Tag Archives: Terry Pratchett

Building on the Bones, or: Why Structure Doesn’t Have to be Boring

[The following post contains references to STORY STRUCTURE. This concept is known to the State of California to cause people’s heads to explode. But who cares what California thinks anyway? Hippies.]

You know what’s fun? Watching movies after you’ve learned about three-act struture. Specifically the bit about the first plot point appearing at exactly twenty-five percent of the running time. It’s like magic. Try it sometime. Look up the total running time of the movie, divide by four, then sit back and wait for the midden to hit the windmill. It never fails.

You’ll be able to amaze your friends and family. Pretty soon they’ll be so amazed by your seemingly-psychic ability to predict the path of the movie they’ll have stopped watching movies with you entirely. Those brave enough to stick it out will remark in wonder, “Are you going to do this for every movie we watch?”

Okay, so maybe this isn’t the best way to endear yourself to your friends. But understanding structure is vitally important to composing long-form fiction of any kind.

However structure can be a bit of a brier patch when you’re first wading into it. For instance you might be tempted to say to yourself, “The first twenty-five percent of the book is spent on this boring ‘getting to know you’ crap? What kind of snooze-fest do you want me to write?”

Well, today I thought I’d share an example from a book I’ve been reading recently that follows the formula of structure to perfection and yet showcases the amazing amount of latitude afforded us writers within the confines of what structure dictates.

The book in question is Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. If you have even passed by this book in the store or at the library chances are you had to fight just to escape the gravitational pull generated by the sheer mass of the thing. Weighing in at over a thousand pages it’s easily the longest book I’ve read since the time I decided that Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations might make for an entertaining afternoon browse.

If you’re like me at this point you’re wondering, how in the heck is anyone going to spend two hundred and fifty pages just on setup? Surely when you’re writing a book this long you can skip ahead to the good stuff right?

And for a while it seems like that’s exactly what Stephenson has done. By somewhere around page one hundred we already have a bona fide bad guy on the scene and our heroes are off on a high stakes adventure. But then, just as you’re settling into the flow of the story, at almost exactly the two-hundred-and-fifty page mark everything is turned on its head. The placeholder bad-guy is unceremoniously killed off and the real Big Boss Troublemaker enters the narrative.

Right. On. Schedule.

It is only then that we learn that all the stuff with the hackers, the Russian Mafia, the ex-military security consultants, all of it was 100% pure unfiltered setup for the “real” conflict. And it wasn’t boring.

The takeaway here is that just because structure dictates that the first quarter of the book should be dedicated to setting up the story, that doesn’t mean that it has to be a total snooze-fest. It can and should have conflict. It can even have bad guys. You’re just not allowed to introduce the bad guy until that magical twenty-five percent mark.

There’s lots more I could say here, but the  main point I’m trying to make is that the three act structure is more flexible than it appears at first glance. I understand why writers balk at the concept of being “constrained” by structure, but for me learning these principles has been a altogether liberating experience. And whether I’m watching a movie or reading a book, it’s always fascinating to see how so many stories work within these basic principles.

With InBoCoLuCy (International Book Composing Lunar Cycle) just around the corner I think my fellow authors would be well served to have the fundamentals of structure at least knocking around somewhere in the back of our heads as we wade into the sea of words.

Don’t let structure tie you down. Let it set you free.

The Last Demon

You wanna win the lottery. No, really I’m pretty sure you do.

I get that you probably don’t actually play the lottery. No, you’re too smart for that. You know the odds are stacked against you. You know only stupid people fall for that stuff. But somewhere deep in the back of your mind you’ve got a “wouldn’t it be cool” scenario playing.

I’ve got one. Mine is: “wouldn’t it be cool if some rich inventor (don’t talk to me about there not being any real inventors any more, this is my fantasy, darn it!) just happened to strike up a conversation with me, and sees that golden truth that somehow everyone else has managed to miss, which is that I’m an incredibly bright young individual, who could, with a little mentoring, step into the rich inventor’s shoes being as he’s lacking an heir to his empire? (he’s infertile and he’s opposed to adoption for some reason, shut up!)”

I know it isn’t going to happen. I also know I don’t have any rich relatives that are going to die and leave me all their money. I know I’m not going to stumble over a briefcase full of money from a bank heist gone bad. I know all that stuff, sure. But I can hope, right?

Hope. Now there’s a nasty bugger if ever there was one. Did you know that when Pandora released the demons from her jar (not a box, study some real mythology) there was one left clinging to the inside of the rim? And that last demon was named Hope. That’s right. The ancient Greeks said that hope was in there living it up with all the rest of the nasty things in the world like hate, envy, and canned green beans.

And the worst thing about playing the lottery is when you start to believe that it really could happen. After all, somebody has to win right? We hear about them on the news. Our best friend, knew a guy who was in the same gas station as one guy who won (okay, not actually at the same time he won, more like five days earlier, but still, who knows? It could happen.) Next time it could be us!

Writers have a special variant of this kind of hope. It’s the “wouldn’t it be cool if my first novel became a runaway bestseller and I got like totally rich off of it, and I could quite my day job and write my next novel in between fielding calls from NPR programs in which I discuss my ‘process’,” variant.

And I am here to tell you, no. No it would not be cool. It would suck. Okay, having those buckets of money would be nice for a while, but think about the writers who have trod this path before you. To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, those ring a bell with you? They made a big splash, a huge splash even, but when the time came to follow them up…

See, the problem with winning the lottery is that people who win the lottery don’t know what money means. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the vast majority of them end up back in poverty far faster than you can imagine.

Most of the people who get rich and stay rich do it the hard way. They work and they invest and they get lucky once or twice, and they keep working on weekends while everyone else is having fun, and after thirty years or so of that they’re the head of a good-sized company that employs hundreds of workers when it used to employ just them.

And just like most people who get rich quick don’t stay rich for very long, so too do writers who make it really big with their first book often fall by the wayside with their later work, never quite managing to find that spark of genius that they unwittingly captured.

You wanna be a writer? Don’t aspire to winning the lottery. Take the Terry Pratchett road instead. Terry Pratchett, for those of you who may not know, is a wonderful British writer of comedic fantasy that manages to craft brilliant stories that also make you think. But just this week, when I was encouraging one of my friends to check him out I said, “Don’t start with his early stuff.” Because, as much as I love Terry Pratchett, his early work just isn’t quite as good.

Pratchett did not streak across the sky like a beautiful shooting star, never to be heard from again. Rather he started with a spark, and through care and craft slowly built it into a raging inferno.

There is no mystery to his success. It is evident to anyone with eyes to see that he learned by doing, over long periods of time. And in my mind he is one of the most fully successful authors living today.

Wouldn’t it be cool? Wouldn’t it be cool if you did the best you could and maybe it sucked for a while, but then it started sucking a little less and over time, you started to see what worked and what didn’t work, and you just kept at it through the sheer force of will and stubbornness, until, finally, years later, you were able to write books that would make people laugh and cry and think, all on the same page?

Wouldn’t it be cool? Yes. Yes, it would.

Doing Battle with the Green-Eyed Monster of Wordcount Envy

Oh, Twitter. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Let’s see…carry the one…adjust for inflation…taking the Kentucky windage into account…um…seventeen. No wait! Eighteen.

Twitter is a great thing for writers. And I’m not just talking about the whole, “build your platform and get your name out there” kind of thing (though that’s on the list). Twitter is host to a whole community of writers. And I’m not just talking about the big names here. I talking regular people like me and you, people who are still struggling to be published. Maybe they’re even still working on their first book.

When you’re feeling down, they’re there to encourage you. When you feel like no one in the world understands what you’re going through as a writer, chances are someone in your Twitter stream does.

But sometimes Twitter is a double-edged sword. At least it can be for me.

Lately I’ve been struggling a bit with my novel. Actually struggling is probably too strong a word. I know where I want to go with the story, but because of the fact that I’m doing research as I go, added on to the fact that I’m writing a slightly different voice than normal, things just haven’t been moving as fast as I’d like them to.

And then I log on to Twitter and I see Chuck Wendig and Adam Christopher and Kristen Lamb talking about the thousands of words they’re writing each day, and I start to get a little discouraged about my measly 700 words.

Maybe you’ve been there too. But I’m here to tell you not to worry about it.

Why? Because no two writers and no two stories are the same. It may be you just don’t have time to churn out daily word counts in the thousands. Or maybe you’re like me and the story you’re writing requires you to be more painstaking than usual.

The details don’t matter. What matters is you. If you let wordcount envy get you down, the next thing you know you’ll be saying to yourself, “Well, if I can’t write as much as those guys maybe I don’t have any business writing at all.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG.

Wow. That word looks weird when you repeat like that. Kind of like when you say a word over and over again and it starts to sound like…no wait. I was going somewhere. Yeah okay. You can only write as much as you can write.

Profound huh? But it’s true.

Terry Pratchett only wrote four or five hundred words at a time when he first started. Chuck Palahnuik wrote Fight Club in fifteen minute increments on his breaks at work.

It’s less important that you write a lot, and more important that you write consistently.

If you can only manage a couple of hundred words a day then commit yourself to those couple hundred words. No, you won’t be finished in a month. You may not be finished in a year.

Possibly the most important key to your success as a writer is that you make writing your habit. It should be something you do day in and day out, rain or shine, muse or no muse.

And I think you’ll find that if you keep going you’ll find yourself stretching the limits of what you’re capable of further and further. You’ll look back at those early days of writing and say, “I can remember when I thought a thousand words was a really good day. What was I thinking?”

That’s what we call growth my friend. And growth is what it’s all about.


I haven’t done this in a while, but I’ve got a reading assignment for you all today.

First up is a fantastic post by Jody Hedlund about why it’s so hard to be objective about your own work.

Second, go check out Chuck Wendig’s post about the closing of Border’s. It’s powerful stuff.