Okay, we’re in the middle of a big discussion/ lecture/ infodump about story structure. To be more exact, the different types of story structure, because there are a bunch of them and they all serve a different purpose. That’s what I blathered on about last week. Well, that and linear structure. So if you skipped last week, you might want to jump back (look, a handy link) and read that first. Or maybe re-read it as sort of a refresher before we dive into this week’s little rant.

Now I want to talk about narrative structure. As I mentioned last time, these things have a few different names, depending on who’s talking or teaching, so maybe your stuffy literature professor called this syuzhet or something like that. But for now (and because it’s what I’ve done in the past) I’m going to call this narrative structure.

Remember how I said linear structure is how the characters experience the story? The narrative structure is how I, the author, decide to tell the story. It’s the order and style and viewpoint I choose for how things are going to unfold. It’s me saying I want to start with a prologue or ten minutes before the finale and then jump back to the beginning. Or that every third or fourth chapter will be a flashback. Or that I’m going to tell the whole thing from the point of view of the sidekick instead of the superhero. Or maybe, somehow, all of these things in one story. All of these are narrative decisions.

Actually, that’s a good before-we-go-any-further thing. My story might use a point of view or a device (say, a journal or epistolary form) that gives the appearance of “telling” the story. For our purposes here, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about me, the writer, and the choices I make. Watsonian vs Doylistic, remember? Because that first-person narrator or journal scribbler doesn’t say or do anything I don’t want them to. No I don’t care what that one other writer says about the characters having a life of their own and telling the writer what they want. I’m in charge. I’m God in the world of the story.

So, now that we’ve got our weekly blasphemy out of the way…

In a good number of stories we encounter, the linear structure and narrative structure are identical. They’re linear stories. Things start with Phoebe on Monday, follows her to Tuesday, and conclude on Wednesday. Simple, straightforward, very common. These books may shift point of view or format, but the narrative pretty much just goes forward hour by hour, day by day. My book, Dead Moon, fits in this category. It’s got a bunch of twists and reveals, but the narrative is pretty much a straight line from the beginning to the end. No flashbacks or frames or anything.

I’m not going to talk about this type of narrative too much because… well, I already did. If my narrative matches my linear structure, any narrative issues I might have are also going to be linear ones. And we talked about those last week (here’s another handy link in case you missed the last one).

Our focus right now is going to be stories where the narrative doesn’t follow the linear structure of the story. Sometimes the story has flashbacks or a frame, where it’s mostly linear with a few small divergences. Others might split the story between multiple timeframes, with one thread taking place in the present and one in, say, the 1950s. Or maybe the story’s broken up into lots sections and the reader needs to keep track of how they all line up—these are called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling. It was the hip new thing for a while there. My book, The Broken Room, has a large flashback section where Natalie talks about her past, and it’s worth noting that her extended flashback/ retelling is all linear within its own subset of the book (she’s very precise about that sort of thing).

It’s important to understand narrative structure is more than just switching around my story elements. It means I need to start actively thinking about how all these structures interact. So here’s a few things I need to keep in mind when I start playing with my narrative structure.

First off, putting things in a new narrative order doesn’t change the linear structure of my story. As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I tell you about is what happened on Thursday. Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to acknowledge that. I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who stole the painting, then roll the story back to Monday where everyone was a witnesses who saw the thief’s face.

That’s a kinda stupid, overly-simple example, yeah, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen this problem crop up. Sometimes in really simple ways like this. Storytellers want to switch stuff around, but then they ignore the fact that just because they told us about Thursday before Wednesday doesn’t mean Thursday happened first. Again, the story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order. This is a really easy problem to avoid, it just requires a little more time and work.

Yeah, weird, I know. Telling a story in a more complex way is more work. Go figure.

The second thing to keep in mind when experimenting with narrative structure is… why? Seriously, why am I breaking up my story instead of telling it in order? I mean, yeah, all that non-linear stuff was edgy and bold for a while, and a lot of folks still do it, but… what’s the point of it in my story? Why am I starting five years ago instead of today? Why do I have this flashback at that point?

As an aside, I know some people hate “why is it happening now” as a story critique, and in a Watsonian way, I kind of get that. Sometimes things happen just because they happen. That’s how life works. I think sometimes things can work this way. I think sometimes they can’t.

But remember, we’re not talking about the Watsonian view of the story, we’re talking about the Doylist one. So why did I, the author, arrange these events in this way in the story? What effects am I trying to create? How is the narrative improved by shaping it this way?

And if I can’t explain how the narrative’s improved by shaping it this way—or if it plainly isn’t improved—again, what’s the point?

The third and final issue with a complex narrative structure is a little more subjective.

Last week I mentioned that we all try to put things in linear order because it’s natural for us. It’s pretty much an automatic function of our brains. This flashback took place before that one. That’s a flash forward. This flashback’s showing us something we saw earlier, but from a different point of view. Our brains latch onto the little details (or sometimes the big headers) and sort things accordingly.

But our brains have limits. There’s only so much we can keep track of and—let’s be honest—only so much we’re willing to keep track of. if I give you four or five numbers or letters and ask you to put them in order, it’s not a big deal. G X B N. See? You did that without too much effort.

On the other hand, if I throw a deck of cards on the floor and ask you to put them all in order… well, now this is a task. Heck, first you’ve got to find all the cards. And are they all supposed to be in numerical order or should you be doing them by suits? Are aces high or low? And if this is all in order, where do we put the jokers?

Point is, there’s a point where I’ve tweaked my story so much, my audience is going to spend less time reading it and more time analyzing it. Diagramming it like some photo-and-yarn covered conspiracy board. When somebody hits the ninth flashback done in a third tense from a fifth point of view… there’s a good chance they’ll need to pause to reorganize or re-analyze things in their head. And every time they have to pause, it’s breaking the flow. It’s knocking them out of the narrative when I want them to be sinking deeper into it.

And once I break the flow, that’s when people set my book aside to go have a glass of wine and watch gardening shows. I can say whatever I want about art or attention spans or readers putting in some effort, but at the end of it people can’t get invested in my story if they can’t figure out my story. And if they’re not invested… that’s on me.

Y’see, Timmy, narrative structure can be overdone if I’m not careful. I know some of the examples above sound a little extreme, but the truth is… they’re not. I’ve seen manuscripts where writers tossed linear order out the window and jumped tenses and povs and timeframes a dozen times. And some of them did all of that in the first fifty pages. Seriously.

This is something that can be tough to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes. Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, but for someone just picking up my story… this might be a bit of a trainwreck.

That’s narrative structure. However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure. Maybe even more important, it still needs to be understandable.

Next time, I’ll try to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine to (hopefully) form a powerful dramatic structure.

Until then… go write.

April 4, 2024

Simple as A to Z

Okay, I’ve been dancing around this one for a while, but let’s do it.

Let’s talk about structure.

I think the first thing we need to address is that there are many, MANY types of story structure. If you think of a house, we can talk about its internal structure, but that could mean we’re referring to plumbing, heating, electrical, the actual 2×4 framework, the insulation, or even just the way walls and doors are laid out in the floorplan. All of these are the structure of the house, yes. But we understand that swapping out a circuit breaker isn’t going to fix some clogged pipes, and it’s definitely not going to make a shorter path between the bedroom and the living room. Different structures do different things in different ways, and the ways to implement or fix one don’t necessarily work for the others.

When we talk about structure in writing, it’s the same thing. There’s dramatic structure, narrative structure, three act structure, and more. And some of these have multiple names depending on what school of literature your professors were fans of. And like with a house, we need to account for them all, but they’re definitely all their own thing. And like with a house, we can’t apply the fixes for one to another. What works for this probably isn’t going to apply to that.

And this is why I end up having a problem with a lot of guru types announcing you have to this with structure or you never have to bother with that for structure or sometimes just saying… well, nonsense. It’ s really clear a lot of them have no idea what they’re talking about. I saw someone once arguing that three act structure is outdated and there’s no reason you can’t have five or seven or twelve acts. Which sounds really cool and whoo-hoo we’re breaking rules, especially if you’ve got no idea what three act structure is…

Point is, there’s a lot of folks out there talking about structure who have no idea what they’re talking about and you should probably ignore them and what they say.

With that said… let me talk with you about structure.

I’ve mentioned a lot of this stuff here before, and I’ve done this three part lesson or lecture or whatever you’d like to call it before, too (about six years ago). So if you’ve been reading the ranty writing blog for a while, you’ve probably seen some of it or been referred back to it. I figure it’s never a bad thing to revisit stuff, maybe update some examples, explain things in new ways.

Over the next few weeks, the three forms of structure I want to blather on about are linear structure, narrative structure, and dramatic structure. All of these interact and work with each other, and it’s my personal belief that all three of them have to be strong if I want to tell a strong story. If you want a quick, thumbnail explanation of them–

Linear structure is how my characters experience the story.

Narrative structure is how I, the author, decide to tell the story

Dramatic structure is how the reader gets the story

There’s a little more to it that that, but I’ve found this is a good, quick way to think of them.

So this week we’re going to talk about linear structure. Again, simple version, this is how my characters experience the story. Remember how I mentioned different names for things? Well, the Russian literary term for this is fabula. Another term you may have heard for this is continuity. It’s the line of events from past to present. Thursday leads to Friday which leads to Saturday and then Sunday. Breakfast, coffee break, lunch, dinner. Birth, childhood, college years, adulthood, middle age, old age, death.

If you like, remember I’ve mentioned Watsonian and Doylistic a few times? Things happening within the story as opposed to things I’m doing to the story? Linear structure is a Watsonian thing. I’m still choosing the characters and events, sure, but the linear structure happens entirely within the story.

Now, I mentioned all of these forms of structure are really important, and I’m tempted to say linear structure’s the most important (although I don’t want to pick favorites). And there’s a simple reason for this–most of us are experts when it comes to linear structure. Linear order is how we experience things all the time, every day. We’ve been studying this form of structure our entire lives.

This is why it gnaws at us when somebody knows something now, but doesn’t know it later. We pick up on it when ages don’t quite line up. We tend to notice when effect comes before cause, even if it’s subtle. Even if the story gives these elements to us out of order, our minds tend to sort things back into linear order. Because it’s how we’ve been taught to deal with the world. Things that don’t match this universal structure rub us the wrong way, even if we don’t always realize why.

Another way to think of linear structure is a timeline. And it also lets me point out a key aspect of this. If you’ve ever watched a procedural show or a detective show, it’s really common for the characters to take the various clues and incidents and break them down into on a chalkboard or whiteboard. Maybe they stick up some photos, too. And they all go in the order they happened– 4:08, 4:15, 4:16, 4:23, and so on.

Now, that key thing to keep in mind? It doesn’t matter what order the detectives discover the clues in. If we first learned the maid was here at 4:16 and then later on we learn the butler heard the gunshot at 4:08… well, it may sound silly to say but the gunshot still happened first. Learning about them out of order doesn’t change the order the events actually happened in.

So if I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure. And the linear structure needs to make sense. Because readers will notice if it doesn’t.

A good way to test the linear structure of my story is to just arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and other devices in chronological order. Pull apart my outline or notecards or whatever I’m using and just… put the story beats in order. Simple, right? The story should still make logical sense like this, even if it’s lost some dramatic punch at a few points (more on that later).

If my story elements don’t work like this—if effect comes before cause, if motivations get really weird, if people know things before they learn them—it probably means I’ve messed up my linear structure. I got so focused on doing clever, out-of-order things that nothing works in order. And—not to keep hammering this point—but people will notice this. They have to. It’s how our brains are wired, to put things in linear order.

There was a show I watched a few months ago that had a non-linear gimmick. Lots of flashbacks in every episode. And not all to the same period. Like, if the episode was set on Friday, we might start with flashbacks to Wednesday afternoon, but then move on to Monday morning flashbacks, and then some from Thursday night. And then the next episode is Saturday, but it flashes back to Tuesday and Wednesday morning and maybe also Thursday night, but for a different character.

On one level this was fantastic and I loved it. But as the show went on… it started to gnaw at me. And I found myself analyzing the show more than watching it, trying to figure out how this flashback and that flashback lined up, especially if we were saying the current episode was set Sunday morning. I talked to a couple friends who were watching it and discovered they were all having the same issue. Started good, but as the show went on the structure became more and more problematic.

In the end, the story didn’t make a lot of sense when you put it in order. There were just too many weird issues that didn’t line up. And it messed up a lot of the characters, too. The way they’d act and react, things they say (or not say). It was all being done to preserve big reveals later in the show, rather than being natural dialogue “now.” Once it was all in order, it was obvious the characters didn’t have any reason for the way they were acting or talking.

Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I decide to tell things in, my characters are experiencing the story in linear order. And their actions and reactions, their dialogue and motives, they all have to reflect that. If halfway through my book Wakko flashes back to what happened a month ago, this isn’t new information for him—it happened a month ago. So everything he does or says before the flashback should be taking that information into account in a natural, believable way.

I know it sounds pretty straightforward and… yeah, it is. Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blather about over the next few weeks because it’s the one we all know. Also, it’s just a logical, objective thing. There isn’t a big debate to be had about whether or not Thursday comes before Friday.

And yet, people still mess this up all the time. And mistakes with linear structure are almost always because of narrative structure.

But we’ll talk about that next week.

Until then, go write.

March 28, 2024

Ignorance is Bliss

Okay, this one’s going to feel a bit random, but stick with me…

My junior year college roommate was a friggin’ brilliant guy (he teaches biochemistry now). We used to stay up late working out the solutions to scientific problems like “how many hamburgers would it take to reach Pluto?” and other important things we did not get a Nobel prize for. It really was one of those higher-education experiences you only seem to read about– we just liked figuring out the answers to things, and we were in a position where we could spend a random hour (or more) doing it.

And—again—not being rewarded with a Nobel prize for our scientific work.

Anyway, John introduced me to the idea of invisible math. If you and I are on opposite ends of a lawn and I toss a baseball to you, there are so many measurements and calculations that need to be made. Think about it. Distance. Height. Speed. Weight of the ball. Force to put behind the ball. The torque of your arm. Arc. Rate of descent. Air resistance. Wind resistance. And there’s more past that. Every time we throw a baseball, there’s so much invisible math behind it.

But most of the time… we just throw the baseball. Our brains do all that math subconsciously for us. They’re pretty cool, right?

In fact, weirdly enough, if you think too much about any of these things as you’re getting ready to throw, you’ll probably mess it up somehow. Try to concentrate on two or three of those factors and you’ll almost definitely mess up your throw.

Which, of course, brings us to Lindsay Lohan.

If you somehow didn’t know, Lindsay Lohan was a fairly talented Disney kid who eventually moved into “older” roles when she could. But as her roles became more and more serious, her performance became more and more… Well, let’s politely say erratic. Unpredictable.

Now, if you are familiar with Ms. Lohan, I know the easy thing to do is giggle, maybe punch down a bit, and point at all the reports of addiction and abuse that came out as she got older. But please consider this. She was a pretty solid child actor. Seriously. She carried a bunch of movies. But even after she got cleaned up and dealt with some parts of her life, her performances were still kind of all over the place.

Now, I don’t know Lindsay Lohan. I think we were living in LA at the same time, so we’ve probably been within, say, a mile of each other one or thrice. Maybe even a few yards? Point is, I’m kind of guessing here, based on my own experience.

That said, I’d bet real money when she started doing “serious” movies, now that she was a real actor… people started telling her how to act. Maybe she took a class or got a coach. Doing a bit of ye olde method acting, perhaps? Maybe she started putting serious thought into motivations and stage business and presence.

I bet she started thinking about how to throw the baseball.

See where I’m going here?

For most of us, when we first decide we want to tell a story, we just sit down at a computer or pick up a pen and… we start writing. That’s it. We don’t think about grammar or structure or character arcs. We just write about cool stuff we like. Romance. Monsters. Space battles. Wizards. Ninjas. Lizard people! We make characters who are basically us (but cooler! and more popular!) and they go have adventures of one kind or another.

But eventually (hopefully!) someone sits us down and talks to us about grammar. And story structure. And character arcs. Maybe even themes! They tell us how to write. Maybe it’s a schoolteacher. Or a college professor. Maybe it’s a book we willingly picked up, not knowing the awful things it was going to teach us.

And it’s my personal belief that people have one of three reactions at this point.

One group of people essentially say, well, screw this. Turns out writing is way harder than I thought it was. And a lot less fun. And they walk away from this and go become frustrated studio execs or bureaucrats or something.

The second group says wow, I didn’t realize there were so many important rules. I better follow them all! To the letter! At all times! And these people keep writing but it loses a lot of the fun for them and I think.. well, most of them stop being any good. They get so focused on all those rules and guidelines—the stuff we never actually register—that they lose the ability to actually tell a good story. They’re more concerned with making sure the math works out than they are with throwing the baseball.

And the last group?

They’re the ones who take this new knowledge, sift through it, and apply it where they can. They keep writing and try to work with it, rather than wrestling their writing to fit all the rules. They know sometimes all this stuff matters and sometimes… you’ve just gotta write like you’re nine again. Dance like nobody’s watching. Write like nobody’s going to read it. There’s a time and place for all those rules, but its not right now.

Please note I’m not saying ignore the rules. Rules help. They really do. But that’s the key– the rules are there to help me tell my story. They shouldn’t be shaping it. My story doesn’t exist so it can be an example for how all the rules work.

Really it’s a forest-for-the-trees thing. I want to be aware of the rules. I want to know them. I want to understand them. But I don’t want to be focused on them.

My focus should be on my story.

Next time… I think I may babble on about the different ways we can get from A to Z.

Until then, go write.

March 25, 2024

March Newsletter

Oh, hey there. Thanks for opening this email from a relative stranger.

So, let me start right off by saying past-me made some mistakes.

You may remember in the last newsletter I mentioned I was going to try rearranging my weekly schedule to get a little more writing time. Combine the day of errands with my usual day off and then that frees up a whole day.

Alas, it didn’t work out like that. I tried it for three weeks and I just felt… edgy. Frustrated. And during the third week it hit me the problem was I really didn’t have a day off anymore—I had an errands day that I tried to squeeze a little hobby stuff into. But it was easy for that time to get eaten up, and I tended to end the day more annoyed than relaxed.

Like I said, this is on me for two reasons. One, I should know better than to do a radical change in the middle of a project. You don’t want to be in the groove and suddenly have to get used to a new keyboard or new software or a new work schedule. That’s just asking to ruin your flow.

The other thing is,well, I’m a big believer that everyone needs a regular day off. Everybody. I think it’s honestly healthy to stop doing that thing that dominates 70-83% of your life and just do something else for a day. Make your body work differently. make your brain work differently. Never taking a day off is like always skipping leg day. It just makes me unbalanced.

And, yeah, I know I’m speaking from a place of privilege here. I know a lot of folks simply can’t take a day off. It’s the sad truth and believe me I lived like that for many, many years. But I really hope most of you can, and hope if you can that you actually do.

(I originally wrote a lot more here but it kept turning into paragraphs about worker’s rights and pay rates and mental health and health in general and all that’s a lot more than you signed up for. TL;DR – I know I’m lucky to get to take a day off every week and I really think this should be a really basic thing everyone gets to do, not just “lucky” people)

In conclusion, once I hit send on this, I’m going to go throw on a movie, paint some little toy soldiers, perhaps have a relaxing adult beverage. Maybe two. Movies and beverages. Hopefully more than two little toy soldiers.


Let me give you a couple updates on things…

TOS is going well. I’ve got some stuff to transcribe out of legal pads but I think I’m around 85K words right now? Deep in the churn of the second act, story-wise. It’s going to be a big book. I’m actually thinking I could have this done… not by the next newsletter, but almost definitely before the May one.

Also heard back from David, my agent, about GJD and… he likes the new draft a lot. Which is always a relief to hear. He had a few last little notes. Some of them are good things he caught. A couple I’m probably going to push back on a bit and say “nah, don’t worry, this is good.” I should be able to rework those in a day or so and then he shows it to editors who also like it a lot. And then champagne falls from the heavens. Doors open. Velvet ropes part.

Shamefully, I haven’t done a damned thing on that comics pitch, which I really need to work on this week. With all the other stuff this past month, it became the easy thing to push to the side. So let’s hope I didn’t slide it so far I pushed it off the table. So to speak.

Okay, let me fill you in on some other fun stuff from the past month.

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Watching– I watched Monster High:The Movie and got the music for that stuck in my head for two weeks. It was harmless fun and positive without being cloying. I admit I got distracted (in a good way) by character and set designs. The Kid Who Would Be King was something I’d heard a ton of people talk about and ended up liking it a lot. It’s great to have The Bad Batch and Resident Alien back.

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Reading
Read my massive new Rom Omnibus, the first twenty-nine issues of the original Marvel run, plus some tie-in stuff he appeared in they couldn’t reprint until now. It’s fun to revisit, on a couple different levels. Read the third Lockwood & Co. book, The Hollow Boy, because I really enjoyed the short-lived Netflix series and wanted to see where it goes from there. I also just got an early book manuscript from one friend and an early screenplay from an acquaintance. And there are still soooooo many things piling up on the new book table in the library…

Cool New Toys – Not that much this month (*gasp*). The Super 7 Hank Scorpio figure I pre-ordered back in 2022 showed up and, in all fairness, is wonderful. Also a Bossfight cowboy skeleton (the Outlaw). I preordered and Kickstarted a bunch of things that we’ll probably be seeing near the end of the summer/early fall, if not sooner.