The Martian… Deconstructed

Two days ago I wrote about the phenomenon called The Martian, a 2009 self-published novel that against all odds found an agent and became a New York Times bestseller, and then was made into the current hit movie (and Oscar contender in several categories) by the same name, starring Matt Damon.  The backstory of how this book happened and how it became the all-time dream-shot of any author in any genre, is covered HERE.

Martian book wide

But you’ll want to come right back to this page (I’ll put a link there to make it easier), because, as promised, this post deconstructs the book to illustrate its structure. Which, in case you have no sense of what’s next, perfectly aligns with the principles and paradigms of classic story structure, with barely a single percentage point or two variance from the optimal locations of the major milestone moments that separate each of the requisite four story quartiles.

(If you’re noticing that this pic of the book looks, well, a little odd… there’s a reason for that, which will be revealed shortly.)

Coincidence?  I think not.

If that second-to-last sentence reads like Greek to you, I recommend you bone up on the topic of story structure, using the Search function to the right of this page (keep clicking on “Older Posts” under the listings you see), or reading any of my three writing books.

Structure, in a story that works, isn’t something you get to make up.  Rather – much like the wings of an airplane or the formula for a cancer curing medicine – it is something that is universal, proven and flexible only to a point (writers mess with this at their own peril), and it serves the writer (this being a massive understatement) who either plans for it or revises toward it, often unknowingly.

If you doubt this, don’t make any bets yet, because virtually every published commercial novel and mainstream movie proves this to be true.  Even writers who don’t think of it this way or call it this, when they succeed, are following this structural paradigm.  This includes writers who claim to be pantsers, and writers who mistakenly believe that “story trumps structure,” all of whom end up doing exactly this using a different vocabulary and process.

I have no idea whether author Andy Weir knew about or cared about story structure when he wrote The Martian, initially a series of blog posts which became a Kindle ebook and then a traditionally-published bestseller.

If he didn’t, you can bet that one of two things came to bear:

 – he was either a savant genius who brought a keen story sensibility to the telling (because the very essence of a keen story sensibility by definition already aligns with the principles of story structure; this is the Stephen King approach, by the way… when he tells you to just sit down and write, to go with the flow, see what happens, he’s assuming  you know what he knows… do you?);

– or, as Weir’s posts evolved via feedback or simply his own notions that changes needed to be made, the direction of his edits pushed the story into a closer alignment with the principles of story structure.  Which almost always happens when the edits are valid.

When an editor says, for example, “nothing happens for too long, you need better pacing,” that is code for fixing your structure to include a stronger hook, a more powerful first quartile and a more effective and properly placed First Plot Point.  All of which is structure in action.

The Basics of Story Structure

Using The Martian as a model, you’ll see that a well-told story breaks a story into four parts, of roughly equal quartile lengths, each of which has a unique narrative context, a specific role in the unfolding story.  Separating those quartiles are three major story milestones (think of them as story twists, though each has a more specific mission than simply twisting thing), and then spicing up the Part 2 and Part 3 quartiles with a story beat known as the Pinch Point, which also has a specific role.

Here’s a picture of the paperback after I finished with it.  I folded back the pages where the three major milestones were (circled), thus separating the book into four quartiles.  And then, showing where the two Pinch Points are (within squares), in the exact middle of the Part 2 and Part 3 quartiles.

Martian book marks CU

Notice how each quartile (the circled separations) is of roughly the same length. That’s classic story structure, demonstrated visually here for your learning pleasure (I added paperclips to make these divisions stand out, and circled them for the same reason).  This is neither coincidence nor accident… this is how great stories work: they are told in four parts, separated by three major milestones, each with its own specific function and role.

Do this the next time you read a great novel, fold back the pages and see where they are, and you’ll see almost the exact same thing, provided you’ve accurately pegged those three story milestones..

 

This single fact can change – it will empower – your entire fiction writing experience.  This is how it’s done.

Structure is driven by a core dramatic story – the main “through-line” plot, if you will – which also defines character arc.  

If you can’t define your core dramatic story in one simple sentence, chances are you are spread either too thin or too thick.  In The Martian, the core story is simple (it almost always is, even The Davinci Code‘s core story can be defined in one line): An astronaut is stranded on Mars, and he must learn to survive until a plan for his rescue is put into motion.

I’d say it’s not rocket science, but in this case it is.  The inherent drama here is obvious, as it should be.

From this core story arises a core dramatic question: will Mark Watney be able to survive until the rescue plan can be put into motion? If that sounds just like the core story through-line, it is only in question form.  Phrasing it as a question brings the story closer to a structural context.  Because The Martian isn’t about simply describing how Watney survives; the dramatic question creates a context of why he must survive. The stakes are escalated, the pace fueled, the tension heightened.  Huge difference.  The dramatic question drives the story forward across the arc of the story, over four sequential parts (quartiles), toward a new and higher goal than what appears to be the state of things early on.

Instead of – and this becomes the mistake in many novels from writers who don’t get this or accept this – simply writing about a situation, even though it’s a fascinating one.

Which leads me to again offer this golden truth: a good story isn’t just about something… it’s about something happening.  

Let the italics guide you on that one.

Today’s analysis of The Martian uses the mass market paperback to create a structural grid.  The percentages, though, will be the same for the hardcover, the movie-tie-in paperback, and the movie itself.  Structure is thought of in percentage of length, while illustrated using page numbers (for books) or minutes of running time (for films).

The total page length for the edition of The Martian used for this deconstruction is 369.  Remember that when percentages are offered.

The First Quartile of The Martian

The optimal target length of a first quartile, concluding with the all-important First Plot Point, is 20 to 25 percent in.  Which means the optimal location of the First Plot Plot (thus defining the length of the first quartile) of The Martian is from Page 74 to page 92. Any shorter and the author risks compromise to reader empathy and world building, any longer and the risk is boring the impatient reader with too much characterization or location details.

A good novel – a published book, especially within a genre, versus “literary fiction,” which still uses this to a great extent – almost without exception offers up a First Plot Point within that 20-25 percent-in window, not because someone said that’s the formula, but rather, that’s just (and it’s proven) how stories work best.  Which means, if you are trying to create, or yielding to, being that exception in your story – if you follow your gut, and your gut doesn’t align with this – you are on tricky, possibly fatal ground, you are playing a low percentage shot in doing so.

Once you see how solid this model it, how prevalent it is out there, your storytelling gut will come around to it soon thereafter.

So how did The Martian do with these structural targets?  

You’re gonna love this.

The First Plot Point of The Martian appears on page 82 (the 22nd percentile).  Smack in the middle of that optimal location window.

And I assure you, this is neither random or coincidental.

The narrative context of a first quartile – in any story – is to setup and foreshadowing the core story.  Not fully launch it… yet… but rather, to introduce the main character and antagonist (that one has more wiggle room, sometimes the antagonist/villain never really becomes vivid until later; author’s call on this one), give them a pre-core-story life and situation, create empathy and emotional resonance, set up the mechanics of the forthcoming First Plot Point (where the core story will fully launch, at least relative to the first quartile exposition), and place the whole thing in a vivid and vicarious story world environment.

When the opening seems to launch things in a big way, you’ll almost always discover that, however big, the real story isn’t fully in play at this point.  Which is the case in The Martian.

The story opens with a killer hook: Mark Watney and the crew of the Hermes interplanetary transport are trying to conclude a scientific experiment on the surface of Mars when a nasty sand storm arrives unexpectedly.  The landing/ascent vehicle is in peril, about to be blown over by the fierce winds (this is something the author concedes departs from real science, which other than in this opening is by-the-book everywhere else in the story; the atmosphere on Mars is only two percent as dense as it is on Earth, so a wind storm of any damaging magnitude is impossible, a 150 mph gust would feel like a mild breeze on Earth; Weir didn’t care, he needed something dramatic to kick things off… and this Martian tornado did the trick).

But the crew can’t find Watney.  At what seems to be the last minute they hurry back to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), while the Captain cuts it even closer to remain outside in the urgent hope of finding him.  What she doesn’t know is that Watney has been injured, he’s unconscious and the electronics in his spacesuit are offline.  Based on evidence, they conclude Watney is dead.  So, to save her crew and herself, the Captain barely makes it back to the ship and they blast off, heading safely back to the Hermes mother ship, leaving the “dead” Mark Watney behind, the fact of which devastates them.

Except, of course, Mark Watney isn’t dead.  

And there you have the core story bones.  The design of his spacesuit has saved him, auxiliary systems have kicked back in, and when he wakes up he’s totally alone… on Mars.

All that happens in the first six minutes of the film, the first 7 pages of the book.  The hook concludes with Watney telling us all about it, after the fact, in his log, ending with this statement: “So yeah, I’m f**ked.”

And we’re hooked.

The first quartile goes on to literally build the story world, with rich detail on the harsh environment, the Hab in which he lives (which survived Weir’s contrived storm, but with some serious technical damage), and the challenge of not only surviving in the near term, but living long enough to actually have a shot at going home. Which at this point is hopeless.

So hopeless, in fact, that when the First Plot Point arrives, the story experiences a reboot.  New hope.  A plan manifesting in the face of the unthinkable.  This is what First Plot Points do… they reboot the story, they actually ignite the core story from seeds planted in the opening quartile, or at least it kicks everything into a higher gear after a setup, a ramp up, in the preceding Part 1 initial quartile.

This Part 1 narrative also showed us what was happening back on Earth.  

Mark Watney’s funeral, for example.  But then a low-ranking technician monitoring visuals from Mars taken from orbiting satellites notices something odd.  It seems like things have been moving around adjacent to the Hab that the crew had abandoned.  After some debate there is only one conclusion: Mark Watney is alive, and healthy enough to, well, go outside and move things around… something we’ve seen from Watney’s POV in earlier scenes.

Is that the First Plot Point?  No.  

Because that moment doesn’t, in and of itself, launch a mission (figuratively, in the language of story structure, literally in this story). What that moment was is this: an inciting incident. You can have several inciting incidents within your first quartile, but don’t confuse them with a First Plot Point (unless it truly is one), which has a specific mission and location within the story flow.

About ten pages later, 0n Page 82, the earth-bound Hermes Mission Controller says this to a peer when asked about Watney’s odds of survival:

No idea,” Venkat said.  “But we’re going to do everything we can to bring him home alive.

And that IS the First Plot Point.

Now we have a different, better story on our hands, with a higher degree of focus, direction, mission, urgency and risk than until this point.  Everything has changed.  Until now it was a documentary on how Watney stays alive.  Now the story is about why he’s staying alive, with new hope and a mission, something new to react to… to get home.

The Second Quartile of The Martian

In this quartile we get further exposition about what Mark Watney does over the deadly quiet days, repairing and re-purposing technology, including growing enough potatoes to last him the hundreds of days he’ll need to remain alive long enough to… well, we aren’t sure yet. This is the fun and fascinating aspect of the story, the reader is rivited (akin to the puzzles in The Davinci Code and the operations of a submarine in The Hunt For Red October; smart authors take readers into places and details they’ll never encounter… the element of vicarious experience is wildly powerful in good storytelling).

Meanwhile plans are hatching and debated back on Earth, which is trying to land on a doable way to return to Mars to save Watney.

The target context, generically, of the Part 2 quartile is RESPONSE.  Watney responds to the new parameters of the story, which shifted via the First Plot Point back on page 82, trying to stay alive as long as required and survive all the ways Mars conspires to kill him in the mean time.  The space folks back on Earth are asked to do the impossible.  Everyone is “working the problem,” and things don’t always go as planned.

That’s the essence everything that happens in the Part 2 quartile.  Which includes…

The First Pinch Point 

In any dramatic story, the reader needs to be reminded about the source of antagonism in the story, who and what the antagonist is, what they/it wants, and what lurks closeby, waiting to thwart the hero’s plans and/or swoop in to, well, do bad things.  The reader, and the hero, can’t get too comfortable, fear and pressure need to resurface.  This is called the Pinch Point, and there can be many of them… as long as at least two appear right in the middle of Parts 2 and 3, respectively.

The middle of Part 2 of The Martian is page 133.

Andy Weir delivers the first Pinch Point on page 143.  Not far enough off to qualify as a deviation from the principle itself, which like all of these has wiggle room built in to them (meaning you still get to control the flow of your story, provided you don’t swerve into the wrong structural lane).

The Pinch Point is a scene (or a moment within a scene) written from the departing crew’s point of view, detailing their emotional experience from being forced to leave their teammate behind.  It is gut wrenching, and completely what it was, as a Pinch Point, supposed to be: a reminder of the magnitude of the hero’s problem — he’s alone on Mars, unreachable, unsaveable, without hope.

The Midpoint of The Martian

If the First Plot Point is the most important moment in a story – and it is, from a structural point of view – then the Midpoint is not far behind.  Once again the story changes as it marks the turn from Part 2 into Part 3, changing the context of the hero’s experience from RESPONSE mode into ATTACK mode.  The hero, from an character arc perspective, evolves from a “wanderer” into a “warrior,” because now, leveraging new knowledge or change imparted at the Midpoint moment (you don’t need to be Stephan Hawking to figure out the optimal location of the Midpoint; in a 369 page novel, the target is page 185… do the math), the pace and dramatic tension of the story increase palpably as the proximity of confrontation, danger and salvation draws near.

The Midpoint is where the main character begins to get their hero on.  It commences Part 3 of the novel… any novel.

The Midpoint of this story occurs when the folks on Earth complete hastily cobbled-together preparations to send a supply rocket to Mars with enough food and medicine and tools to allow Watney to survive until the arrival of the next manned mission, scheduled for over 400 days later.

This happens on page… get ready for it… 183.  Two pages before the mathematical midpoint of page 185.

Coincidence again?  Do you really have to ask?

The Third Quartile of The Martian

Which houses the second Pinch Point, within the new context of the hero at warrior/attacker of the main problem at hand.

There is another major plot twist thrown in there, too, illustrating the availability of all the twisting you want.  A mission to deliver supplies to Watney crash shortly after take-off, taking everything and everybody back to square one.  It works, but it’s not something that separates the quartiles… because it fits within the Part 3 quartile, where everyone is, contextually, attacking the problem.

Is this how you’re structuring your novel?  Using these structural guides to optimize the dramatic effectiveness of your novel?

You should be… and in any genre.  If your first draft is nowhere near these optimal structural milestones, now you have a guide for revision that will take you closer to them.  Because trust me, if your novel isn’t aligning, if you don’t have these four distinct narrative parts (you can have more chapter and parts, but they should fit within these four organizational blocks), if the three major milestones (First Plot Point, Midpoint and Second Plot Point… along with those two Pinch Points in the middle of Parts 2 and 3) are nowhere near their optimal locations… trust me, your story is compromised.  Maybe not broken – though that may be the case – but probably at risk.

If you know your core story, and if it’s strong at its conceptual core, and if you realize you aren’t there yet, you can fix it.  That’s what structure is for… to save and empower your story.

If you doubt it, if you think The Martian is just a convenient aberration I’ve grabbed to prove this point, hear this clearly: I could grab virtually any bestselling, genre-driven novel, or even any published novel at all (traditionally, because unlike self-published books, traditional publishers look for and vet these structural principles), I guarantee you it would be a model structural citizen, as well.  Because it works… and structure is a huge part of why.

The Second Pinch Point in The Martian

Of course, just because your hero is now a Warrior doesn’t mean things will fall easily into to place.  That’s why we have that second Pinch Point, optimally located squarely in the middle of the Part 3 quartile to once again remind us of what could go wrong, and how the hero has more risk and more work to do before the core story problem/opportunity will be resolved.

In The Martian, the second Pinch Point is a whopper.  Basically, Watney blows everything that was suppose to take him home to smithereens.  More importantly, the communications equipment that was allowing him to trade information with his rescuers on Earth… it’s destroyed.  Beyond repair.  The entire rescue operation is dead… both sides, on Mars and on Earth, have to start over.

This happens on 228, which  is the 62nd percentile of the story’s length.  The optimal placement? The 62/63rd percentile.

Story structure is amazing that way.

Still in Part 3, the team continues to “work the problem,” which translates to attack the problem, which is the generic mission context of any Part 3 narrative.  A new plan emerges, but it’s unthinkable risky: Mark has to drive – literally – across harsh Mars terrain for over 3000 kilometers to rendesvous with a previously depositing Mars Ascent Vehicle, which has been deposited there earlier for use by the aforementioned mission, still some 400 days away.

The Second Plot Point of The Martian

In a later turn, the crew of the Hermes defies orders and steps into a plan to return to Mars (at great risk… the drama explodes off the pages and off the screen) to rescue their abandoned teammate, Mark Watney.  The rendesvous will be in low orbit over Mars, with a ridiculously low margin for error.  They will have one shot.’

Provided Mark can reach the MAV in time, strip it of several tons of burdensome equipment, survive take off and somehow manage to grab the hand of a Hermes crew member passing by him at 12 meters per second… with no do-over possible.

Yeah, that’s some serious drama.  Why does it work?  Why are we rooting for this, with every fiber of our being?  Because Watney has our heart.  We love him.  We respect him, he’s MacGiver in space, and he deserves to come home.

The optimal target location for the Second Plot Point in a 369 page book is page 277.

The location of the Second Plot Point in The Martian – when Mark leaves his base HAB for the final time, loaded down with jury-rigged equipment, in quest of the Schiaparelli Crater where the MAV awaits, over 3000 kilometers away – is on page 284.

I won’t say it.  About this being a coincidence, I mean.  A few pages on either side of an optimal structural location mean nothing, provided the mission of the milestone is effective, and the context of the ensuing quartile shifts into place.

The Fourth Quartile of The Martian

In essence, especially in thrillers and in many mysteries, romances, YA and other genres, the fourth quartile is consumed by a final chase scene, or push (the case here) toward the moment of truth, or a confrontation of some kind.

The first pages of the quartile show us the machinations of the forthcoming climactic scene, and the second half immserses us in it, sometimes with scenes that ramp u to it, followed by scenes (epilogue in nature) that show us the aftermath.  (For the record, the movies shows us aftermath that the book doesn’t, seizing on the opportunity to show us the post-mission Watney in good health – yes, he survives, did you ever doubt this – and the chance to wax thematic on the strength of the human spirit.

I hope you’ve found this deconstruction illuminating, helpful, and motivating. If nothing else, I hope it makes you want to read the book or see the film, perhaps both, perhaps again, to see how these quartile contexts and milestones are what drive the whole thing, dramatically and emotionally, toward a finish line with a huge payoff.

This post took me over ten hours to research and assemble.  I hope you enjoyed this.  And I hope it licenses at least a glance at the little promo copy below.  Thanks for reading.

*****

My new writing book, “Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant,” is on the surface a book about revision, but in fact is a book about how to connect your narrative to these structural principles in a way that results in emotional resonance for your reader within a powerful and rewarding vicarious experience.  The initial reviews are amazing, I hope you’ll check them out and give the book a shot. This is the book that may get you published after all.

My #1 bestselling first writing book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” introduces these structural principles in exquisite detail, and shows how they empower five other essential realms of writing skills and essences. This book will move you from beginner to skilled professional once you wrap your head around it.

My award-winning second writing book, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling,” shows you the connection between structure, character and narrative strategy as it relates to evoking reader response and emotion.  In other words, why the principles work as well as they do, which may change everything about how you choose and develop your stories.

All three books are published by Writers Digest Books.

29 Comments

Filed under Deconstructing The Martian

29 Responses to The Martian… Deconstructed

  1. Pingback: Story Structure and the Self-Published Home Run - Storyfix.com

  2. Awesome deconstruction, Larry! I definitely want to read the book now. It’s also nice to know I’m not the only one who takes hours to write a post. 🙂

  3. Anne Kaelber

    Larry,

    I read (audiobooked) The Martian and was of course on the edge of my seat, even though I doubted the author *would* kill him off.

    By contrast, I know Joss Whedon, when writing the first season of Buffy, wanted to kill off a ‘main’ character early on, to make the case that *no one* was ‘safe’ on the show. (I’m trying to avoid later spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that point.)

    How do I, as the author, know when I can kill a major character off? Would The Martian have been (as) successful, if Mark had died?

    Anne.

    • Kerry Boytzun

      Great question, Anne!

      There are several ways to answer your question. One is from the reader’s viewpoint in that you observe your own reaction or feelings. How you feel in response to a scene to me is everything. Do you love what happened or did it piss you off? Pissed off in regards to the antagonist is good, unless the antagonist WINS at the end of the movie.

      For example, we watched the second season of True Detective. The end of this second season had the antagonists win it all! We were rooting for the heroes to at least get away from the bad guys, but NO…DARKNESS prevails under the excuse of being “artistic” or under the latest fashion of “surprising” the audience. The heroes got slaughtered. Boy was I surprised and pissed off.

      Hollywood today will kill off Cinderella because it’s a “surprise”. Or she will fail and be somebody’s slave. That is DARK. The goal is to make you feel you have no hope.

      Allegedly, there is a “demand” for darkness. Funny but that’s bull shi++. What’s the number one movie on IMDB? Answer: The Shawshank Redemption. Read the comments on that. That Stephen King story is the number one uplifting story that gives the viewer HOPE that maybe, they can have a meaningful life, win the day, or just get out of their depressing reality.

      YOU, as a writer, need to decide what you are writing. Darkness where very bad things happen, the heroes lose, and evil wins? If that’s what you want, then I suggest you have your hero mixed up with who the antagonist is, and vice versa.

      Back to the example of True Detective, the antagonist overall was a criminal syndicate that had members coming from the LA Police Department, politicians, and powerful people. These guys didn’t lose against the dream team of disparate detectives (and a criminal) pitted against them. It was like watching professional wrestling where they threw scrawny wimps at the goons. Wow…how exciting.

      The story would have made much more SENSE if this corrupt syndicate was the protagonist, and the people who were trying to expose them–were the antagonists. This has been done before–The Sopranos! People rooted for the BAD GUYS! The bad guys won and you expected that.

      So, in my experience as a reader, you are messing with my mind, with story physics, when you are surprising me in that the hero FAILS! It’s upsetting, because you got me all excited, worked me up to getting all in a lather, took me to dinner, then I thought I was gonna get laid in the climax of the finale of the show and NO–instead I get kicked out of the car, left on the curb, wondering what happened? The end result, is I felt betrayed, and somebody wasted my time! I didn’t get my release of pent up story “expectation” to have the hero–be heroic. Again, it’s all about psychology, and if you lead someone on, you are gonna get them pissed off. And they won’t want to see you again, meaning they won’t want to read your NEXT book. Yes, we’re DONE with True Detective.

      Think about the stories that are still popular, about the movies that everyone really watches when they come on for repeats? What NEVER comes on? “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” Because it’s DARK and nobody wins. The hero has a lobotomy and LOSES! The movie The Blind Side–WINNER! People love watching it over and over.

      Twilight book series, and movies, were ultimately a romance, with a killer concept of “what if you were in love with a vampire, and he was in love with you?” Would you then want to become a vampire? You just can’t beat that concept! It was done perfectly, other than at the very end the battle scenes got tiresome, but it was a successful romance. They lived happily ever after! People like a winner! Did they ask who LOST the super bowl, the NBA playoffs, the NCAA anything?

      Do you wish for success? Do you have dreams where you win, are happy? Thinking about losing everything, getting the crap beat out of you, getting murdered in an alley or worse—if you have desires like that—you are NEUROTIC! Yet we have movies that make the psyche experience that! This is intentional but YOU, as a writer must be aware of the difference between a pleasant surprise, and killing off the hero. No Country for Old Men movie is the number one example of surprising the audience with a lame, drive by shooting taking out the hero who was hunting down the main antagonist. It was a betrayal, and killed the story. What you were left with was a lame ass character who got killed by the antagonist. YAY! Another dark movie where your dreams get crushed! SUCKS! And no, I refuse to watch ANYTHING the Coen Brothers put out. They SUCK. (Is that how to build a readership of your work? By pissing them off that much?)

      John Wayne told Burt Reynolds, “never die in a movie. The audience won’t like it.”

      You might “surprise” your reader, but if they feel betrayed–you, the writer–LOSE!”

  4. Kerry Boytzun

    Awesome Larry! I found it very valuable. But what you said next upset me: “This post took me over ten hours to research and assemble.”

    Allow me to explain to the readers why that is upsetting. Short version is that you have someone pouring their heart out in order to help wanna be writers—and ironically the readers of this blog overall—are silent in their response…a response that is equally valuable. Something we can all use or consider. Are we writers or READERS? Last I checked, this blog is NOT goodreads.com.

    I’ve been following—no commenting (long, thoughtful comments)—on this blog for years, and what I really find very ironic (sad actually), is that hardly anyone on this blog actually WRITES (thoughtful comments)! You would think that people who want to write stories, would have a lot to say on a writing blog. Yet I see more writing comments on tech geek blogs. SOME of you have experience writing. I would love to know your opinions and experiences on this stuff…AS you learned it and applied it. Sorry, but being “BUSY” doesn’t cut the mustard. I’m sure that behind my back, people are calling me an a-hole. Fine, but somebody has to say that y’all are sitting on your hands.

    This blog isn’t going to be around forever ya know. I personally get what Larry teaches and that’s only because I work the crap out of the material into my own writing and other people’s stories (TV, movies, novels). Hell my wife, after 3 years of this, is actually thinking that the novel I’m working on might be a star, and that I’m starting to make sense. That wouldn’t have happened without Larry. I would still be on “just write” and copying Michael Crichton’s novel format (my original idea 4 years ago).

    Larry spent 10 hours on this blog entry. God knows how long on his books. Sorry Larry, but it just pisses me off to see you busting your chops at this and pretty much crickets in thoughtful responses that help us all think about writing better, and in this blog case, deconstruction of a story.

    Wow. 10 hours of work to deconstruct a novel, and that’s by the pro! So what do we take away from the 10 hours point I’m drilling?

    It will take us longer. It takes time and effort to get a feel for recognizing the structure in a novel. Larry performed an excellent example of ACTIVE reading, whereby one reads with a purpose or agenda, in this case to analyze and deconstruct a story’s critical turning points.

    The amount of effort it takes to develop your “story sensibility” is no different than the amount of court time to develop your “tennis sensibility”. Or the amount of time you have to put, plus the effort, to develop a toned, muscular physique.

    On that last example, it pisses me off when people make comments about how things come easy to successful people in their field, athletics, or that they have a fit, toned body. The lazy or passive people will say that it’s genetics–that make one fit, muscular–or fat. Sure.

    NONE of anything in life comes easy, that is for anything that requires you to be ACTIVE. Being “active” means to “participate with” to be involved. Dynamic, not static. Active, not passive. Being active is living. Mediation is also active. Zoning out to the TV or Internet—is passive. Passive means something else is in control of your focus—instead of YOU.

    Myself, I’ve been “actively” analyzing Larry’s books and applying them to any story I come across, from a novel, movie, to a TV series. I started 3 years ago at this. I hit this hard core and try to give back to Larry via his blog, and help other people learn this craft. Because even the rookie can share what is working, and not, while attempting to create a GREAT story.

    For example, I actively watched Terminator Genesis. Guess what? NO story of worth. The entire movie rides the coattails of the 1984 version and the liquid terminator version. Other than the banter with the main characters (which was superb), the movie is a failure. Nothing happens! A story is about something happening, but rehashing your previous movies–ain’t cuttin’ it. FAIL.

    BUT, I and you can learn a lot from actively deconstructing this stuff.

    Even BETTER is you guys sharing your experience on this. A so called “failure” is more valuable than a success! For example, share a thought or opinion on this blog regarding something pertaining to the technical nature of the post. In this case, it’s about deconstruction. How do YOU deconstruct? What works and what doesn’t? Is it easy or hard? Can you find the FPP or not? If yes, was it easy? If no, why?

    A great question is how do you create your FPP scene into that percent of the book? Say, this book it’s 22% of the book.

    For my book I’m working on, I know the FPP. But I am finding I have to add and subtract scenes, length of the scene to make the FPP be in that percentile. Even more difficult is creating the pinch points, mid points at the appropriate place—when I haven’t even written those scenes! It’s like I am making mile markers when I don’t know the length of the mile yet. That is rough, tough, and interesting all at once. Ultimately I am finding that the best focus for me is the SCENE. Stories are a series of scenes, not sentences and paragraphs. The scene focus helps me but I have to “actively” wrap my head around that AS I create these scenes.

    Spending about 3 years on Larry’s material like a maniac has beaten his ideas into my dense head so that my story sensibility is finally starting to come around. What that looks like for me, is that my imagination is starting to produce scenes that have a start, beginning and end. Hell, even my dreams are turning into structured scenes.

    What are the rest of you experiencing with this material? Please share! If you aren’t using it, then share why…are you just not into creating a story-novel-screenplay? Do you have doubts?

    Funny but some of you a few years ago I spoke with personally on this stuff…the sharing of one’s thoughts on the material. THEN—the flood gates opened up. There was those who couldn’t get traction, those who felt their story sucked, those who were pantsing away to tens of thousands of words (scenes) only to look at it all and seeing one big, confusing pile of dung, masquerading as a story.

    Imagine if we shared about THAT! The comments would be INTERESTING.

    Okay. I’m done. I’ll wager that nobody says nothin’, other than a Tweet.

    • Anne Kaelber

      Kerry,

      I’m a new(er) reader to Larry’s blog — maybe only in this past year? I too have noticed there’s not usually a floodgate of comments. In fact, I think this week may have been the first time one of my comments got a reply from someone (Thank you Joel!) — and now you, too! Thank you. 🙂

      For me, I am struggling with comprehension. The *words* all make sense. But when I sit down to write a good, tight ‘concept’ or try to take (what I think is) my concept and move it to a premise…… it all falls apart in my head. So, I have been doing a LOT of reading — all Larry’s case studies that he’s shared, going back and watching a movie he deconstructs, etc. My stories develop visually in my head: I see scenes which begin to unwrap the concept or the premise. So for me, the movie deconstructions, with how tightly filmed the good ones have to be, is helping me because (as you may be gathering already): I tend to over-write.

      I’m a long way from my days of five written pages on the gown and hairstyle the Duchess was married in (an OLD fantasy piece of mine). The manuscript I’m working on now was up to 96,000 (pantsed) words in the previous draft. And that was a *second* draft. This time around, I started over (I think I kept less than 5k words of the previous draft). I got to around 45,000 words (and had to take a break to re-work the plot line to get *that* far) before I realized: it’s *not* right. So, back to the books, the blog posts, etc.

      I am re-creating my process, my method for writing a novel. I am coming from solid pantser territory and I was hooked on Larry’s book when he commented on the crazy number of re-writes it takes, when there’s no plan taking me from milestone to milestone — if what I had were even milestones.

      I’ll be honest. I was shocked to hear that Larry spent 10 hours on the deconstruction. I guess he makes it look *easy* (which I know it’s not because I struggle with seeing the FPP, SPP, etc in my own work, let alone another person’s work). I know the milestones are not typically open for subjective opinions. But I wouldn’t have chosen the points Larry did. I read the book several months past and recently saw the movie, so it’s not what I would call “fresh” in my mind. I’ve probably read 10 fiction books since The Martian. I agreed (or cheered that I was right) when Larry called the Hook as “I’m F**ked.” — totally made sense to me because I was! However, he lost me on the First Plot Point *and* on the First pinch point.

      For the First Pinch point, I saw *Mars* as the antagonist: it was what Mark (our MC) was battling against and it was doing it’s level best to kill him. Now, I am guessing (!) it doesn’t qualify because it’s a passive antagonism — Mars doesn’t give a sh!t. So, if I were taking a test, I would have missed the First Pinch Point.

      I think I would agree with the Second Pinch Point because it involved Mark trying to survive Mars, when he blows everything up. But “bring him home alive” didn’t strike me as the First Plot Point any more than the crew turning around was the right Second Plot Point — neither directly involves Mark Were people talking about or taking action to help Mark? Yes. But for a *Plot* point, I would have expected Mark to be closer to center-stage.

      As you can see, I’m a newbie at learning story structure and how to make it work for me. I don’t normally have trouble taking something (instructional) I’m reading and then applying it, unless it’s math. I am struggling enough that I’m not even sure what questions to ask!

      For the current draft of my novel, I’ve used so many methods to try to *see* the plot line, character arcs, etc. As much as there’s a tiny, whiny part of me that wants to go back to pantsing it, I *know* I don’t want yet another novel malingering in the “I pantsed it and it looks like dog barf” pile.

      This has been a long-winded comment to say, “Oh, I’m paying attention. I just can’t figure out what to ask to unravel my confusion.”

      Thank you for a great comment. I may never forgive Joss for [spoiler-name-from-Buffy] or [spoiler-name-from-Firefly/Serenity], but those two deaths were possible because of the quantity of characters *and* neither of them were *lead* character. I enjoy movies like Fallen, which play with who the protagonist really is. One day, I might like to try my hand at something like that. But not until I have the basics down.

      If you know Mark won’t/can’t die, why was I was on the edge of my seat?

      Anne.

      • Anne, it’s tricky business, killing off a character.

        The short answer is, does this serve the story, or is it grandstanding?

        Of course, you have to consider your genre and your audience; killing off a beloved character in a cozy mystery would be stupid. Doing it in historical fiction set in revolution-era France, not so stupid.

        But doing it just for effect is bad storytelling. Consider your story and whether the character’s death is what’s needed to move things forward.

        (Or, if you’re Michael Connelly, start 4 or 5 series with different main characters, realize you can’t maintain the momentum, and kill off a really nice guy, but in a way that fuels another book in a series you plan to continue. No, I didn’t ask him ’cause he won’t go to lunch with me, but that’s my guess.

      • Also: the frustrating death in Serenity (especially since I still called the character by his name in A Knight’s Tale) made me soooooo angry.

        But, watch what happens in the next few scenes. Was it the only way to deliver that pace? No. Was it the best way? I’m not Joss Wheedon, I don’t know.

        As for “if I know he won’t die, why was I riveted?” — that’s just plain good writing. You watch a drama every week on television, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to kill off a main character. But good writing will make you wonder if, maybe, this time, they’ll make an exception.

        Or, it’s just vicarious experience (my favorite phrase of Larry’s.) You really have put yourself in Mark’s position, and know the terror, the panic, the pain he’s feeling. He doesn’t know he’s going to make it, so you feel empathy. (I am reminded of comments Sam makes to Frodo in the movie version, but I gotta to, so ask if it doesn’t leap to mind.)

        • Okay, okay, one last thing, Anne: if you haven’t seen Robert Redford’s All Is Lost go find it.

          You will not know the ending until the ending. Last 8 seconds define the film. And it is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, despite the pain and agony and fear.

    • Dude!
      Did you just spent a decent day’s worth of words trying to shame people into doing the same? In my experience, offending the reader and taking 10x the number of words required is going to get you TL;DR’d (and won’t get you out of the slush pile either). I understand the loyalty and the desire for community, but I think most people can’t afford the time to drop 1K meeting your standard for thoughtfulness. Uncut mustard aside, I get a couple of hours a day to write and that has to be used for my own work and for workshopping.
      As far as your concern with tentpoles, my own take is that structure tells us where those poles have to end up, not that they need to be bang on through all drafts. Even if you have a great grasp of structure, there are going to be things that need to be changed and things that can be moved or modified. Get your poles in place and fill out your outline. Then write and adjust during the rewrites so that your structure ends up in the right place.

    • I’m too busy putting it into practice to turn this into a writing community. You’ll also note that Larry rarely comments. This stuff down here is not, I suspect, why he blogs.

      But if you want a writing community, Shawn “StoryGrid” Coyne let me set one up at his site (which you also want to be reading.)

      http://storygrid.com/forum/

      Wanna chew the fat with 500 writers? C’mon over.

  5. Ten hours. Wow! Thanks, Larry, for taking the time to do this for us. Very helpful.

  6. Anne Kaelber

    One last thought: I frequently have to try multiple times to get my comment to post. Perhaps there’s readers out there who give up on the comment they intended to make?

    Anne.

  7. Thanks Larry. This is my favourite deconstruction so far. Loved how you made the ROLE of the plot/pinch/mid-points so clear. The FPP establishes a reason for the rest of the story. The midpoint signalling the shift from reaction to action. The SPP locks us in for the ride to the finish — no more mystery. Pinch points reinforcing conflict and the stakes. You made these easy-to-understand, so congrats and thank you.
    Also like that you made it clear that story must give rise to a question and it should extend beyond the “how”.

  8. Thanks for writing this Larry. I know you haven’t written one in a while because of the time it takes and the lack of response ( I remember the last story deconstruction you posted).

    I have to say I thoroughly enjoy your deconstructions, and have bought all of your books except for the most recent one.

    As for comments, the best way to get comments might have been to break this post up into more than one post, and then let people guess what they thought the next plot point is. Other than that, it probably helps to understand that there are dozens of people reading per every comment- if you check Google Analytics, you’ll see that’s probably the case.

    There are also over 60 shares, which is nice. And for those of you who don’t comment-please share the post at least!

    BTW- I also am having problems posting this comment, so that’s def something worth checking…possibly your comment plugin? It says spamcheck enabled, but I’m not seeing any math problems or captchas.

  9. Not exactly on the topic of “The Martian,: but, folks, I have to say–Larry really hit it out of the ballpark with his latest book, STORY FIX. In ENGINEERING, he gave us 6 competencies, and in PHYSICS, he gave us 6 essences. I thought, “Yep, it would be good to consider these in relation to my novel, but how exactly?” In his newest book, Larry puts all 12 together in a graded chart that forces us to address them in our own manuscript. Wow, what a great organizational tool. Thank you, thank you, Larry. You just get better and better! 🙂

    • I have to offer a hearty +1 to this.

      For NaNo this year, I started writing a previously-outlined project. I think it is really solid conceptually and I had good tentpoles in place in my outline. I wrote 10000 words over the first week and it wasn’t working.

      I know it is Nano and a zero-draft, but *nothing* was working, so I went back to STORY FIX and it helped me find some of what I was missing (character, voice, vicarious-ness?). I went back and adjusted the outline (surprisingly small changes) and started again.

      It’s an absolute dream writing this story right now (if only the words were prettier!) and I didn’t need to do a bunch of soul-searching to find the problem.

      Thanks Larry.

  10. Excellent! Thank you for this Larry. I bought the book this weekend and read the first quartile. I’m proud to say that I initially thought the technician finding proof that Watney was alive was not the first plot point, but I corrected myself using the knowledge I’ve gained from you from previous deconstructions. I’m all smiles, and I can wait to color code this book as I did with The Help book. These will make great color coded tutorials for my kids when they read these books too.

    Shane

  11. P.S. And speaking of that 10 hours Larry, you know I’ve told you I thought you should set up a course or book with nothing but story deconstructions. You spend those 10 hours, but after that, the product of that 10 hours of labor becomes passive income, either in the form of a book or a paid subscription course like Teaching Sells. I’m envisioning a book or course with numerous stories that I love deconstructed with lovely tent diagrams. I’d gladly pay for that. 🙂

    • As an additional thought to Shane’s.

      Something that I would pay for would be a side-by-side deconstruction of “the book” vs “the movie” for something like The Martian where I think the adaptation has some differences in plot/pinch points (I believe they did in the Martian, but perhaps there are better examples). Seeing *why* the screenwriters changed things (aside from and in addition to running time) would be a valuable lesson.

  12. Sandy

    About the comments: I’m one of those that writes a comment – then it won’t post. And I’m usually out of time to repeat. Now, I copy my comment and when it bombs out, I re-enter and paste it in and it seems to appear.

    About the Deconstruction: For my learning style, Larry, these Deconstructions are like gifts from new writer heaven. By showing where the story structure marks to hit are in a published novel – it is an excellent learning tool. Excellent. I don’t know anyone that does a Deconstruction like you do. I have studied every one you’ve done. A huge investment of your time but overwhelming appreciation from a new writer for that investment. I’m not proficient at marking the Core Competencies in a movie but I’m finally beginning to see them in novels that I love. This Deconstruction is so clear that I’m understanding how to strenghten my own novel. Thanks, Larry!

  13. The comment challenge is an issue I’ve been struggling with on Larry’s behalf (I babysit the geekery in the background here at StoryFix.)

    Here’s what you could do: send me an email every time you comment and it fails. Every time. You’ll think you’re being a pest, but you’ll instead be keeping me posted about it still being broken.

    joel@spinhead.com (with my apologies for the frustration)

  14. *Just letting you know I tried a few times last night to post this comment and the page kept timing out. Trying again today, we’ll see if it works.

    Thank you so much for this post! Every time I have dug into advice on writing I have always been looking for something like the information you’re providing. I’ve often thought if I could just systematically deconstruct some of my favorite books, I would find a sort of secret recipe for success.

    I know there’s more to writing than just a systematically sound structure, but I’m still so happy to have found you as a resource. I’m going to start burning through your published works on writing as well to learn as much as I can. Thanks again for everything you do. I know I’ll learn a great deal from you!

  15. Larry, thank you for this incredible post. I’m a new writer, with one thriller out, and I have to say: You kinda just freaked me out. I didn’t have a conscious awareness of structure while writing my thriller, so it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I checked my quartiles and found them at — and here’s what I can’t believe — 26%, 51%, and 74%. What the hell?!? Are you, like, a wizard or something? Is story structure so ingrained that we gravitate toward it without even realizing it?

    I’m more aware of structure with the private-eye procedural I’m working on now, mainly because I haven’t figured out a way to get a dead body into the opening chapter and I really really really want a dead body in the opening chapter. Not sure if “dead body pronto” is a structural or genre thing, but my current lack thereof is bugging me, so I know I’ll be addressing it at some point.

    Thank you again for your insightful analysis — it’s much appreciated.

    P.S. Really enjoy your posts on The Kill Zone.

    • Wow. What that says, Michael, is that you’ve absorbed enough stories in your life to see the natural order of things. Because, yes, story, structured like that, is built into, if not our consciousness, at least our culture.

      While you need a hook pronto, does it have to be a body? Do what’s expected, in an unexpected way.

      (I’m not Larry, but I loved your comment and had to jump in.)

  16. @Michael – I think you’re the wizard here, and what you’ve discovered is something to be celebrated. Those story milestone placements indicated a well-developed, or perhaps even natural, story “sensibility,” which is the holy grail of fiction. All these principles exists simple to guide us toward a higher sensibility. Even those who claim not to believe in story structure, or wizards, succeed because of a keen story sensibility… or vice versa. Congrats, keep studying, you’ll only become a stronger writer for it! Thanks for sharing this. (And Joel is right… find that hook!)

    • Thank you, Larry and Joel. I think you’re right — I’ve been a huge reader from childhood onward, with a strong preference for mysteries and thrillers, so I guess I’ve absorbed a sense of story from those amazing books without even realizing it. I know I have a ton more to learn, though, and I love that, so please keep the analysis and insights coming! Thanks again…

  17. Pingback: Breaking Down The Novel Structure And Deconstruction of Memoirs Of A Geisha | Ashley Huang