The So-What

by John Gilstrap

If you’re around this writing biz long enough, and attend enough seminars or classes, sooner or later you’re going to hear about the three-act structure.  I’m of the belief that there are no hard and fast rules in the world of fiction-writing—that if it works, it works—but it’s pretty hard to tell any story without a beginning, a middle and an end.

Now, the Syd Fieldses of the world embrace a form of the three-act structure that is far more draconian and, frankly, intimidating than mine.  Truth be told, looking back on 17 published novels, I would be hard pressed to identify precise act-to-act transitions in any of them.  I think more in terms of setup, development and climax.  Or, as I wrote above, a beginning, a middle and an end.

A few weeks ago, as I was teaching a two-hour writing seminar in Alexandria, Virginia, I was smitten with the notion that, structurally, there’s another critical element of successful storytelling: the so-what.  It’s a little hard to define, but it goes to the heart of what makes an otherwise well-told story fall flat, and what makes some mundane storytelling very successful.  In my view, it’s the missing element that renders a lot of so-called literary fiction to be under-performers at the cash register.

A successful so-what leaves readers satisfied that the time they invested in the reading was well-spent.  After investing a few hours (or a lot of hours) into reading a story, I need to feel that the characters I’ve bonded with have changed somehow, and that their journey has left their slice of the world somehow changed.  Brilliantly-painted word pictures and navel-gazing angst all have their places, but the absence of a good so-what leaves me, as a reader, a little angry at the author.  Would it have killed the writer to include an identifiable story along with the beautiful words?

Every year at ThrillerFest in New York City, International Thriller Writers Association sponsors an event called Pitch Fest, where attendees can carve out face time with NY literary agents to pitch their book ideas.  Last year, I agreed to participate in Practice Pitch Fest, in which I would sit where an agent would later sit and help writers hone their pitches.  It was a real eye-opener for me, not least because, never having had to pitch, I don’t know that I could do it.

After sitting across from fifteen, maybe eighteen authors, the most common weakness among the pitches I heard was the lack of a solid so-what.  Consider:

My book is based on my mother’s brave effort to conquer cancer. The so-what questions here are, how was your mother’s fight more brave or essentially different than every other mother’s fight to conquer cancer?  Why are you and you alone the right person to write this book?  What will the reader take away that is different from other books about parents’ brave struggles with illness?  Actually, this is the problem with most memoirs.

An emotionally scarred New Orleans detective stalks a serial killer who preys on tourists in the Big Easy.  Emotionally scarred detectives have been done to death.  The New Orleans beat is covered by countless gumshoes already, and serial killers are ubiquitous in crime fiction.  The so-what in a story like this could be the evolution of the detective over the course of the book from good to bad, or bad to good.  Or that the serial killer is of a nature that we’ve never seen before.  But without the so-what, the idea is just another serial killer book.  Been there.  Ho-hum.

Sometimes, the so-what has little to do with plot and everything to do with character.  For some mysteries—but no thrillers I can think of—the so-what is as simple as letting readers spend a fun few hours with characters they have come to love over the years.  But that’s a tough hill to climb for Book One.

So, does this make sense or am I all wet here?  Can you think of a book you disliked yet you thought you were going to love?  No need to name names, but when a book leaves you flat, what is the most likely missing element?

Fair warning: When this post appears, I will be in Las Vegas at the SHOT Show, researching what new toys Jonathan Grave needs to add to his arsenal.  I will accordingly be slow to respond to comments.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

8 thoughts on “The So-What

  1. For me, it’s a character I don’t give a damn about. I was talking with an author friend starting a new book, and she was agonizing about the “why” – why would her characters do what they were doing. If they’re reacting to situations for the author’s convenience, then I’m out of there.

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  2. Setup, development and climax. That resonates with my brain better than thinking in terms of three acts. It’s still structure. And if there’s no so-what, what’s the purpose of the book?

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  3. I hate to go to the movies–actually, I love to go to the movies–but I mean, for this thought: the most disgusting so- what? I’ve personally encountered was from the movie, The Postman, starred in and directed by Kevin Costner.

    CAUTION: I give away the story climax here!

    The story starts in a direct way, an post-apocalyptic fiction world, the main character, a peripatetic actor who makes his living doing Shakespeare in town after town, and whose real name we never learn, is developed. He discovers that a bad guy has put together an army to terrorize and control the people remaining after the apocalyptic events, trying to keep any form of government except his own from developing. The main character doesn’t realize it, but a form of government, a postal delivery service, has developed in his name. As I said, I loved the beginning. I was up for all of the movie.

    We are slowly building to a super big, huge final battle in which the forces of the faux-army and the postal carriers is developing.

    Except.

    What happens is that two guys settle the whole thing in a one-on-one fistfight.

    The whole movie could have been resolved with a drinking game or a game of hopscotch.

    I almost stood and screamed horrid things as I was leaving the theater.

    There was NO so-what?, no ending in the sense of a climax OR ending.

    If I ever meet Kevin Costner, I’m going to demand my money back.

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    • Jim, your example reminds me of the movie (both versions) of War of the Worlds. Great premise and terrific action all the way through. I really liked the remake with Tom Cruise, especially the part where humans are being sucked up into the giant tripod ships.

      But what stops them? A common earth virus…all the aliens just sort of peter out. First time I saw this movie (the Gene Barry one), I was just a kid but even then I felt a let-down. (What? No white-hat riding in to save the day?)

      This also applies to The Andromeda Strain. Although I really like the movie (never read the book) the fact that the deadly virus just mutates and drifts harmlessly out to sea was sorta…meh.

      I have mixed feelings about both!

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  4. John, I almost strangled an editor at one of the writing conferences I attended. We were sitting on a sofa in front of a roaring fire as I told him about my story. But after every sentence or two, he said, “So what?” I was infuriated until I figured out what he was saying. What was at stake?
    I recall another Kill Zone author, initials JSB, saying that every good story line involves death–physical, emotional, professional. That’s the “so what” my editor and your story talk about.
    Thanks so much for sharing. (And good luck in Vegas, although I’m sure you’re just going for the scenery).

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  5. As someone who does what you do, at conferences and, in the past, as a writing coach, I couldn’t agree more. Kudos on a great article. I write about this a lot (here on KZ and elsewhere) because, as you describe, it’s an epidemic. Writers are not getting the role of dramatic tension and hero’s quest in their stories. Instead they are giving us character to “watch” and mavel at, rather than something “root for.” Not sure if the MFA programs are to blame (I’ve heard someone can go through an entire MFA and never once hear the word “plot”… and perhaps, if they never discover it, never get published, either, unless they hit the literary fiction jackpot, which with a few exceptions is a small pot, indeed).

    As for structure… in both presentation and perception this is often confused as an issue of process (writing toward structural goals) versus outcome (having a story that works). Many published writers – perhaps like you, John – bring a developed “sense of story” to their work, and it moves their stories into alignment with those principles, even when the writer doesn’t credit it or even recognize it.

    It’s like when Bo Jackson, one of the greatest natural athletes to ever pick up a ball (or several balls, in his case) says proudly that he never set foot in a weight room… bravo for him, but not necessarily good advice for the young athlete without those natural gifts (corresponding to an evolved “story sense” in our world). Just because a pro writer can’t describe what they do, or translate it to an example of principle, doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation for it (not all principles are draconian; rather, they are simply clarifying). Structure is a powerful form of explanation and clarity, of great value to writers who need that framework (because once you know what it is, it’s hard to miss within stories, even those written by authors who deny them), to take them to the level of story sense that you and other evolved authors do as a matter of course.

    By definition, if a story has a natural flow across three contextual parts, there definitely will be transitions between those parts (and thus, structural value that explains their form and function within a story), even if the writer doesn’t have a name for them. Process is personal and negotiable, if it gets you there (if it lands you within the sphere of the principles that define what just happened), it’s all good. The core principles that make a story work, while flexible, aren’t nearly as pliable as the process that renders them.

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  6. An excellently crafted argument, John–thanks for sharing. I’m reminded that one should be able to pitch a logline to random individuals and in response receive an expression of genuine interest, as opposed to polite, requisite enthusiasm. I’ve learned to tell the difference, too. This is another measure to determine if we’re getting the “so-what” right.

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  7. The mere mention of the word ‘structure’ ignites strong feelings both for and against. I fall in the middle using structure points as targets. I came to grips with structure by reading Bell, Brooks, Weiland, and McKee (among others). It wasn’t until I understood that each point (Opening, Inciting Incident, 1st Plot Point, 1st Pinch Point, Middle Crisis, 2nd Pinch Point, 2nd Plot Point, Climax, and Landing Chapter are EMOTIONAL targets. It is where danger or understanding or fear or (fill in the blank) peaks to effect both the characters and the reader in a way that changes both. Change the reader? Yes. Make their hearts beat faster, flip the anticipation switch, or make them see what was right in front of their eyes.
    John’s so-what point isn’t on the list, but it is proof that using structure as a process only isn’t enough.
    Apocalypse Now (The Heart of Darkness) We go up that river, danger increases, and in the end we are fascinated by how crazy the world can become.
    Think of the movie version of Gone with the Wind. Scarlet is unique and misguided. She is brave but causes her own problems and we know it. But it takes Rhett telling her he didn’t give a damn that gave us the so-what. Think of what the story would be like if Rhett had said, “My darling, I will protect you for ever.” No Academy Award.
    The Usual Suspects is a terrific movie, but it is the ending and realization that the cop (and the audience) could be so tricked, just like all the people who believed in Kaiser Sosa. Imagine being able to do to your watchers what is posited in the story. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. And whoosh, just like that he’s gone.” And so was Kaiser Sosa.

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