Story Structure: The Magic Bullet that Nearly Killed Me

I wrote up a fun essay for LitReactor on the pleasures and pitfalls of writing guides, and the story of how my first novel got published. Here’s the full text:


I was lost. After five years of work on a novel, it had become a Mobius strip: every time I reached the end, it was a completely different book. I would start over at the beginning, a new side, a total rewrite.

The book slowly transformed while I was working as a reporter in DC in the mid-aughts, from a serious novel with hints of satire to a proper thriller about an Iranian conspiracy against the US. It would have been a great, prescient, cut-from-the headlines conspiracy tale, except it was old news by the time I was done.

Then I picked up a handful of books, mostly targeted at screenwriters, on genre and story structure. It wouldn’t be totally out of bounds to call what they taught formulas. They saved my writing life—but they also nearly ended it.

I wish I could tell you that I went for some high-toned literary-critical understanding of the novel, or even good MFA workshop craft-minded books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, but no. This was down-and-dirty screenplay structure by the numbers: three acts, take the hero down and then bring him back up.

I was in deep on Save the Cat and Syd Field and Robert McKee (the mysterious screenplay savior featured in Adaptation) and it was glorious. Watching movies became a revelation. It was like a paranoid conspiracy thriller in real life, as I saw the same secret code hidden behind every film and TV show I had ever watched and loved. There it is, five minutes in, “the theme stated,” and there it is at minute twelve, “the catalyst.” Those guides offered a way out, a means to tame that never-ending work-in-progress.

Then some plot complications happened in real life that could have come straight out of the screenplay formulas: up the stakes and add a ticking clock.

The financial crisis of 2008 hit, and I lost my job at The Atlantic. I had to decide whether I should really make a go at writing novels or not. Three days after I received the bad news, during one of my last reporting trips, I heard back from a big-deal agent. I had sent pages to a young friend who ran in literary circles in New York a couple of months before, after she offered to share them with a few agent acquaintances, and I hadn’t expected much. The agent told me the pages were great, and I should keep going. I’d never had any professional feedback on my fiction, so it was just what I needed to hear at that moment.

I decide to go for it: live off my meager savings and rework the book. I was going to get married soon, my own self-imposed deadline.

I slashed and burned my way through the manuscript, and stripped it down to three clean acts. Anything that wasn’t on the spine of the story—a conflict between villain and hero that started on page one and led inexorably to a final showdown—died.

I finished it. It was good enough to get me an agent, but its pained gestation showed, and (fortunately) the agent and I decided to start from scratch. Armed with lessons learned and my new-found writing gurus, I did the next novel strictly by the book. I pored over plot structures and was up all night reading screenwriting blogs (John August’s is incredible) and devouring the beat sheets of the movies I’d grown up with.

That book took nine months, working from an outline. Where writing had once been a terrifying hunted stumble through the darkness, now it was fun. I knew where I was going.

It was called The 500, and if it didn’t sell I was going to put fiction to the side and go back to journalism. There I was, broke and on the edge of giving up. For extra pathos I had torn my ACL, and was limping around on crutches during a freakishly snowy DC winter. As we say in formula-writing land: Take your hero all the way down, and see if he can fight his way back.

What happened next is so surreal and magical that sometimes I think I’m delusional, dreaming that it all transpired while in reality I live under a bridge in Rock Creek Park. If that is the case, I’ll take it. It’s a nice dream.

A month before the wedding, I was riding the S4 bus with my crutches when I received an offer from Little, Brown and Co. and Reagan Arthur, our dream editor (now publisher of Little, Brown). The next week a movie option from Fox came through. Two life-changing moments.

This feels like bragging, but don’t worry, it’s only to set up a reversal a few beats later in the plot. The 500 hit the New York Times bestseller list, and sold in 20 languages. Samples from Harris-Teeter became a much less important part of my daily diet. In the writing formula business, this is a classic midpoint move: the false victory.

I wish everything were so simple: that guides to plot and structure were magic bullets, fail-proof formulas for fame and fortune. They’re not. Though indispensable to getting myself out the quagmire of my early efforts, they ultimately became a dangerous crutch I had to outgrow.

There were invaluable lessons about designing casts, setting up foils, and giving clear desires to your characters. I still remind myself of these points every time I start a book, because I tend to get lost in the details and plot complications. You need a good guy and bad guy, set inevitably on a collision course from page one. You need to ratchet up the stakes chapter by chapter, and take your hero all the way down before he or she can come back up (or vice versa). Perhaps these should all have been obvious. A lifetime of books and movies had ingrained them as instincts, but seeing them stated outright made it so much easier to plot them out deliberately.

While these guides are often derided as formulas, some of them are very smart books. I write thrillers, which are relatively plot-driven, but many of the principles apply equally to all genres, especially those in Story by McKee. His book is far more profound than most literary folks might suspect. I was awed when he showed how it doesn’t matter if your villain is Hans Gruber in Die Hard or despair in a Bergman film; the same rules apply. Dramatic formula can’t be all bad. No one turns their nose up at Aristotle’s Poetics, and he is all about plot structure.

But those books, after confirming and clarifying a lot of my instincts, started to lead me astray. I’d gotten so much out of the basics that I gave my full credence to every particular and overly prescriptive point. I started making crazy charts. I can’t blame the books. It was my fault for hoping and believing there was always a clear path through the wilds of plot.

Writing in outline is too easy. The characters lose their veto power. Once you sit down to draft chapters and those characters come to life, things start getting weird and overdetermined, and character logic can seem forced. An over-reliance on formulas make things formulaic. It seems an obvious lesson, but I had to live it to really absorb its truth.

I was happily going along in my new life as a full-time novelist, and handed in a draft of my second novel, an over-plotted, over-stuffed, over-complicated sequel to the miracle book. The news came back through my agent: my editor wanted to talk. That’s a bad sign. Then the phone call came and with it the three scariest words you can hear as a desperate-to-please young man who is lucky enough to be paired up with one of the best editors in publishing.

“Six month rewrite.” As far as I could tell, that was polite editor-speak for “light this on fire and throw it out the window.” Thank God she made that call. This brings us to the end of Act Two: the all is lost moment, followed by the dark night of the soul.

I’d run from one overboard theory to another, from the paralyzing self-critical habits of college literary workshops—where every line needs to be tweaked endlessly as it’s written—to the equally treacherous equivalent in genre—where the outline must be chiseled, beat by beat, to perfectly match a formula before word one can go down.

I freaked out for a while. Then I loosened up. I didn’t have time to over think things. I ventured back into that wilderness without a map. We forget the details of plots, because it’s the characters who fascinate us and stay with us long after the last page. I realized that The 500 had worked not because of some plot formula, but because I loved its characters and poured into it years of my life working and living as a reporter in DC.

I got into writing very rough first drafts. The most important lessons of the screenwriting books stuck with me: the clear conflict, the clean central stakes of the book. But once I had that spine, I let the characters vote. I stopped fussing with the elaborate schematics and overly neat arcs, and just started writing, relying more and more on my own experience and lessons learned. The result was a mess, but it was a mess that flowed from what the characters wanted and who they were, rather than some arbitrary signpost in some abstract plot map that only exists in my head. The readers only see what’s on the page. The book’s surprises were surprising, because I hadn’t seen them coming.

In the end, I rewrote that book as a new, infinitely better novel called The Directive. Though that editorial call was a stomach-droppingly awful moment, I am grateful for it.

Those books saved my life, and, at least as it felt at the time, they nearly killed me. So go pick up Story and Save the Cat. Re-watch your favorite Hollywood movies and marvel. Make charts. Do whatever it takes to tame your first stories and get the basics down. Then trust yourself as you leave them behind like training wheels. Surprise yourself. Tell your characters they’re in charge and do what you can to keep up.

My Houdini Act

I wanted to make this Kansas City Live interview a bit more interesting by showing some of the research for Dead Man Switch and how to break out of duct tape on-air. Nerve-racking, but it worked! Here’s the video!

Talking Dead Man Switch Research and Picking Handcuffs

I did a few demos from the Dead Man Switch Research at the Kansas City Public Library. What a great event. Thanks to KCPL and Rainy Day Books! (Click image or here to get to the facebook page with the video.)

Hometown Reading

Nothing better than catching up with friends and family on tour. Holmdel, NJ:

Dead Man Switch Pre-order Giveaway: Get a Free Copy of One of Matt’s Earlier Books. Limited time offer.

Mulholland Books is putting together a great deal if you pre-order Dead Man Switch now, and I’m glad to open it up early to fans here at at the website and the newsletter. Pre-order Dead Man Switch and forward us your receipt by March 8, and we’ll send you a free paperback of any one of my other books.


Barnes & Noble


Signed & Personalized Copies from Mysterious Galaxy

Just forward your receipt to by March 8, along with your shipping address, and let us know which book you’d like (The 500, The Directive, or Cold Barrel Zero).

*Offer limited to US residents.



Some advice on first drafts from my talk at So. Cal Writers’ Conference

Southern California Writers’ Conference

I’m honored to be giving the keynote tonight at the Southern California Writers’ Conference in Irvine, sponsored by my favorite local indie bookstore Mysterious Galaxy.

More info here

News from the SWAT van

Joshua Hood, a terrific military thriller author (and SWAT team member and former 82nd Airborne squad leader) sent this shot and let me know Cold Barrel Zero is “SWAT approved.” Made my day!

New Interview at Workhacks

I had a blast talking with Julia Roy for her Workhacks podcast about a few tips for getting big writing projects done. You can listen to the interview here: and check out some of my writing advice here:



Writing Tips

Sepia, Underwood typewriter, CC-BY-SA Xander Lea Daren/Chop


I’ve been asked for some writing advice recently, and put together a few lessons that have helped me over the years. They might not work for everyone, and I’m still learning every day, but it’s what I can offer to those who come to me for help. This is practical, in the trenches, writer-to-writer talk. Please don’t take any bluntness as a lack of reverence for craft and language and literature. I’ve found, however, that romanticism about the writing process can really throw you off when you’re starting out. Writing is work, and here’s how my work gets done.

Figure out your story before you start writing. Genre is the critical consideration here. Genres have certain broad conventions. They’re conventions for a reason—your story probably won’t work without them.

For thrillers, here are the basic elements you need to figure out: There’s a good guy, and a bad guy. Bad guy is doing something horrible. Good guy gets involved and needs to stop bad guy at great personal expense. You should figure out who they are and what they both want, and what sort of conflict they find themselves in, inevitably, because of what they want. Determine an incident at the beginning that puts them, inevitably, on a collision course, and have a good idea of how they will face off at the end.

Alternate successes and setbacks for your hero, raising the stakes of each encounter, and then, as you approach the climax, take the hero all the way down, as hurt, hopeless, and desperate as possible, and then have him somehow overcome. Invert that for tragedies.

It sounds simple but it takes an extraordinary amount time and brain-breaking thought to get down to the heart of your novel. Often a fascinating concept (“what if…”), scene, or character gives the initial notion for a thriller, but a concept isn’t a story until all of the above has been thought through. I constantly remind myself of these points to stay disciplined and build a strong, clean spine for a book. It took years to learn to keep it simple, or try, when it comes to the fundamental through-line.

This is how a good thriller works. It’s also not too far off from Aristotle’s advice in Poetics. Give it a try. Having a solid arc from the beginning to end of your book doesn’t dumb it down or make it formulaic. It makes it an incredibly strong, compelling structure upon which you can build complex characters, or subplots, twists, or beautiful writing. But get that bad guy vs. good guy collision course down first.

This may be awful advice for people whose books are too schematic, but I have the opposite habit of overcomplicating things, so this has been a lifesaver.

The best part of working this all out is bringing in friends and family. If you can’t explain the central arc of your story in a few lines, and describe all these points in ten minutes or so, it’s too complicated and you haven’t worked it enough. There are some ideas that are genius in your head, and preposterous out loud. It’s far better to hear about it now than after you’ve spent two years writing the book. Trust me on that one.

That’s the beauty of it. People love stories. Bring them in. Have coffee. Walk through the mall having an animated discussion about your favorite ways to get rid of a body. It’s so much more fun than staring at a blank page or writing and rewriting without making any real progress.

Get away from your computer. This is important not only for figuring out the plot, but for every step in the writing process, from blocking scenes to coming up with great lines.

Think of the computer simply as a recording device. Your brain is where the magic happens, and it’s portable. Figure out what you’re stuck on, then go take a walk, or a shower, or lie on the lawn, or go to bed. Think it through, then talk it through with a friend or the dog or anyone who’ll listen. Only after you’ve gotten through the muddle and had a few a-has should you sit down to record them at the keyboard.

Sit down with purpose. Don’t start writing your book until you know more or less what will happen. And don’t start writing a scene until you’ve already pictured it in your head. John August’s advice on how to write a scene is excellent, especially the part about imagining the action in your mind until it all flows. This is my favorite lesson, because it means a writer’s life isn’t stuck in the office. My work tends to be broken up like this: an hour or two figuring out what I’m going to write, often while out on a walk, then a couple hours writing it down.

Write a shitty first draft. Mistakes in writing are only truly dangerous—by that I mean they cost months or years of precious writing time—if you take a wrong turn all the way to its conclusion, by not running an idea past anyone, then drafting it and polishing it to a high gloss before you find out it’s terrible. So after you figure out your story, and it checks out with the people you’re talking to, write an incredibly rough first draft. No pressure, just slap it up on the page. This is all about getting over the nerves and stage fright and nasty this sucks, I suck feedback loops. We’ve already conceded it’s a mess. The first draft always is. (See Hemingway’s advice on this subject, and Anne Lamott’s). So there’s nothing to be afraid of, and anything that isn’t shitty is pure profit. We’re ahead of the game.

Even with the best outline in the world, there is no way of knowing if certain elements of your story will work until you write them out and re-read them. A quick sketch of a chapter will give you a sense of how it will work, and whether it’s workable.

Writing is rewriting. It’s a cliché, but true. A very rough draft saves you time coming and going. Polishing not only takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort, it makes you fall in love with chapters, characters, sequences, and twists, all of which might not work and will need to be cut later. That will lead you to needless pain and contortions as you try to hang on to them. But if you were just sketching out the text, it’s easier to cut mistakes and “kill your darlings” down the line. I often end up carving out the elements I thought I would most love about a book, sometimes even the intriguing initial idea that brought me to it.

I think about writing in terms of how you put together a house, in steps that build on each other—plans, framing, sheathing, drywall, finish. Writing polished text from beginning to end would be like figuring out what kind of house you want while building it from left to right, painting and putting in trim as you go. Keeping an unfurling plot straight in your head at the same time you write perfect prose and snappy dialogue is too much to handle at once. For story-driven genres like thrillers you need to lay in the big structural pieces and makes sure everything works and fits. After you have won a huge psychological victory by finishing a draft, you can relax a little and zero in on character, place, and description.

If you’ve actually figured out the important elements above, it’ll only take four months or so to write the draft. Then resist the irresistible urge to start revising it from line one. Take it and print it out or put it on your e-reader and read it as a reader. The action should be pretty clear in your mind, even if it’s ugly on the page, so you’ll be surprised how readable even the roughest draft is. Reading a static, uneditable manuscript brings a completely different perspective from writing, and you’ll find countless problems and solutions that were hidden while you were drafting. Instead of endlessly tinkering line-by-line, you’ll spot the deep structural issues.

Use TK. This is the essential lubricant of the rough first draft. It’s a habit I learned from working as a reporter, but didn’t realize the novel-writing magic of it until I read this advice from Cory Doctorow. TK is an editing mark that means “to come” and is equivalent to leaving a blank or brackets in the text (It’s TK, not TC, because editorial marks are often misspelled intentionally so as not to confuse them with final copy: editors write graf and hed for paragraph and headline).

Can’t figure out a character’s name? “EvilPoliticianTK.” Need to describe the forest? “He looked out over the SpookyForestDescriptionTK.” Need that perfect emotional-physical beat to break up dialogue? “BeatTK.” Just keep writing. TK a whole chapter if you want. Those blanks are not going to make or break anything big picture. Come back for them once you’ve won a few rounds against the existential terror of “Is this whole book going to work or not?” There’s no sense filling in the details on scenes that you’re going to cut.

Turn off the Internet. This is the beauty of using TKs. It lets you avoid looking up details on the Internet, which paralyzes writers. Use two computers like Lee Child, or a program like Freedom like Nick Hornby, or physically unplug the ethernet cable (my move), but do not allow the internet on your writing computer while you’re writing. We are all fat kids in Wonka’s factory on the Internet and we don’t stand a chance. You take a minute to Google what might be a good pistol for a Chechen bad guy and six hours later you’re looking at vacation photos of your ex. Just TK it and keep writing. Then you can Google how to pick locks to your heart’s content after you’ve determined that the overarching structure works.

Done (Sort of). This gets us a first draft full of TKs that you can re-read. It looks a lot like a book. Some stuff is actually great. Some stuff you thought would be amazing is awful. Throw that away. It’s fine. You didn’t spend a lot of time on it. Talk through it with your friends again. Draft some more. Re-read it. Fill in the TKs and show it to some readers. The worst they can say is “this is shitty.” And you already knew that, so you’re completely unfazed. They’ll point out what works and talk you down from the terrible stuff that you can’t let go. Now you’re revising. The terrifying “something from nothing” phase is over and you’re tweaking. Nothing scary about that. You’re on easy street.