Three Dirty Birds on Story Trumps Structure — Chapter 15

Today, the Dirty Birds are talking about Chapter 15 of Story Trumps Structure: Expectations.

threedirtybirds-400|Find the master list here|

Zoe: Just when I’d thought we’d lost Judgy McJudgerson, here he comes with his opinions on the literary genre. (Was that really necessary?)

Kate: Yeah, that was pretty sarcastic on his part. And not really necessary, but I think we’ve established that one of the weaknesses of this book is that Mr. James allows personal prejudices to seep into the text.

Zoe: So this chapter is about genre, which we know is a dangerous area with James. And he gets right off on the wrong foot with the first one he tackles: Love. He breaks down each “subgenre” (I’m using the term loosely) by what you’ll emphasize in that genre and what’s at stake. I have a question for both of you, and readers of our discussions. Is sex what’s necessarily at stake in an erotic story?

Ana: Hah, I saw this coming. When I read the chapter earlier today I thought, “This is what Zoe’s going to ask about!” Sadly I haven’t prepared an answer! I find it a bit hard to separate sex from everything else in the story. Even if it’s an erotic story, there should still be other things at stake.

Kate: The brain is the biggest sex organ. What makes an erotic story erotic is what it does to our brain. We talk a lot about unresolved sexual tension in the Erotic Romance genre. What’s at stake isn’t whether they’ll eventually fall in bed, but if they can make their emotional selves as compatible as their physical selves. And that’s the tension in UST.

Zoe: I think of sex as more the vehicle in an erotic story. The emotions (and vulnerabilities and such), to me, are what’s “at stake.”

Ana: I definitely agree with you there. I would say that the sex is a means to an end.

Kate: Or even an obstacle in and of itself.

Zoe: I think even with PWP (plot what plot?) stories, it’s not the sex so much as the satisfaction that’s at stake.

Ana: The character’s deepest desire being fulfilled or not, so to say. We still have that. Even in an erotic story, the character’s deepest desire is hardly ever ‘sex.’

Zoe: At the very, very least, the desire is to get off. Which happens through the vehicle of sex, but sex, again, isn’t what’s “at stake.” So…yeah, I think he handled that chart poorly.

Kate: I think it’s reflective of his unfamiliarity with other genres than the mystery, thriller, suspense ones.

Zoe: Yes, that becomes clear again when he gets to horror. At one point he says,
“The scariest stories aren’t always the bloodiest,” but then in his two charts, everything under horror is “GORE GORE GORE.” I think he understands horror almost as well as he understands romance.

Kate: I really want to see him write a romance. I really really do. If I’m a very good girl, do you think Santa would make it happen?

Ana: Haha, I don’t want to see that at all. Or maybe see it, but not be forced to read it. Although in the process of writing it he might actually learn some things…

Zoe: Kate can read it and give us the run-down.

Kate: There’s always the Substibook.

Zoe: From his chart in the “Love” section, I’m not even sure he understands “stakes.” For romantic love, he has “a long-term relationship,” but again, that’s not really what’s at stake. True love is what’s at stake. The potential of having to live your life without true love.

Ana: It felt to me a bit like ‘I don’t know what to put here, so let’s just put this. No serious writer writes romance anyway.’ (Zoe: :D)

Kate: *inarticulate noises* The last chart he put in? Did that drive anyone else around the bend?

Zoe: Yes. It’s a cross-referenced misunderstanding of, well…everything.

Ana: I couldn’t even read it. I do have a tendency to skip things that bore me. (Although it was fun to read “What will her blind date be like? Will he be someone she can trust?” in an overly dramatic voice in my head.)

Kate: I laughed at one point, where he said the crossover between romance and horror was the female MC finding her boyfriend in bed with another woman.

Zoe: That’s like the free square on the bingo card for him in genre ignorance.

Kate: The only excuse I could come up with for it was that he ran out of space and couldn’t show her morphing into some tentacled monster and having her revenge. And supper.

Zoe: I’m sad that he missed the obvious: “Her new high school boyfriend is really a vampire!” (Ana: The horror part is where he starts to sparkle, right?) (Zoe: That’s the part that always makes me hide my eyes, yes.) And my final complaint has to do with his warning against puns: “They don’t usually make readers laugh and they can backfire and distract from the story.” Tell that to Douglas Adams.

Ana: I had a sad, because I love puns. Especially bad puns. (And Douglas Adams)

Zoe: Me too. Wordplay is one of my favorite things.

Kate: Wordplay is a big part of our job. And a pun is often a quick way of giving a reader a breather, before making everything “so much worse” for the characters.

Zoe: And a really clever one works as an in-joke almost, pulling the readers who get it in. “Just ask a glass of water” will always be one of my favorite lines. (The lead-in, for those not familiar (how can you not be familiar???), is “”You’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.” “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”)

Kate: Now I want to go read Hitchhiker’s again.

Zoe: Right?

Kate: So, this chapter, which had so much promise, essentially turned us from Dirty Birds, to Angry Birds. I feel the urge to launch myself at this book and knock down that chapter.

Ana: And because I’m still stuck in 2005 I don’t understand your pun.

Zoe: Poor Ana. Hopefully the next group of chapters—Continuity, Fluidity, and Polish—get back on a useful track.

Dirty Birds Talk Writing–Scenes

It’s Friday (yay!) which means time for me to host the Thee Dirty Birds talk! As always, you can find a full list of any post you might have missed here.

Today we peck away at Story Trumps Structure, chapter 12–Scenes.

Zoe: This chapter starts out by defining scenes, and I wish he’d put that definition way earlier in the book, because it would have cleared up a lot of confusion. What I think of as a scene is not what he thinks of as a scene. He says that “A scene is not something that happens in one specific location. A scene might span several locations, and one location might include several scenes. … A scene happens when an important aspect of the story is altered.” So I’ve been thinking of scenes as these little chunks, but they could actually comprise several chunks, even split up by other chunks. And now it makes sense how you can “end every scene unexpectedly.”

Ana: Oh, good catch. I didn’t get that. I thought he was wanting scenes to do way too much.

Zoe: Right? It also clears up problems I’ve had for years with trying to deal with Dwight Swain’s scene/sequel progression (which James also covers in this chapter, calling them “interludes” instead of “sequels.”)

Kate: It’s something I’ve had a lot of false starts with, and it’s a skill that will definitely come with time and practice, and paying attention to feedback on stories. It was good to have it distilled down to its essence, though, because sometimes I get stuck, trying to figure out whether to spell something out, or just go with a summary. (haha, hang on, I have to duck out and make a note about the current WIP!!!)

Ana: Yes, I liked his advice about summarizing scenes where nothing is altered. It’s what I usually call ‘skipping the boring parts.’

Zoe: Yes, his guidelines for determining whether to write the events out in “real time” or just summarize them were solid, and “whether something is altered” is an easy test. Getting out of bed and getting ready in the morning doesn’t alter anything as far as the story goes, so it can just be done away with in a sentence (or left out altogether). But if you get out of bed and start brushing your teeth and realize there are bulldozers in your yard, then you have something worth writing out.

Kate: And you know it’s time to go look for your towel, you hoopy frood.

Ana: I’m sure as a real lady, Kate is never without her towel.

Zoe: So, as James says, “Scenes are not about events, locations, or discussions. They are about things being altered.”

Ana: I agree with that. I also like that he pretty much gives us a checklist to evaluate our scenes by when he says each scene will contribute to the transformation of the protagonist, the escalation of the plot, or the deepening of the story’s internal, external, or interpersonal struggles.

Zoe: He also says that your protagonist will fail to get what he desires most in every scene (except for the final, climactic one). That’s something I struggle with, because sometimes they do get what they want. But he covers that later in the chapter with the four possible answers to “Does the character get what he wants?” which are: “Yes,” “No,” “No, and furthermore” and “Yes, but.” The first two answers make for bad scenes. The other two alter things and make for good scenes. So your protagonist can get what he wants in scene number three of 236…he gets it, BUT.

Kate: There has to be a loss for every gain. I liked the phrase “fail their way to success” to describe how you ramp up tension, yet still move the story forward. Even failures, like negative space, can tell the reader something and lead to the next stage of the plot.

And they should. Like Zoe said, if it’s just a failure, well–what’s the point? (Ana: Schadenfreude)

Ana: I’m not sure I like the example he gives us for reader expectation in the romance genre here. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want to read pages upon pages about a girl angsting over calling or not calling a guy.

Zoe: Yeah, it was another demonstration of his lack of imagination with regard to the romance genre.

Kate: Again he gives us questions to use to help portray the goal of the scene. It seems pretty obvious, but it’s helpful to have the list of different options. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, as well, but it was a good start. We tend, as authors, to find a groove, or lean sometimes on a favorite way of doing something. It’s like a foreshadowing thesaurus. 🙂

Ana: I agree. It’s handy to have. Almost as good as a towel.

Kate: Then he goes on to talking about false promises at the end of chapters, false cliffhangers that don’t deliver. I don’t know about you guys, but that drives me crazy.

Zoe: Yes. It’s what happens when you tell yourself “I need to escalate the tension at the end of this chapter!” but don’t really consider the story itself, the natural behavior of the characters, the promises you’ve made, etc. So you set up this false tension that deflates in the first sentence of the next chapter. (And makes readers put your book down in favor of watching paint dry. At least the paint won’t disappoint.)

Kate: That’s when the surrogate ‘throwing book’ comes into play around here.

Ana: We really need to get that into production.

Zoe: I’m finding that critiquing the book on Twitter is at least as satisfying.

Kate: Some of your tweets have been awfully funny. Has the registration book made a reappearance? Considering the amount of time spent on it, it must be a major character. Or the villain.

Ana: I thought the suitcases had done it.

Zoe: The book and the suitcases do carry a lot of narrative weight, and I do expect them to reappear (but I haven’t gotten back to my reading on that one lately). (That’s the problem with tweeting instead of just throwing the book: you have to keep reading it.) I do think that reading bad books along with writing instruction books is really useful for getting the hang of the concepts in the instruction books.

Kate: Hahaha! There’s a piece of advice for you–”Read bad books.” Very Neil Gaiman.

Zoe: It’s really effective. It can be difficult to see how a great book achieves its greatness, but it’s easy to see where a bad book’s gone wrong.

Ana: I actually really like taking great books apart. But sometimes it depresses me. Then I just take a nap instead. (Pretending to plot.)

Kate: I’m reading a Marie Sexton right now and I’m absolutely baffled as to why I like one of the characters, because he’s the kind that would normally annoy the pants off me (if I was wearing any). And I can’t figure out what she’s doing.

Zoe: I think I have a resistance to taking great books apart. They’re the books I manage to get through without the editor in my head making comments. I get to enjoy them the whole way through. And I kind of want to keep them that way.

Ana: It sucks, but that hardly happens to me anymore. I take just about every book apart in my head as I read. Some more, some less. It’s worse with the bad books, though. Which is probably why I DNF more than I used to.

Zoe: Yes, I don’t find a lot of books that just whisk me away these days. When it happens, it’s so special.

Kate: Ana, I think you’re on to something there. I DNF much more now, too. Even authors who are established in the genre, because I see something that sets up my internal editor’s back.

Zoe: Yeah, I DNF like crazy. Two, three chapters, and I’m out. (Sometimes two, three pages. I really need to get more disciplined about reading sample chapters before I download books.)

Ana: Yeah, hate that feeling. I skim an excerpt, think, oh, this looks good, buy, and then regret not having read the whole sample because I DNF before the 10% mark.

Zoe: Yes! I’m so easily suckered in by a good cover too.

Ana: And then, to me, it’s especially bitter when I go to Goodreads and everyone loves it.

Kate: I know! But there’s been so much emphasis on good covers lately, that I think people are skimping on editing services to pay for the cover. And a really good cover will predispose people to like it more, even if the writing doesn’t hold up.

Zoe: Yes, I’ve stopped reading reviews above 4 star when I’m deciding if I want a book. I want to know what people didn’t like about it.

Ana: Yeah, 3 stars are usually more informative.

Zoe: I used to feel bad about DNFing so much, but I came to realize that I’m not the “typical” reader, since I’m also a writer. I’m pickier. So my DNFing is not so much representative of reader taste.

Kate: I wonder if professional athletes, or musicians, have the same issue?

Zoe: I know nothing about sports, but I can see it happening with musicians. They can absolutely love a genre, and cringe at some of the stuff coming out of the genre because of what they’ve learned in the course of developing their own skills.

Ana: I think it always stings when someone doesn’t hone their skills as much as you do and gets away with it — or tries to.

Zoe: There are many well-loved authors I just can’t read, in all the genres. They’re hitting buttons for readers that aren’t my buttons.

Kate: And the subtext of that is, some of Story Trumps Structure is for everyone, and some isn’t. (See what I did there?)

Zoe: Clever Kate is clever. One of my biggest fears, though, is that all these books I DNF…what if my writing is that writing, and I just don’t realize it because I’m writing it? That keeps me awake nights. I’d hate to find out I was a big fat hypocrite. (As opposed to a big fat werehippo.)

Kate: I see what you did there.

Ana: What keeps me awake some nights about that is all the books I hate being popular and wondering if it’s just an issue with my taste, and if my taste is so different, will I ever write something popular? Dun dun dun.

Kate: Which always raises the question–do I apply the skills I have to writing something that fits the kind of checklist that pushes those buttons? And do I really want to do that? And somedays, I think, yes. Because I would love to be able to look at my royalty statement and have undeniable proof that I did something right. But what level of sales or whatever accomplishes that?

Zoe: I need to enjoy what I’m doing—I have a day job where I have to do crap I’m not 100% enjoying. So I don’t worry about popularity and just write what I want to write. What I want to read. There’s that too: if all the books are just what’s popular, I’m not going to have anything to read! Because we’ve established that I DNF a whole lot of popular stuff.

Kate: I think we’re going to have to set this topic aside and come back to it some day later on, because this is a huge issue for authors in the market right now. And I know I could go on for days about it.

Zoe: Right, so Story Trumps Structure…I thought I was going to enjoy the subtext section more than I did. It was…kind of obvious? I guess I was looking for something more nuanced than “What’s going on in the story colors…um…what’s going on in the story.”

Ana: I didn’t think there was anything new there either. Maybe it’s because we’re writing romance and we’re used to having a lot of subtext in books.

Kate: Subtext is often how you foreshadow future conflict. It’s kind of a given that, if you’re writing romance, you need to include subtext if you want there to be any depth to your story. What did you two think of the stuff on the last page? Did you feel he was advocating info dumps too?

Ana: I didn’t really get that impression, but maybe he didn’t word it clearly enough. I think he was trying not to have info dumps. (If that wasn’t the intention, I’ll pretend that it was)

Kate: I always try to stay away from long expository stuff where the character works everything out for the reader. But maybe I misinterpreted it? I don’t know, it’s one of those things that could easily be misread.

Ana: Let’s say you did.

Kate: Lol. The next three chapters look good. We may not be able to crank much during them.

Ana: If there’s a way to crank, I trust Zoe will find it.


Three Dirty Birds Talk Story Trumps Structure — Chapter 9



Three Dirty Birds is back, with more squawking about Story Trumps Structure–what we liked, what we didn’t like, when we felt like throwing the book at him.


Kate: My first problem with this chapter was his description of working through snags in the story as being the same as working through a tangle in your hair. Basically, he says you just go back to the beginning, read through the entire story again, and by the time you get to the snag, you’ll be able to move a little further in the story. Then you do it again.

That has never worked for me, either with my hair or my stories. If I’m snagged, I have to move past that point. Because what that snag tells me is that my brain needs to work out what’s coming up, so it knows what to put in the snagged section so everything makes sense. Same with my hair–work from the ends up. Otherwise, I end up scalped by brush.

Zoe: Yes, I got the sense he had no idea what his daughter was doing (or his daughter has no idea what she’s doing—maybe she got her advice from him). I find that if I keep backing up and working my way into the snag, it’s more like when your tires are stuck in mud, and you just work yourself deeper and deeper in.

Ana: Usually when I hit a snag it’s because something isn’t working. But that could be something in my backstory, the story so far, or my plans for the story’s future. Of course, he doesn’t have any such plans for what’s supposed to happen. My main problem with his ‘advice’ here is that I’m not really sure what he’s trying to tell me. Like, what…. read over my story over and over again until I figure it out? I usually just do some brainstorming.

Zoe: Like Kate, I often move on to a new part, because a lot of the time once you have where you’re going down, you can see what you need to fix/add/remove to get there.

Ana: I actually don’t get into snags very often. When I do it’s often because I don’t know where I’m going, or I’m not sure that I’m going in the right direction.

Kate: I always have the general shape of the story, the chapters, and the scenes in my head. All the time. (It gets very crowded in there sometimes.) But it’s the details that define what the transitions will be, what supporting scenes need to be added. Once I know the details, I can get past that snag, because they almost invariably occur in a transition.

Zoe: Yes, a lot of mine happen in transitions too. I hate transitions.

Kate: Transitions are the work of the devil. Like whiskey. Maybe that’s why whiskey helps?

Zoe: *makes a face* For me, the cure would be worse than the disease. I’ll stick with rum, thanks.

Kate: I’m sure rum would work too. That’s the caribbean devil.

Ana: But the rum’s always gone. (-lame movie reference-)

Kate: Which is why Zoe doesn’t invite Jack over often.

Zoe: Jack didn’t get rid of the rum. That spoilsport Elizabeth did. She’s never allowed over.

Ana: I could think of ways for Jack to pay for his rum.

Kate: You guys missed the typo, but Ana actually wrote ‘rump’.

Zoe: Anyway, Ms. Crankybird didn’t make a lot of notes in this chapter. Mostly she wants to know how she’s expected to get any writing done if she spends 3-4 hours every day first reading through what she’s already written, and then on page 130, she has a sticky note that says “Um.” That would be the part where he shits on self publishers: “If you’d rather not have to work and sweat over every sentence, every word, in draft after draft, don’t bother. … But don’t plan to get published. Or maybe just self-publish your book. That seems to be the preferred route people are taking today. Put your story through a few drafts, then send it out to the world. Ta-da! Look! I’m finished already!” Ms. Crankybird has only two words to wind up her thoughts at this point of the chapter. The first starts with F and the second ends with U. She also hopes that as we go into Part III: Story Progression next week Mr. James will get off plotters’ backs and just give useful advice.

Ana: Yeah, I could have done without his crap on self-publishing. It seems like he simply enjoys making assumptions about certain ‘types of people’ and painting them all with the same brush. First plotters now self-publishers.

Kate: It’s a shame he lets his personal issues with anyone who isn’t ‘like him’ get in the way of what he has to say. Because there is good stuff in this chapter. A bit repetitive, but he does talk about how much time you should spend on scenes, depending on how much importance you want your reader to place on them. It’s something I correct in critique group all the time, because it does lead to creating inappropriate promises, and slows down the story.

Zoe: Yes, I thought his advice on writing both “from” and “toward” was good: write from what has already happened and toward the promises you’ve made the reader (the payoff).

Ana: But don’t forget not to bend your story toward where you want it to go. (As opposed to letting it grow naturally.) I’m not sure what to think of that piece of advice. Sometimes we do have scenes in mind we want to happen. At least, I do. Then I end up rewriting the beginning to fit instead.

Kate: Yeah, I had a bit of a problem with that. I’m wondering if it’s more his wording than him thinking you can’t have definite signposts to aim for. Because I find it hard to believe that many people would jump into a genre novel and just start writing, without knowing their characters, without any assurance of a satisfying climax to come.

Ana: You can easily find some of those stories on the Internet. Most of them are incomplete, though. Wonder why…

Kate: So, I think if you dig a bit in this chapter, there’s some good information, some good guidance in it. But it could have been half as long, if he took out all the unnecessary judgment.

Zoe: Which could be said for this whole part of the book.

Kate: Yeah. He kind of went all “Judgy McJudgy-pants” on us in this section.

Agree, disagree, just want some rum? Let us know! As always, the next chapter discussion will be posted on Kate’s blog on Monday! And you can find the master list here.