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architects vs gardeners

kat kourbeti
kat kourbeti
welcome back to honest to blog (working title), a hopefully-weekly newsletter with thoughts about writing, movies, music, science fiction and fantasy stories, and general creative process blah.

otherwise known as: plotters vs pantsers
this week finds me knee-deep in reoutlining the brand new draft of my book, which i mentioned in last week’s first email blast. my co-writer athena and i have a lock on the bare skeleton of a structure, the key beats if you will, and now comes the time to figure out what exactly happens when, and who it’s told by.
there’s a famous quote by george r.r. martin of game of thrones fame, about how writers approach writing a new story:
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have; they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect. (full interview here.)
suffice to say i’m the exact opposite to george. i relish the outlining stage - some could even argue i relish it too much, spending months (nay, years) on making sure i’ve got everything just right: the chapter numbers, the point of view characters, the events that lead from A to B to C to the final climactic moment.
in times gone by, athena would outline even beats within a scene for me to convert into prose, though personally i like to leave those as little morsels of improvised fun i get to have while drafting. i want to know what i’m aiming for in terms of events and the characters’ emotional states, but not in such detail that it feels like the story’s been written already. (this is kind of how our co-writing style evolved through the years, actually.)
i’ve been re-reading into the woods, the fantastic book on structure by tv writer and story expert john yorke. the main claim of this book is that pretty much all stories we tell follow this five-act model:
yorke comes from the world of tv so he talks about shows we have loved through the years; broadchurch, the sopranos, breaking bad, even eastenders. he also talks about films, like pulp fiction and the social network, and plays by david hare and euripides, and classic stories like peter pan and the lord of the rings.
of course, a lot of the examples he brings through the course of the book also break the pattern in some way, but the key is that it’s always a divergence, not a reinvention. stories work with the model above because that’s what we as humans need in order to find narrative satisfaction; the rules can be broken, but only because they exist in the first place. for example, a hero needs to have an inner flaw they must overcome by the end of their story, but maybe they won’t and that’ll be a heartbreaking ending (in fact, that’s a literary device known as the tragic hero.)
it’s fascinating that almost all storytelling follows this pattern, because somehow it feels new and immersive each time. it reminds me of the epilogue to the musical hadestown:
Road to Hell (Reprise)
Road to Hell (Reprise)
“it’s an old song,” hermes says, “but we’re gonna sing it again”; we all know how it goes, we’ve heard this story a thousand times (or at least i have, as a greek person; i realise non-greeks probably don’t have mythology hammered into them all the time!) - and yet there’s something in us that yearns to hear it again, and hopes that maybe this time it’ll all turn out differently… even though we know how it ends.
stories are powerful things, man. i’m getting emotional. (also i really love hadestown; listen to the recording or the original anais mitchell concept album if you want to be hit in the feels.)
anyway, that’s all a long-winded way to say outlines are my jam, and i self-identify as a 85% architect, 15% gardener kind of writer. i enjoy figuring out how each puzzle piece fits in the picture, knowing where the next step in the story is, and especially knowing how the whole thing ends. sometimes characters surprise me, of course, and that’s cool too; if anything, i love those little moments where characters come alive with a will of their own, and show me a side of them i hadn’t thought of before. as long as all the puzzle pieces end up fitting together in the end, how we get there is all part of the fun of it.
… even if it means starting over five times, haha!
question time
for the writers in the room: are you an architect or a gardener? what percentages of each would you say you are?
for the non-writers/everyone really: do all your favourite stories follow the five-act paradigm (be it movies, tv shows, or books)? or do you know of one (or more) that subverts expectations by breaking those conventions? lemme know, i love rule-bending fiction.
links, links everywhere
  • brian david gilbert is back this week with an unraveled video on everyone’s favourite pink ball of cuteness, kirby; i recently played my first ever kirby game (and was terrible at it, despite my partner’s insistence to the contrary), so i’m invested in this analysis. also bdg is hilarious no matter the subject matter.
  • at my writers’ group recently i was discussing fiction podcasts with a friend, and it dawned on me that despite its great success, welcome to night vale still bears recommending! it’s one of the best long-form narrative podcasts of all time, a masterful blend of horror, comedy, and heartfelt storytelling (with great queer representation!) - i resisted it for the longest time, then once i gave into it there was no way back… it’s that good. (i’ve also met the creative team a couple of times, and they’re all sweethearts 😍)
  • the same team have a writing/creativity podcast called ‘start with this’ - the premise being, if you don’t know where to start creating, you can use the prompts and themes in each episode to kickstart something new.
i greatly enjoy reading the articles on, the sci-fi & fantasy publisher’s website; i’ve got two for you this week that really buttered my croissant:
  • first, an insightful take on the hunger games (which happens to be one of my favourite film trilogies of all time) in relation to revolution in real life, honing in on the riots in ferguson. an incredibly interesting read, whether you’ve seen the hunger games or not.
  • second, an essay on the brand new book by k.m. szpara, docile. content warning for discussions of sexual violence in the context of capitalist dystopias (ie. a breath away from the present day). docile just came out this week, so no previous reading is required, but tbh reading this essay got me riled up to read this book immediately (and maybe it will be the same for you); queer sf reclaiming ownership of bodies, consent, and identity - while being unapologetically frank and complex - is radical, and imo just the right way to tackle these difficult themes and questions.
(i’ll update you on my thoughts when i get to read the book, of course.)
and lastly (i did say there’d be links everywhere), augur magazine is open for submissions over this week and next - so if you have dreamy realism, fantasy, or soft sci-fi stories sitting in your documents folder, now’s the time to send those out!
(i say this to give myself a kick up the bum as well, since my entry for the spectrum short story contest last year fits the bill exactly… cross your fingers for me folks!)
as always, you can send me responses to any of the above either by twitter, email, or carrier pigeon.
if any of this has been interesting, feel free to forward this email or the newsletter site to your friends, coworkers, and/or your cat’s vet, and if you feel like tossing a coin my way, you can do so by buying me a coffee.
stay creative and speak soon,
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kat kourbeti
kat kourbeti @darthjuno

writing, media and arts commentary from a queer g(r)eek writer of science fiction and fantasy works.

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