Playing with Story Structure – Interview with Steven Brust

Steven BrustSteven Brust is the author of twenty-six novels so far, with his most popular following the assassin Vlad Taltos (starting with the novel Jhereg).  His most recent novel, The Incrementalists, is a collaboration with author Skyler White.

Steven is also a member of the Pre-Joycean Fellowship, a group of writers who value 19th-century values of storytelling. He joins us to discuss something he loves to do, playing with structure.

Speaking generally, where do your ideas start – a plot or structure idea, a character, a question you want answered – or does it change with each novel?

It changes with each novel.  With Hawk, it was plot structure.  With Athyra, it was a single image I couldn’t get out of my head.  Sometimes it’s a particular scene that grabs me, so I need to write to it, then follow up the consequences.  My favorite is when I get a sentence that makes me go, “That’d be a great first sentence for a book.  I wonder what the book is about?”

In an interview with Strange Horizons, you said: ‘I love playing with structure. It’s fun. It’s cool. It’s another thing for me to play around with, and for the reader to play around with if he cares to.’ – what has been your favourite structure technique so far?

I think the one in Taltos, where I brought together three inter-related time lines.  It was a blast to write because I had no idea if they were actually going to come together, so I was on edge the entire time, wondering if all that work would have to be thrown out.

On your website regarding your second novel, ‘To Reign in Hell’, you say: ‘I didn’t have an outline as I was writing it, and I remember getting about 4/5 of the way through it and saying, “Geez, Satan is going to win. That’s interesting.” I shrugged and kept writing to see how it came out.’ – What are your thoughts on outlining, and do you swear by it now or write however the muse takes you?

It depends on the project. If you don’t outline, revisions are much, MUCH bigger job, but it’s more fun to do because you can tell yourself a story, and know that, if you’re bored, the reader will be too.  But some projects absolutely require an outline.  Often, I’ll do something in between–where I have vague ideas on some of what will happen.

Is there any particular reason why you chose (if you chose?) to write the narrative out of chronological order, and do you feel this has an effect on how the reader views or feels about Vlad? As an aside, would you recommend that other authors who plan a multi-volume series do something similar?

Nothing deep and profound; it’s simply a matter of telling the next story I feel like telling.  I made a vow to myself early on that I’d never write a book I didn’t want to write.  Vlad has kept me entertained, in part, by jumping into my head from time to time and saying, “Hey, I know, you could write THIS one.”

What do you do if something you’re writing is turning into something you don’t want to write (if that as ever happened?) Is it easy to discover the turning point, or do you have any suggestions of how to fix it, or know when it’s time to abandon a project?

It happened once.  I got 20,000 words into my second novel, then discovered I had no plot, no characters, and the science was wrong.  Then John DeChancie released his first novel, which did a better job of it than I ever could.  So I burned all copies of it and wrote To Reign In Hell instead

The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists is a novel written by both yourself and Skyler White – did your approach to starting and writing the novel change dramatically while writing with a co-author?

This is my third collaboration, and, in all of them, it involved alternating POV characters and taking turns with scenes.  So I’d have to say no, the approach didn’t change.

In a 2009 interview, you said that “I write to a structure. I like to establish the shape of the book early, and then that dictates how it will come together.”  Can you explain how this process works?

Stories have a shape.  What determines the shape is pacing.  In a story, there is constant creation and release of tension, with (usually) the tension getting slightly higher at each peak.  When the tension becomes unbearable, there is a climax and a resolution.  If you consider all of those peaks and valleys, including the (greater or lesser) final slope down after the resolution, you can call it a shape–because it feels like one.

Sometimes, the shape will be obvious early on, and then it’s just (just!) a matter of figuring out what happens to fill it in.  Other times, I need to discover the shape.  For those cases, I like to start with a formal structure, such as the laundry list in Teckla, or the alternating shifting viewpoints in Brokedown Palace, or the aspects of painting in The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars.  Those give me signposts, if you will–things to aim for as the shape of the story comes into focus.

Or, to put it another way: It’s a big cheat that has the advantage of also being fun to do.

Most new writers are hesitant to play with story structure. Can you share some techniques or possible structures that new writers can experiment with?

First of all, continuing from the previous question, make it fun; something that makes you chuckle.  Look at the first paragraph you typed, pick some irrelevant detail, like, say, a window, and say, “there is going to be a recurring reference to this in every other chapter.”  Then you do it, and it’ll give you a point to aim at: “How am I going to put a window in THIS chapter?”  Then, for example, you might discover that one of them is broken, and it’ll start to mean something, and you’ll find you’re actually telling a second story just under the surface.  And then you’ll find that the two stories are commenting on each other, and you’ll feel all smart and shit. Most readers won’t notice, but it’ll add depth.  The tomatoes in “The Godfather” are a classic example

Also, two last things: First, if you do that, do not make it obvious or you’ll just look silly; make it your personal secret.  Second, when the story is done, go back and look at all of those little references and smooth them out so it seems like you were doing it on purpose. Maybe a critic will call it literature, who knows?

You’ve said that “The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.” Do some story structures lend themselves to this more than others? Conversely, are there any structures that you feel should be avoided or approached with caution?

No to the second half–any structure will work, simply because *having* a structure (that is, one you are consciously aware of) lends itself to discovering Cool Stuff.  As for the first, well, the more conscious you are of the relationships between structure and plot and characters and setting–in other words, story, the more likely you’ll be to discover Cool Stuff.  I know that all sounds vague.  Let me try it this way: the more formal the structure, the more freedom you have to explore within it–it’s like the way the blues progression–1-4-5, exactly because it is so rigid, lends itself so beautifully to improvising.  If you always know the next city you’re going to, you can feel free to explore whatever country roads grab your interest.

Do you have any ideas for writing exercises for our readers,perhaps regarding novel structure, or anything else that you find effective?

This is one of my favorite exercises.  I call it the Emma Bull’s Mother exercise, because it was how Emma’s mother trained Em to sing.

Pick a favorite writer, say, Zelazny.

Pick another favorite writer, say, Dumas.

Write a Dumas story the way Zelazny would write it, then write a Zelazny story the way Dumas would write it.

It’s amazing what you’ll learn that way, especially about controlling voice.

Another good one is to write a short scene between two characters, first from one point of view, then the other, then omniscient.

The trouble with coming up with an exercise for structure is that, to really operate, structure needs space to work–I’m a terrible short story writer, and I think one reason is that a short story feels too confined for me to play structure games.

But, okay, here’s one. Pick a word–preferably one with a lot of meanings.

Open up a good dictionary (American Heritage, or the OED) and read the definitions.  Now write a story in which every one of those definitions is included, or explored, or at least nodded to.  I’m trying to do that myself, and it’s bloody hard, but I’m learning a lot trying. Can’t ask for more than that.

Questions for Our Readers:

What do you do when something you’re writing begins (or has) turned into something you’re not enjoying anymore?

Are there any examples of excellent use of structure that you can think of in something you’ve read – can you identify what about them worked so well?

If you complete the exercises set by Steven, share your efforts with us!

Book Giveaway

Note: The Giveaway has ended.

In collaboration with TOR, we are giving away three copies of The Incrementalists to readers in the United States and Canada.  For a chance to win, simply leave a comment below.

For more information about The Incrementalists, visit


13 thoughts on “Playing with Story Structure – Interview with Steven Brust”

  1. I’m dealing with major structure issues on this year’s
    NaNoWriMo project.  I’ve got years of
    important conflict and back story that the main character has to discover and
    thwart but I have no idea how I’m going to tell that part of the story. 
     I’m considering an alternating present/past time line.  It seems better than a massive info-dump or
    even bigger flashback in the latter third of the story.

  2. I liked the way the Jhereg books took what should have been a bad guy and made him a good guy. It really made the stories interesting. 🙂

  3. I find it quite interesting to see such a systematic way of structuring the plot. In particularly, I like the idea of Emma Bull’s Mother exercise. This is clearly someone well learned in his craft.
    One point capturing my sight is the question on what if you end up writing yourself into unwanted territory. That reminds me of the late Robert Jordan’s modus operandi. In short, he would just destroy everything written if he felt anything not right. Although this might be the reason why the Wheel of Time series had to be continued by Brandon Sanderson, I think RJ had given us a brief glimpse on how to go about dismantling unwanted structure. In short, be sensitive to your own work since nobody else should be responsible. Not even the editors if they know their proper boundary.
    On overall structuring, I prefer to create a skeleton firstly and foremost. What are the vital arcs and who are the vital characters? This is something every author must address.
    Then we have the details which I call “fleshing out”. You have the skeleton, now it’s time to grow some flesh on it. This is where a flexible mind comes in. The more flexible your brain is, the easier for you to absorb and filter whatever idea/inspiration popping up.
    Lastly, orgainse whatever you want to implement. This is, by far, my greatest challenge due to my brain not accustomed to multitasking.
    P.S: Great interview. Seems that this site is finally getting some major “oomph!” 🙂

  4. I may try some of those exercises and see what comes out. I often see novels say “It’s like ________ meets ___________” so it would be an interesting exercise for sure. 
    By the way, great interview! I want to read more of brust as time goes on, but I’m having some trouble finding some of the earlier Taltos books on Kindle (and I’m on a self-imposed restriction of buying print copies at the moment). 
     If I’m writing something I don’t enjoy I either a) add an element to make it more interesting for me, b) chunk it and do something else (if I’m not too far into it anyway), or c) come up with a list of cool things or characters I want to be in the story and work them in early on.

    As for an excellent example of structure, I’ve liked what Patrick Rothfuss does with his books.

  5. Brust is the writer that makes me cackle with glee the most.  All killer, no filler.  ‘To Reign in Hell ‘ is a timeless classic – I would have guessed that thing was precisely planned and carefully assembled into clockwork.  I loved the laundry list structure in Taltos  – something to grin at and anticipate at the start of every chapter; it is so simple, it really is almost cheating on his part, but it’s in the service of Cool Stuff, and I shall not be a quibbler in the face of True Coolness.  He mentions Zelazny and Dumas – I consider him the best current representative of both of those noble lineages.  As they showed, when you recognize style you are richer for it.

  6. Thanks for the insights into structure! I’m glad I’m not the only one who enjoys hiding personal in-jokes in the things I write 🙂

  7. Hi Katherine
    Great interview, thanks. It’s always a treat to read an interview that focuses on specific features of writing, rather than the more generic stuff. 
    I haven’t read any of his stuff, but i shall no hunt some down. I loved Steven’s description of a novel being a structure built to accommodate lots of cool stuff, that says it all, really 🙂
    thanks again


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