The Story Coach Who Came In From the Cold

by Larry Brooks

I’ve always suspected that we remain totally alone with our stories. 

Which means we live and die by what we know and believe to be true (which are different things) about storytelling, too often either shutting out or not comprehending any incoming feedback that smacks of being to the contrary.

As a story coach, I’ve tried to disprove this – that we aren’t alone with our stories, because craft is always there to help us, and when we get it, we join a huge community of the enlightened – by offering input and solutions to stories in need of patching up, hoping the author will see and believe what craft tells us when it is put in front of them.

But alas, this remains an uphill battle.  Writing effective stories is hard, always has been.  But sometimes writers make it harder.

Today’s take away: don’t be that writer.

On the flip side, some of my clients do just that.  They see it and they recognize it as The Truth. It’s not me, it is craft triumphing over bad input, old tapes and blank spaces in understanding.

These are the wins, and they are few and far between.  And totally worth the work.

Many writers, though, when they ask for help with their stories, are actually seeking affirmation.  They’ll talk for hours about their characters and why it all actually works, even though it doesn’t.  We write what we write for reasons that seem solid at the time, so when challenged, that reasoning demands to be heard.

Fair enough.  But you can’t defend a sow’s ear, if it is truly a sow’s ear in a silk purse endeavor.

That’s the thing about craft, once you get it, it shifts our standard of reasoning.  It raises the bar on what we choose for, and within, our stories.

I’d say half my clients fall into that category, one that recognizes a better path when it is shown to them.  The other half, while perhaps open, aren’t yet fluent in the nuances of storytelling craft, which means they actually need to step away from the project and immerse themselves in that learning.

It’s really hard to coach an unenlightened writer.

Trying to understand story craft as you implement it is like a doctor trying to save a patient with a scalpel in one hand and a copy of Grey’s Anatomy in the other.  Better to go into the lab and work on a cadaver until you truly get it.

Nobody wants to write a cadaver.  That’s why writing a novel without a solid grasp of craft rarely – as in, almost never – works. Even then, when the feedback comes (and it will), one needs to understand what the feedback even means.

Don’t be that writer.

Sure, most writers are open to hearing about possible here-and-there tweaks, but when the story is flawed at the most deeply fundamental levels of dramatic theory and rationale – which it so often is in the story coaching game; consider that 990 out of every 1000 manuscript submissions get rejected… it’s not because the writer can’t write a decent sentence, it’s because the story isn’t working – they shut down.

They don’t want to hear it.  Or they can’t hear it, because they don’t understand it.

“Wait, let me explain further.”  Then, when that doesn’t work…

“It’s my story, nobody can tell me it doesn’t work.”

Ultimately, agents, editors and readers will tell you just that.

Don’t be that writer.

That further explanation – which is actually a defense – in the hands of a less-than-enlightened author, is how what should be a three sentence premise becomes a 1000-word plea for mercy.  The clinging to dysfunction (because they’ve been sold this very thing, that you can write anything you want, any way you want)… that’s the very definition of – if you will allow me to mangle a word here – unenlightenment.

Unenlightened writers are everywhere, in packs and droves.  They fill the halls of writing conferences and clog the servers of the best writing blogs.

Don’t be one of them.  Go deeper.  Really strive to get it.  Because there are certainly very specific things you need to get.  Principles of storytelling physics that are as consistent and non-negotiable as… well, as gravity.

And you know what happens when you mess with gravity.

An effective story has criteria

There are bases that must be touched.  Qualitative standards and aesthetic decisions that spring from an evolved story sensibility, rather than, simply, the original idea.  Which, by the way, to be worth anything at all, needs to be original, or a new twist on something familiar.

Let me say it again: don’t be that writer.  Learn the criteria.  Understand those bases.  Own those qualitative standards… and then, mix, stir, repeat… until your story sense hikes up the learning curve.

It can take years.  And while you’re on the path… listen for the truth.  It’s out there.  Along with a bunch of truly toxic old school truisms that have outlived their veracity, and complete nonsense from people who should not be talking about writing – they should be listening – in the first place.

The reason this happens is that the writer doesn’t recognize the principles of craft with which they have heretofore played loose.  They haven’t absorbed and integrated the fundamentals of craft, leaving them open to the fatal attraction of writing an un-vetted idea, while trying (unknowingly, certainly, but this is what it is) to narratively imitate what they read from their favorite authors, making it all up as they go, without truly understanding how those authors do what they do.

There has to be a better way.

The notion that all first drafts must fail miserably… that’s just not true.  And yet, you hear this from some of the biggest names in the game… because their first drafts fail miserably.

That’s not conventional wisdom, that’s just the consequences of one’s chosen process. The difference is huge, and toxic if not fully understood.  The initial goal of the storytelling process is to find the best available story from an initial spark on inspiration. \

If you develop a weak idea (in other words, hit all the narrative bases with it), it will still be a weak idea.

Some writers require a draft to find their best story… they’ll just sit down and actually begin writing about that idea… and yes, even if they know a lot about craft, it’ll probably suck.

Chances are a new writer may not know the criteria for a story that works in the first place, no matter how they go about finding it.

But that’s not the only strategic approach.  The more you know about craft, the more of it will be applied to an idea (this knowledge becomes the vetting tool), even in a first draft, but certainly before that draft is written, resulting in a better outcome.

Too often the writing conversation is about process. 

And yet, all processes subordinate to the nature and specifics of narrative and structural craft, every time.  The very same criteria apply.

You can back into a great story, or you can build one from the ground up.  Both can work.  But usually, only in the hands of an enlightened writer.

So there’s your first, next and best goal: to become an enlightened writer, one who knows what to do with a killer story idea — how to make it into one — and understands that there are certain things that must be done to it before it will work.

What are those basic fundamentals?

Here are a few that you can never rationalize away.  There is more – much more – to learn, but these are the most common sins of the newer writer who doesn’t get it.

This is so entry-level it is seldom discussed.  It’s like pro athletes working on their strength and footwork and eye-hand coordination in pre-season… the pros do it, but the news doesn’t cover it.  Same here, we don’t talk about what we need to talk about, at least often enough.  Even in terrific blogs like this one, where we assume the readers understand these basics… too often they don’t.

So this is me, the story coach coming in from the cold to shine a light on these entry-level truths what are absolutely essential to a story.  I hope you warm up to them quickly.

  1. Too often your story idea isn’t strong enough. Nobody tells you that, so you keep pounding on a too familiar, too thin idea.  Half the reason for all the rejections out there stem from this.  Stories that have been done to death.  Premises that simply define a genre (“detective is given a tough murder case to solve…” really, I’ve seen that one submitted as a premise… ).  Ideas that make too little sense.

 In so many cases it’s not the writing that holds a story back, it’s the idea that      becomes the premise that tanks the project.

  1. In genre fiction, everything hangs off your core dramatic thread. Story world, characterization, all the great scenes… they are all literally narrative, forward-propelling expressions of an unspooling core dramatic thread.  Some of you reading this don’t know what that means… go find out (there’s a full post, even a book, in that issue alone).

It’s simply defined: what does your hero want or need in the story, and how do they go about getting it, and against what odds, with what stakes in play?

In other words… what is the plot?  Plot drives commercial genre fiction (the hallmark of which is story world/arena, which is a different thing than plot), no matter what your MFA friends tell you.

You’d be shocked, if you were a story coach or an agent, how many writers mess this up.  That aren’t clear on their core dramatic thread, or what that even means. Stories that have several dramatic threads, without one of them emerging as the defining essence of the story.  Stories with thin dramatic tension.  Stories with no stakes, that are by intention slice-of-life narratives and episodic character studies (which never work in genre fiction).

  1. Logic and credibility trump your idea. No more 15-year old heroes who can do what the FBI, CIA and Superman himself cannot do.  Like, hack into the NSA database to find out the truth.  Like, out-smart and out-fight a gang of ruthless killer drug dealers.  Like, the hero bolting upright in the middle of a third act night to remembers something that turns it all around.  Like, massive coincidences piled on necessary further coincidences that conspire to create impossible situations.  That can out-wit a crime lord.

 Stories may be about situations, but it’s how the hero credibly navigates the situation   that is the stuff of a good story  Know the difference, and do it credibly within the  physics of your story world.

  1. Soft hero’s goals aren’t as compelling as specific hero’s goals.  Don’t confuse goal vs. action required to reach that goal.  Don’t pitch your hero’s journey as, “The hero must reunite his family so everyone can be happy.”  That’s an outcome.  A trite, non-specific outcome, by the way, that will bore an agent to tears.  Rather, pitch what your hero must do to achieve a stated goal… your story is about that, far more than it is about the goal itself.

 When both the goal and the journey toward it are compelling and fresh and logical  and dramatic and character-testing, now you’ve got something to work.

  1. It’s about what your hero does, illustrating who they are in the process. Rather than just showing us who the character is.  Oldest rule in the book, right?  Show, don’t tell.  And yet, this remains one of the most common fumbles… a story that is all about who a character is, drenched in backstory, without giving the character something compelling to do.

 Carve this into your forehead: Story isn’t just about something (a character, a theme,  a time or place, a culture)… but rather… a story is about something happening.

If you can burn this alone into your story sensibility, italics included, you will vault into the top ten percent of new authors working today.

  1. In a good story, structure drives the narrative. The notion that “story trumps structure” is complete hogwash… that’s like saying “chemistry trumps medicine” or “strength trumps motion.”  Huh?  That assertion is really more about process than it is story, and becomes an example of the toxic nature of some corners of the writing conversation.

Structure isn’t something you make up.  You make up a plot that unfolds across a universally proven and omnipresent structure.  You can’t really find a successful commercial story – book or movie – that departs from that structure to any significant degree, so it’s folly to think that yours can and will.

Story and character setup… 2) hero compelled into response… 3) hero attacking the problem… 4) hero resolving the problem.  That’s the four-part essence of story structure (with much mission-driven enhancement required, including the critical transition story points, hero’s arc, stakes, antagonism, final conflict, etc.)… every time, every story.  Your plot won’t work until it aligns with that sequence, in roughly equal proportions.

Don’t know that universal structure?  It’s out there.  There are different names and pieces for it, which is exactly like different languages delivering the same message… the IRS code in English or French or Aramaic is still the IRS Code.  Violate it, and trouble happens.

These are pre-requisites of a professional-level story. 

The 101 of the trade.

Don’t be the writer that pursues the craft outside of an awareness of, and integration of, these and other core principles.

Don’t be the writer operating below the 101 level of story sensibility.

You’re here, reading the Kill Zone, so you’re on the path.  Everything you read here, and on my site and the sites of our authors, is in context to these basic tenets of craft.

I’m tired of writers defending their stories when they are already dead.  It breaks my heart more than it pisses me off, which it does, because they insult the craft itself by believing it is unnecessary.  Maybe you hear them in your critique groups.  Or if you’re a story coach or editor, maybe you hear them every day.

I’m hungry for writers who get it, who are on the path toward a higher understanding of craft, which can be expressed and explored in so many ways, always leading toward an evolved story sensibility.

So are publishers.  So are readers hungry for the next great story.

I hope you can be that writer.

You have to be, if you want to find readers and a career as a storyteller.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

26 thoughts on “The Story Coach Who Came In From the Cold

  1. Great red hot post. Thanks for providing so much clarity and passion to the writing world. Your work has made a huge difference to me and my growth as a writer.

  2. Ugh! I was on a radio show with not one but two of “those” writers, who believe structure “ruins their creativity.” I tried, politely as I could, to voice my own opinion without slamming them in public, but they just talked right over me, ganging up like bullies in the school yard. It was awful. But after the show, I sold a ton of books, oddly enough. I might not have gotten my point across to my fellow authors, but apparently, the ones that really mattered were listening.

    That’s the point I’m trying to make here. So often non-believers will try to sway their peers. It’s the love of craft and yearning to continue to study story structure and physics that will always help us grow as writers. And it’s authors like you and all the TKZers that make a huge difference in our writing. So thank you to you all, who generously share your time and knowledge, and most times, for very little recognition for the excellent work you do. Incidentally, I’m jonesing for another Larry Brooks thriller. *hint hint*

    • Yeah, sometimes those “opposing views” get loud. I’ve had similar experiences… don’t let them get to you. I’m betting they don’t, because you GET IT, Sue. Thanks for your input today.

  3. “Soft hero’s goals aren’t as compelling as specific hero’s goals.”

    This is an excellent piece of advice I can use right now in the story I’m developing to make sure I am specific about what the character should do to accomplish his goal rather than getting confused by outcomes.

    I also agree with the importance of a strong idea to develop but sometimes I have struggle with this in the opposite way. You mention a “too familiar, too thin” idea but I have run across instances where I’m trying to develop an idea but getting critiqued because it’s NOT the standard formula that they are accustomed to reading.

    And believeability–that’s another big one I’m working with while brainstorming my novel series. I don’t want a series of coincidences or something that readers just can’t buy into. However, I will not immediately reject a story idea that appeals to me until I have first worked that idea and stretched and pounded it until I know for certain it can’t be done. That’s part of the fun of writing for me—latching on an idea and spinning and spinning it like clay on a wheel until I figure out how it’s going to work.

    • Sounds like you’re applying the right criteria across the board. Keep it up, those criteria will never fail you. Sometimes they manifest as “gut feelings,” which is a good thing, that’s your story sense guiding you.

  4. Structure isn’t something you make up.  You make up a plot that unfolds across a universally proven and omnipresent structure. You can’t really find a successful commercial story – book or movie – that departs from that structure to any significant degree, so it’s folly to think that yours can and will.

    I’ll sometimes hear writers who disagree with the above mention a movie like Memento as defying all structural norms. Or even Citizen Kane, which jumps around in time and POV. But as I point out, these films work precisely and knowingly because they are structurally sound. All they are doing is playing with the pieces, jumbling them, so the films become a mystery. Who is this man Charles Foster Kane, and what did he do in his life that made him such a powerful magnate? How did he rise to power? How did he fall? We get the story, just not in a chronological fashion. We’re in the POV of the faceless reporter trying to track down the story. We pout the chronology together with him.

    Similarly, Memento is a solid crime thriller, with a perfect structure. But the filmmaker jumbles it so it feels like the guy’s mind. We, the audience, are asking, right along with him, what the heck happened? Which means, what’s the structure of this story? (The question we all ask ourselves, consciously or unconsciously).

    • Good point, not often acknowledged: chronology isn’t structure, it’s narrative strategy. Notice how, in both of the films you mention, and others that use such a narrative strategy (the film “500 Days of Summer Comes to Mind” – it’s an excellent story and example), those seemingly random seems fit right into the four CONTEXTS of structure: scenes that set up the core dramatic threat… scenes that show the hero responding to the call… scenes that show the hero confronting and engaging proactively… and scenes that show the resolution coming together.

      Of course you know this… I mention is because there is a difference between narrative strategy (often chronology) and structure. That subtlety is an amazingly powerful realization, IMO. Thanks for adding to this today, Jim.

  5. Well done, Larry. I do volunteer critiques and encounter so many good, new writers. But there are a few who cannot accept any criticism, no matter how gently worded. They don’t want to hear that their baby is ugly — and not commercially viable.

    • “Their baby is ugly,” so true, and so hard to convey with some level of sensitivity. And yet, we aren’t serving them if we don’t make it clear, sometimes the truth, while never intended to be “brutal,” sounds that way. Keep fighting the good fight, Elaine, and thanks for chipping in today.

  6. Thank you for this post, Larry. It strikes home because I’m one of those writers who can’t stop reading about craft (including your posts and those of James Scott Bell, among other fine posts on this blog). No matter what awards I win (a Spur among others) I can’t stop trying to learn more about how to write better novels.
    Within the last few months writers have asked me to read their stuff. Occasionally I’ve done it, but my honest responses haven’t pleased them. I’m at the point now of saying, Sorry I never do that. Because the requests usually come from “that writer.”
    I don’t intend to try to teach anyone how to write better novels because other people (you know who you are, Larry) do that far better than I would, and writing as well as I can takes up all my time.
    What is your advice on how to handle such requests?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carol, much appreciated. As for your question, don’t back down. Just remind the person asking you to read their stuff that this is a time-intensive proposition, and while you’d like to help, so are your own projects. Or, put a price on your time… that should scare them away, if nothing else. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and it doesn’t hurt to speak the truth, either. Good luck moving forward on all these fronts!

      • Thank you for the advice! That gives me a way to go among those requests.
        Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading an article in The Guardian titled “Whatever Next? How Plot Grips Us From Dickens to Line of Duty.” (It’s in the May 14, 2016 issue.) The article states, “Plot is not just a sequence of connected events. …it is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design.”
        Living as close as I do to the “Spine of the Continent,” it makes sense that plot, structure, and design together when done well make the bones of a novel.

        • You’re welcome. And thanks for the pointer toward the article, I’ll definitely check it out. And your last line… priceless. One of those “paste to your monitor” truisms.
          Much appreciated!

        • I read that Guardian article this morning before work. Yes, it’s gold. The definition that a plot is “the unfolding of a hidden design” is both elegant and practical.

  7. Thank you so much for this post, I love learning more about the craft of writing.

    Learning about structuring a story is as much fun to me as building a puzzle. As the pieces come together, the picture becomes clearer.

    Kindof exciting, as is watching the story evolve.

    One of my critique partners is an avid pantser, where I build and rebuild they write and rewrite. I often feel as though I am doing things backwards. But this post was very encouraging that I am on the right path.

    Thanks again,
    Cindy

    • I agree, it’s liberating. Structure is a guide to “what to write, where to put it, and why.” Which is the entire storytelling proposition summarized. So glad we have such a powerful tool to keep us on the path… and so glad you get it and are excited about it. Thanks for commenting today!

  8. Hi Larry, I am SO thrilled you’ll be at the Surrey Intern’l Writer’s Conference in BC Canada this year. I would like to bring you a small Thank You for the huge influence you’ve had on my writing. Do you imbibe? Do you have a favourite beverage? See you in the Master Class (and more, I hope)
    Janet K Smith

    • Hey Janet – I’m excited to be there. I did that conference two years ago, had a blast and met so many wonderful writers. Do I imbide? Well, very casually, I’m not an enthusiast for “hard stuff,” to be honest, but I do enjoy “a cold one” and a nice glass of vino. Very kind of you to ask. I look forward to having you with us in the Master Class, and beyond (which hasn’t been defined yet, I told them I’d wait tables if they needed it, we’ll see).

  9. I like using a storyboard to help me “visualize” the structure of my story. I have some computer software, too, but using a storyboard activates a different area in the brain. Using a storyboard isn’t constricting, because I can always make changes if I come up with better ideas throughout the writing process.

  10. I’m a fan of visualization, as well. I create very simple visual models, hand-drawn flowcharts, and sometimes I’ll lay out the entire story on the floor, one page for each scene, and then just float and look down on it. Amazing how this can clarify. I’m not a Luddite, I appreciate the various software options for this, as well. I agree, storyboarding isn’t constricting… in fact, it’s much easier to tinker with and revise a storyboard (in whatever form) than it is to revise a manuscript. This you clearly understand, and it will always serve you. Thanks for your thoughts on this!

    • I found it helpful to create visual models for some of my favorite books and movies, identifying all of the key plot points. I’ve discovered that there’s a reason I watch certain movies or read certain books over and over again. Among other things, they have a solid structure. With my own ideas, I’ve learned that I can turn them into so many different stories. I brainstorm until I have lots of possibilities and then try to think about which possibilities in my key scenes will have the greatest impact. (The first idea I come up with is rarely the best one, and sometimes it can be hard to let go of an idea.) Then when I know that I’m building toward certain pivotal scenes, it makes it a lot easier to write scenes that propel the story forward. Sometimes, inspiration will hit at an inopportune time, and I’ll realize I need to make big changes. If I really believe the changes will make the story better, I embrace the work and try to enjoy the rewriting process.

  11. Just a half-hour ago, I finished doing a critique of 100 pages for someone who won me in an auction at a writer’s conference. Am putting a link to your post at the end of my comments! Thanks!

    Will toast to you tonight when I drink my pinot. Off to get it now…

    • One last thing and then I will be quiet:
      In all the critiques and workshops I’ve done, I always meet up with the person who my sister and I have come to all the “Yeah but” writer.

      “Yeah, but if you just read on to page 57, you’ll get what’s going on.”
      “Yeah, but if you just understood what I am trying to do here…”
      “Yeah, but this is really a dream sequence so you don’t really need to get what’s going on…”

      Yeah but…Lord deliver me.

  12. Thanks so much for this post, Larry! Even though I am a newbie myself, I do see what you are saying. I write a review blog for debut authors, and I see so much of this, where the authors have no concept of any kind of structure. It falls apart quickly, and so does reader interest. Your help with your posts and your advice for us newbies is invaluable, as is this blog.

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