Deconstructing “The Martian”

Martian book cover for KZ

Here’s an amazing truth: perhaps the most illuminating, valuable, and directly transferable – to the act of writing itself – thing an author can do in the pursuit of an understanding of how stories are developed and implemented.  Which is… to tear apart – to deconstruct – a novel or film that is judged worthy of study, based either on critical or commercial acclaim.

Today’s deconstructed story is backed by both.

I mention film in the same breath as novels for two reasons: novelists can learn just as much from a good film as they can from a good movie (if you don’t buy that, then chances are you don’t believe in something called story structure, either, so never mind), at least relative to narrative flow and dramatic efficacy, and doing so only takes two hours, versus the 6 to 10 hours it takes (at least for me) to work my way through the latest Grisham.

Of course, just like doing exploratory surgery or trying to find the Titanic (back when that hadn’t been done), it helps when one knows what to look for.

When you do know what to look for, and you use that as context for a deep dive into successful stories, you have the means to send your learning curve vertical in short order.

If the principles of story structure and dramatic/character arcs are calling to you, or refusing to accept your rejection of them, or are already helping you but you’d like more… today’s post (and the links) are for you.

One of the major little-guy-wins-big writing stories of the past few years is The Martian

… published by Andy Weir in 2009.  There’s a really rewarding writer’s backstory about how he took this from an unambitious series of blog posts to a free self-published Kindle to the best-selling 99-cent Kindle ever, leading (unsolicited) to an agent and a six-figure advance, and then (four days after that news hit) to a movie deal. The fruit of which is still playing at a theater near you.

If you’d like that backstory, click HERE (so I don’t have to repeat it… you’ll be taken to my website for a post that covers that ground). But…

… don’t stay there for long, unless you encounter the forthcoming link, there, before you get to the next sentence, here.  Because the real gold – the deconstruction itself, in exquisite structural and narrative detail – is in another Storyfix post… which you can read HERE.

As a student of the craft of writing fiction, I think you’ll find this a worthwhile exercise.  One that will nourish both your wellspring craft, but your continuing hunger for it.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

14 thoughts on “Deconstructing “The Martian”

  1. Thank you Larry, for a great post. I find these posts about story structure and the craft of writing the most useful and enlightening. The one question I had was do you think the quartile structure you outline can work with the three act structure? I can see obviously similarities between the two. But would an author get into trouble attempting to use both by welding the two together? Just wondering what you thought.Thanks.

    • Great question, James. And I think you’ll like the answer. The “four-part structure” that I work with IS the classic 3-Act structure, in every way. So why not call it that? Another great question.

      3-Act structure, which fuels everything from Hollywood and is a great resource for novelists, as well, has a middle “act” that is twice as long as the two acts flanking it. It is, in fact, the second and third quartiles of a story. This middle second Act is divided into to parts, via a Midpoint milestone. Because each of those two halves of the middle Act prescribe very different contexts for the character’s relationship to the plot, the whole thing actually becomes FOUR parts (Act 1, the first half of Act II, the second half of Act II, and Act III). These four different contexts for the story act as a key to release everything else about the writing and reading experience (dramatic arc, character arc, plot evolution and escalation, etc.), and thus, become one of (if not THE) most powerful tools a novelist can apply to nail the story sooner than flailing around in search of this solution without this knowledge.

      Hope this helps!

      • That does make a lot of sense and it works well with James Scott Bell’s work on story structure and plot. I’ve been creating templates to help me keep everything in order. So I’m going to work this in to what I already have. Thanks a bunch.

        • You’re right, James, the way Jim and I approach and teach craft is perfectly congruent. Not because we huddle up at Starbucks once a week to compare notes (though that would be fun, for sure), but because craft is what it is (as opposed to process, which can be all over the map). For example, we both have ebooks out there dealing with the “middle/midpoint” of a novel, with differing words and models for the exact same structural opportunity. I’ve yet to see anything we differ on, and thus, it affirms us both. We didn’t invent any of this, we are merely shining a light upon the same gem.

          • I noted the same emphasis on mid-point as well. There may be more than one way to skin a cat [no offense intended to cat lovers. I love them too.], but you have to follow certain principles or the skin will be ruined. The some is true no matter the craft. Thanks for helping us beginners understand this.

  2. Great reading, Larry! (I read both the linked posted). I had heard of The Martian, but only vaguely, but now that I know its genesis, I can appreciate even more your great deconstruction post. This is really helpful, not just for beginners but for us old dogs who can still learn new tricks.

    • Thanks PJ. When I post this stuff, one of the thoughts kicking around in the back of my head is (and I’m serious here)… I wonder what PJ Parrish will think of this. So it’s good to hear this worked for you. Thanks much.

      • But now I need to go deconstruct one of my own books to really see how it works! I’m not kidding. It would make me a better teacher, I am sure.

  3. I saw the movie this weekend and am about a third of the way through the book. Your deconstructions are always a big help. Also liked your paper clip illustration. Simple, low-tech, yet vivid. I’m going to try that with my WIP.

    Thanks for your long hours of work on this deconstruction.

  4. I really need to buy this book. I loved your deconstruction. It only takes you 6-10 hours to read Grisham? Man, I must be really slow. While I read I investigate, make notes, and tear apart the author’s work, so it takes me much, much longer. I could spend an hour on one chapter. *awkward smile*

    • Thanks Sue. Deconstructing as we read perhaps changes the reading experience (sometimes my wife will say to me, “Why can’t you just sit on the deck and get lost in a novel like everyone else? Lose the notepad and relax!” So we’re cursed in this regard. We can’t “un-see” the inner mechanics of a novel when it leaps off the page at us. That said – as you know – this is an amazing affirmation of the principles of craft. Nay-sayers have only to look inside a novel – pretty much ANY novel – and there it all is, making the story work. Thanks for your comments and contributions. Am reading your novel, and I see all this knowledge at work there, paying off for you.

      • I don’t think an understanding of the craft lessens the experience, quite the contrary. It enhances it. Knowing how something works and why it works increases one’s appreciation of the skill involved it’s creation. I think the same is true of any art form or craft. I make longbows and knives and rebuild canoes and the more I learn about them, the more I admire them.

  5. ‘Stellar” post~!
    I read The Martian before I heard the movie was coming (but just barely), so the linked analysis was spot on…
    And it gave me an idea or two on how to sketch out the quartile points and mid-points of my WIP a bit more than I thought I’d be ready to do at this point.
    Still a bunch of story ahead of me, but like Google-maps, I’ve got a couple of better routes to follow.
    Thanks, too, for confirming my 3-acts-is-4-acts-in- disguise assumption ~ the 3 acts aren’t thirds in the way quartiles are fourths.
    g (George)

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