Writing Wisdom from Gary Provost

Jim’s Reader Friday question got me thinking. What is the special sauce that ignites a writer’s brain? Would a new writer know when to run with an idea and when to let it go? Maybe. Maybe not.

With that in mind, I’ll share the following tips from critically acclaimed author and beloved writing instructor, Gary Provost. Incidentally, these tips can be used for fiction and nonfiction, if your nonfiction falls into the “story” category (i.e. true crime, historical, narrative nonfiction, etc).

Gary Provost created a simple paragraph to encapsulate the dramatic arc in a story.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This works because of its classic dramatic structure, which is the most satisfying type of story for the reader. It’s brilliant, if you take the time to dissect it. For now, I’d like to concentrate on a quick and dirty shortcut to test a story idea.

Gary Provost thought of stories in terms of a series of “buts.”

Joyce is a poor secretary, but she meets a millionaire and marries him.

She’s married to a millionaire, but the marriage goes sour.

She wants to end the marriage, but she (allegedly) thinks she’ll be left penniless.

She perhaps has a motive for murdering her husband, but so do other people.

After the murder, police suspect her, but she passes two polygraph exams at two different times and places. One, a highly regarded expert.

She passes the polygraphs, but the court rules they will not be allowed. But a federal court rules in a different case that the polygraphs can be allowed.

She goes back to court to get the polygraph tests allowed, but Judge Smith still will not allow them.

Someone claims to have heard shots at 3:30 A.M., but the medical examiner says that Stanley died around 5:30 A.M., consistent with Joyce’s story. She seems to be telling the truth, but it was five minutes from the time of the Colorado phone call to the call to 911.

Joyce allegedly says to Officer Catherine Parker, “I shouldn’t have done it,”but Parker never reports this.

Three days after the murder a cop tells the medical examiner that he saw signs of lividity, indicating that the body had been dead for a few hours.

But Wetli, the medical examiner, reviews his material, still comes to the same conclusion. Stays with that conclusion for three years.

No charges against Joyce, but the Miami Herald starts an anti-Joyce campaign, demanding that she be brought to justice.

Newscaster Gerri Helfman is about to get married, but her father is murdered.

No charges are brought against Joyce, but Stanley’s family pressures the state’s attorney’s office to come up with something.

And on and on it goes.

The above series of “buts” Provost used in a book proposal for a true crime book entitled Rich Blood. The proposal started a bidding war between publishers.

In the end, he decided to write Deadly Secrets instead. Turned out to be the right move because Deadly Secrets became the mega-hit Perfect Husband: True Story of the Trusting Bride Who Discovered Her Husband was a Coldblooded Killer.

Use a series of “buts” to test your story idea. Obviously, a “but” won’t fit every sentence. When it doesn’t, try “and then.” But a “but” should follow “and then” soon. Why? Because “buts” are complications. Complications = conflict. And conflict drives the story.

Example:

Husband kills wife, and then stuffs her body into a 3ml bag, and then drives to a secluded area to bury her, but his foldable spade isn’t in the backseat. Did the neighbor borrow it again?

When you write don’t keep all the “buts” and “and thens.” Think in those terms, but you don’t want all of them in the final draft. Over time your story sensibilities will automatically search for (nonfiction) and/or apply (fiction) this rhythm.

The point is, whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we need to find the story beneath the headline or first spark of an idea. Without a narrative driven by conflict, the story will fall flat.

Five pieces of wisdom from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

  1. A writer’s most important vocabulary is the one he or she already has. 

Learning new words is much less important than learning to use the words you already know. Think about your ideal reader. If he or she wouldn’t understand your word choice, you might as well be writing in a foreign language. Over time finding the right word becomes easier, almost a subconscious act. Until then, be intentional with every word.

  1. A lead should have energy, excitement, an implicit promise that something is going to happen or that some interesting information will be revealed.

Whether a lead is the first sentence, the first paragraph, or even the first several paragraphs of your story, it should pique a reader’s interest by raising story questions and give readers someone (or something) to care about before delving into the backstory.

Act first, explain later.
—James Scott Bell

A strong lead delivers on the promise it makes.

  1. When writing a beginning, remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without. 

Meaning, make your point by answering “who, what, when, where” in the first paragraph. Make the reader wait for “why.” Unless, of course, the why is the character’s goal.

A topic sentence contains the thought that is developed throughout the rest of the paragraph. The topic sentence is commonly the first sentence in a paragraph. For each paragraph ask, “What do I want to say here? What point do I want to make? What question do I want to present?” Answer with a single general sentence.

When you edit, ask how each sentence works for the paragraph. Ask why it’s there. Does it have a purpose? Great! Then keep it. If you can’t pinpoint why you included that sentence, hit DELETE.

  1. Style is form, not content.

In writing, the word style means how an idea is expressed, not the idea itself.

A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.

 

  1. To write is to create music.

The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work.

 

Gary Provost was highly regarded as an author, sought-after speaker, consultant, and celebrity biographer.

“The writers’ writer” authored thousands of articles, columns, and dozens of books covering most every genre. His highly acclaimed Writers Retreat Workshop, and video and audio courses remain available through writersretreatworkshop.com.

What’s your favorite piece of advice here? Care to add a tip?

32 thoughts on “Writing Wisdom from Gary Provost

  1. Excellent post, Sue. Thanks for the morning brain wake up.
    This one jumped out at me.
    When writing a beginning, remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without.
    And your follow up, to do the same throughout the manuscript while editing. I was whining yesterday that transcribing my nightly read-throughs and markups ended up with 18 fewer words than I’d had at the start, but the story is better with the changes.
    I also like the vocabulary advice. My characters talk with a vocabulary appropriate for them, but generally very similar to mine.

    • That’s the same sentence that jumped out at me, Terry. I am always advising writers to cut away flab in the opening…until they get to the sentence that truly kicks off “act first, explain later.”

  2. The writing world lost Gary Provost way too soon. Thanks, Sue, for the reminders of his wisdom.

    I ran across the quote below which perfectly demonstrates his teaching method. He turns his sentences into examples of the concepts he’s illustrating:

    “This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
    ― Gary Provost

    • Ooh, I remember that one! Makes the perfect addition to this post. Thanks, Debbie!

      Yeah, we lost a special member of our community. So sad. Timeless wisdom, though.

  3. Great post. Sue. I had not heard of Gary Provost before…BUT…I will definitely check out his books.

    Favorite piece of advice: #2 – The Lead. Critical to capture the reader’s interest (and keeping the reader’s interest).

    Add a tip? – Follow TKZ Blog to immerse yourself in a treasure chest of endless tips.

    Have a great day!

  4. Thanks for the intro to Gary Prevost, Sue. I haven’t met him before, but I like the first impression – a lot. #4 and #5 really resonate with me. “A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.” I think this is so, so true. And, “The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work.” Again, so true. I find myself writing alliteration quite often and I look back and think, “Am I trying to be cute here?” But then I read it back out loud and it works – musically – so it stays. Thanks for this post! C&P time 🙂

  5. I think we might have a theme going here…#3 is also my favorite.

    When writing a beginning, remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without. Copied and pasted for further review.

    This is a fantastic post for us newbies, Sue! And, timely for me, because after letting my WIP, No Tomorrows, simmer for a few days, I’m getting back to it today. For the next 2 weeks, it’s the only thing I’ll work on because I have to ship it off to my editor by May 1. 🙂 Thanks!

  6. “A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.”

    Ouch. So true. And something to watch out for.

  7. Thanks for this wonderful post, Sue. I wasn’t familiar with Gary Provost’s work, but I will be now.

    My favorite: #5. “To write is to create music.” I’ve always thought there should be a cadence to writing. Long, gentle sentences can be soothing while short, staccato ones are powerful and tense. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study on this — there’s bound to be a PhD thesis in there somewhere.

  8. Thanks for this excellent post, Sue. I’ve read so many great writing craft books, including several by my favorite writing guru, TKZ’s James Scott Bell, but I can’t believe I haven’t read any by Gary Provost. I must correct that right away!

    Love this one: “A lead should have energy, excitement, an implicit promise that something is going to happen or that some interesting information will be revealed.”

    By the way, you said “he stuffs her body into a 3ml bag”. I assume that’s either a joke or a typo?! 3 ml = 1 teaspoon. There are 15 ml in a tablespoon! 😉

    Lots of very useful spot-on tips here for writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction, and so well-written. Thanks! Heading off to share this with my FB group, “BC Writers, Authors, & Editors.” 🙂

    • Haha. The 3ml here refers to the thickness, not the length. They’re enormous bags that could hold a body… or so I’ve heard. 😉

      Yes, you must correct that immediately, Jodie! Gary Provost was an amazing instructor.

      • Sue, I think you actually intended to indicate a “3 mil” bag. Jodie quite correctly concludes that “ml” indicates a unit of volume: “ml” is an abbreviation of “milliliter”, a metric-system unit of volume (a two-dimensional concept) equal to 1/1000 of a liter. On the other hand, “mil” is a one-dimensional unit of imperial-system measurement equal to 1/1000 of an inch, and particularly in relation to (presumably) plastic bags, it indicates the thickness of the plastic used in the construction of the bag and is unrelated to the volume the bag is capable of containing. A bag made of 3mil-thick plastic could be anything from a small 1-pint Ziplock bag which could never contain more than a very small portion of a corpse to a 42-gallon or larger contractor’s clean-up bag into which an entire corpse could conceivably be fitted.

        • I stand corrected. Yes, I meant “3 mil.” You make another great point: Never use regional slang in a quick example. Around here, 3 mil only refers to a huge contractor’s bag. Live and learn. 😁

          • Apologies. Volume is not a two-dimensional concept, but rather a three-dimensional one, proving once again that I’m as apt as anyone else to make the (hopefully) occasional (hopefully) minor gaffe. Doing so while attempting to correct someone else’s gaffe makes it all the more embarrassing, eh wot? 😉

  9. Love this quote too: “A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.” As an editor, I try to help writers avoid that.

  10. The part about using “but” to figure out the story’s nut jumped out at me. A long time ago here at TKZ, I did a post about how to write your own back copy. And using “but” is essential. Almost every good summary on the back of book uses “but.”

    Joe Blow’s life is normal BUT when this happens to Joe Blow, everything changes.

    A simple but very effective way to nail down stakes!

    • A few weeks ago, while trying to decide between two true crime projects, I’d stumbled across one of his well-loved books, and skimmed through it for the hundredth time. When I reached the “but” advice, a little voice whispered, “Read it again. And again. Revel in its simplicity, its power.” And like magic, I knew–deep in my gut–which project would become my next book.

  11. Thanks for the great post, Sue. There is a lot to digest slowly and savor.

    To answer your question: the “buts” have it!

    Have a great week, Sue!

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