Writing Excuses 12.20: Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft
Key Points: Discovery writing, and even outline writing, often means pieces veer off, some zigs and zags. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes… you need some revision. Look at the promises you’ve made. Step back and take a bird’s eye view, then check what each scene does, what you need, what you can rearrange. Lean on the MACE! Check proportion, not too long, not too short, just Goldilock’s right. Be wary of sidequests. Genre expected endings should not be the drivers of your book. Make sure the characters earn the ending in the middle — try-FAIL, not try-success cycles. Look at your structure with corkboards and colorcoding (virtual or actual). For each scene, list character/point of view, type of scene. Try a thumbnail sketch — where the story starts and ends. Some types of stories have well-known scenes, or use a plot structure (Dan has a handy seven point one!). Sit down and talk over the plot with someone!
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 20.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] What are you doing? That’s awesome. All right. All right. So this is a weirder podcast. What we’re trying to do is help the discovery writers add some structure. Often times, when you discovery write a piece, you will find that during the course of the writing, you veer off path numerous times. Even if you have an outline, often times you veer away from the outline and you end with something that needs a little bit of help rebuilding its structure.
[Wesley] I will say this before we go any further is I’ve outlined the first five books… My first five books, and all of them at a… I’ve never actually got to the very end of my original outline.
[Wesley] I will have like outline 1.0, 2.0… My last book had up to outline 7.3, because, you know what, sometimes you’re going to veer off the path and it’s completely okay.
[Mary] This is… This is something that happens whether you’re doing longform or short form. That you will have an idea, or sometimes you don’t… You are, in fact, finding your way through. So a lot of what we’re talking about here is… I mean, this is a revision process thing. When you get to the end and there’s something off. It’s just not quite firing, and you aren’t sure why. So one of the things that I will do sometimes, when I have that, is that I will… We’ve talked about this before, looking at what promises we’ve made and things like that. There’s a temptation to look at the ending and think that the problem is the ending. It’s usually earlier than that.
[Brandon] It’s almost always earlier than that. When I’ve had this problem, I can usually sense it, because I am an outliner. Very early on, something is wrong. But as I’ve discussed many times on the podcast before, I usually can’t fix things until I’ve written them poorly the first draft through. Sometimes I can, a lot of times I can’t. It’s a matter of I just keep going, knowing that I’m veering off course, that something is wrong about the structure. Usually it’s the original structure of the outline that’s wrong, for me, because I do follow the outline. After I’m done with the book, I have to say, “All right. I need to fix this somehow.” Or, my middle grade books, I discovery write. I get done with one, and I’m like, “This has no structure at all.” There’s no beginning, middle, end. It was just me doing silly things for 50,000 words. How can I make a plot out of this?
[Wesley] What tends to help me a lot when I know I’m going the wrong path… Going down the wrong path is I write until I hit a certain point, and then I kind of do the bird’s eye view thing. I look at what each individual scene does and what I need and what I can rearrange. Because a lot of times, it’s just pacing. You want to do certain things, but it feels wrong because your pacing is weird, or your discovery order is off.
[Brandon] Okay. So what do you do if you have a broken ending? Has this ever happened to you before? That the story… The rest of the story works, but the ending doesn’t?
[Mary] Yeah. So one of the things that I look at… I try to remember to trust myself as a reader. I go back to why was I writing this story. What was the… What is the emotion that I want to be experiencing as a reader right now? What am I wanting this to do? And it’s not doing that thing. So usually, this means that I identify what it is that excites me. A lot of times, what has gone wrong with the ending is that at some point, I dropped it.
[Brandon] That thing that excites you?
[Mary] The thing that excites me. I need to bring that forward into the ending. Usually, this means going back and layering things. When I was learning to write, I did a lot of… There was a lot of discovery writing in my short fiction, and I would have nine or more drafts just trying to get the ending right. What I look for is why it excites me, and then also what is the purpose of this chapter? If I take… Or this scene. If I take this moment out, does the story break? Does it keep going? So it’s a lot of interrogating the text to figure out why things are there. Then, once you’ve identified those things, then you have to go through and actually execute. That’s where it gets tricky. Here is again where I lean on the MACE quotient. I look at not just what promises, but what types of promises I have offered. A lot of times, it’s very simply that I’m closing things out in the wrong sequence. People like symmetry. A lot of times, what’s happened is that my ending is asymmetric, or it’s out of proportion with the rest of the story. I know these sound like really amorphous words, but they do actually apply to fiction.
[Brandon] Well, I can talk about a broken ending I had. The most broken ending I had was the second Mistborn book. I wrote the whole thing. I’m like, “This ending is broken.” What I had done is, and this is something very commonly, early in my career, I would do, is I introduced new elements to the story too late in the process. So the ending felt like a departure. It broke momentum. This happened with Elantris, my first book, as well. I introduced a new villain in Elantris at about the three-quarter mark. I just had to cut that villain out completely and rebuild the story to not have him. In Mistborn, I had two characters meet and like, “We have to save the world. Terrible stuff’s happening at the city. But we can’t deal with that. We need to go off to the mountains and have an adventure and discover this lost hidden place.” Right? Which, in my outline, seemed all really cool, but as I had written the book, everyone’s worried about what’s happening to these people in the city. I had to actually take the mythical lost place they were hunting and hide it under the city… In ruins under the city instead.
[Brandon] So that I could keep my main characters involved in the main plot going on in the city. This fix was great. But it’s this idea of don’t distract people from where their passions have been for 70% of the story by trying to get them interested in something new.
[Mary] Yeah. The side quest can be really annoying. It’s very easy to do.
[Mary Anne] I think I want to talk about this from an editorial point of view, and a genre point of view and genre expectations. Because where I’ve seen writers go wrong sometimes with their endings is… I edited erotica for 10 years, and I turned away a lot of stories that were competently written but the only… But the climax of the story was a climax. Right? It was… It’s like a romance novel, you know what the ending is in terms of there’s going to be a happily ever after. So if you know that, that actually can’t be the problem of the story. That’s not going to drive reader attention and interest. There have to be other things going on that are what we’re actually engaged in. So… Similarly, I think, in science fiction and fantasy, if you’ve set up a big war of good versus evil, 99 times out of 100, good is going to win at the end. Right? So that cannot be your only thing that you’re driving towards, there has to be other major issues that… Flaws that your protagonist is struggling with, etc., so on, that the reader can get engaged with and follow.
[Wesley] So what happens then if say your setup is fantastic, but you can’t land the payoff? Can’t stick the landing?
[Mary] I would do this all the time. I would have a story that had a fantastic beginning, and a really great middle, and a fantastic ending to three completely different stories.
[Mary] I feel like… So the things that I see go wrong with endings fall into a couple of different categories. One is… And I’ll pick one of them. One is proportion. That the ending itself, the idea of the ending is just fine, but that it is… It takes too little time or too much time. I am guilty of writing the ending that ends too quickly. Because I know it’s coming, and I’m there, so I just… I…
[Mary Anne] You get impatient.
[Mary] We get impatient. I stick the landing and I’m out. Let me use… This is another theater example. If you imagine going to see a play, and you go to the opera. It’s Aida. It’s five hours long. Those intermissions that come up, those are… You are very happy that there’s a 20 minute intermission. You’re very happy that there are two 20 minute intermissions. You come back, and you’ve got another hour and a half of singing. If I go see a show that’s 45 minutes long, and 25 minutes into it, there’s a 20 minute intermission, I’m not going to come back for those remaining minutes. Because there’s no way they’re going to be able to build the tension again. With fiction, what I’ll see a lot of times… I see this a lot in short fiction, where they’ve got this one long big through scene, and then they’ve got a scene break, and come back in somebody else’s point of view usually, and it’s only a couple of paragraphs long, and it’s a twist. The problem is that it’s so out of proportion with the rest of the story that there’s no way to build the tension back again. So that’s one thing that I see go wrong. The other thing is that sometimes that ending goes on so long that any tension that you have, you totally drop. So this is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about stories that are out of proportion.
[Brandon] One of the things you’ve often done in giving feedback on my shorter fiction is cut this scene, cut this scene. I’m like, “You want to make it shorter, it’s already really short.”
[Wesley] A good example of this is the Mass Effects games. I don’t know if you guys have ever played the Mass Effects games.
[Brandon] I have played the first one.
[Wesley] But like… They’re long, 30, 40 hour games. Then, after you’ve finally beat the game, and you’re invested in the characters, they give you like a one minute ending.
[Oh my God]
[Brandon] Everyone complains about the endings of those.
[Wesley] Because, I mean, you’ve spent so many hours getting to know the characters, finding the relationships, really exploring who they are in this world, and then they just cut you off at the very end. It feels like you’re being cheated.
[Mary Anne] Well, there’s a reason why we have the dénouement at the end, right? I mean… There is a purpose to that. There is a murder mystery writer who I love her books, but every single… Like, they are great and gripping all the way through, and every one ends two pages too quickly. I just want to like shake her, like, “Why do you do this to us?”
[Brandon] Let’s stop for the book of the week. I’m going to pitch that toward Wes.
[Wesley] Oh. So, the book of the week is Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Miracles. Which is book 3 in his Divine Cities trilogy. If you haven’t read the first two books, they are fantastic. Start with City of Stairs. In the third book, the main character is Sigrud, which is kind of like a Viking warrior guy.
[Mary] That’s why you’re excited about it.
[Wesley] A berserker. Oh my good… No. Sigrud is the star of the series, and I’ve been waiting for his point of view now for like two years. So it’s a fantastic second world fantasy, really great kind of weird fantasy. It also talks a lot about imperialism and everything, but who cares. It’s about the Viking. It’s about Sigrud, the magical Viking.
[Wesley] I’m sorry. I’m super excited. The book is coming out, I think, early May. I don’t know the exact date, but I have the month. Yup. Called City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett.
[Brandon] I can also recommend the series. I’ve read the first book, and I thought it was very well done.
[Wesley] Sorry. I totally rambled, because I just got excited.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s come back to this and talk a little bit about middles. We’ve focused a lot on endings. What if you get done with your book, and you’re like, “This middle wanders everywhere. My beginning’s solid, my ending fulfills what my beginning promised, and then there’s all this stuff in the center.” What do you do then?
[Wesley] So, a really wise author once told me that the problem exists when you spend the first 60% of the book asking questions, and then around the 60, 70% mark, you have to start answering questions. That transition is a really tough part when you’re writing a book. Actually, Mary told me that.
[Mary] Hah! I was like, “Boy, that sounds familiar. Someone must have told me that, too.”
[Mary Anne] I think one problem that I see writers run into a lot in short fiction is they know their ending. The ending is great. We read it, but we’re unsatisfied because they didn’t earn it. Right? They’ve made it usually too easy for their characters. They kind of jumped to the ending they wanted. They have to go back and put in the work.
[Mary] I think that that’s a really good point, that a lot of times what makes a middle unsatisfying… We talk about try-fail cycles, and what we have is a lot of try-success cycles. That, when something is so easy, it does feel like the character hasn’t earned it. You want that sense of things might fail, that’s part of what helps you invest. At the same time, I think that you can have too many try-fail cycles. A lot of times, people will have a try-fail cycle that doesn’t actually relate to the plot. It’s a side quest. Yes, the character is failing at something, but it doesn’t really matter to the story. If you take that entire scene out, no one notices. So one of the things that I do is… Again, I keep talking about looking at why is this here? Like, is your story going to… What in this scene is preventing your character from moving forward?
[Brandon] This sort of thing is not a problem if… Like you’re doing it intentionally. Right? You just want to be asking yourself these questions. The longer your piece is, the more room you have to say, “I’m going to take a deviation.” Like, we don’t need your epic fantasy book to ask how is every scene driving toward the ending. You can stop in your epic fantasy book and have a chapter or two just of a character with her family, and these sorts of things. But if your piece is 1500 words long, then you can’t do that. So you want to be doing these things intentionally. Let me ask the podcasters, how do you view structure? Do you have like any tool you have for your stories that lets you just kind of have it at a glance? How do you structure your books, just using the software? Like the actual software you use or the tools or…
[Wesley] I use Scrivener. The best way I kind of view structure is I use the corkboard. So when I lay out my chapters on the corkboard, I then I also colorcode them. I’ll list the point of view, I’ll list what kind of chapter it is, in terms of is it an action scene, development scene, plot scene. I kind of get a really good bird’s eye view of the flow of the book. That’s kind of how I kind of control pacing.
[Mary Anne] I do something similar, but more old school. I have a bulletin board and colored index cards. A different color for each major character. I sort of put the plot line up, Sharpie it out, and it’s actually quite fun. I’m not actually great plot. Plot… I was trained in mainstream fiction, and we would write these stories. The entire story is somebody sort of lying on his back in bed worrying about his life. Right? I mean, like there’s no plot there at all. Somehow, you try and make a compelling story out of that. Sometimes it works. But now, I’m trying to write things with more plot, which doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m finding that the index card, corkboard method is helpful.
[Mary] I do two layers when I’m doing plotting. The first is that… I guess actually I multiple layers. The first is coming up with kind of my thumbnail sketch. Which is where my story starts and where it ends. I lean heavily on the MACE quotient. Which you can listen to me go on at length about in previous podcasts. But if I’m starting with a character story, and then I go to an event story, that means I’m closing out with an event story, and then a character story. So I get that. I get my kind of micro… Or macro, I guess. The big view of the story. Then I expand it out into kind of how that’s going to play out. Then what I do is, when I go into Scrivener, I have… Depending on the novel, I have the bullet points of the types of scenes I need. So if it’s a heist novel, I’m like, “Okay, so here’s the gathering of the team, here’s the car chase.” If… The one I’m working on right now, I just borrowed Dan’s seven point plot structure. So here’s my hook, here’s the reversal, the pinch point, all of those. I take the plot points that I’ve come up with for my novel, and then slot them into those structure points. Which sometimes means changing the order of events in order to have them make sense. Frequently, I use it as a diagnostic tool to spot where I’m losing tension, because it’s like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Nothing is going wrong right here. I don’t have a pinch point. Yeah, something should be going wrong there. That’s absolutely what’s wrong with this.”
[Brandon] I do my structure… I was going to say low-tech, but then Mary Anne out low-tech’ed me.
[Brandon] I use just Microsoft Word. I use the document map. So I just… I can visualize… What I do is, I name a chapter after a character. For instance, it’ll be like part one… It’ll be 1.2 and then the character’s name. Right? And it’ll be at the end of their name, the number in their viewpoint sequence. So 1.2 Dalinar 3. Right, this is Dalinar’s third scene, it’s the second chapter, in… Well, it can’t be 1.2 with Dalinar’s third, but… 2.2 Dalinar’s third or whatever like this. So I can look at the document map on the side of Microsoft Word and I can see here are all the different plots, the different characters, and I can see if people aren’t popping up often enough. I can see which plot lines… Because sometimes I want one clumped at the beginning to introduce something someone else is going to deal with later on. It just lets me visualize it there, and see the whole thing. Then, of course, I have my outline in a separate file that is mostly like you described. Types of plots and the bullet points and things.
[Mary Anne] I should say the bulletin board evolved out of my writing for Tremontaine, because we had a group of writers, so it was like working in a TV writers room. So we could all see what was going up on the index cards.
[Brandon] That makes a lot of sense.
[Mary Anne] That was really helpful. Because I’m not great at plotting, and I’m still learning to do it, I have in fact dragged writer friends over to help me talk out the plot of my novel. Like I have an easier time verbalizing it than just thinking it in my head. They can throw ideas at me, and I’m sitting there scribbling things and putting them up on index cards and it’s fun.
[Brandon] Mary and I did that for her story in between podcasts. So we do it as well. It’s great.
[Mary] It’s very useful.
[Wesley] I think it also depends on how many points of view you have. Because when you have several points of view, you have a lot more tools at your disposal to kind of control how the flow of the story goes. If you’re doing it from one point of view, then there is an order that has to go to the story. But if there are several points, somebody’s doing action, somebody’s doing plotting, somebody’s doing development, and it kind of allows you to play around with things a lot more.
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time on this episode. I’m actually going to give you some homework. It’s going to relate to things that Mary was talking about. Which is, I want you to take the first 10% of your story, and I want you to look at the promises you make, both in tone or in plotting, what is this story going to be about? I want you to colorcode them. Then, I want you to colorcode the different chapters. Saying, “This deals with this plot, this deals with this plot, or this promise.” All the way through your story. The different chapters, or scenes if you’ve got a short story. Then, at the end, I want you to make sure that you have put a closure to each of those different things.. See if you drop any. That’s the real thing. In that middle, did you forget one of these promises? Was your tone early on that you promised this is going to be funny, but it’s not funny through all of these chapters and then funny at the end? Things like this. Just look for what you’re doing and be very aware of your promises and how you’re fulfilling them. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.