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Secrets of a Complete Improviser: Story Structure

Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

Laer Carroll

Aerospace engineer turned writer
Super Member
Sep 13, 2012
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Los Angeles
I'm on the Completely Improvise end of the Improvise-Plan spectrum. It has worked for me for 13 books and 9 shorter stories for a dozen years. Recently I began to think about just what I do to accomplish this mild success. Some of you may find those thoughts useful.
Most of us spend a lot of time reading and thinking about story structure when we begin writing, or so I guess. These include Freytag's five-act play structure with its inciting incident and so on, the Hero's Journey, the fifteen-beat Save the Cat pattern, etc.

An improviser like myself knows about them, probably, but never thinks about them when writing. I begin every story with an incident that fascinates me. Then I wonder: what next? I write the second incident. What next? Third incident. Each one logically leads to the next until hundreds of incidents later I realize I've come to a stopping point. "She looked down the hill. At the very bottom of the valley, warm lights shining out the windows, was her cottage. She was home."

At some point in a story I may realize that it points to some destination. In SEAMONSTERS REVENGE it was obvious: My heroine will find and destroy the gang that killed her accidentally while trying to kidnap her to make her a sex slave.

At other times a destination is less clear, or not clear at all. In THE THRICE-DEAD GIRL my heroine just wants to fly airplanes, so she joins a couple of barnstormers in hopes of becoming a pilot. She has no plan at all of how to achieve that. She just proceeds from one point to the next point, blindly traveling toward some distant future.

Improvisation works best on slice-of-life stories that have no goal or goals for the main character(s). Next best are linear narratives where the next step and the next and the next are obvious. Stories with characters who have intertwining narratives would be difficult for me; I know as I've been struggling with one for some time now. A mystery with strategic succeeding reveals would require much planning, maybe working backward from the final reveal.

What amazes me is that my stories usually have a structure despite being totally improvised. In the third book of THE SPACE ORPHAN trilogy I realized (on the very last page!) that there was a story arc not only for that book but also a greater arc for all three books combined.

Elizabeth George's book Write Away