How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

by Larry Brooks

Quick story from the writing conference front.

A while ago I was doing a couple of workshops at a major writing conference, and as is often the case at these gatherings, the spare hours between sessions were spent meeting one-on-one with writers to go over their projects.

One writer’s novel stood out as a case study in what can go wrong… when you don’t know what you don’t know.

This writer believed he knew what he needed to know about writing a novel. Because he had read a lot of them, he was a really smart guy, and he’d been working on this story for years.

It should be noted here that this writer had a way with words. What some call natural talent. But here’s what may be a newsflash to some: a talent for writing sentences and a talent for choosing and developing good stories are different things.

Millions have the former. Few are born with the latter… which is where the learning comes in. Because how to cobble together an effective, compelling story is, contrary to recent popular belief on this site, something that can absolutely be learned. It happens all the time, especially for writers who don’t buy into the lie that it can’t.

This is where the learning comes in. Because how to cobble together an effective, compelling story is something that absolutely can be learned. It happens all the time, especially for writers who don’t buy into the lie that it can’t.

Which means it can be taught, as well. Let us hope so, lest all of us on both sides of the head table at all of these writing workshops and conferences (guys like Jim Bell and myself) have been wasting our time for half of our lives.

Me thinks that’s not the case, however. I have hundreds of letters from writers – published writers – who have written to thank me for showing them what they did not know, many after years of seeking out enlightenment, are to be believed.

This writer’s story pitch had promise. It was a spy thriller with a hero and a bomb that must be found before Paris went up in smoke.

But when we popped open the hood to see how the thing was built, the wheels started to come off.

I asked him about his opening hook. His response was that he’d opened the story with some deep backstory about the hero. I asked if it would link directly to the forthcoming plot of the core story, and he said no, he just wanted to add characterization before putting the hero in harm’s way. “So we would really know this guy,” he said.

Strike one. Because a thriller needs a killer hook, almost every time.

Which implies the writer knows what a killer hook is, where it goes, what it does. It doesn’t matter if someone else shows that writer this knowledge (this being, of course, a case of the writer learning how to write), or if they figure it out for themselves… either way, they need to know.

Also, this writer didn’t know that a thriller is not a character-driven vehicle, but rather, a premise-driven narrative, one that does indeed give us a compelling character chasing a specific goal, against specific exterior antagonism.

Which means the hero’s crappy childhood is not a primary story element.

He seemed surprised by this. Because apparently this principle had not been taught to him, an chances are he’d probably misunderstood the half-truth that “fiction is all about the characters.” His personal story instincts – the very same instincts that some claim are all you need to get you there – weren’t able to recognize and assimilate this principle.

That’s the thing, you see. Not all really smart people who want to write a novel are able to recognize and assimilate what they need to know simply by reading novels, or sitting in a room discussing them with imaginary beings. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have talent (also a recent assertion), and it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t learn these truths.

This instinctual shortcoming is everywhere. In fact, it far exceeds the number of writers who are born with a natural gift of story, to the extent of the degree of resolution required. And thus this explains, as a generality, the primary reason so many writers never reach the finish line in one piece: not because of a lack of talent, but from a lack of knowing. Which too often stems from not knowing what to know.

Two strikes now. No hook, and character-intro overkill. An editor at a publisher would have already bailed.

I was still in listening mode. I wanted to see how badly he’d mangled other principles before I got specific about what his story – any story – should look like.

Before long, though, I had to ask the deal-breaking question: “So when in your story do you stop showing backstory and put your hero into action?”

He quickly answered, “When he gets his assignment to find the guy with the stolen bomb.”

That was the what and the how. I’d asked for when.

So I explained, again: the hero needs to seek something in the story, have a need or a mission to engage with, to take action toward, with something at stake and significant obstacles – a villain – in his/her way. And within classic story structure – not a rule, by the way, but a principle observed by nearly every published commercial novelists working today… including those that will tell you earnestly that they don’t – there is an optimal time and place to turn that corner in the story.

“Oh sure,” he said, momentarily relieved. “It has that. Like I said, it’s when the spy gets his assignment to find and disable the bomb. That’s when all hell breaks loose.”

I was nodding, but not in agreement.

“So when does that happen? Give me an approximate percentage based on total length.”

Mind you, this was a thriller he was writing. Not a literary novel. Not that it changes the answer… the best answer is the same for any genre.

He had to think a moment. Then his eyes suddenly lit up.

“It happens just short of the halfway mark.  Maybe, like, forty-five percent in.”

I think he heard me gasp.

Or maybe that was the sound of his story going off the rails.

Because he didn’t know what he didn’t know. Which was something he needed to know – a fundamental principle – because of its critical role in the efficacy of his or any other story.

I asked what his hero was doing in those first 200 pages of the manuscript, before the hero’s primary quest entered the narrative.

He said, with some amount of confidence, that he was building up the character, showing us his life before he became a professional in the black ops business, adding a lot more backstory. Mostly backstory.

For the first half of his novel, there was no plot. No conflict. No dramatic tension.

He was certain that this was a good thing. Because he didn’t know what he didn’t know.

That’s when I told him that, in my opinion, he needed a major revision before it would work.

“How can you know that?” he asked, not a happy camper at this point. “You haven’t read it yet.”

“That’s true,” I replied, “I haven’t read it. I don’t need to read it. Let me ask you this – did you understand my question about when you begin the hero’s core story quest? The actual plot itself? And was your answer accurate?”

He assured me that he did, and that it was.

Both of those answers were wrong. He didn’t know at all.

And then I told him the deal-breaking truth:

Based on his responses, he didn’t actually know. He knew when, as I’d asked, but he didn’t understand that he hadn’t aligned with a core structural principle in doing it as he did.

I told him that until he knew about this principle and understood that it wasn’t something he could ignore, or even stretch to that degree, he would continue to struggle.

A setup simply cannot take that long. And the optimal place to turn the corner from setup, via something massively significant happening, toward the path that the hero would embark upon in the story, was closer to the twenty percent mark, give or take. The more give or take, the higher the risk.

No matter what you call it (because it is labeled differently from teacher to teacher, and probably not labeled at all if this is something you figured out on your own, which is rare), the is arguably the most important moment in a story – especially a thriller.

He thought a moment, then I saw a light in his eyes.

He said, “Okay, then. I’ve got it. I’ll open with it. Make it a hook.”

Still shaking my head. Because he still didn’t get it.

While there may eventually be a way to make that work, simply moving the First Plot Point into hook position wasn’t it. The principles of story architecture demand more finesse than that, which is the entire reason for knowing and using those principles, so the forces of story – what I call story physics – have a chance to work their magic on the reader in the best possible way.

This, too, being something he didn’t know that he didn’t know.

And since he’d been tinkering with this story for years, was unlikely to be enlightened on by one of those imaginary beings he was counting on.

More likely he’d heard this and written it off because there are no rules… never understanding that this never was about rules at all, it’s about a principle of storytelling that is universal.

I suggested he dig into this to learn more about the core principles of making fiction work – writing books, blogs, workshops, a writing coach –  to understand it all at a deeper level. And when he does, he should test it out there in the real world – this is where the sitting alone in a room part kicks in… if done in context to an awareness of what you’re looking for, that becomes a powerful learning experience – look for these principles in play within the books he reads and the movies he sees. Especially thrillers.

Seeing the principles in play is to believe in them. To finally know what you didn’t know before, and were unlikely to realize on your own, at least within a decade or two.

Our time was up. He asked me to wish him luck with his agent pitches.

I smiled, forcing a smile, knowing he would need it.

But the story has an epilogue.

Next day I ran into him in front of the hotel elevators. I asked about those pitches. And he was excited to answer.

“Went great! Two agents want a synopsis. I guess they didn’t agree with you.”

Behold, the great head-scratching paradox of confusion on the part of the over-confident, under-enlightened writer. Which comprises a massive percentage of the manuscripts submitted to agents and editors.

Writers who don’t yet know what they don’t know.

Pitches primarily reveal concepts and premises. Rarely do they expose to the listener the nature and depth of what the writer does not yet know.

Now I was nodding. Not in humble contrition, but with sad certainty. Because if he had written that novel as he described, he was in for a dark journey of frustration.

“Are you going to revise the draft before submitting?” I tossed out as the elevator doors opened.

“Naw. They want pages right away. We’ll see what happens.”

He smiled, as writers often do when they mistake the uncompleted conversation for the one that affirms their limited skill set.

This is what happens. This is where rejection comes from.

We don’t know what we don’t know. And thus, what we don’t know squashes our dreams. Usually without us knowing why.

That is, until we finally learn what we didn’t know then.

Story architecture is very much like anything in life that lives or dies by how functional it is. An engine, a first date, your computer… one thousand moving parts can be perfectly tuned and positioned and connected and humming along, but if one single essential thing is off the mark, if it sputters at all, the whole thing will crash and burn.

And the event will be fatal.

Knowing the broad strokes of how a story seems to be constructed isn’t enough. And while you may have heard it before and dismissed it as just one presenter’s opinion – when what we hear contradicts what we have, that’s usually the outcome – it is just as likely that you’ve heard it and haven’t yet fully grasped it.You need to. Not knowing will kill you, every time.

You need know.

When you know the core principles, everything about your creative choices – including how to break the so-called rules – will be enriched.

And best way to know is to seek out this information… and learn it.

 

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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.

23 thoughts on “How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

  1. Thanks for this reminder. I’ve started to schedule time in my day to read about the craft of writing. You’re not born knowing, and it’s scary to think you might not have figured out the questions yet.

  2. Discovering–and admitting–you don’t know something is a major step. I remember the late Barbara Parker reading my pages for a workshop, and she must have seen something in what she read, because she met with me over lunch when the conference was over and told me my writing was strong, but I needed to learn story structure. She said that was the “easy” part, because teaching/learning structure was better than working things the other way round.

    Several years later, I showed her the opening pages of a short story I was working on–an uncharacteristic format for me–and after reading the first page, she smiled and said, “You have grown so much. Send me the whole thing and we can talk about it.”

    Not long after that, the story was part of a collection that won the Silver Falchion Award at Killer Nashville.

      • Barbara was one of my early mentors. I learned a lot about teaching from her. She was always straight with writers, firm yet kind. I miss her.

  3. I’m so glad you weighed on this, Larry. Although I agreed with Jim in yesterday’s post, I used my right to remain silent, as I did the day before. Of course it can be taught. I, along with countless other writers, am living proof. If I relied solely on my inherent story sensibilities without seeking to learn and understand the mechanics and physics of why stories work, I’d still be drowning in the slush pile. I’ll always be grateful to you, Jim, and others like you. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re making such an enormous difference in writers’ lives, including mine. Thank you!

    As a side note, last week I watched your keynote speech in Las Vegas. I meant to shoot you an email, but then life got in the way. Hilarious!!!!! I can hardly wait to watch it again. 😀 Here’s the link if anyone needs an hour of side-holding, tears-streaming laughter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEvbwFNzpv0

    • Sue… you continue to be my favorite person in this business. Your enthusiasm is so infectious. And your Facebook video of you opening the box containing your new book… priceless! Your journey of learning and continued hard work created that moment for you.

  4. I so agree with you but want to add one thing. It takes hearing what you don’t know you don’t know and then applying it several times before you really begin to understand what you’ve been told. I know that is a convoluted sentence!

    But as an example, just this month as I’ve yet taken another class on characterization, it finally clicked in my brain that the external conflict must be resolved by the internal conflict being dealt with. And that the way a character copes with a problem will drive the choices a character makes.

    How many times have I heard that? I can’t count that high. 🙂 I’ve managed in my stories for that to happen, but it wasn’t intentional. Now it will be and my stories will be better for it. Thanks for once again reinforcing that a writer never stops learning the craft.

    • Patricia – I love your comment about external conflict being dealt with by resolving internal conflict – the way your character copes with a problem drives her choices. I wrote it down in my notes and hope to burn that into my brain. I feel like I am still fleshing out my protagonist and I think this will help me make her a fuller, more realized character. Thank you.

    • I agree, this happens a lot. Remember all the stuff our parents told us about life, and we had to get into adulthood ourselves before some of that sunk in? Too often writers discover what works, and then realize that echo in their head from all the folks who have spoken it to them in some form. I appreciate your comment today!

  5. Absolutely! Thanks for the reminder. I started out the same way and it has been a revealing and sometimes painful journey as I learn something everyday from blogs like yours, editors, beta readers and books.

    • Thanks for contributing this thought, Sharron. Our goal shouldn’t be for our story to become an aberration – and they’re out there, on the book shelf – but rather, to shoot for the sweet spot, the one that the principles lead us toward.

  6. Today’s lesson is one we all must heed. I have enjoyed Larry Brook’s book, Story Engineering, where he teaches those principles. In my writing group, we have been taught that writers need to do what athletes do–warm up. With that in mind, I try to spend about 30 minutes studying the craft of writing and doing some writing exercises. Now, back to work on my novel.

    • Appreciate the kind words, Jan. And as a former pro athlete myself, I really appreciate what you say about warming up, and would offer that athletes know the game takes place within a field with lines on in… step on the line, and you get penalized.

  7. This must have been TKZ’s teaching weekend, Larry. I’m just back from teaching two writing workshops in Jamesburg, NJ. You made many good points in your blog, but what happened to your author explains those mystifying reviews. You know what I’m talking about: I wonder if the reviewers and I read the same book. I thought the novel had a slow start, blathered on about the protagonist’s problems and needed a better hook — but the reviewers loved that novel. And Mom couldn’t write that many reviews.

    • Great point, Elaine. Sometimes the inexplicable happens. And sometimes stories that are out of whack work for readers. I think this is what Picasso (and Robert McKee’s version of this) meme is all about: “Understand the rules like a pro so you can break them as an artist.” The odds of hitting a long shot are WAY tougher than doing things with the lines of the playing field… which is why we need to teach the game from within that context, and not encourage writers to go on a field trip with the principles. For every novel that succeeds that way, like the one you mention, there are literally thousands that don’t, precisely because they are out of alignment whack. Thanks for contributing to this discussion.

  8. As an editorial side note… I’d like to apologize for the handful of redundancies in this post. Apologize especially for my ignorance on the technical cause of this (beyond the origin of it), and on behalf of WordPress for that technical cause.

    Which is… I completed the post last night and scheduled it. As I’ve learned the hard way, I need to take a break from what I write and then come back to it before going “live” for a proof pass. I did that, and discovered these duplications of several lines. I had already been wrestling with the word editor (the tech) to the ground, it wasn’t cooperating. What I’m saying is, that despite catching these errors and correcting them, WordPress displayed and distributed the post in its pre-proof form. I have no idea how or why, and it’s disturbing. One solution is, of course, to write the piece separate from WordPress, proof it there, and then paste it into the word editor here as whole and corrected cloth.

    I’m not saying I’m above typos; in fact (there is the dreaded semicolon, by the way… hate those things) I make them too frequently and am committed to cleaning up my copy going forward. Which is why I’m noting and apologizing for today’s messy plate. I’m not alone with this issue… so to my Killzone posting colleagues, take note, WordPress may not post your final version.

    • My goodness; you wrote that post in WordPress? I ALWAYS compose in Word and then copy and paste. (And I still catch glitches.)
      But at least the version that goes up is closer to what it’s supposed to be. And I thing there’s a record of all the saved drafts or previous uploads so you can go down and switch to the right one.

  9. So many questions here. What “thrillers” had the guy been reading all those years? If the book actually makes it past an editorial board and gets published as a thriller, thriller readers will be seriously disappointed.

    I see students all the time with books they’ve been working on for years. They’re so invested in the story and the publishing dream itself, that they essentially stop learning and forget to move forward. Even if that first book sells, they have to change how they work with the second. Without solid skills and knowing what they need to know, they falter, unable to produce a new book with necessary alacrity. There’s a reason so many sophomore books suck.

    Thinking about the huge backstory at the beginning–I saw Wonder Woman with the family this weekend. Because it was an origin story, it worked to have Diana’s backstory up front–and fortunately it was exciting, unusual, and beautifully shot. But her mission begins within that backstory, with her mother telling her about Ares and his violent, nihilist view of life. She trains for it and even engages in a successful (but painful) mission with the other Amazons that foreshadows her future success. I thought the story was masterfully done. It’s rare that an upfront backstory that’s more than a scene long works in a film.

    I suspect your words will come back to him either when the agents pass or he’s sitting there at the beginning of book 2, wondering where to start. I sincerely wish him luck. We’ve all been there in small ways or big–unaware that there are things we don’t know we need to know.

    • I measure my growth as a writer by how much less I have to cut when I finally get to where Chapter 1 needs to start. I think in my first book, it was about 8 chapters.

  10. Laura – thanks for this insightful commentary. It illustrates exactly my point in today’s post, by showing what a pro knows, even what is quickly obvious to that evolved story sense, things that the newer writer may not notice (especially the nature of Wonder Woman’s setup, that’s a clinic right there). A learning curve is a beautiful thing.

    Brilliant stuff. I appreciate you adding value to this discussion.

  11. I think I have met this guy at conferences. I call them the “Yeah but…” writers. You try to reason with them about thriller story structure and what might need to be done to improve their manuscript’s chances. Like, your heroine seems a tad too passive. Or that they’ve stacked the beginning with too much backstory and nothing is happening. And the writer says, “Yeah but, if you read on to chapter 22 you’ll get to the part where they hire the guy to find the bomb.”

    Sigh…

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