How to Write a Great
Story…in 18 Holes

By PJ Parrish

Read a heck of a story this weekend. It featured a flawed hero on a classic journey. He started out young with the world at his feet, but then he lost it all. The story had villains, a dysfunctional family, a bad love affair, a sordid scandal, and physical hardship.  The hero, I feared, was doomed. But then, against all odds, defying the naysayers, he climbed out of the abyss and triumphed.

Okay, I didn’t really read it. I watched it.  But it had all the human drama and suspense of a great book.

I watched Tiger Woods win the Fed-Ex Cup tournament. It was his first win in five years.  As one of the golf commentators said, “What a great story.”

Maybe you don’t follow golf. I don’t, normally. But the story of Tiger Woods, who had it all, lost it all, and climbed back up again, is the same stuff that makes for compelling fiction.

Great stories…

Let’s stay with the sports metaphor for a second. Let’s talk about pro football — it’s my go-to sport. Pro football’s ratings are way down. There are lots of theories why — the players’ protests and the President’s tweet-poking; bad play from big market teams like the Cowboys and Bears; too many dog games on Monday Night Football; fewer folks (mainly young) watching TV and choosing to cut the cable cord all together and play with their phones.

I’ll add my own theory: Pro football doesn’t have any great stories anymore. Like…

Joe Namath leading the hapless Jets to the Super Bowl win.

The Patriots’ season going to hell when Drew Bledsoe went down. Until some sixth-rounder nobody named Tom Brady stepped in to save the day.

The 1972 Dolphins losing their starting QB but going on to the only perfect season.

The 1985 rock-star Bears march to another perfect season, only to be blocked in game 13 by the 8-4 Miami Dolphins, hell-bent on preserving the old record.

Some guy named Marino breaking every record but never winning the Big One. Kurt Warner, the grocery store clerk who became a three-time MVP. And guys like Michael Oher, the homeless kid whose rise to Titan tackle was told in the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side.

We’re all suckers for great stories. Cinderella tales. Redemption roads. Inspiring comebacks. Underdogs who triumph. It’s the essence of good fiction. I got to thinking about this today after reading James’s Sunday blog about “pretty writing” as Tiger played in the background on TV.

You want to be a success in this business? Just learn to tell a good story.

Ha! Easier said than done. Let’s break it down into digestible bites. A while back, I wrote a blog about Pixar’s 20 Rules of Great Storytelling.  Pixar knows how to tell great stories. They’ve won 13 Academy Awards, 9 Golden Globes, and 11 Grammys. Pixar movies always involve a deep understanding of human emotion. They know how to move an audience. Here are just a couple of their “rules.”

Great stories are always universal. Take the basic ingredients of human life — birth, love, death, conflict, growth, spirituality — and make it appeal to everyone. Or as Pixar director Pete Docter puts it:

“You write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”

Great stories always have someone to root for. It can be a classic underdog tale. Or a rags-to-riches saga. The hero may not succeed, but often we love their attempt alone. It’s more about their journey than the destination.

Great stories always have structure. One of Pixar’s tips is to use “The Story Spine,” a formula created by professional playwright Kenn Adams. It goes:

Once upon a time there was [blank]. Every day, [blank]. One day [blank]. Because of that, [blank]. Until finally [blank].

Can you see the beautiful simplicity of it? You have a hero, who does this every day. But then something happens until finally he triumphs. Or as we at TKZ preach often: Something is disturbed in your hero’s world and he fixes it. (Or sometimes doesn’t).

Great stories are never dull. Again, go back and read James’s Sunday post for more on this. Great stories are surprising, unexpected. If you can dream up a story that challenges the reader’s usual perceptions of reality, you are on to something good. This is especially true in genre fiction, where stale old formulas are too often the norm. A tip from Pixar: If you’re stuck on coming up with something truly unique, get rid of the 1st thing that comes to mind — and then the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

Well, it’s just after six p.m. on this Sunday as I write this. Tiger Woods just won.  But not without some last-minute drama.  Going into the last round today, he was up five on his nearest competitor, Justin Rose. Tiger’s drives were straight and true, one going the length of three-and-a-half football fields. His putting game was surreal.  But then…

On the back nine, he shanked a couple into the rough. He missed easy putts. He bogied the fifteen and sixteen holes. Justin Rose crept closer, the lead shrinking to two. But Tiger parred the last two holes to win.  So here’s what we have: Tiger Woods, a deeply flawed protagonist, had it all and lost it all. He spent five years wandering in the wilderness. One year ago, Woods had endured three back surgeries and could barely walk, let alone swing a club. One year ago, he was ranked 1,199 in the world. Today he clawed back to win his first tournament in five years and maybe move up into the top ten.

He’s being interviewed right now. The crowd is going nuts. Tiger is tearing up. So am I.

What a great story.

________________________________________________________

THE DAMAGE DONE, the 13th installment in the Louis Kincaid series, now available.

“Louis Kincaid is wearing a badge again—as part of an elite homicide squad. But his return to his Michigan home comes at the bidding of a man who once set out to destroy him. When the cold case deaths of two little boys collides with the white-hot murder of a mega-church minister, Louis finds himself fighting to unearth the secret past of his police captain—and the demons of his own childhood. The past and present come into stunning focus in this brilliantly crafted thriller. Relentlessly plotted yet filled with poignant family emotion, it will grip you from start to finish.”
—Jeffery Deaver.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

32 thoughts on “How to Write a Great
Story…in 18 Holes

  1. My first thought was that a story like Tiger’s is one you couldn’t get away with putting in a novel. But then I began to think, how would one do it?

    I think there’d have to be two “acts.” The first, a Greek tragedy of hubris and fall. The second, the redemption story.

    The first might not be too hard to write. The external arc of success, parties, infidelity, injuries. The internal arc of gradually succumbing, of somehow telling oneself it was ok, or one deserved it, or one could get away with it. Then the crash, the back injuries (psychosomatic?), the slough of despond. (Talk about a mirror moment.)

    The second act, the redemption story, would be harder to write, I think. Very little external arc: a last-ditch, risky back surgery (spinal fusion), then just repetitive training interrupted by disappointing tournaments. The novel’s success, it seems to me, would depend almost entirely on the internal arc, which I would find extremely hard to write. And, dare I say this, would bring the story smack into the realm of literary fiction?

    • Oh dear…you’ve brought the argument from Sunday’s blog full circle. 🙂

      I had a longer version of this blog but cut it down some. I digressed into a whole thing about the “Rebirth” plot where you take a “villain-protagonist” and structure your story around his redemption into a more heroic figure. But then I would have had to go into the whole Joseph Campbell thing about hero’s journey. And I was trying to write short for a change!

  2. Fabulous parallel between Tiger Woods and storytelling. The post really resonated with me. Thanks, Kris.

    Love the cover and blurb of The Damage Done! Sounds awesome.

  3. On the decline of the NFL . . .

    I think you nailed it. When I was a kid–a lifelong Washington Redskins fan . . . until recently–the players were household names. But they were also community names. Chris Hanburger, Charley Taylor, Sonny Jurgensen, et. al also lived in the community, and many of them had off-season jobs to make ends meet. They were neighbors who also happened to play football. When good things happened during a game, they celebrated as a TEAM, and seemed uncomfortable when the media shifted focus to the individual players.

    These days, there no longer is a sense of community. The players are mostly gajillionaire crybabies who care about little else but their publicity and their money. Each year, I care less and less. Last season, I don’t think I watched a single game from start to finish.

    • That’s true. In the “good ol days” players tended to stay with a team for most of their careers. You felt a loyalty that is missing today. Which is why Joe Montana broke my heart when he went to KC.

    • I had a game on as “background” the other day – can’t remember who, what team, or anything other than there was a player who’d been suspended numerous times over several years, often for entire seasons. Why on earth would he still have a job?

      • Well, that’s yet another problem with the current NFL. Look no farther than the latest addition to the Patriots — head case Josh Gordon. The guy has a series of failed drug tests and suspensions, but Pats still traded for him. Win at any cost…

  4. Ah, Kris, how I love a good sports > writing connection. I watched the golf tourny, too, and the “last scene” of thousands of fans running to the 18th green, shouting TIGER TIGER couldn’t have been scripted any better.

    I haven’t been much into the NFL the last couple of years, but two things lure me: my Rams, and this kid Mahomes in KC. He may be the magic story of the year.

    • Yeah, the teeming hordes moment was a sight to behold. And yeah, Mahomes is worth watching. Hope he’s the real thing.

      As a p.s., I was trying to figure out how Tim Tebow fit into all this. 🙂

    • Agree on Mahomes. He is a walking football miracle. I’m a Seahawks fan, but I will make time to watch KC games just for the pleasure of watching this great player from the beginning.

  5. So many things I want to comment on here, but I’ll touch on a few. I love a great story that pushes me to insanity over the hardships of a character. Is that wrong? Secondly, as a teenager, I had a huge crush on Joe Namath. he made my heart flutter. Don’t hold this against me, but I don’t like watching football. I don’t get how they want to pulverize each other for a point or two. Finally, I am so glad Tiger won. Some say he doesn’t deserve a “comeback story”. I say hogwash! He was and hopefully will be great golfer again.

    • Yeah, I liked Joe, too. He was glam personified. When I lived in Fort Lauderdale, he was a partner in a nightclub there called Bachelor’s Three. I saw him there once, sitting in a corner banquette holding court. The guy had it.

      • Also, there is a part of me that is appalled at the violence of pro football. I love following the game, but so many things have changed in recent years — mainly the utter deadly size of the players — that I don’t blame parents for a second for pulling their kids out of it.

  6. If you guys want great sports stories, come watch the NHL. If you didn’t hear about the 2018 playoffs, then you missed what is probably the most epic cinderella story ever. The inaugural made it to the finals and played strong right to the end. And there are plenty of stories of players giving back to the community.

    I’d love to read that other part of your post, Kris. I always love redemption stories, and would love to know how to tackle one.

    • I used to watch the Red Wings with my dad. Good childhood memories of going to the old Olympia stadium (where I also saw The Beatles!) Didn’t go to any hockey until 1995 when the Florida Panthers had their improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals. That was the year we were all throwing plastic rats on the ice. Great fun. And then there was the USA team beating Russia… talk about a great story.

  7. What I’m studying right now in Donald Maass (_The Emotional Craft of Fiction_) seems apropos:

    Maass writes:
    “Mile-a-minute thrillers can leave us cold and heavy-breathing romances can make us roll our eyes. On the other hand, stories that have no precedent, little action, a quiet voice, and a mundane setting can move, shake, and change us.

    “Plot without emotional power is empty, but it gains that power when plot events are treated as emotional opportunities. So let’s, for now, forget about plotting your novel and look at how to shape it into emotion-generating moments. What follows are the methods of building emotional plot. This is not the plot that keeps us turning pages; it’s the plot that keeps us turning things over in our hearts, measuring the protagonist against ourselves and discovering what matters, and why.”

    I can’t quote everything Maass says on these pages (83-85), but I think he’s getting at what differentiates literary fiction from genre fiction. I think I read a lot of Michael Connelly and other mysteries/police procedurals because they don’t drag me into these emotional depths when I don’t want to go there. _1Q84_ or _The Grapes of Wrath_ demand more from me (and not because of pretty sentences), but they also offer more.

    • Thanks for the great contribution to the discussion, Eric. Love this line: “This is not the plot that keeps us turning pages; it’s the plot that keeps us turning things over in our hearts.”

      The stories you remember are the ones that tear at your heart. Which is why so many thrillers feel so empty and are so forgettable.

  8. Well, we give attention to the greats, the standouts–the big winners.

    But there are also the little stories, of the hometown heroes, the child who worked hard to make it to the special Olympics, the little girl at Children’s Hospital who struggled to take her first step at age nine, the 13-year-old girl who struck out nine batters against a team of much older opponents, my friend Dobkins who came back from polio to run on the cross country and track teams.

    After Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Tim Tebow, and Baker Mayfield, I have pretty much given up on the NFL–the collectives of millionaires who whine and dine because the rest of us who don’t think they’re deities. I fear for the misdirection given to the Liberty Warriors. They are being headed toward a sport that may one day go the way of the town baseball team.

    Give me Ken and Joni Earickson Tada over them all.

    • Your point is well taken that the “big” themes are often best told in “small” scale. That’s something I try to stress in writing workshops, that you don’t need an out-sized hero (ie Jack Reacher) to speak about the great themes of fiction. One of the best tropes in fiction is the Everyman called, by extraordinary circumstances, to rise to the occasion. I always think of Chief Brody in “Jaws” or Katniss Everdeen for this. But it could just as effectively, for the purpose of a great story, be your friend Dobkins.

  9. I love the idea of failure and redemption. It reminds me of the story of the great Roger Bannister who was favored to win the 1500 meter race at the 1952 Olympics. He came in fourth place and was so discouraged he considered giving up running. But he persisted. In 1954 he became the first person to run the mile in under 4 minutes, a feat that many considered impossible. And he was a true amateur — a medical student who had precious little time to train. What a great story.

  10. Great analogy. Now I wish I had watched Tiger’s comeback. I was at a family road trip/retreat. A football weekend.

    I love sports stories. They seem to be more depicted on the big & small screen, rather than in fiction books.

    I love your book cover, Kris. Very mysterious & eye catching.

  11. You seem to have a fixation in comparing great comebacks to sedentary US sports. Most US sports move about at a pace of slowly poured concrete.
    How about the comparison of Australian Rules footballer, Jason McCartney. He severely injured in the Bali nightclub bombing in 2002, suffering 2nd-degree burns to 50% of his body, many cuts & bruises. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, with disregard to his own injuries, he helped pull injured people from the wrecked nightclub and was responsible for saving many lives. He spent the rest of the year in hospital & rehab but determined he was and returned to football less than a year later wearing a special suit to protect his scars. Fittingly he took a mark and kicked the goal in the last quarter to put his team in front and win the game.
    Now that’s a comeback through REAL adversity & not someone who “lost” their way through greed, ego, unrealistic wealth (for hitting a tiny ball around a park) and extreme case of narcissism.
    Woods’ “comeback” (he just won a game of golf) isn’t worth a mention compared the trials McCartney went through.

    • Okay…
      But for the record, I did say Woods was a deeply flawed man.
      “Sedentary US sports…” not sure what that means.
      As for Aussie rules football, don’t know anything about it. But I do know it looks very macho and that it’s senseless to get into arguments about which national sport is best. Stopped going down this road years ago with my Brit friend “Drongo Tim” about soccer.
      But I have heard of McCartney. Yes, truly inspirational story.
      Peace out, TKZers…

  12. Tiger was up three against the nearest competitor(s) Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy, not five going into the last round. But also made the story more compelling, because as the round went on, he did build a safe 5 shot lead. Only to have him hit a speed bump late in the round where he struggled to bogeys on consecutive rounds, and found himself being chased by an unexpected source Billy Horschel (who entered the final round completely off the radar!). Great drama!

  13. I’m a golfer or try to be. I love the sport. I’ve been waiting for Tiger to win a tournament since his last back surgery. Relearning to swing a golf club after multiple back surgeries including the latest fusion is a mind-boggling achievement.
    I believe if Tiger wrote another book the fans would lap it up regardless of content.
    The tournament was unbelievable. If he wins two more tournaments, he’ll match Sam Snead’s record.

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