Dr. Horrible’s Musical Guide to Story Structure

If you’re a sentient synapse structure within reading distance of these words, you need to listen to what I’m about to say: Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is awesome.  It is so awesome that you may very well collapse into despondency upon viewing it for the knowledge that you will never attain to the pinnacle of that great work of art, that summit of human imagination, that culmination of all of the great works of art of the past, paintings and sculptures, books and cinema, all created in blissful ignorance that they were simply steps on the path to the destination that is Dr. Horribles Sing Along Blog.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, it’s pretty good.

Now you’re saying to yourself, yes, but Albert, what does this have to do with story structure?

All in good time, my dear readers, all in good time.  See, while listening to the soundtrack of Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog the other day I noticed something odd: all of the songs seemed to end rather abruptly.  Thinking it might have been my imagination, I went back through the CD and listened to them again.  This time I was certain.  Every single song on that album ends just slightly before you’d expect it would.  Some of the songs are just cut off mid-sentence, and even the ones that get a proper finish still seem unresolved; the last notes always land on slightly discordant chords that end just a little more quickly than the mind expects they should.  They always leave you wanting just a little bit more.

But Albert, you say, you’re talking about music.  What does any of this have to do with writing?

Okay, okay.  Geeze, so impatient.  Anyway, realizing how all of those songs don’t quite seem to end made me think of something I recently read about structuring scenes in a story.  See, just like those songs left me wanting a little more at the end, so too we as writers should always try to end our scenes with something slightly discordant, something to make the reader squirm in his seat and wish you’d just bring it to a stopping point already.

This is a little something we in the writing business like to call “conflict.”

But Albert, you say, conflict is bad.  I spend most of my day trying to avoid conflict.  Now you’re saying I should embrace with open arms?

That is exactly what I am saying.  Conflict keeps people reading.  They don’t like to see your characters in peril or emotional distress any more than you do, so they’ll keep going in the hopes that you’ll eventually give them a happy ending.  If you let your characters rest, if you give them a moment’s reprieve your readers will say, “Well this seems like a good place to put the book down and go to get a cup of coffee.”  And they will never come back.

Well, probably never.

You must write with the goal of keeping your reader involved.  The most obvious example of this kind of writing is the cliffhanger.  Dan Brown springs to mind as an author that ends nearly every chapter with something dramatic waiting to be resolved forcing you to read on into the next chapter, where he introduces yet another conflict in the process of resolving the one you just left.  Now Dan Brown is not the world’s greatest writer by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s mastered the art of never quite giving the audience their satisfaction until the very end, and millions of readers lap it up like cream.

Of course I’m not suggesting you end every chapter on a cliffhanger per-say.  In fact the endless cliffhangers in Dan Brown’s books became something of a turn-off for me because after a while I knew I was being manipulated.  Cliffhangers are like those songs that cut off right in the middle of the line: interesting every once in a while but jarring if carried too far.  However the principle still holds true.

In general the Cliffhanger Principle (I just made that name up.  Isn’t it cool?) says this: Always end your scenes with some kind of unresolved conflict.  It pushes the reader to keep going, makes him vaguely unsettled about putting your book down, and it gives them a reason to pick it up again as soon as he can.  The conflict can be something overt like a classic cliffhanger or it can be something more subtle and emotional, but it must be there.

The moral is this:  Keep your characters in conflict, and you’ll keep your readers in the story.  Also, go and watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.  Seriously.  It’s really good.


Credit where credit is due: I took the kernel of the idea for this post from Kristen Lamb’s Blog.  I thought I remembered one particular post she made about this topic, but on reviewing her archives I couldn’t find it.  If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to read through her work.  She’s got some incredible advice for writers.


4 responses to “Dr. Horrible’s Musical Guide to Story Structure

  1. Yes, I find myself reading Dan Brown’s books almost straight through in about two sessions. And then I barely recall what I’ve read when I finish. Great post!

  2. If this comes across twice, I am sorry. I posted earlier or thought I did.

    I have glad to find your blog and your advice on writing. As a serious writer I am always happy to find the blogs of other serious writers.

    The points you make about keeping a reader involved are so true. If I pick up a book and it doesn’t grab me right away, like all other readers, I am out of there. If it drags, I do the same.

    Great post.


  3. A related point is a quote I picked up recently (though I can’t remember where): Get in late, get out early. I.e. begin a scene in the middle of the action and stop before the events are entirely played out. Cut out all the preamble leading up to the action, and don’t bother hanging around while your characters have a cup of tea, promise to get together again soon, and wander off. It seems like a great way to keep the pace moving. I guess that’s one of the principles in action with Dr. Horrible’s songs, as you discussed (and I agree, by the way, I love Dr. Horrible, and I think it’s so admirable as a response to a problem like the writer’s guild strike. Shows that great things come out of adversity!).

    • Starting in the middle of things is a great way to catch your readers attention. Personally I love stories that throw you into the middle of the action and let you figure things out as you go along. A great recent example of that kind of story telling is Inception. The movie will introduce a concept at the beginning and only explain what’s going on toward the middle or even close to the end.
      Thanks for the comment.

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