Writing Excuses 12.19: Structure on the Fly
Key Points: Outline writing starts by discovery writing an outline, then using that outline to write the story. Discovery writing, aka pantsing, goes straight to prose on the page. When you can go anywhere with the story, how do you decide where to go? Start with what’s already there — What’s the smartest thing the character can do, how can it fail, and stay with the same plot threads. Open-and-close parens, aka setup and punch. Part is deciding how big the story is, what kind of story it is, and then following the limitations that sets. Don’t be afraid to hold this new, nifty idea for another story! Yes-but, no-and, aka, every scene ends with failure, until the climax. What’s most interesting for me to tell, and how can that make sense? Force the character to make a moral compromise. Micro-tropes! Little stories or pieces of stories that we have seen and told a zillion times before.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 19.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Creating Structure on the Fly.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And this was not done on the fly.
[Howard] This is very, very rehearsed. This opening structure.
[Brandon] It sure is. Wow. Yeah. Well, let’s talk just briefly about the difference between pantsing or discovery writing versus outline writing, just as a reminder. So who wants to cover that? Dan?
[Howard] I’ve got this.
[Mary] Say again.
[Howard] I’ve got this.
[Dan] I wasn’t listening.
[Howard] Okay. Writing from an outline is when you discovery write your outline and then you use your outline to write your story. Discovery writing, or pantsing, is when you dispense with that outline stage altogether and just go straight to prose on the page.
[Mary] It’s also…
[Brandon] It’s whether you want to frontload your work or back load your work, because discovery writing usually uses more revision. Outline writing usually does a bunch of… A little bit of that upfront, at least.
[Mary] And really… I just want to… Even though we’ve talked about this in other episodes, I just want to remind people that it’s a spectrum, and that most people do both. It’s just… They sit at one end of the spectrum or another.
[Brandon] It’s not even a spectrum. It’s more like a plane… Three-dimensional thing…
[Mary] It really is.
[Brandon] Because you’re grabbing this tool here and that tool there and combining them in new ways. Today, I really want to talk at people who are discovery writing a piece. Most of this season of Writing Excuses is about structural stuff you do deliberately, often either after you’ve finished your piece or before you’re starting it. I want to talk today about while you’re writing, how can you inject some structure? How do you decide what to do next? How do you fulfill promises and things like this? So I’ll start with that first question. How do you decide where to go next, when you can go anywhere with your story?
[Mary] So, one of the ways that I decide is that I am… I go back to my MACE quotient, and I look at the things that I already have on the table in terms of plot threads. So if I’m doing a story that’s primarily environment driven, then I try to make sure that whatever conflicts that I’m introducing are environmentally based. If I’m doing something that’s primarily an ask-answer, where it’s driven by trying to find the question, then I try to throw in conflicts that are… I basically look at what is the smartest thing my character can do, and then, how does it fail?
[Mary] But I try to keep the how does it fail in that same plot thread line. So a character’s… If they’re plagued with self-doubt, and they’re trying to feel better about themselves, they make a choice, that choice doesn’t work, and the self-doubt is still there. That’s how I step through. I use something called yes-but, no-and with that. But the…
[Brandon] We’ll talk about that in a minute, because I really like that.
[Howard] I think it’s worth pointing out that… Mary, you have a million or more words of practice, at least, under your belt. So when you are discovery writing, a lot of these tools are very natural to you. It’s the difference between the beginning golfer being told, “Okay, watch the grip. Line up your shoulders. Put your feet right.” And the pro golfer who is doing all that naturally and swinging at the ball. One of the tools that I use is open-and-close parens. When I am putting a thought down as I am writing, I will register “Is this an open paren? Am I going to want to bracket this with a mirror later on?” I will ask myself that question. If the answer is no, then I forget I even asked the question, because I don’t have time to think about it. But if the answer is yes, then I’m holding that flag in my head. I will reach a point in my writing where I realize, “Ach. Oh, here’s where the close parentheses goes.” Usually the close parentheses is a joke. Because it’s the set up for a punchline, and then the close the punchline. But it can also be a dramatic character moment, it can be something horrific, or it can be the concluding statement in a movie review. So I use that open-close a lot.
[Dan] That’s cool. So most of my books have been heavily outlined. But John Cleaver one and five were both discovery written. What I did with those, and what those books share stylistically, is that they’re very focused on the banalities of John Cleaver’s existence. It’s… Well, now it’s October, so it’s cold, and we have to rake leaves, and we’re going to have a Halloween party. What comes next? Oh, well, there’s Thanksgiving in November. Things like that. So the goal is just to describe his life and what it’s like to be him. But then the trick, I guess, is to take those banal scenes and make sure that they have a purpose. Because we don’t want to just write a scene they’re eating dinner because that’s what comes next in his day. No. If I’m going to write a dinner eating scene, what am I going to do with it? So I will sit down and say, “Well, where am I going to go next? Well, he’s gotta go to school, right? I’d better write a school scene. What is that going to reveal about him or about the world or about the other characters or about the conflict?” Use that, and then see what I can come up with.
[Brandon] Can I push you on that, to say…
[Brandon] How do you decide? Like, how do you decide what that scene needs? Do you have an example of where you’re like, “I need a school scene?”
[Brandon] How do I decide, what the school scene does?
[Dan] So, for example, I’m not going to do school because I’m going to talk about John Cleaver five, which… That’s the one where they’re hitchhiking around. I purposefully went back to this kind of discovery write the banalities of life because I thought it fit well with this aimless hitchhiking idea. So I had one scene where they get started off in the morning and they were going to go find one of the monsters they were hunting. But I wanted to put a scene in the middle that just showed them traveling, because it’s a book about travel. At that point, I thought, well, they’ve gotta do something while they travel. What I decided there was I want this discussion to be about family relationships. So it started off as a discussion about music. Just an idle thing. We’re walking, let’s talk. I don’t know you very well because you’re this random new person. What kind of music do you like? Then kept angling back towards… Well, John Cleaver likes the kind of music that his dad liked, because that’s what he always used to listen to with his dad. Then let’s probe deeper into that. So using that as a way to discuss this kind of father-son relationship that’s always in the back of the character, even though it never gets a lot of foreground. That’s… I don’t know if that’s… If I properly told you how I decided to focus on that, but that’s an example of what I will do.
[Brandon] It’s hard to define these things sometimes, because the more you write, the more you realize what you need to do, and your instincts will say there’s a hole here. I haven’t touched this plot. It really is very similar to the way that I outline. A lot of people discovery write. What Howard said earlier, that outliners discovery write an outline and then use that as a model. It really is. I’ve often talked about my outlining method being well, here are all my subplots. Let’s grab some that I haven’t done in a while and build a chapter out of it. Then discovery write how to make all of those elements fit in the chapter. When you’re true discovery writing, you’re just going along and your instincts say, “Oh, I need a character moment here. What is he working on? What’s something in this setting that can actually prompt this?” Then, boom! This beautiful thing comes out where the character moves and grows and learns something. You’re like, “Wow.” They are now on another plateau that I can write them as for a while, till they hit on another moment and I can show them swinging up on it.
[Howard] When you’re discovery writing and you’re trying to build these structures on the fly… For me, I can’t even start a discovery writing project without some idea of how big I want this to be, what kind of a story I want to tell. If you haven’t asked or answered those questions, it’s perfectly fine to start writing and to figure that out as you go. For me, however, one of the decisions that I have to make when I reach these points, like Brandon described, is… if I know that this is supposed to be short, and I am halfway through it, I cannot introduce a new really important character at the halfway point. So that structural decision, that is a limitation that I place on myself. I mean, I guess the whole point of what I’m trying to say right now is that after about the one quarter mark, I run up against structural limitations that I have programmed myself with. I can’t tell this kind of a joke because it will derail the plot, I can’t introduce characters, I can introduce one more location, but it can’t be the location that I just dreamed of because that is so cool I want to write a whole story there. Those sorts of decisions… A list the length of my arm of things that I want to write, but I can’t put in this story.
[Mary] This is one of the things that I see happen… And certainly it happened with me with a lot of my early stuff… With early career writers or with novelists who are trying to write short stories…
[Brandon] You look at me.
[Mary] I look at Brandon.
[Mary] But the… One of the things about novels is that you’re writing for a sense of immersion. With short stories, you’re going for a swift emotional punch. So one of the things that you can do in a novel because you have the space to explore it, is you can raise the stakes by introducing a new conflict. In short stories, you have to keep it much more tightly focused. So that thing that Howard was talking about, as a discovery writer, knowing the approximate length you’re going for will tell you whether or not this new, nifty idea that you’ve had is one that you can indulge in or whether it’s something that you need to hold for a different story.
[Howard] A question that we get…
[Brandon] We need to stop here. We need to stop for book of the week. Ha!
[Howard] But it’s not a book.
[Brandon] It’s not a book this time. Thank you, patrons on Patreon. We’ve been able to go ad-free and do a lot of cool things this season. One of them is we can pick other stuff for our book of the week. Other stuff, other things. I’m going to promo Hard Core Hist…
[Howard] It doesn’t have to be something from a sponsor.
[Brandon] I’m going to promo Hard Core History, which many of you probably already listen to, because it is one of the premier podcasts. But, in case you haven’t discovered Hard Core History, it is the thing that best hybridizes, from what I’ve listened to, an audiobook and a podcast. It is like someone read a history book and is describing it to you in their own words. They quote lots of primary sources and lots of other authors. Carlin, the guy who does it, claims to not be a historian. He’s more like a journalist who reads a bunch of history books and presents for you the kind of layman’s approach to deep warfare history topics. I really enjoy it.
[Howard] He’s not a historian, but in one of the early episodes, he talks about his thesis for his history professor.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah.
[Howard] Okay. Not a historian, but a student of history…
[Howard] With mad chops.
[Brandon] Like a lot of podcasts, your enjoyment of it is going to depend a lot on what you think of his presentation style. Because he has a very strong authorial voice. I quickly got used to it, and then came to really like it. But he really likes things to sound dramatic. I’m going to point you toward two podcasts which are free on his website. Either King of Kings or Wrath of the Khans. One is about the Persians, one is about the Mongols. These are each the first part of multipart episodes that are each like 3 to 4 hours long. So in total like 15 hours. Which is why it feels more like an audiobook than anything else. But they are wonderful. Lots of cool ideas for fiction and science fiction writers. Dan Carlin’s Hard Core History.
[Howard] I would… My 13-year-old listened to Kings of Kings with me because we had it playing while I was doing some remodeling. I didn’t realize he was listening along. When I stopped, he was like, “Hey, I want to know what happens with Xerxes.”
[Howard] We’ll get to that.
[Brandon] That’s right. It is Kings of Kings, rather than King of Kings, isn’t it?
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go back to creating structure on the fly. What tools do you guys use, if any, to help you discovery write? You mentioned…
[Mary] Yes-but, no-and. Okay. So this is a tool that I’ve been using forever, and it’s coming kind of out of theater. But the idea is that the story’s made up of a series of questions. Basically, the question is, is your character going to succeed? That’s your question going through the story. Yes, a straight up yes, is a happy ending. Straight up no, that’s a tragedy. Either of those will end the story. So what you’re looking at instead is that you answer every question with either a yes, but things get worse, or no, and things get worse.
[Mary] You may notice there’s a certain trend there. But this is one of the things… South Park uses a similar thing which is that something happens with what consequences. So basically, what I do when I sit down to write is that… I do discovery write sometimes. Is that I will say, “Okay, here’s my character. This is their goal. What’s the smartest thing that they can do? Does it succeed? Yes, but… So, let’s take a really simple, stupid example. You’re in a room. Okay? As we are, now. You need to leave the room. What’s the smartest thing you can do? Open the door.
[Brandon] Which I tried earlier, and it didn’t work.
[Mary] Are you able to open the door? No. And…
[Brandon] It’s on fire.
[Howard] As a cartoonist, the most interesting scene for me to create is one or more of us deciding to go through the window. Because… Often, for me, the tool is what’s the thing that this character would do that is going to be the most interesting for me to tell, and is there a way that that would make sense?
[Brandon] I have used this since you’ve talked about it, in my writing classes, a lot. I love it. When I’ve tried doing it myself, I find something happens. Which is, I do yes… Or no, but… Or no, and… Yes-but, no-and for a little while, and eventually hit on something really cool. That becomes a larger structure for the story, and then I stop yes-butting, no-anding, and say, “All right. This is our thing, and we are now going to use my traditional kind of plotting methods to say, “Okay. This is really cool. This grew out of this, this big problem. Now we’re going to approach this from a more traditional three act formal attack this piece.” Which is still yes-but, no-and, but…
[Mary] I was going to say. I’ll bet if I went back and looked at it, as a diagnostic tool later, that I would be able to point out yeah, but you’re still using yes-but, no-and, even if you’ve hit a point where you’re doing it instinctively, rather than consciously.
[Brandon] Any other tools you guys use?
[Dan] One of the things that I love to write is a moral compromise. A character who is forced to do something that he or she would not otherwise want to do. So I will often use that as a tool. Just because I know it is something I love to do, is… Okay, I don’t know what comes next. So I’m going to force my character to make a choice. We’ll see how painful I can make that choice, and just go for it. That will often suggest consequences, or it will suggest compromises and other things that come up. It is, for me, a useful tool.
[Howard] The… I’m going to make up a word here. The micro-tropes where… For instance, you have a couple who is in love and getting along fine and there is a minor miscommunication and now there is conflict. Just that little structure. And a million things like it. Little story pieces that I already know how to tell and we’ve seen them in a million different stories. When you anonymize them and file the serial numbers off, it starts to look really boring and like all the stories are all the same. But knowing that these are things, often I will run into a point and realize, “Oh. These two characters are having a discussion and there is the opportunity for there to be this disagreement, and now I am in relationship broken type Ia.” That’s what I’m going to write when I have to make it interesting because I’ve got to put my serial numbers on it now. There’s zillions of these, and often I’ve written many of them already. As I run into them, I have to be willing to say, “Am I going to write this again?” Because that’s the easy way to do it. Well, it’s a tiny piece, and the pieces that come after it can be completely different from the pieces that came after it the last time I did this.
[Brandon] We’re running out of time, although I want to say, I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s a concept we’ve never approached on the podcast before, because I’ve found that as I write more and more, I checked things off my list that I’m like, “I’ve done that.” It’s okay that lots of other people have done it, for me to do it. But now that I have done that, I need to push to something else. Just to keep myself engaged and not be repeating myself.
[Brandon] We’re going to end with some homework from Mary.
[Mary] Yes. Okay. So this is… This is how I will write sometimes. And what I make my students do sometimes, too. I want you to grab a timer, and I want you to set it for an hour and a half. You’re going to write a story in an hour and a half. Tada! What I want you to do is I want you to pick a character, an object, and a genre. I want there to be a problem that the character is having with the object. Start writing. Yes-but, no-and your way through. About 20 minutes before your time is up, I want you to work towards either a positive or a negative state, that your character is either going to succeed or they’re going to fail. And… Write.
[Brandon] Well, that’s our ending, isn’t it?
[Brandon] Thank you guys for listening. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.