The Most Important Aspect of Craft That Gets Almost Zero Airtime

By Larry Brooks

I bet you know a writer who isn’t shy about declaring how “bad” Dan Brown’s writing is. Or James Patterson’s. Or even John Grisham’s, among a roster of other A-list names with more readers that any of us should dare to dream.

Certainly, the shaded prose stylings of E.L. James, too.

I’m not here to argue that.

I could argue that, by the way (my guess is Ms. James is laughing all the way to the bank), at least for some of those names, but that’s not my intention here today.

Conversely, we hear much conversation about how wonderful the writing is in, say, a Raymond Chandler novel. Or in the novels of Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille or Neil Gaiman.

Or in the novel Goldfinch, by Donna Taart, who has a Pulitzer on her mantle to show for it,  (though – perhaps ironically – I will say, I haven’t met a writer who will admit to being able to finish that one…) even though critics weren’t overly impressed.

Rather than stake a position on either end of any “good writing” estimation, my mission here is to put forth a counterpoint.

It is this: While you may insist you know writers who are better than these and other authors of homerun bestsellers… I’ll also wager that you’ve never met a writer who has had a better story idea—a premise—as thematically rich and dramatically-promising as, say, Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code.

Or even as commercially resonant as 50 Shades of Grey.

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of authors at the writing conference aren’t seeking to become the next Raymond Chandler. That’s a rare dare-to-dream.

Rather, they are looking to unlock the key to breaking into the business.

And while there is a long list of such stuff on those agendas, perhaps the most important aspect of craft in that part of the equation gets almost no attention.

Which is: how to land on a better story idea. An idea that is truly good enough.

Tell me the last time you saw that one on the conference agenda.

I can hear the outrage now… but if that’s you, you may be missing the point.

Within the polite kumbaya of the writing conversation, the unspoken etiquette holds that nobody can—almost nobody will—tell you that your story idea is weak. That it actually sucks. The focus is on your execution… of whatever story idea you deem to bring to the party.

And yet, at least half the time, if the writing itself is good enough, it is that idea that will get you rejected. Nobody dares tell you that you can’t write your way out of a bland story idea (sort of like an average Joe auditioning for the lead role next to George Clooney)… without elevating the premise itself.

This imprecise corner of the writing conversation is always compartmentalized. Only one of those compartments has anything at all to do with glowing narrative prose, the very thing you are judging when you look down your nose at Dan Brown.

Rather, the conversation breaks down with a divide between: brand new writers… working apprentice-level writers… journeyman novelists… and A-list bestselling writers.

Look closely. Only that last group can get away with a novel that is built upon a less-then-stellar premise.

And yet, only the first three are overly-focused on the tactile sound and pitch of their writing voice.

And none of them–yes, you read that correctly–totally depends on the stellar writing chops of the John Updike variety.

Let’s take those compartments one-at-a-time.

Agents and editors like to say they are looking for the next great writer. The next great voice. But upon that closer look I just asked you to take is a clearer truth: they are actually looking for the next great story.

A story that will sell.

Truth be told, agents and editors are looking for the next great homerun.

Which means, if your story idea is remotely rote or familiar, anything smelling of vanilla or promising an overly-characterized narrative that is light on a conceptually-rich premise (which is code for that dirtiest of lit school words: plot), they will most likely pass.

No matter how lyrically rich or promising your prose. The world us full of brilliant lit majors with MFAs who can’t get arrested in the commercial marketplace.

In a game full of 90-plus-MPH fastballs, beginning at the high school level, the scouts are out there tracking down the next 98-MPH heater. And yet… all of those pitchers look pretty good on the mound.  And then–to morph this story analogy toward a prose analogy–the ball needs to come in at 102-plus on that count… something that happens about once a decade.

In other words (no pun intended there), the truly great story idea/premise is not remotely a commodity proposition, while pro-level prose (90-MPH back in our analogy) absolutely is. Think about it: at a conference with 800 writers in attendance, all of them seeking a spot on the bookshelf, how many are in possession of a story premise that would keep an agent awake all night? And how many realize that is precisely what is required to break in?

It isn’t going to be your beautiful sentences, you can pretty much be assured of that.

Maybe that’s why we spend almost no time at all talking about or describing what such premises are made of. Rather, we talk about how to hammer a middling premise–without ever really labeling it as such–into something that works… which is a tall order.

That’s the wall—the towering monolithic obstacle—that all three of those first four groups (the exception being the established author with a waiting readership and the sales data to prove it) must scale: you need an idea that lifts the agent or editor out of their seat.

A premise that makes their skin itch with excitement. Deliver that, and the prose bar falls quickly to eye level, from the ceiling where you once believed it to be.

That killer story idea is not remotely an easy task, because agents and editors have, literally, seen it all. They are not easily impressed.

And yet, that should be our goal. At least until your name is David Baldacci.

We share a venue here called The Kill Zone.

Which by definition means we are writing genre novels. Not The Great American Literary Novel, ala Ms. Taart’s Goldfinch.

The math, then, takes us to the other side of the = sign: you need a killer premise. A plot. Dramatic tension along a hero’s path arising from conflict driven in context to emotionally-resonant stakes.

Don’t hear me wrong, great characterization remains important.

To argue this as anything close to a counterpoint is like saying salt is critical to the work of a great chef.

But it is not the primary mission, or even the point. Because voice alone, born on the wings of your angelic prose… will get you quickly rejected in our dark corner of the marketplace.

And therein we find the Great Abyss into which new and newer and even some frustrated experienced authors find themselves tumbling head over tookus: the premise-void, character-driven novel, sometimes fancifully described as a thriller. A book that, however beautifully narrated, isn’t driven by the same premise-on-steroids story ideas that has allowed Dan Brown to build a 55,000 square foot home with a view of the Pacific, and pay cash for it.

But what about those famous folk, you ask.

Many of which are indeed genuinely literary.

Fact is, they are held to a different standard. Which means their premises no longer must glow in the dark.

Rest assured, they too have a concept that propels their stories into the marketplace faster and deeper than a musketeer’s kill thrust. But what takes such writers to the mountain top may not be the originality and edge of their story idea.

Rather, their concept is their name.

On the benchmark for what constitutes a compelling concept, nothing says sign-me-up faster than a book with the words John Grisham on the cover. There isn’t an agent or an editor in the business who would look the other way if such a manuscript came their way (yeah, as if Grisham and Connelly are shopping for new representation) saying, “well, the writing just didn’t speak to me.”

Which leaves us with an opportunity to grow… through this realization.

As someone who trades in unpublished and unpublishable story ideas (in my role as a story coach and workshop presenter who hears pitches in the same context as the agents and editors in attendance), I can attest to the fact that a truly compelling, conceptually-rich concept is a rare and beautiful thing.

Take note: it is that hyphenated adjective—conceptually-rich—that will get you published.

Rather, too many new-ish authors are serving up middle-shelf, been-there-read-that yawns for story ideas, some of them rendered with legitimately terrific prose. Which doesn’t serve them in the least within their genre… at least until they finally do find their book in the B&N window, which will precisely because of the premise, not their voice.

Story conception and writing voice are separate core competencies. In much the same way that storytelling and self-promotion are the separate muscle groups of the successfully-self-published.

Or, rather than that commodity premises,  new writers are pitching plot-light (or void) character studies wrapped within episodic documentaries. Such as… “I spent a summer traveling the Far East just after grad school, and it changed me… my novel is about that.”

And the agent looking for the next genre-driven homerun says: “Pass.”

If you’re lucky, they might add: “Your writing is good. But you need a better story.”

But don’t hold your breath.

Note: Eat, Pray, Love was not a novel.

Too many new authors are shocked to hear this. Stop pitching stories with something similar as the premise of your novel if you want to break into the fiction business.

Learn what a novel is. Learn how, among the wide breadth of novels, literary novels are different than genre novels. And within the genres, each has certain tropes and expectations that define what readers are expecting.

The last thing an agent will do is represent a genre novel that doesn’t deliver what fans of that genre are expecting. And the last thing they are expecting is a “novel” that describes what you did on your summer vacation.

Understand that your writing voice is only one of the six categorical core competencies you need to play with the pros (the others being concept/premise, character, theme, structure, and scene development). Accept the paradox: among those six, voice presents the most reachable bar (because odds are you were decent at it from Day One, it was probably why you’ve hung out your Writer shingle in the first place), and yet, it remains a lofty bar, indeed.

And finally, stop trying to write the books that already-famous authors are already writing.

The trick, the ticket in, is to write within the expectations of your genre, or genre mash-up, but do it with something that constitutes a fresh twist, a twist on steroids, combined with massive layers of emotional resonance within a vicarious reading experience.

Learn the difference between a concept and a premise, and make sure your story idea leads deeply into both. That particular understanding is key to nailing consistently fresh story ideas that result in rich story premises. Because it is precisely that element—something conceptual—that makes the difference.

And then, pay attention to what is selling. Notice the stories that create break-in opportunities for writers you haven’t heard of, and notice the wider latitude more established authors have in this regard. The conceptual bar is lower, precisely because the name on the cover is bigger.

Do these things, and one day your prose might matter to the extent you wish it did.

Until then, your writing voice should play like fresh, unfettered air… clean and invigorating, with only a carefully-placed dash of irony or wit, uncluttered with anything that smells up the place (read: adjectives are largely toxic)… because one reader’s perfume may be another’s stench.

There is precious little out there that will lead you to a better story idea. The kind that makes agents and editors sweat. Our job is to understand what the means, and the stuff it is made of when it happens.

Better story ideas leading to stronger story premises are a product of an evolved story sensibility. That is the goal of the truly enlightened writer at any stage of the game.

Character will always be there. But mostly, giving the character something amazing and intense and emotionally-resonant to do—giving the reader something to root for, rather than simply observe—is the recipe you are looking for.

Build your sense of story around that truth, and your ticket may be destined to be punched.

 

*****

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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.

21 thoughts on “The Most Important Aspect of Craft That Gets Almost Zero Airtime

  1. I don’t doubt the extreme importance of the story idea. Yet I get the feeling that nobody talks about better story ideas because no one knows it till they see it; that’s it’s all a crap-shoot of the right story hitting an editor’s desk at the right time.

    I would also say, based on my admittedly limited experience, that sometimes an agent/editor simply doesn’t have any fresh suggestions on conveying ideas for story improvement on a manuscript they receive. While they may be looking for the next ‘big one’, in the meantime, they’re looking for more of the same. To me, that can be somewhat counter to looking for the next big one. That fresh new story idea told in a unique way.

    I guess that’s another benefit of writing a lot of material. You can keep writing “more of the same” for the market until you get to the big one. 😎

  2. I just read a couple of books with less-than-stellar concepts. One of them had lots of graphic sex to make up for it, but the book was ultimately forgettable. What craft books would you recommend for developing a killer story concept?

    • I hope you’ve read Story Engineering and Story Physics by Larry. Larry’s blog spends a lot on it. http://storyfix.com/a-clearer-understanding-of-concept
      I also enjoy Steven Pressfield’s blog and craft books. A Google search will yield a plethora of options. Art Holcomb is also doing some interesting on-line seminars.
      But start with Story Engineering and Story Physics. You can’t go wrong with that base.

      • Kassie – when I read your comment asking for books on this, I sort of squirmed, because it’s uncomfortable recommending one’s own work as a response to this question. So thanks to Paula for covering that base.

        There are many great writing books out there. When I set out to write my third book (“Story Fix”), I wanted to dive into a realm that hasn’t yet been directly addressed (concept vs. premise), so if you want to add that to the list, this is one of the unique focuses you’ll find there.

        Thanks, wishing you great success!

        • I have read craft books by Larry brook and James Scott Bell and I recommend anything written by either of them.

        • Thank you so much, Larry! I’m actually off to watch all your videos on the topic as a stopgap until I can get your books. 🙂

  3. I think this is a valuable set of insights on something most writers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about — and get hit with once they’ve finished their book and start shopping it around to agents. I also think most agents and publishers aren’t really comfortable with the next really new great story idea, but are really looking for something that tracks the last home run ball they were able to sell big — which means I more or less agree with BK Jackson’s points. In my experience, some agents will push you to change your work to more closely resemble the last book they were able to sell, particularly if you’re a new author hungry to get published. There’s another barrier to an story idea that is truly new — the expectations of the genre, fiercely guarded by reviewers and prize judges. You’ll get chided and derided if you wander very far from those expectations, no matter how good your story is or how high your prose flies. I’ve had one indie prize judge praise the writing in my first novel but damn the story as not worth telling. Meanwhile, you’ve got the greats like Chandler who once said he didn’t overly concern himself with plot but focused on the characters and the dialogue — as did the late, great George V. Higgins. I kept those guys in mind while writing my first two novels, but have come to realize that plot and story idea/premise count more than my calculus allowed. Good article.

    • I agree with the “more of the same” trap. A writing colleague of mine had an agent very interested in her book–she loved it. But the publisher’s marketing department came back with “ghosts don’t sell; we’re looking for more vampires.”

      • Since we can’t edit our comments, and readers here would understand the difference … it was an acquisitions *editor*, not an agent, who really liked the book.

        • Good catch here… agents easily fall into the bandwagon trap, rather than the qualitative one. Great if they’re right on that front, frustrating when they aren’t. It’s always best, when we are knowingly jumping on a bandwagon, to at least bring a unique twist and/or take on it. That’ll serve us in any selling context, right?

  4. Larry, this is an excellent lesson in tough love for writers, especially those starting out. Having done my share of workshops for beginners, I’ve found one thing true 100% of the time: everyone believes their story is unique and the next “big thing”. No one has ever come up to me and said, “I’ve got a ho-hum, mediocre story here. Would you like to read it?” The point being, how does a writer know his/her idea is a game changer?

    • I agree with your number – 100 percent of the time. Which is frustating for agents, editors and story coaches who, with one glance (or listen) aren’t in agreement. Nothing moves forward until the writer sees it, too. And we all have our own timetable for when that happens. Hopefully sooner (thanks for venues like KZ) rather than later.

  5. I have the same question as Joe, Larry. Charlaine Harris had a real game changer with her Southern Vampire series, but it took her agent TWO YEARS to sell her mega-bestselling Sookie Stackhouse novels. Why? Because it was too different. Eventually, all the editors who turned her down were gone and her series was finally bought by a new editor at Tor.

    • There’s a great quote from William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.” Which should read, perhaps: “nobody knows everything.” This is true of agents, as well. The good ones will cop to it. “The Help” was rejected by 46 agents… so there we go.

      The goal, I think, is for the writer to aim high relative to concept and aim wide relative to premise, and then rely on our sense of story (a unique storytelling muscle) to get the story into the game. We always the roll that dice when we put something out there… which makes the highest goal of all to develop that story sense, which will always serve us.

      Thanks for weighing in today!

  6. Larry, I’m a bit confused by the ff quote, since throughout you seem to be treating ‘story idea,’ ‘concept,’ and ‘premise’ as the same thing. Then you say,

    “Learn the difference between a concept and a premise, and make sure your story idea leads deeply into both.”

    I’m missing something here.

    • Hey Eric – yep, this is a can of worms. Easy to get foggy on it all. When a writer hasn’t yet explored the differences between an idea, a concept and a premise, then certainly they can all blend together in an article like this one. My primary purpose here wasn’t to cover that base (because it’s an entire book, one I’ve written, in fact), but rather, to create awareness of these differences and invite the writer to explore them.

      Check out Paula’s comment above (it’s a response to a similar question, actually), which contains a link to a blog post that focuses on the differences between concept and premise directly. As for “idea” — those can be anything, including some facet of concept and/or premise. So the real gold awaits in those two story essences (concept is a framework for a story, a sort of Big Idea, actually), while premise is actually the dramatic arc of it, with specific bases (8 of them) covered before it is complete and fully functional.

      Let me know if I can help you in this discovery process. Larry

  7. I slogged through all 850 pages of “Goldfinch.” Came to hate it. What is ironic is that for a book that many consider well written – “Beautifully written,” to use a common review phrase – the writing is bad.

    What’s good is the opening premise. Too bad it never pays off, and you have to spend so long finding out.

    • Gerat word here: slog. That Pulitzer was an amazing outcome in this case. Gotta give Donna Taart her props, though, she reached the mountaintop with this one. Something we can perhaps study to figure out why… if one has three decades to devote to it. “-“

  8. Superb post, Larry. In a roundabout way, this subject came up yesterday when my stepson and father-in-law visited. Neither are writers, only readers. Which is why, perhaps, the conversation struck such a chord with me.

    In one or two sentences Bobby told me about a book he read recently. Literally in elevator pitch format, which also blew my mind. Then he said, “I loved the concept. That’s why I bought it. On the plus side, he could really write too.” For context, he has no idea about craft. He’s just a voracious reader. I mention the conversation because it aligns with your post. Agents and editors aren’t the only ones who need stories that are conceptually-rich, readers are begging for them, too.

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