do, is I pour myself a glass of Scotch.
[Howard] Really. Because I set my head on fire.
[Mary] Yeah, there’s that.
[Wesley] I eat a lot of ice cream.
[Brandon] How do you do that without hair?
[Howard] I have stopped, actually, having the problem.
[Mary] You sounded like you had something to… Useful, instead of my, “Oh, God, that’s just painful.”
[Wesley] I eat a lot of ice cream for a night. Then I start fixing it right away because the longer you allow yourself to go down the wrong path, that’s just the more you’ve got to fix.
[Mary] I will say that actually… I’m having… I had this problem in the novel I’m working on right now. So I made… Ooo, actually, I had this also in Of Noble Family. What I did was I made notes to myself about the changes that I was going to correct, and wrote forward from that point as if I had already made those changes. Then went back.
[Brandon] I do that a lot.
[Dan] Were these structural changes?
[Mary] So, in Of Noble Family, I had a subplot that I realized I didn’t need at all. I had three characters that I realized I was going to need to cut.
[Mary] So they were structural changes. In Ghost Talkers, the one that I’m working on now, I’ve realized that I need another point of view. So I am writing as if that point of view is going to be there, but I’m going to… When I finish it, I’m going to have to go back and insert five chapters. I know it, and I’ve already marked in my manuscript where I’m going to do it.
[Dan] Yeah. That’s closer to the way I handle it, which is I don’t want to start from scratch right now, I’m just going to do the best I can with what I have, and that’s what revision is for.
[Brandon] There are a ton of great questions on here. We don’t have time to get to any more of them. Though I will say that the majority of them are asking things like we have gotten to already. How do I choose which structure to use, what do I do with this structure… You gotta remember, this is a tool. Something to try with various stories of yours. All of these structures are tools. See if it helps you. If it’s not helping you, then it’s something to put aside and try something else. That’s the big thing you’ve got to keep in mind, is none of these are hard fast magic wands that will write your book for you. They’re just tools that will help you organize your thoughts.
[Mary] If I say just one other thing about the idea of these being tools that we’re offering you. Don’t expect to know how to use the tool beautifully and well the first time you pick it up. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not working for you. It’s just new.
[Brandon] Now, we’re going to give you some homework as we transition out of story structure and start talking about beginnings, which we’ll be doing the next few episodes on. Dan has an exercise for you. Honestly, we’re recording this months after the last one recorded, so I’m not sure if we gave you homework the last time or not. We couldn’t go in and look. So, if we did, do that one also. If we didn’t, here is your homework for next week.
[Dan] You get double homework if you’re lucky. Okay. So what you’re going to do, at this point we hope that in the process of your storytelling, you know what kind of story you want to tell. So you’re going to get a piece of paper or a laptop or whatever and make a list of all the awesome things you want that story to accomplish. Whether they are fight scenes or love scene…
[???] Set pieces.
[Dan] You want something to be heroic. Yeah, big cool set pieces…
[Mary] Gondola Chase!
[Dan] In a really interesting place. You want to make somebody really sad. You want to have a stand-up-and-cheer moment. Whatever it is. You’re going to write all those down in a big list. Then you’re going to put them in order. What order they’re going to happen. That is kind of a proto-outline. Then next month, we’ll talk more about what do you do with that and how do you start at the beginning and turn it into a story.
[Brandon] Excellent. Wesley, thank you for being on the podcast with us.
[Wesley] Thanks for having me, guys.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.