Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

by James Scott Bell

Last week my lovely wife and I were in New York for ThrillerFest, and as usual found time to enjoy some of the city. We did the Strand bookstore (where I scored an autographed Mickey Spillane from a spinner of used paperbacks), then walked up Park Avenue to my favorite building in all of New York: Grand Central Station, the beaux-arts beauty of midtown.

Why do I love it? Start with the clock tower sculpture, because it captures the robust spirit of classic New York, back a hundred years ago when the city was the unapologetic colossus of commerce. That’s why you have the three Greek gods above the clock. Mercury, god of merchants, dominates the piece, with Hercules (representing strength) and Minerva (representing the arts and professions) on either side. I love coming out of the subway stop, looking up and seeing this magnificence.

Inside Grand Central, the main concourse always seems larger than I remember. You can’t help thinking of Cary Grant at the ticket window in North by Northwest, or any of a number of movies from the 30s and 40s featuring New Yorkers getting on trains. There’s a dining concourse below, with our favorite oyster bar. Cindy and I shared a dozen, along with a nice chardonnay.

And we attended the International Thriller Writers Awards banquet, where I was honored to receive the award for Best E-Book Original (for Romeo’s Way). (And thank you for all the kind comments that have already been posted here at TKZ.) It was a delight for Cindy and I to share a table with the amazing Joanna Penn and her husband, Jonathan (Joanna, writing as J. F. Penn, was a Best E-Book Original finalist for her novel Destroyer of Worlds.)

The coolest thing about ThrillerFest is all the off-the-cuff conversation with fellow writers, usually at the hotel bar following the day’s proceedings. That, in fact, is where I caught up with brother John Gilstrap and one of our longtime TKZ commenters, Basil Sands. We were soon joined by weapons expert Chris Grall, and it wasn’t long before John and Chris were instructing us on the best way to cut people to ribbons with a sharp knife … and exactly what a body does when hit by a blast from a shotgun.

Also got to chat with TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and current blogmate Mark Alpert.

Reed Farrel Coleman (photo by Adam Martin)

Another guy I always like to see at these conventions is Reed Farrel Coleman. Reed was an ITW Award finalist for his novel Where It Hurts. At the Awards “after party” I had a chance to ask him about his writing method, as I’d read in interviews that he describes himself as a pure “pantser.”

I started by asking what his novel was about, and Reed gave me the backstory of his lead character, Gus Murphy. How he was a cop with a family, but now is divorced and off the force, working a low-end job, drowning in grief due of the death of his son. “That’s where the book starts,” Reed said.

“So you start with a character and a set-up, and then start writing?” I asked.

Reed nodded, then added that he goes “over and over” the first fifty pages until he feels they are just right. Then he moves on.

“How many drafts to you do?”

“One,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye. Then he quickly added that he revises and revises as he goes along, so in effect he’s doing multiple “drafts” by the time it’s all wrapped up.

I wrote Reed a follow-up email. “My thought is that as you are making your way through after those first fifty pages, your brain is starting to come up with future scenes. IOW, the ‘outline’ is taking shape organically, in your imagination, and you start to write toward those scenes.”

Reed answered, “Yes, unconsciously, at least, knowing those early pages cold lets my mind work on an outline for the rest of the book. I don’t think of it that way, but it’s a fair assessment of what’s going on.”

And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.

Guess what happens at the 20% mark of Where It Hurts? Yep:

When I heard the sirens, I went back around to the front of the house and waited. But I was through waiting to make up my mind. I was in now, with both feet.

And just to amuse myself, I went looking to see if Reed, by way of his storytelling DNA, had included a mirror moment. You bet he did, and right in the middle where it belongs:

Was this, I wondered, what it was like coming out of a coma? Is that what Krissy, Annie, and I were doing? Were we coming around at last? Had enough time elapsed? Had we all finished acting out? Had we finally proved to ourselves and one another that no amount of pain or grief or self-flagellation or magical thinking or deals with God or guilt or fury would restore to us what we had lost? Was it okay to live again?

My goal as a writing instructor is to “pop the hood” on what writers have technically accomplished (even if they don’t realize how they did it), take it apart, and explain how any writer can assemble similar parts for a similar effect.

Reed’s method is one way to go about things. (See? I come in peace, my pantsing brothers and sisters!) By churning over those first fifty pages, Reed is firming up the foundation for his entire novel. By rewriting his previous day’s work, he’s letting his mind suggest scene possibilities that build upon that foundation. “Plotters” do the same thing, only the churning comes before the writing as they prepare a map, strategy and tactics.

The important thing is that the writer, sooner or later, brings order to the story stuff. That’s what structure is all about. It’s getting things lined up so the readers can best relate to the tale you want to tell them. Even more, the story you want to move them. Without order, no matter how “hot” or “creative” you feel about what you write, most readers are going to be frustrated or, worse, annoyed.

My advice: try to avoid that.

I love New York, but it’s always great to get back to L.A., where I am currently in the process of bringing order to my next Mike Romeo thriller.

What about you? Where are you in the “ordering” process? 

22 thoughts on “Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

  1. I always read the day’s production (in hard copy, in bed at night) before moving on. I heard Reed speak at an MWA University several year ago, where he described the process you’ve mentioned above, and I began doing the first 50 pages thing on my next couple of books. I still do something similar, but it might be 30 pages, or the first 5 or 6 chapters. And your analysis is spot on. Knowing what’s going on in the beginning helps set up what happens next, and I don’t get the cold-sweat heebie-jeebies from trying to plot or outline a whole book in advance.

  2. In the fruitful instruction today, you mention the Strand Bookstore. At my age, I’m probably too old to get to NYC, land at the airport, get to the hotel, and then make my way through the NYC hordes to the Strand after a day’s rest.

    Pity. I have a classmate who lived in NYC after we graduated, and he made two or three trips a month to the Strand.

    I sit in envy of you both.

  3. I think I’m a hybrid.

    I used to be all pantser. Then I was beaten by the structure people into planning things out, which led to me not writing anything for years. Sucked all the fun out of it. I grew to hate writing. My mind just doesn’t work that way. It needs for me to come along on the adventure and write what I see.

    I do my best by writing the movie in my head. I write scenes as I see them. When I’m done with that, I figure out where these scenes fall in relation to each other and what I still need. Then I write that. I polish as I go, too. I can’t stand the thought of having a huge mess to fix at the end and having to tackle it all over again. For me it’s like cleaning as I go while I cook. If I had to face a messy kitchen every time I’d never make anything but toast.

    • Cynthia, what you describe is something I do before my writing. In the creative process, I like to take a stack of blank index cards to a coffee place and just start writing down random scene ideas. Whatever comes to my mind. Then I shuffle the cards and take out two at a time and see if there are further connections. Eventually, I start to arrange the scenes according to my sign post structure idea. So we’re doing the same sort of thing, only at different times and in different ways.

      Isn’t fiction writing a marvelous, wonderful alchemy?

  4. What a fun meet and greet! I’d love to hobnob with other professionals that way.

    That first draft is the hardest, so I’ve been perfecting my prewriting techniques. I worked through Larry Brooks’s book on Story Engineering (I have Plot and Structure memorized–thanks, Jim!). It took two weeks of tortuous thinking to get this book figured out. But rewriting an outline is a lot less painful than rewriting a book.

  5. I’m a discovery writer – I write to find out what’s going to happen. I usually have some idea of the end, though that may change as I write.

    Sometimes I’ll only know part of the story, so I’ll write that part. And maybe other parts as I think of them. And as I write, everything starts to fit together in my mind as arcs and structure. When I’ve got enough parts, I’ll put them together as seamlessly as possible, like a complicated 3D jigsaw puzzle. But, of course, there’s always missing pieces, so then I get to write more parts to fill in those holes. And sometimes I have extra parts left over, which get saved in a folder in case they’ll fit better in another work.

    That may sound like a lot of work, but I love it. I love writing, and I love editing – the moulding of words into art.

    My works have good structure. My writing process has less structure, because if I try to structure it too much while I’m drafting, I strangle my creativity. That’s just how my brain works.

    I love visiting New York City. When I was younger, I never really had the urge to go there, until a friend of mine moved there. Now I have a free place to stay in the East Village, so I try to go every couple of years. I’d go more often if I could afford it. But I grew up in small towns, and currently live in a small city (compared to other places; it’s one of the largest cities in the province), and NYC, as great as it is to visit, is too big and busy for me for me to even try to live there.

    True fact: Regina, Saskatchewan, is about twice the geographical size of Manhattan, with about 14% of the population.

  6. Hi, Jim

    First off, a belated congratulations on winning the ITW Aware for Best E-Book Original! That has to be its own special “thrill.” What a fine cap to what sounded like a very enjoyable trip to NYC and Thrillerfest.

    I’m definitely all about ordering a novel before beginning. I need to know what the story is about, the theme, the overall structure, and then a beat outline, which becomes the basis for my scenes. I have tried to work out individual scenes in greater detail in advance, but so far have found the “fleshing out” comes in actually writing them, assisted as needed by a quick scene sketch and/or journaling.

  7. Congratulations on the award, Jim. I look forward to reading the next book in the Mike Romeo series.

    I like your phrase – the “ordering” process. I soak up everything I can learn on this blog. I’ve loved the discussions (debates) on outlining vs. organic writing. I’ve read Plot and Structure several times, and read (and studied) Larry Brooks series (Story Engineering, Physics, and Fix).

    I’m gradually evolving into a hybrid, laying out the mile stones, especially the mirror moment, the four-part structure (Larry Brooks – it works for me), and key scenes. Then writing organically from one plot point to the next, knowing subconsciously to use the LOCK system for each scene, as I tell the story. It’s been more fun writing it that way, seeing where the characters take me.

    But what I discovered recently, after a discussion here about the creative work the mind does on auto-pilot at night, is the increased productivity achieved by giving the brain an assignment before turning in for the night. You’ve discussed making a list of all the possible plot twists. Donald Maass always challenges us, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” And after studying J.K. Rowling’s techniques, I think she looked for the most crazy and unbelievable plot twists. So at night, I get out scrap paper and make a list of everything crazy, terrible, or surprising that could be a plot twist in the coming scenes.

    I’ve been surprised at what new twists and turns my brain has offered me, when I wake the next morning. It’s also made the actual writing process more productive.

  8. I am currently in the ordering process of a new idea~ the “what if / elevator pitch” came as a bolt from the blue, and now I’m in the “what do I need to do now” stage~ some research, some rough outlining, a little character sketching ~ getting ready to plant the seat of the pants and start connecting the dots (mileposts).

    And I ditto the (belated), congrats, Sir~ well done~


  9. This, among many things, is where you and I are in complete lockstep:

    “And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.”

    As you certainly know, this fundamental morsel of craft is learnable (“Doorway of no return”… “first plot point”… they are exactly the same thing). In fact, it’s also teachable… just as teachable as demonstrating how, as you note, to “cut someone to shreds with knife.”

  10. Congratulations on wining Best E-Book Original for Romeo’s Way. I just bought it.
    ThrillerFest sounds like a wonderful experience, fun too. Perhaps I’ll try to get there next time around.

  11. I’m more of a plotter with minor pantser elements. I make broad, general plans of the plot, then as I write, think up more detailed schematics of the next 3-5 chapters, then wait until those chapters are written before doing it again. I need overall structure or I lose control of things, but I don’t have every scene planned blow-by-blow right at the beginning of a project.

  12. Hi Jim,

    Congratulations on your award.

    It’s always good to get out of town and see other professionals in your field. Steve Zaillian says, “To be a professional writer is giving yourself a life sentence in solitary confinement.” Getting away always helps keep things in perspective.

    I spent a lot of time in New York in the 80’s, it has a pulse that can drive your creativity like nowhere else. Glad to hear you and your wife enjoyed the city.

    There is nothing wrong with structure. A thriller can’t work without it no matter what method makes it come about. You show this above.

    Knowing structure lets you write the hell out of the scene or pull back when you need to. This is why I’m a disciple of Larry’s. It works.

    Best Always,


  13. First of all, Oh Em Gee, CONGRATULATIONS on the award. That is some august company you are in.

    As for order, I try to think in terms of the 3 act structure. I give myself an approximate word count based on genre (for example, I will want a legal thriller to clock in around 80K, whereas a pulpy romance will be about 30K)

    Then I divide it into quarters:

    25% – end of Act I: I need to have the setting, the major players, and the primary conflict on the table.

    50% – Prof Bell’s mirror moment: The main character and the “why the hell am I here moment.”

    75% – end of Act II: Things are a mess. Our heroes are in the clutches of the bad guys. Quantrill has just raided Lawrence. You’ve just had to ‘fess up to the gang that you’re not really a computer hacker. It’s bad . . . .

    100% – Those blessed words “The End.”

    Of course, all of this is negotiable. But, for example, if I’m too linear in Act I and arrive too quickly, I know that I need to add to it, perhaps a subplot. In my WIP, I just realized that if she reads the blood-stained diary now, the book is essentially over, so, as one does, she is going to be mugged and it will be stolen. For me, those act marks are just like a rally checkpoint, to check my time and distance, and keep me on track for the finish line. It’s essentially a 4-bullet-point outline.


  14. I do the same type of “pantsing”. For me it’s easier to just write and fix along the way. Coincidentally, I’m a planner in ever other area of my life. Go figure.
    Congrats again on your win! You certainly deserve it. Looking forward to the next Mike Romeo tale.

  15. At some point, the story takes over, and to proceed with integrity, the writer is compelled to abandon all the careful planning. Resistance is futile! So I’m a hybrid, with each book beginning as a planner and morphing into a pantser.

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