Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Home Improvement Guide to Story Structure

[Several people who were unable to attend my presentation last week asked for more details. The following, originally posted in October 2011, was one of the topics.]

There is an eternal law, inscribed into the very essence of the universe before even the gods came on the scene, that any home improvement project will require at least three trips to the store.

Don't believe me?

Many creation myths show the gods making several attempts before we get the world in which we live. Even the book of Genesis has a do-over with Noah.


Many stories are basically a series of try/fail cycles.

Consider the archetypical home improvement project:

  1. Having decided to undertake some repair or improvement, you go to the store and get what you need.
  2. After working on the project for a while, you make another trip to the store to get all the things you didn't know you needed.
  3. Finally, a few injuries and explicatives later, you make a final trip to the store to get what you really need (as well as to replace the pieces you broke).
Of course, there are times when you make one trip because you know what you're doing and what you need. The point is that you would rarely tell a story about that activity because, a, "This was the problem so I got that part I needed and fixed it," story is boring--in fact, it's not a story, it's a recipe.

For a story to be interesting, it must show how the protagonist triangulated on a solution to a difficult problem. It's like the process of artillerymen finding the range to a target: the first shot falls short so they increase the elevation; the second shot lands behind so they dial back, but not as much as the first setting; the third shot is much more likely to hit.

And suddenly, without trying, we've discovered the three-act story structure: try/fail (act 1), try/fail (act 2), try/succeed (act 3). Each try is a possible solution and each fail shows why the solution falls short as well as ratcheting up the scope of the problem. In the realm of DIY, for example, you fail to reattach the loose tile in the bathroom because the wallboard behind has water damage, but you can't just replace the wallboard because the pipe inside is leaking.

If you scrape away all the formal baggage around, "The Three Act Structure," it really is that simple.

[That said, like any good DIY project, there's a big gap between the theory and actually putting it into practice in the form of a finished novel.]

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Narrative Complexity

Complexity in fiction is … well, a complex topic.

Clearly you don’t want to write something so complex that it leaves readers perplexed and frustrated. At the other extreme, readers are quickly bored by a story that’s too simple.

Complexity, which is best understood as the degree to which there is variation in the results each time you sample something, is important in fiction only because the world in which we live is complex. Romance is a simple example of the complexities with which we deal: each time we interact with that certain someone we come away with a collection of indirect evidence that we’re rising or falling in his or her esteem but rarely anything definitive. Compared to the simplicity of species that go into heat or spawn at the same time each year, it’s a wonder we ever managed to reproduce.

In terms of plot, complexity is what makes books necessary: you don’t have a novel if you don’t need several hundred pages to fully understand what’s going on.

The art of the storyteller is to take what looks like a complex mess of unrelated threads and weave them into a tapestry that, when fully revealed, shows the reader how to make sense of it all.

It’s a topic to which I’ve devoted enough thought that I’m giving a presentation tomorrow (7:00 pm on Thursday, January 17, 2013) at the Pleasant Grove Public Library (Pleasant Grove, Utah) as part of their Professional Writers Series, titled, “Weaving a Complex Narrative: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps.” I’ve also made the presentation available online at for those of you who may be interested but unable to attend.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Point of View, Viewpoint, and Perspective

Ambiguity gives natural language its power: when vocabulary and grammar are fluid we can describe new situations for which we otherwise would not have the words. Specificity and precision give science its power: being clear about an object, its preconditions, and the forces or processes applied to it helps us avoid spurious and distracting information that would confound the subject. Scientific language breeds jargon in an attempt to minimize ambiguity

I may be guilty of the same thing, but I found myself unsatisfied when I heard someone assert that viewpoint, point of view, and perspective were synonymous. Of course the statement is true in a general sense. Outside of writing about writing, I would never want to be constrained to use a particular term only in a particular context. But the advantage of having a writer as reader is that the writer has terms and concepts with which to more specifically identify issues with the narrative. Instead of guessing why a reader may have lost interest in a section it is much more helpful to hear that the pacing suffered because of the long descriptive paragraphs devoted to back story.

When someone says your story has a problem with point of view they could be referring to one or more of three related but distinct storytelling dimensions: the grammatical person, the viewpoint character, or issues of characterization.

Point of View

When we discuss point of view, we usually focus on the grammatical person and the associated narrative conventions. If a story is told in first-person then logically only events in which that person participated can be related directly. A story told in third-person can stay close to one character or follow many characters without defying logic. There are subtle and not-so-subtle challenges with each point of view over which beginning writers often stumble, so it’s almost always a good place to go when troubleshooting a story.


Stories are always told from the viewpoint of one or several characters. Even in omniscient mode you still have the viewpoint of the narrator. The storyteller selects what to include and omit from the narrative. Generally, someone close to the action will include more detail than someone farther away. Because story is fundamentally about understanding the why behind the external events, we usually want to hear the story from the perspective of the person closest to the action—and while physical proximity is important, emotional proximity is even more so. Sometimes, however, the story is better served by someone removed from the action: Holmes is more brilliant in Watson’s telling because we never see the internal debate in the great detective’s head before he announces his deduction. Getting the viewpoint right is much trickier than fixing the grammar and logic of point of view. Reading widely helps develop your instinct for storytelling, but when it comes to your own story you may be best served by writing several scenes from different viewpoints to see which resonates most strongly.


Beyond the mechanics and logic of constructing a consistent point of view and the choices of what belongs in the story we reach the rarefied air of the perspective the viewpoint character brings to the narrative. We would expect, for example, a monk who had taken a vow of pacifism to describe a fistfight differently than a Mongol warrior. (And how would that description differ if the monk were a former Mongol warrior?) A perpetual challenge when writing for children and young adults is to create characters whose perspective isn’t contaminated by the mature perspective of the author.

How, What, and Why

Perhaps a simpler way to understand the distinction between viewpoint, point of view, and perspective is that they address, respectively, how the story is told, what comprises the story, and why the character or characters telling the story believe it is significant. The distinctions are important because the way you fix a mechanical point of view problem, like a character in a first-person narrative knowing something they didn’t experience, is very different from the way you fix a problem in perspective, like a child having adult sensibilities.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Closing the Books

In a world where the only constant is change, how can you say what something really is? We like to think of our adult selves as relatively fixed. At a physiological level, however, the ongoing processes of cellular senescence and regeneration mean that roughly every seven years we get completely new bodies. Are we really still the same person?

Questions like that keep philosophers gainfully employed but they also bedevil other fields. Accountants, being eminently practical, have a simple solution: they close the books. While originally a concrete activity involving physical accounting books the phrase now refers to the end of one accounting period and the beginning of another. By creating accounting periods, it becomes possible to say exactly what the balances were at that point without the distraction of pending transactions.

Closing the books, in accounting and beyond, has two advantages: first, it enables us to take stock of our situation and assess our progress toward our objectives; second, it allows us to start with a new baseline uncluttered by the uncertainties that accumulated during the last period.

The beauty of the notion of closing the books for writers is that we’re greeted with a blank page when we open the new book. Some people find blank pages terrifying to the point of immobility: what should they put where? But filling blank pages is what we’re all about. How will you fill yours?

Image: Simon Howden /