When the Obvious is Golden

by Larry Brooks

This morning on the way to the gym I was listening to sports radio in my car.  One of those talk shows where people on both sides of a microphone wax wise about what teams in various sports and leagues should be doing to win more often and more convincingly: who starts, who doesn’t, who to draft, trades they shouldn’t have made and should make, the evil nature of owners, the need to fire the coach, etc.

This morning’s caller wanted to know why his beloved Steelers always get their hat (helmet, in this case) handed to them by the Patriots, especially at the hand of Tom Brady. It was apparent that this was ruining his life.

The on-air sports-guy praised the caller for the question, which struck me as odd. It wasn’t a particularly good question as much as it was the voicing of frustration.  Because the answer was obvious. The Patriots own the Steelers because they are a better team led by a better quarterback. You could analyze what it is, specifically, that they do better, but it all boils down to this:

They execute the game at a higher level.

But this particular armchair quarterback sportscaster offered up this less-than-strategic take on what the real problem is, and how to remedy the situation:

The problem is the Steelers defense can’t stop the Pats, especially defending the pass. Their receivers are better than the Steelers secondary. Also, the Steelers D-line doesn’t put enough pressure on Brady in passing situations, which spreads the line of scrimmage for the running game while rendering the option a sure thing. The Steelers offense needs to be better, too. They need to show up in a bigger way.

In a word: duh.

Maybe it was a good question after all.

It isn’t just play harder. It’s play smarter.

Sorry if you’re not a football fan and the lingo sounds like Greek, but this is really basic stuff. Football 101. Especially those last two lines. He should name his radio show Captain Obvious On Sports.

  This reminds me of what’s going on in the writing world, as well.

Writers are constantly asking – newbies and experienced alike – what they need to do to write a better story. A novel that publishers and readers will buy and enjoy. A screenplay that gets attention in the movie biz. Short stories that win prizes and jump-start careers.

The answer – the only answer – is much like that of this morning’s sportscaster. It’s not a secret, not remotely mysterious. It is an answer that never changes, and is germane to all genres all the time. An answer that is obvious. It goes like this:

Come up with a premise that offers something new. Or at least gives us a fresh twist on the sure things we’ve come to love (like thrillers and detectives and superheroes and vampires and love stories). Give us great characters within a compelling dramatic arc, especially a hero to root for because we relate to the problem and goal being faced, all of it driven by stakes we feel in a deep and emotionally-resonant way. And then, write it well, with a voice that doesn’t try too hard and structure that creates great pacing and compelling exposition, within scenes that are crisp and visual and vicarious.

In other words… know and practice your craft at a higher level. Virtually every answer to this eternal question is some form of, or at least a slice of, the above.

No matter what your process, there are specific skills, forms, functions, and executions that lead to a higher level of efficacy. But writers sometimes need to be more interested in the question than the real, obvious answer.

Too often their questions, and the sometimes strong opinions they get back, focus on process, to the exclusion of a functionally-effective answer.

Executing on those basics should be the 101 of writing stories. Sadly, in reality, writers seek to skip to the 202. They step over the fundamentals to focus on the periphery. Too many writers simply don’t know, or embrace, the obviousness of how to write a better story.

Of if they do, they can’t quite reach that bar. Often because they insist on sticking with that vanilla, seen-and-read-read-it-before promise, or insisting that dramatic tension (plot) doesn’t matter because it’s all about the characters. Which is something they heard from someone who meant well, but didn’t deliver the whole picture.

Indeed, a compelling, memorable story is a high bar. Just ask the Steelers back there in our opening analogy. Just play better. Because once you know those basics, you have to put them into play. And that, at a professional level, is rarer thing.

The ongoing goal of serious and commercially-ambitious authors, then, should be to pursue and practice and refine those fundamental tenets of storytelling. The 101 of writing. Once you do, the frosting on that cake tends to manifest from the evolved instinct that those basics impart not only to the story, but to the author her/himself.

Truth is, not all writers begin with the earnest pursuit of these basics of story.

And yet, the information is out there. The entire realm of writing workshops, conferences, books, blogs and writers groups exists for the express purpose of explaining what this means to writers who truly want to a deeper dive into it all. That and, in the case of blogs, commiserate about the writing journey and give some writers the chance to write about themselves.

There are plenty of resources available on the peripheral issues, as well. Which is good, especially when embraced at the right point along the learning curve. But it can actually part of the challenge, too, because the frosting is worthless if the cake tastes like cardboard.

The “How To Land Your First Agent” workshop fills up quicker than the “Story 101” workshop almost every time.

Writing may be the only profession on earth where we have legitimized starting at the end of the learning curve and leaving the foundations of it all to a seat-of-our-pants chance.

Yes, there certainly are subtleties, nuances, and subsets branching from each of those categorical craft distinctions, as presented in the italics above. Those comprise the 202 level and beyond, building on a solid 101 understanding. Without it, writers may be putting frosting on a cake that didn’t rise in the oven.

As a story coach and writing teacher, blogger and author, people send me their stories all the time for evaluation. The details of their pitch are often vivid and fabulous. But it’s the 101 – the core dramatic premise, the richness of the hero and her/his journey/quest, the stakes, the arc toward resolution – that is often left wanting… well over half the time.

The 101 is hard. The core principles, so easily named, can actually be quite complex. That’s why we need to stay focused there, to build our storytelling muscle based on those core fundamentals.

This began with a sports analogy, so allow me to conclude with one.

I’ve participated in many spring trainings as a professional baseball player, albeit long ago. Now that I’m old and can barely tie my shoes anymore without ibuprofen, I’ve witnessed hundreds of spring training practices and games while living in Arizona, where 19 teams come together every February for seven weeks of… wait for it… returning to and practicing the core fundamentals of what makes their game effective and powerful. Sure, there are photo shoots and press interviews and uniform fittings, but the core focus of everything, morning to late afternoon, is conditioning and bunting and pitchers covering first base and turning a double play and optimizing one’s swing based on the count and the presence of men on base and getting the perfect angle of spin on a slider that needs to hit the black instead of out over the plate.

The core principles of fiction may be obvious, but they are not inevitable. You’re not born with them, either. They need to be called by name, defined by function, made clear through example and practiced until refined.

Even then… well, the Steelers roster isn’t filled with a bunch of wannabes. The fundamentals of the game are the prerequisite to even getting into a uniform, much less an agent. From there, once you get into a league of professionals – certainly, this is a goal we all share as writers – then, and only then, does the peripheral frosting matter all that much.

Writing is one of the best case studies that prove the old saying to be true: the devil is in the details, because the details may tempt you prematurely, seducing you into believing you are solid at the very core of things.

But the gold… that’s always available in the obvious.

(Image by Gareth Jones; used via Creative Commons license)

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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.

11 thoughts on “When the Obvious is Golden

  1. And once you understand you have to “play better” each book gets harder. At least it should. I’ve read too many books by successful authors who are releasing work that sells because of their names, not because the book is good. I think those frustrate me the most.

    • So true, Terry. It gets harder because the bar rises in accordance. Which is why we may never feel we’ve got it completely right, but after a while, it may be right enough.

  2. You reminded me of one of my favorites lines from my favorite baseball movie (and screenplay for that matter) Bull Durham:

    Skip the manager: This is a simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.”

    Writing is a simple game: You come up with a fresh plot. You create great characters. You put your butt on the chair every day and don’t stop until you’re done. Were that it were that simple.

    I have no sympathy for the poor Steeler fan in your story. Try being a Dolphins fan for a season. And I’m not talking the 1972 one. We lose our QB to yet another injury and who do they hire? Jay Cutler! The guy who someone described as being “excellent at being mediocre.” Jay Cutler is like the quintessential hack crime writer — safe, unoriginal, and scared to step out of the pocket and do something creative.

    Gee, thanks, Larry…now you’ll have me all depressed about the upcoming season that I was trying hard to ignore. 🙂

    • I love that film, too. Partly because I played some games in the ballpark, back in the day in the Carolina League. (Sidenote: great casting with Costner, totally believable as a professional catcher, but Tim Robbins as a pitcher… not so much. Worst ever. The best imitation of a pitcher by an actor goes to Charlie Sheen in the film Major League.)

      Ah, the great QB conundrum. I was a huge Matt Barkley fan when he was at USC (where my son attended concurrently), but when he got to the pros… that was tough to watch. Talk about a high bar… playing QB in the NFL is about as high as it gets.

  3. I see this all the time in the various writers groups I participate in. “I finished a book! How do I publish it?” I used to volunteer to beta read for them. But it’s always the same mediocre plots, the same cliche characters, the same lack of a character arc. I can’t even tell them how to fix it. They would have to go back to the basics, come up with a decent concept and premise, and start over. And nobody wants to be told to start over. So I just don’t bother.

  4. Not long ago I got stuck on where my WIP was going. Also, I read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel The Rubber Band. I realized I had fallen victim to the Hollywood ‘high concept’ idea. I was stuck because I couldn’t think up an even more incredible moment. You know, like a band of people, a raccoon and a talking tree saving the universe.
    Stout showed me that a good story doesn’t need to be so highly embellished. Old Chinese proverb. When the student is ready the teacher will appear.
    The point. Never stop being a student.

  5. Kessie and Brian — It seems like no matter how loud and prevalent the availability of The Truth, the masses continue to gravitate toward a process and a qualitative storytelling bar that seems – erroneously – to be an easier reach. Keep an eye on that higher bar and you’ll be rewarded.

  6. Even though I am not much of a sports fan, this post resonated with me. Especially this, …” the frosting is worthless if the cake tastes like cardboard.” I am a newbie and I have been studying the craft for a few years. I simply do not understand those who believe that one can just sit down and write without studying the craft or knowing what they are doing. I have a review blog for newbies and I see this all the time. I don’t want to be a mediocre writer. I want to do it right. I think it is irresponsible to my future readers to give them any less than my absolute best. Thank you, Larry and all here at TKZ for your help with this. I never miss a day of your excellent advice.

    • REbecca – your views on this represent one end of the debate about “how to write,” and I whole heartedly agree with you. Thanks for chiming in today with the right stuff.

  7. This post really resonated with me, as do most of your teachings. The 101 is hard. It seems the more you learn, the harder writing good fiction becomes. There’s a great quote by Thomas Mann — “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” So true!

    And then there’s one of my favorite, nails-it-in-one-sentence quote of yours:
    “Instinct is the elusive magic that happens when art collides with hard-won craft.”
    ― Larry Brooks, Story Engineering

    Thanks for another amazing post, Larry.

  8. Sue – I”m so glad you’re here contributing to these threads! I think of you every time I write one. Thanks, too, for quoting me here… that’s a real honor, something I never take for granted. Like they say in the keynote addresses (not mine, I stick to more self-deprecating stuff, because I have so much of it), if you can reach and help just one writer… you’re that writer for me, and I am very grateful. Larry

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