About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with two bestselling books out on the subject, and his third book – Story Fix: Transform Your Novel From Broken to Brilliant – (with a Foreword by Michael Hague, and generously blurbed by several of the authors here on Kill Zone) releases in October from Writers Digest Books.

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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Elevate Your Novel By Infusing Your Premise With Something Conceptual

by Larry Brooks

Sometimes – even frequently – the source of weakness and dysfunction within a story dwells in the nature of the premise itself; i.e., the degree, or complete lack of, something compelling within the premise proposition. But when we add a conceptual layer to thatpremise, a stronger story framework is suddenly in place, something that just might differentiate it within the marketplace.

When an agent or editor reader says “it’s just not for me,” but can’t or won’t be specific about what might be wrong or weak, that’s a clue that the premise itself is the wrong-note element. Because they are looking for something exceptional. And while your writing might be perfectly fine, the premise itself might be perfectly mediocre.

What is interesting to you may not be as interesting to someone else. Concept is a story essence that can turn this situation around.

Concept and premise are different things.

Which – when fused – become a sum in excess of either part. This truth is something not commonly discussed within the writing conversation – because it is not commonly recognized as a thing. And yet, a compelling concept at the heart of the premise is one of the most visible hallmarks of bestsellers and break-in novels. They also become the common thread of a successful series; the concept drives the entire arc, while each installment brings a different premise that springs from it.

Concepts are not stories. They are the framework for a story. They can render a story highly compelling, even at a glance. When recognition of weakness gels, adding something conceptual can be a key first step in the repair process. One that doesn’t necessarily call for a new premise, but rather, a premise that is elevated and strengthened.

Concept is a tricky issue.

You could write a novel from this idea: “a story about a guy living alone in a big city.” That actually is a concept, just not a very compelling one. It’s flat, and therefore dead on arrival. You don’t need to chuck it, but you do need to enhance it to save it, to make it competitive in the marketplace.

A better concept might look like this: “a story about a wealthy widower who suddenly finds himself alone after thirty years of marriage and moves to Los Angeles to live with his younger brother, a film director who enjoys life in the fast lane. The man must negotiate his staid values and comfort level with the onslaught of aggressive, sophisticated women who seem to want to rescue him from his depression.”

That’s the concept. The premise is him meeting someone within that life that challenges who he is while putting his heart at risk.

This second example meets several of the criteria for a compelling concept, one of which is this: The reader hasn’t encountered this story before, or if she has, this offers a new and intriguing twist.

The acid test of a compelling concept is simple.

If you pitch your concept—without adding elements of the premise to make it dramatic—and your listener responds, “Wow, now that is interesting. I can’t wait to read a story based on that idea,” then you’ve hit pay dirt. Because the concept isn’t the idea, it’s the framework for the forthcoming premise itself

If you pitched, for example, Superman as a concept, chances are it would elicit excitement about seeing the story told from it. And then, when that works, there are many other Superman premises right behind it.

The word compelling, though, is a mixed bag. Because Superman may not be something that rings the bell of whoever is listening in.

Readers of romances may not find the notion of traveling to a different dimension to encounter an alien life force all that compelling. Even if it is a romance, if you set the story in an alternate universe then it is also something else.

But what about a series novel? Is that conceptual? If the novel is compelling enough to float a sequel, then it is probably inherently conceptual, usually because the hero is precisely that. Jack Reacher, for example. James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. Harry Potter. Readers say, I can’t wait for the next installment, even when the next book is its own unique premise. What makes a sequel or a series beholden to the concept that is driving each premise within it.

Here are some examples of inherently conceptual concepts.

 “Snakes on a plane” (a proposition)

“The world will end in three days.” (a situation)

“Two morticians fall in love.” (an arena)

“What if you could go back in time and reinvent your life?” (a proposition)

“What if the world’s largest spiritual belief system is based on a lie, one that its largest church has been protecting for two thousand years?” (a speculative proposition)

“What if a child is sent to Earth from another planet, is raised by human parents, and grows up with extraordinary superpowers?” (a proposition)

“What if a jealous lover returned from the dead to prevent his surviving lover from moving on with her life?” (a situation)

“What if a fourteen-year-old murder victim narrates the story of her killing and the ensuing investigation from heaven?” (a narrative proposition)

“What if a paranormally gifted child is sent to a secret school for children just like him?” (a paranormal proposition)

“A story set in Germany as the wall falls” (a historical landscape)

“A story set in the deep South in the sixties, focusing on racial tensions and norms” (a cultural arena)

Notice that none of these are stories yet. These are not premises. They are concepts.

In general, if you can add “hijinks ensue” to the end of your concept, you may be on to something good that will lead to a compelling premise.

Rest assured, though, you will hear this differentiation (concept vs. premise) mangled in the marketplace. Even among agents, editors and crusty old authors who don’t like their vernacular to be challenged. But even they are leveraging the power of concept, by virtually of simply having an evolved story sense that won’t settle for a premise that isn’t infused with a conceptual layer.

High Concepts vs. Real-World Concepts

High concepts exist at the extreme edge of imagination and possibility. They are more conceptual than common, real-world concepts. Examples would be Batman and Wolverine and the Avengers, which bring in fantastical and supernatural elements.

Stories about real people in real situations also benefit from something that creates a compelling context for the story. Something about a hero can be conceptual – Harry Bosch, for example – or something a character does or believes or must deal with can be conceptual. For example, one of the main characters in Gone Girl conspires to kill herself while framing her husband for her death. She’s a psychopath, which becomes the the concept itself. And thus, the heart and soul of the premise that it informs.

Concepts…

  • can be character-centric, like Jack Reacher, Sherlock Holmes.
  • can be a speculative proposition, like The Da Vinci Code or Star Wars.
  • can be thematically conceptual, like The Help or The Cider House Rules.
  • can be lifted from perspectives and drama in the real world, like a story about the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team or Apollo 11.
  • offer a setting, time, or place rendered conceptual by virtue of the promise it makes: The forthcoming story will play out there. Historical novels live and breathe by this conceptual potential.
  • could be about stories set within a given culture, such as Fifty Shades of Grey or a story about the Blue Angels or even the Hells Angels.

Notice how almost every single movie featuring Tom Cruise is driven by a premise set ablaze with a high concept. Top Gun? The concept is the F-14 footage that infuses the story with energy and sex appeal. MInority Report? The proposition of the role of law enforcement is the concept, and the specifics of the dramatic arc become the premise that is fueled by that idea. Or that story where he can relive a moment time after time… that is nothing if not conceptual.

A concept can inject speculative, surreal possibilities, such as time travel, ghosts, paranormal abilities, cloning, etc., into an otherwise normal reality.

In short, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the premise and story built from it. It is the framework within which a story will be delivered. A proposition. A context. It imbues the story with a given presence. It elicits that sought-after response: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before, at least treated in that way. I really want to read the story that deals with these things.”

If The Help had been set in 1997 Omaha rather than 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, the story would have been quite different and quite diminished, because the former is a less compelling concept, and the story would be less effective, even with the exact same premise. The cultural setting is the concept, by virtue of the social framework it delivers.

A concept does not include a hero … unless the hero is, by definition, a conceptual creation (like a Superhero or an angel or a vampire, which is the case in several of the examples just given).Such stories are built around a protagonist leveraging a conceptual nature. What makes these heroes fascinating, and therefore conceptual, is the proposition that renders them unique and appealingly different (think Nancy Drew, Stephanie Plum, or Wonder Woman), with or without supernatural powers.

Sometimes the genre is, in fact, the concept. Ghost stories. Vampire stories. Time travel stories. Historicals. Space travel. We flock to these because of the ghosts and vampires and trips back in time, not necessarily because of the dramatic premise itself. And yet, those premises are inherently rich and compelling from square one, precisely because of the concepts driving them.

Wrap your head around this notion as a powerful story-enhancer, and you may find yourself writing stories that are already in the wheelhouse of the agents, editors and readers who are looking for them.

 

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Are We Having Fun Yet?

by Larry Brooks

A few of you know that I used to play professional baseball. During my very first spring training, all the pitchers were subjected to sprints and conditioning drills in the humid Florida heat, to the extent many of us were losing our breakfast on the third base line. Every day, as many of us were near collapse, hands on knees, visibly sucking oxygen, one of the coaches would yell with glee, “Are we having fun yet?”

Various forms of cursing ensued between the collective desperate gasps and the heat exhaustion. But we were professionals, and nobody dared quit the process.

Only later, when my career was over and I was treading water in the real world, did I realize how much fun I actually was having.

One of the first pieces of business I tend to when I begin a writing workshop is throwing out this question:

Who here wants to write for money?

Almost every hand goes up. Some dislocate a shoulder, such is the urgency of their response. There are, of course, the one or two arms-crossed resisters who like to believe they’re different, or perhaps above participating. Maybe they just don’t understand the question.

Then: Who here wants to make this their day job?

Same hands, same slackers. Or perhaps, the rare (very) hobbyist writing stories for the grandkids who is merely curious.

Then this: Those of you with your hands in the air either consider yourself a professional, or you want to become one… yes?

I then assure them that the first step to becoming a professional isn’t to cash a check, but rather, to go about the business as if they were already a professional author.

The only criteria for being a writer is to write. That said, there is a right way and a less-right way to go about it… and the right way can be darn hard.

And if you find hard something that isn’t fun, then perhaps you exist within a paradox unique to us.

Writing may indeed be a different breed of profession.

Because it seems that some writers who would enthusiastically raise their hand claim that they are selecting their process and perhaps their criteria for excellence based on something that would get you fired in any other job.

They do things their way, because their way is fun.

And they happily, almost proudly, claim to skip the hard parts in the name of fun.

There continues to be a loud debate, here and elsewhere, about the writing process.

And within that debate, one opening line shows up in the comment thread of almost every post on this topic. In it the writer says something like this: I don’t outline. I tried it once, but it took all the fun out of it. It’s more fun to just let the story emerge as I write. Which is why I don’t really know much about my story as I write it. It’s fun to figure it out as I go.

Okay, that’s a mash-up of the common forms of this opening push-back.

It happened yesterday in the thread from Jim’s post. It’s happened in response to my posts many times, because I’ve written about this subject many times (check this out, it’s a virtual wrestling match).

Imagine, though, other professions in which fun is never spoken aloud.

Every summer a hundred young men gather at Fall Camp to see if they can make the roster of an NFL team. This experience is nothing short of an exercise in torture, all in context to seeing who is fit enough, tough enough and resilient enough to play at that level.

Imagine a first round draft choice saying this: Well, camp would be a lot of fun if we didn’t have to do all those conditioning drills, because I’ll just be strong enough when the real game happens. It’s just not fun. Games are fun, but all this preparation stuff, I dunno, it’s just a lot of hard work.

Flip this analogy to medical school. Law school. Architecture school. Prepping for the CPA exam. Training to be a pilot. Or a teacher. Or a checker at Safeway. Or just about anything else that presents an expectation of what the skill set and end output needs to be.

That’s the key, right there: the skill set and end outcome of writing a novel are not something you get to negotiate or short-change. Your process, yes… it’s yours for adopt, it is what it is, and that fact is what is different about writing. And part of what makes it hard, as well. Because the product you put out… that’s not something you get to negotiate. Rather, you need to reach for a bar that already exists.

If your process doesn’t get you there, then perhaps you need to look at that process. If you want to play at a professional level, then you need to summon and master professional-level skills, for professional-level output.

And if the hard work of doing that strikes you as something that’s not fun, and if you use that excuse to do it your way, even when your way presents a compromise… that’s actually fine. You get to choose.

But the end-product, and the marketplace into which you intend it to go, won’t cut you even the tiniest bit of slack.

The requisite form and function of a novel applies to pantsers and planners alike, those who put in the time to study and those who are just having fun, alike. No difference whatsoever.

So if writing an outline isn’t fun for you, fine. If you can make your story functional that way, have at it. Thing is, that very decision has derailed more writers than you know. Not because of the outline itself as a tool, but rather, the nature of the process you substitute for it.

Here’s my point. If you truly understand the criteria of a story that works…

yes, these criteria can be defined, listed and learned… and if your process, facilitates the reaching of that high bar, then you’re fine. You may have elected the long road to get there, because without exception, writing a draft in which you don’t know the essential parts, transitions and end-game of your story is merely one of the several ways to search for your story, rather than the execution of draft itself.

And if you’re shorting that pursuit because it’s not fun for you… well, this is like your surgeon skipping the part about anesthesia because she doesn’t find anesthesia all that much fun.

A bad analogy, perhaps, for this reason: the surgeon has someone next to them in the O.R. that does find the practice of anesthesia, if not fun, then rewarding enough to practice it. But novelists are alone in a room with the patient (your story), and if you don’t find the requisite best-practices to be fun – and if you’re not really qualified yet to count on them to emerge organically on their own – then this disconnect can become a factor in the outcome.

It can explain why you may be frustrated.

But wait, says about 40 percent of the writers reading this. I don’t outline because it doesn’t work for me. Well…

Outlining is only one aspect of this cause-and-effect dynamic.

First of all, “not being able to outline” is not something to brag about. It’s not a good thing, it’s actually a blind spot in your storytelling. It’s like a pilot saying, I am afraid of heights. Please blindfold me until we get to cruising altitude and I’ll take it from there.

Outlining, in a broader sense, is simply the means, a proactive effort, of creating a vision for the story, front to back. A plan, even though that word isn’t fun for you. It, too, is what it is. A vision or a story plan is not a contract you sign that commits you to it (a common rationale for it not being fun, but that’s a story you’re making up, but a plan is totally flexible), because certainly you may evolve that vision toward an even better outcome as you go along.

Great storytellers than don’t outline absolutely do have a vision for the story in their head. And they almost always add and revise as it unfolds on the page. They also command a functional working knowledge of how to drive the story ship… because they’ve earned it. However they learned it.

The alternative – discovering your story as you write a draft – is (the forthcoming redundancy is deliberate, because not the context may be clearer) merely a means of story development. One of several. And as such, the requisite forms, functions, parts (including the ending) and impact (story physics like emotional resonance, nature and source of conflict and antagonism, extent of vicariousness, hero empathy and an optimized narrative strategy) that apply to every other form of story search apply to the make-it-up-as-I-go option, as well.

If you’re in this for the fun of it, first and foremost (and if you’re skipping over important steps, then it is first and foremost for you), then you may be missing the essence of the professionalism required. Which is exactly that roster of forms and functions… stuff you don’t get to make up, not even for a moment.

Perhaps it might better serve you if, instead of the fun of it, you’re in this for the rewarding experience of writing a story that really kicks butt. That knocks readers out of their chair.

Like any surgeon or pilot, the reward is when the patient survives and the plane lands safely.

And if your response to that is, Well, writing a novel isn’t brain surgery, ask an experienced professional if they agree… now you’re just counter-punching. In fact, ask a doctor who has attempted to write a novel if they agree.

It just might be as complex as brain surgery after all. I’ve actually had a brain surgeon tell me it is, once he encounted the moving parts required of it.

That old meme about “the journey is the reward?” Maybe not. That’s the rationalization of a legion of unpublished writers who tried to do their way, when their way is, primarily, the fun way.

When your way embraces that list of parts and essences, aligned and combined at the level required, then you’ll be within your next 400 pages of that rewarding experience.

A final story… that is not an analogy.

My son was his high school’s valedictorian, and it enabled him to get into a prestige university. But during his freshman year he did what so many freshman do… he partied.

Because it was fun. For a while he was sure this was what college was all about.

Meanwhile, he and I had an agreement in place from day one, and it wasn’t unreasonable or negotiable: earn a GPA that at least meets the academic requirement of your fraternity, which frankly, shouldn’t be all that challenging to you. Yes sir, he said. No worries, he said.

All freshman year long he told me he was killing it in class.

But then the finals happened in May.

No surprise… he was far short of the bar we had set. I mean, far short. Like, frat house probation kind of short.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to have fun in college – certainly, his socialization was part of the mission at hand – but in any endeavor that is worth tackling, something that will become the foundation of a dream that will spring from it, “fun” becomes a lesser calling.

Wrapping your head around the fundamental principles of writing stories is like that, too. It isn’t’ about what is fun. If that’s your priority, work at Disneyland.

Because in college and with writing a novel, the ultimate reward will require a massive amount of hard work – not just effort, but mastering some really tough principles in an artful way – leading to a higher understanding that informs an ability to take those skills forward into a professional marketplace.

A marketplace teeming with professionals who have mastered those very principles.

There isn’t a professional in any occupation out there – and this includes writing novels – that isn’t informed by a keen understanding of certain core fundamental principles… and sooner or later, fun has to acquiesce to a higher pursuit of an ultimate reward.

And when you hold that in your hands… now that is really fun.

Nobody ever hired a college graduate because they had fun at school.

Nobody ever sold a novel because they did it the fun way. Unless for that writer, the fun way embraced a complete integration of an understanding of what is required… and when that happens, it’s almost certain that the true fun of it all stemmed from it, and not skipping the hard parts.

Outlining is not required. But understanding the terms of what your vision for a story becomes… that is required. Because it’s too complex to just back into.

How do you know what is required? Where do you get that list? If you have to ask, then maybe you’re already shorting yourself in the proposition.

And so – back to my son for a moment – the contract had been violated. The terms of coming up short called for him to find funding – in the form of loans that he’s still paying off to this day, and for a few more years to come – to cover his second year at this school.

All hell broke loose at home…

… until it didn’t. He finally got it. In fact, he embraced his accountability for his end of our agreement, refusing to do it any other way. As a result, his GPA in the first semester of his sophomore year was 3.65. And while we celebrated that, he understood that a higher goal remained: to graduate with a GPA above 3.00.

Which he did.

He also had fun that year. It was all a question of priorities and the willingness to do the hard stuff.

Cut to his final week of school concluding his senior year. He had worked as a campus tour guide for incoming high schoolers (most of whom were also valedictorians… it was that kind of school), and on his final day of leading the tours a bunch of us, including my wife and I, were there.

In a classroom that concluded the tour with a Q&A session, one of the new Dads asked my son to tell us what his most rewarding experience had been over the last four years at this institution.

He thought a moment. You could hear a pen drop.

And then he told the group this story, the one I’ve just told you. He looked right at me when he concluded by saying, “I had a lot of fun here, especially at first. But that fun was taking me down the wrong road, littered with the discarded college dreams of many like-minded freshman. My Dad almost literally picked me up off the wrong road and put me onto a better one, a higher road, and while I had an immense amount of fun over the last three years here, the answer to your question is that the most rewarding part of it all was the realization that fun isn’t the point. The work is the point. Doing the hard stuff is the point. Changing into something higher and better is the point. And realizing that the world has opened up for me because of that learning… that while the journey was a blast, the real reward was in the final outcome.”

Needless to say, this Dad was a bit of a puddle.

So go ahead, have fun.

But if you’re skipping the hard parts, it may not be because you can’t do it, but rather, that it isn’t what you signed up for.

Reading a story by a pro makes it all look so easy. Maybe that’s what you signed up for.

But writing great sentences and paragraphs… that’s not the hard part.

Unspooling a story that nails all the moving story elements in the right way at the right level, with all those story physics humming with the grace and the growl of a cheetah at full speed…

… that’s the hard part, and the best part of the work. Worth every sleepless night and deficient draft it takes.

That’s why you’re here.

Because you put your hand into the air to claim your dream of becoming a professional.

And I’ve never once, in thirty years of doing this, heard a proven professional or anyone who teaches the craft to those who aspire to be one, say that they did it for the fun of it. Or that fun was even part of the process.

Rather, they’ll tell you how rewarding it all can be.

Understand the difference and live into that understanding, and everything about what has frustrated you will change, while everything you once considered fun will have evolved into something even more satisfying.

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If you’re interested in going deeper, I have a book on those forms and functions and essences that goes beyond structure, called Story Physics.

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Two 8-Hour Clinics… That Are a Click or Two Away

By Larry Brooks

Today I’m recommending two multi-episode televised dramas to writers seeking to witness and behold the core principles of storytelling – the very same knowledge available from the right writing teacher or book, or if not there—because you don’t believe in such silly things—then via a self-managed tutelage of your gut instincts… whatever gets those principles into your head.

The writing road can be long and steep until that happens.

For the writer unfamiliar with these principles, a great movie or series is simply just a great story well told, without much to take away. But what does well told even mean? It almost always means certain story forces have been leveraged, principles that are generic in nature (meaning, they apply to and enrich any story, in any genre) and totally available to the newer writer, as well.

Both of the programs I’m recommending are available on Netflix.

When you have those principles dangling in front of you, however they got there, seeing them unfold on a screen tends to reinforce what you’re seeing in the pages of the novels you love. It’s like watching pro athletes and analyzing down what you see… the next time you step on a court or field or tee box, you are already a step ahead of the less enlightened.

And thus a sense of storytelling craft begins to crystalize.

And on this we probably all agree: story sense is everything, because it is precisely what empowers any writing process.

To get the full effect you’re best served if you binge-watch these programs (the entire season is available within a single menu, episode by episode), which duplicates the experience delivered by a novel, chapter by chapter, gaining momentum while enveloping you in a vicarious, emotionally-resonant dramatic experience.

I’ve binged both of these series in the last ten days, and in both cases the learning leaps off the screen into your head… if you know what to look for.

One of them works. Stellar in every way. The other shows what happens when you take a concept that glows in the dark and then overplay characterization and theme—the twin Achilles Heels of the new writer—to the detriment of dramatic exposition and emotional resonance, thus incurring the wrath of critics and viewers alike.

The first 8-episode season of—Broadchurch—available on Netflix, is the one that works.

It’s a deep and resonant murder mystery, and it does everything right.

It opens big, sucking you in. Notice how the empathy card is dealt within minutes. You’re hooked. It quickly becomes a stage for a roster of diverse characters, each with diverse and compelling backstories that are played with just the right touch, with the three leads toying with our emotions wire-to-wire, and with a escalating sense of stakes and dramatic tension that sends you down blind alleys that make sense, some that are dead ends yet stand alone as their own mini-arcs, and all along plants clues you’ll only notice upon reflection.

This is exactly how a good mystery should unfold within the pages of your novel. Take notes, you might even want to watch it twice. Everything you need to know about how to make a murder mystery work is within these eight 47-minute Netflix episodes.

Broadchurch has a 92/95 score on Rotten Tomatoes if you need more than my recommendation.

As a footnote here… the cinematography will blow your mind.

The recent series Gypsy, also on Netflix, is the one that falls short of expectations.

Written by a new writer, it was developed by Netflix because of its thematic richness and the juicy layering of its protagonist (a therapist with her own agendas; warning, this is hard-R rated stuff). Which shows that even the folks at the top may not know the best way to spin a story.

Because in genre fiction, which this is (a psychological thriller), character and theme is not enough.

Gypsy falls into the new writer trap of simply showing the protagonist in a series of different situations, most of them compelling and dark (they play like short stories within the overall story arc), each one plumbing the depths of her self-interested desperation as she spins a web toward her own destruction… or not.

Critics had a field day with it. And rightly so. Nothing much happens in a macro-arc context (if you learn one thing from this series, it should be this), and there is very little suspense about where it is all headed. Yes, the rampant pandering to the forbidden works, you’ll come back for more… but you might find yourself yelling at the screen when the final credits roll after the last episode.

Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 27. Probably the lowest-rated project Naomi Watts, who is awesome in the lead but can’t save it, has ever been associated with. In fairness, it has a viewer score of 85, probably because of all the hot sex.

I encourage you to read the Rotten Tomatoes critic reviews (see link in last paragraph), which reinforces what I’ve said.

These televised mini-clinics are out there, more than ever.

Don’t like writing teachers and their books? This is your shot at a vertical learning curve, and you’ll get to say you did it all by yourself.

Not all that long ago it was popular among book lovers to, often by default, dislike the “movie version” of any novel that was adapted for the screen. It was cool to say that, it showed your literary nature. But that has become a hit-or-miss proposition… “The Help,” for example, was a note for note homage to the novel… and then on the other hand, there were the two Jack Reacher movies, which had Lee Child fans lighting up the internet.

I’ve always maintained that a film adaption is a rich opportunity for novelists. On both sides of the proposition. The good ones mirror the dramatic and character arcs, and thus, the writer has a means of seeing firsthand how theory translates to reality. And the bad ones can also be a worthy clinic, because you can observe where and how the core principles of storytelling that worked in the novel were compromised in the screenplay, which has only two hours to work with.

Lately, though, things have changed.

The emergence of 8 to 10-episode miniseries, mostly on cable channels (Breaking Bad, anyone?) and, perhaps most effectively, on HBO and Showtime, as well as a few of the British networks (which was the original source of Broadchurch; Gyspy was an original production from Netflix), is a gift to the emerging novelist looking to see these so-called core principles in action.

These programs are very different than what we’re used to in a television drama (like Law and Order or Castle, for example), which features the same conceptual setup each week, with a plot-of-the-week that is always fully resolved. But these newer 8/10-week stories, sometimes adapted from novels, or not, are literally linear in nature. There is no resolution until the final episode. In fact, the unfold almost exactly like how a good novel unfolds.

Downton Abbey played like a historical novel. Game of Thrones is a visual novel going on its sixth season. There are dozens of other great examples out there of the long-form, multi-episode, single-story format that is taking over the television business.

I hope you’ll take advantage of this opportunity to learn.

I think you’ll find that Broadchurch and Gypsy demonstrate two sides of the storytelling coin, quickly and clearly clarifying story essences and arcing techniques that may have seemed like theory before, but are proven to be very real and effective.

Your non-writer friends may not see it, but I’m betting you will.

Have you watched any other examples of this format on television? How did it inform your story sense as an author?

 

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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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A Nuance of Understanding That Can Change Your Writing Career

by Larry Brooks

Today I am waxing enthusiastic about what might end up being the most important step in the development of your story. Because right here, at the concept and premise stage, is where many writers come up short.

Most writers begin a draft with a vision for concept and premise in mind. Others don’t, using the draft itself as the search-mechanism to find concept and premise, then retrofitting it into the story in subsequent drafts. The common mistake is to forget to do just that, leaving the story without a clear and compelling concept and premise at its core.

Concept, as it relates to premise, is the vision for the entire story… at the idea level.

Weak story ideas easily account for half or more of story rejection, or at least, when it comes to explaining why they don’t resonate. I was talking to a writing-guru type friend recently, and he suggested this issue resides at the core of as much as 80 percent of story failures.

If you don’t get this right, if you don’t make it as strong as it can possibly be through an understanding of this nuance, then you are already putting your story at risk no matter how well you write it.

Concept and premise are the first things agents and editors look for in a story, over and above characterizations and writing voice. The nuance is this: concept and premise are different things. Superman is a concept. The plot of each story, which includes the villain and the threat they represent, is the premise… one unique dramatic arc for each Superman movie, TV episode and comic book edition.  One concept has birthed 13 major films and at least six television series alone.

One concept. An alien child crashed on earth, is raised by human parents, and ends up with powers we consider super, which he uses to fight evil and save us, time and time again.  Notice this is not premise (which is synonymous with plot in the context of this understanding).

Not every story needs to be “high concept.”

But the presence of something conceptual – which is the very essence of concept – adds strength to any story.

Concept and premise are different essences, yet one (concept) feeds into the other (premise). One of the most common shortfalls of rejected stories is when a premise doesn’t promise something conceptual to the story, when it’s all plot with nothing fresh or freshly respun, or worse, where there is nothing inherently interesting or provocative at its core.

An Example

I was teaching this at a workshop recently. I asked people to toss out a concept, old or new, for the purpose of seeing whether it met the criteria for concept (which I had presented first, but have not yet revealed here; I do this to see if, upon reading this example, you might quickly and intuitive see how and why it lacks “concept” at the level required to carry an entire novel).steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral.”

“Someone steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral.”

We talked about this one for a long time.

The Definition of Concept

A concept is the presence of something conceptual at the heart of the story’s essence.

A concept is a central idea or notion that creates context for a story – often for a number of stories, not just your story – built from it.

A concept becomes a contextual framework for a story, without defining the story itself.

It is an arena, a landscape, a stage upon which a story will unfold.

It can be a proposition, a notion, a situation or a condition.

It can be a time or place, or a culture or a speculative imagining.

It can even be a character, if even before the premise itself surfaces there is something conceptual about that character.

Concepts are a matter of degree.  Every story has a concept, the issue then becomes this: how does it contribute toward the reading experience?

Those stolen ashes?  That idea is more suited to a scene in the Part 1 setup of a a novel, something that starts a sequence of events.  But the real concept would be why someone did that, toward what end. And at that level, the criteria shown below would still need to apply.

The Criteria for Concept

It is inherently, before character or plot, interesting, fascinating, provocative, challenging, engaging, even terrifying.

High concepts depart from the norm, they exist at the extreme edge of imagination and possibility.

Not all stories are high concept. Stories about real people in real situations also benefit from something that creates a compelling context for the story.

Concepts promise a vicarious ride for the reader. Taking them somewhere, or placing them into situations that are not possible, realistic or something tense or horrific, something they would not choose to experience in real life.  But will love experiencing vicariously in your story.

A concept can define the story world itself, create its rules and boundaries and physics, thus becoming a story landscape. (Example: a story set on the moon… that’s conceptual in its own right.)

In summary, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the story built from it. It imbues the story atmosphere with a given presence.

It does not include a hero… unless the hero is, by definition, a conceptual creation (examples: Superman, Sherlock Holmes, a ghost, someone born with certain powers or gifts, a real person from history, etc.). A story is then built around that hero leveraging the hero’s conceptual nature.

All of this is a matter of degree.  Do those stolen ashed meet these criteria? Perhaps. Could they crack open a killer story? Maybe that, too. But would that pitch – “someone steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral” – offered in an elevator to an agent, motivate the agent to his the STOP button and hear the entire story

Doubtful. Because a concept is not a tease or a piece of setup. Rather, it is an OMG notion that becomes the contextual foundation of the entire story itself.

It might be helpful to consider what a story without a vivid concept would sound like in a pitch: two people fall in love after their divorce. Period. End of pitch.

And the agent says, “next!”

It’s not a bad story if you can pull it off – the writer of such a story would intend to plumb the depths of characters on both sides of the divorce proposition – but there’s nothing unique or provocative beyond the notion of divorce itself. Which is all too familiar, and therefore not all that strong a concept. If you could bring something contextually fresh to it – like, two people who both want to murder their ex fall in love – then the story has even more upside.

When we read that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and new, concept is what they mean.

When a concept is familiar and proven – which is the case in romance and mystery genres especially – then fresh and new becomes the job of premise and character, as well as voice and narrative strategy.

Concept is genre-driven.

Literary fiction and some romance and mysteries aren’t necessarily driven by concept (however, the sub-genres of romance – paranormal, historical, time travel, erotica, etc. – are totally concept-dependent). Other genres, such as fantasy and science fiction and historical, are totally driven by and dependent upon concept.

If your concept is weak or too familiar within these genres, you have substantially handicapped your story already.

Examples of Criteria-Compliant Concepts

“Snakes on a plane.” (a proposition)

“The world will end in three days.” (a situation/proposition)

“Two morticians fall in love.” (an arena)

“What if you could go back in time and find your true love?” (a proposition)

“What if the world’s largest spiritual belief system is based upon a lie, one that its church has been protecting for 2000 years?” (a speculative proposition)

“What if a child is sent to earth from another planet, is raised by human parents and grows up with extraordinary super powers?” (a proposition, leading to one of the most iconic characters is all of entertainment)

“What if a jealous lover returned from the dead to prevent his surviving lover from moving on with her life?” (a situation)

“What if a paranormally gifted child is sent to a secret school for children just like him?” (a paranormal proposition)

“A story set in Germany as the wall falls.” (a historical landscape)

“A story set in the deep South in the sixties focusing on racial tensions and norms.”  (a cultural arena)

These cover a breadth of genres, a few of them from iconic modern classics in their own right.

Notice than NONE of these are plots. Each is a framework for a plot. For any number of plots, in fact. The are conceptual.

Just remember: concept is not premise.

This one differentiation can make or break your career.  By way of analogy… concept is the idea to go to college and major in architecture. Premise is actually what happens when you do that, with a fresh and dramatic twist.  Different levels of meaning, with different criteria almost entirely.

Concept, when it works, becomes the reason why your premise will compel readers. Because it is compelling. Fascinating. Intellectually engaging. Emotionally rich. Imbued with dramatic potential. It infuses the premise with something contextually rich, even before you add characters and a plot.

Can you differentiate the concept from the premise in your story?  If not, then this becomes an opportunity to take your story to the next level.

Final thought on this, for now.

Thrillers are one of the most fertile genres for concept. Great thrillers are just that – great – often because of the concept.

Series heroes – Jack Reacher, James Bond, Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible stories – become their own concept. People come to the story for Jack Reacher, rather than the specific plot idea on the back cover.  As authors trying to establish a thriller series, this is a critical nuance to understand.

Mysteries, however, are more challenging at the conceptual level. Given that, the creation of a conceptually fresh hero is the key, and then giving her or him something highly vicarious and emotionally-resonant to do.

Of course, this implies the need to grasp the difference between a mystery and a thriller, which is obvious once you get it, less-so before that ah-hah! moment arrives.

Have fun with that one here… I’ll chime in with that difference if it doesn’t emerge clearly in the thread. I have a feeling it will.

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Deeper Thinking About Writing Your Scenes

by Larry Brooks

Deeper than what, you might fairly ask?

Perhaps, deeper than you’re thinking about them now. Because too often, newer writers (in particular) begin writing a scene without a clear intention for that scene. As a means of discovery (finding and vetting story options), this can be viable and legit…

… but unless you rethink and recast the scene once you do understand the purpose of a particular scene – its mission, if you will – chances are that scene will become a liability.

New writers tend to forget that next step.  The scene rambles, then it finds (perhaps stumbles upon) its purpose… then it’s on to the next scene.

If you have a bunch of scenes created this way, you may have tanked the whole novel on this one issue of craft alone.

Scene writing is its own core competency, separate from – yet every bit as essential as – the other primary core competencies you need to manifest: 1) a conceptually-rich premise, 2) character, 3) theme, 4) structure and 5) writing voice, including dialogue and the general nature of your narrative.

That’s six core competencies (categorically) in all.

If this was an athletic contest of some kind, scene writing would be where you actually manifest your skills and instincts on the field/court itself, while the others reside in the realm of preparation and training, strategy and game plan, teamwork and aggression.

Obvious? If you could read enough manuscripts under development, you’d see that it isn’t.

One of the stories I was coaching recently had this little wrinkle: the main character’s quest was interrupted by a flashback scene showing the hero as a boy delivering newspapers, falling off his bike and being laughed at by a group of girls standing on the opposite corner.

Then the reader was taken right back in the thick of the hunt for the adult hero’s blackmailer.

That little flashback was actually well done, but it was like a helping of turkey sage dressing plopped onto the plate that was otherwise a steak dinner. I kept waiting for it to connect to the main dramatic spine of the story.

I read on. And on. It never did.

I asked the writer why this scene was even in the story.  He said it was there because he loved it. This had actually happened to him, back in the day, and he’d never forgotten it. Yeah, I countered, but why is it in this story, in which the hero has no adult issues with women laughing at him, or with any childhood issues at all?

He said he thought it contributed to characterization. He said he thought it was cool.

It didn’t. It wasn’t. It a distraction, the slamming of a Pause button. His answer to my question was a defensive scramble, a rookie rationalization, rather than logic that fit into the professional level of craft understanding.

You know that truism about killing your darlings? This was a case study for that.

The scene didn’t have a purpose in this story. It was strategically indefensible. It contributed nothing to narrative exposition… which is something that all of our scenes must accomplish (with a caveat that this contribution may read differently in the contextually-unique opening setup scenes, an awareness of which is a subtlety that separates new writers from proven pros).

Scenes are, by definition, strategic in nature.  

When a story works, its scenes have a reason to be.  A purposeful mission to fulfill. And, a context that helps define the mission based on where it resides within the story.

There are many ways to boil this down into a storytelling principle, like this:

Every scene in your novel needs to move the story forward at an expositional level. The riskiest scenes are when the writer defends it as a tool of characterization, rather than a tool of exposition that is informed by characterization.

The best scenes accomplish both.

The question becomes this: how does your scene move the story forward, literally, by injecting new information or nuance into the narrative?

My advice, to both planners and pantsers: don’t write the scene until you know. Or if you must, don’t label the scene as “final” until you have a good answer.

So how do you know? One word: context. By understanding what has happened before the scene… and, with equal clarity how the scene will tee up what happens after it.

Putting that evolved clarity into your scenes often becomes the primary value-add of the revision process.

Here are more questions you should ask about your scenes:

What single element of exposition does this scene contribute to the narrative?

Is there, in fact, more than one expositional mission for the scene? Hopefully not by your design. There shouldn’t be multiple scene missions in an expositional context (one scene showing a car crash and a drug deal and a sexual encounter… not a good idea), especially after the Part 1 setup quartile. If so, consider creating separate and sequential scenes, even a series of scenes, to deliver them.

If there is no obvious mission for a scene, why are you considering this scene at all? If the answer serves anything other than the dramatic forwarding of the story… pause and rethink.

If your scene is there simply to create or reinforce setting and show characterization (which can work early in a story, and not all that often), or to fill in blanks that the reader is fully capable of filling in themselves, consider adding that context to scenes that do have a  clearer narrative mission as the main purpose and point.

Knowing the scene’s mission, you can now cut into the scene (begin it) at the last possible moment, avoiding obligatory chit-chat that doesn’t setup the “moment” the scene delivers.

Ask yourself how the scene changes the story. If it doesn’t, look closer at it. Your entire story arc needs to appear as a sloping line, either up or down, it should never be cruising along at one dramatic altitude.

Is your scene part of a dramatic sequence?  

Each beat of a sequence that contributes new information is worthy of its own scene. Consider separating scenes in a tightly unspooling sequence by using skipped lines (white space) as transitional devices between them.

Do you know how to set up a scene to empower the scenes that follow?  Seek to understand how, and when, each scene connects to the whole.

Where in the scene does its moment of revelation (fulfillment of the mission) occur?  The later the better… even down to the last sentence. Which means, you are writing lean-and-mean on both ends of the scene itself.

After the mission is clear… then what?

Once the mission of a scene is identified, the questions sound like this: What is the best creative strategy for this scene (cut in as late as possible, dramatize the key moment, transition out at the height of the drama)?

Does it leverage previous scenes, and thus remains bound in alignment to them?

When you are clear on the mission of a scene, and when that mission contributes momentum to the forward motion of the story, only then do the artistic options for it become fully clear.

 

 

 

 

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Three Quick and Easy Tips That Will Make Your Novel Better

by Larry Brooks

If you’re a regular reader of this or any other writing blog (including mine), you may distrust today’s headline. Because you know for a fact that a good novel requires way more than three little added-on “tips,” which when you get beyond the circle of core craft (which is not composed of tips; core craft is way beyond tips) number in the hundreds.

Which begs the question: what is the difference between core craft and those hundreds of “tips” that become the frosting on that cake?

Core craft can be summed up (among many astute ways it can be summed up like this) as the commingled implementation of the following: Understanding what constitutes a compelling premise… dramatic theory (which, at its heart, gives the reader something to engage with)… structure… dialogue… setting… character/arc… a hero’s quest/journey… scene writing… and how to write professional-level paragraphs and sentences (voice).

All of which delivers what can be described as a singular outcome: a compelling, memorable, worthwhile reading experience.

Simple, right? Just grab an idea and sit down with it, see what happens.

Or not. That’s the long road, by more than a mile.

Rather, the more you know about those core competencies, and the more creative and fresh your premise, combined with the more you know about the story itself (through planning or drafting), the better your story will be.

Sometimes, though — too often, in fact — you can do a decent job with all of them and end up with… a good novel that doesn’t fly. Or a nice try that doesn’t.

Sometimes again… the difference in those outcomes can be the little things — things often conveyed via “tips” — that breath life into a story in more subtle ways. There are volumes full of storytelling and writing tips out there (take care to differentiate tips on storytelling and the writing process itself), many of which are fundamental to the work of continually successful authors.

Here are three of them, for your consideration.

1. Give your hero an interesting career.

Too many writers don’t take advantage of this one, even when it doesn’t divert them from their primary vision for the story.

With the exception of the detective genre, you get to plop your main character into any career you want. Sometimes that decision is driven by the content and context of your story… pathologist, politician, doctor, cop, etc.

Other times, when the job isn’t central to the story, you still have an opportunity to give them something interesting to do during the day. The key here is to make what they do interesting. Something that says volumes about who they are, where they’ve come from, and how it defines their world view and current state of mind. 

This tip opens the door to one of the most powerful techniques available to us: setting our plot and characters within an arena – cultural, economic, political, or more simply, time and place – that delivers a compelling vicarious experience to the reader.

Do that, and you’ve backed right into one of the core competencies that might just get you published.

2. Give your hero a distracting personal relationship.

It’s easy to get lost in a one-dimensional landscape of characterization as we thrust our protagonist into the heat of our story.  But real life isn’t like that. And while it isn’t always the best idea to make your story a mirror of real life, or even your life, it can be good to give your hero something else to think about than the pickle you’ve tossed at them.

Like, a relationship. A love affair, new or confounding or crumbling. A parent thing. A boss from hell. An IRS auditor at the door.

The idea here is to make this relationship distracting for the hero. Something that provides a reason to survive at the same time it may compromise that goal. Or at least a way to keep one foot in the here-and-now as they go about saving the world.

Welcome to your sub-plot.

Superman had Lois Lane. Otherwise he’s just another guy who, if we’re honest about it, we can’t really relate to.

 

3. Give your antagonist a noble goal.

Or at least a goal that began nobly, or if that’s a stretch, try one that springs from a sympathetic need.

One-dimensional villains are easy and tempting. But when you give them something that causes us to wonder what went wrong, compromising our full empathy, they become even more interesting.

Of course, if your antagonist is a tornado or a flood – a perfectly legit storytelling option, by the way – then never mind. Haven’t met a sympathetic natural disaster yet… so in that case seek to burden your hero with a pesky inner demon that must be conquered before the dike can be built.

The inner demon thing is a good idea for any hero, by the way, and sometimes it can actually be the primary antagonist (think Leaving Las Vegas… addiction is a worthy foe in any story). When that inner demon has a twist or an edge or a commonality that makes the going tougher for our hero, so much the better.

So there is it. Nothing much to this writing thing… just master six or seven core competencies… understand the relative core story physics that make readers pay attention… come up with a killer story idea that isn’t too derivative of something else yet delivers the tropes of what genre readers want and expect… and then slather it all with a thick layer of tip-driven strategy that brings it all alive.

Piece of cake, right? Just sit down and start writing… everything will turn out just fine.

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Craft 101: Theme… as a Storytelling Intention

by Larry Brooks

As deep thinking, well-intentioned storytellers, we tend to want to make theme — one of the essential core competencies of successful storytelling — something mysterious and complex. And therefore, challenging.

It certainly can be. But it doesn’t have to be.

The good news is that the latter is as much the stuff of bestsellers as the former. The bad news is… sometimes we try too hard on this front and turn our story into something awkward or diversionary, and therefore problematic, to the dramatic arc itself.

A story about love, for example… that’s inherently thematic yet, as stated, pretty pedestrian and therefore only a start that’s nowhere near the finish line. Most readers would want to know more. A professional author would certainly realize they need more. It is how the author responds to that need where this thematic nuance comes into play.

Some writers begin writing a draft with no more specificity than that: a story about love.

If you’re in the romance genre, that may be enough to elicit a second question. Either way, though, “a story about love among White House staffers…” is more specific (not to mention compelling), because it combines theme and arena in a way that creates a sum in excess of either part.

That’s the key: understanding that a story is the sum of many parts. Only one of which is thematic.

Ultimately, whether you’re targeting agents, editors or readers, you’ll need to be specific relative to the story’s intentions at some point in the process. Theme alone never stands alone at the end of the day, even in an elevator pitch.

Writers, especially newer ones, benefit from an informed, functional definition of theme.  

They want to know (because many are confused on this count) the difference between theme and concept (the difference is huge; like, apples vs. apple pie kind of huge), or simply seek to understand how to make their themes more powerful.

It’s a great goal. But it’s one that is as easily over-thought as it is misunderstood.

Theme is simply this: the authentic life-experience and associated feeling a story calls forth within its fictional construct… what it may mean (to the characters, and/or the reader)… how it makes you feel (you being the reader, beginning with you as the author)… and why. How it relates to being a human being. Theme touches and challenges our humanity (because the characters are being challenged, as well) in a way that reflects our own experiences, fears, hopes, beliefs and values.

Effective thematic writing doesn’t seek to sell the reader on anything in the thematic realm, as opposed to selling them on the fictional conceit of the entire proposition. Rather, it seeks to make the reader think and feel, in whatever manner or direction the reading experience calls to them.

Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code is one of the more thematically provocative novels in decades. And yet, as many people are moved to anger and outrage as they are challenged to question their own beliefs, while others are simply entertained… or not.

Either way, you can’t argue that the same murder set in a local library instead of The Louve in Paris, with messages left from a retired janitor versus Leonardo himself, would renderr the same level of dramatic power. The difference there isn’t history as much as it is theme itself.

Theme isn’t something you actually get to control. Rather, you control the nature of the arrow that points to it without your story. Within that analogy, you are free to make the tip of that arrow as sharp or a blunt as you choose.

One approach: stop trying to be overly thematic.

Theme is often the outcome of setting: geographical, chronological, or sociologic.

By selecting certain story settings, you are by definition already being thematic, and chances are you’ll imbue the story with sufficient theme simply by going there. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, for example, is set in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, which means you cannot escape the social and cultural thematic contexts of the story regardless of the dramatic arc… which when culled apart from the setting is about writing an expose and baking a memorable pie.

In most cases, plot works because of its inherent themes.

Then again, not all stories have rich settings. In such cases theme needs to emerge from the relationship between character action/decision and consequences, as shown through the arc (both dramatic and character) of your players. The ending of Nelson Demille’s Night Shift (the novel that knocked The Davini Code out of the #1 spot on the bestseller lists) is an example of selling you a speculative proposition, rather than a belief system.

It is also the most glaring deus ex machina violation of any novel in recent memory… but that’s another post for another day.

Separate your plot from your theme.

Don’t try to make them the same thing. Yes, it’s good if when they connect, or at least don’t get in each other’s way. But in terms of story development just worry about your conceptually-driven plot for a moment.

The Girl on The Train is about solving a murder when you are less than credible, possibly involved and are struggling with your own grasp on reality. The story doesn’t work until it does a deep dive into things that are highly thematic… or at least become just that when read by people with both a brain and a heart. Making such a story work is challenging on the dramatic, structural plot levels, with the theme sort of taking care of itself once the pieces begin to fit together.

Actually, it worked at the moment of story selection. The plot and the theme were there all along within the genius of that idea.

Some writers begin with a theme in mind.

Sometimes that all they care about; theme is the reason they are writing the story in the first place. In that case, the risk is over-playing the thematic and thus rendering the story an off-putting proselytization.

Just as often stories are hatched based solely on a dramatic proposition, completely without a targeted theme or thematic context. Murder mysteries are usually dramatic in nature, though when theme emerges you may have a Michael Connelly event on your hands. Sometimes that works… but when it does, it’s because theme tends to emerge from stories about life under the pressure of drama.

But that’s a risky bet. Always better to ask yourself if there are ways you can invite theme into your story via setting or imbuing someone in the story with thematically-challenging issues, and then allow that to become a story catalyst, rather than a pulpit.

The closer that union of two sparks occurs relative to defining the intended story itself, the better everything that follows with work.

It all goes back to story selection. Writers who keep showing up on bestseller lists have discovered the magic of weighing the dramatic and thematic equally, regardless of which one lit the fuse of the story.

Keep playing with this notion.

If your targeted theme — the issue you want to write about — is, say, police corruption… consider a plot that isn’t about police corruption. Rather, concoct one that takes place against a backdrop — the surrounding culture and setting of the story — rife with police corruption. A love story in the inner city. A redemption story among mob informants. A revenge story set in a police locker room.

No matter what it is… if it’s set in a world in which police corruption touches the lives of your characters, then you’re already exploring this theme in a way that in organic and driven by dramatic sensibilities.

That’s always the safest bet: explore a theme, rather than selling a theme that creates a polarized reading experience.

In many cases, you may not have a thematic challenge at all, simply by virtue of the kind of plot you are unspooling.

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First Page Critique: “Blues In The Night”

This submission landed in a Kill Zone Inbox sometime last fall, and after a who’s-on-first? journey from then ‘til now, residing next to Trump’s tax return in a top secret eyes-only clandestine subterranean vault (my name is complicit, I’m told)… it finally shows up here, for our most well-intended group critique.

A consolidated apology goes out to today’s brave and persistent author.

Because this is short, I’ll show it undisturbed at first pass (nothing disrupts a read than a line of red typeface from someone suggesting it could/should be different), followed by— for the author, and those readers so inclined—my most empathetic input.

As usual, feel free to chime in. That’s the point, after all, shooting for consensus and clarity.

I will say, though, that while I’m delighted to be here participating, I’m not all that sold on first page critiques. It’s a bit like doing a home inspection with a high speed drive-by (“looks like that roof could use some patching up…”). And if the math of these things holds up, the dozen or so editorial suggesti0ns that almost always seem to manifest in these submissions (POV being the most frequent imposter), that translates to roughly 4800 total manuscript notes (12 per page in a 400 page manuscript)… which would send most of us sprinting to the local bar instead of back to the drawing board.

The math is explained by this particular human observation: when you ask a bunch of people sitting in front of the room for input, using the word “critique” to frame a process that is anything but precise—because this is not math—rest assured, they’ll find something.

If you think this is brutal, sit in on one of these things at a writing conference, especially if agents are doing the evaluations… it’s like a public hanging: dark, yet morbidly compelling… unless it’s us wearing the rope.

Remember what William Goldman once said: “Nobody knows anything.”

In this and all KZ critiques, know this: we’re just trying to help… and, we’ve all been there, swinging from that tree.

——————————————

Blues in the Night

Everett

Miami Beach, Florida

Tuesday, October 16, 1951

12:10 AM

Sarah rolled naked out of bed and sashayed into the kitchen to pour a couple of drinks. Her cute ass, uncommonly tight for her age, swayed from side to side as she left the bedroom, putting a smile on Everett’s face.

Not bad for an old gal.

When he heard her puttering around with the drinks, he slipped out of bed and across the room, and grabbed her custom-made replica of the Maltese Falcon from the occasional table. Stoneware bird in hand, he moved to a spot behind the door.

She never saw it coming. As she walked in with their drinks, he swung the falcon, which had to weigh five pounds, smacking her in the temple. The glasses flew from her hands as she sank to the floor, blood flying from the wide gash on her head.

In an instant he was on her, straddling her, hands wrapped around her neck tight, tighter, tighter. Her eyes, which only minutes ago gazed at him with unbridled lust, now bulged outward, as if in astonishment. Her well-tended complexion took on a ghastly blue tint.

Tight, tighter … until the faint rhythmic throbbing beneath his thumbs fell still. The only sound now was soft band music wafting out of the console radio, tuned to the late-night Sleepy Time Gal program.

Her hair hid the split in her skull but not the last of the blood. Everett watched it seek its own level, changing from red to reddish-brown as it spread across the rug. He touched it with the tip of his index finger and examined it, tilting his head to one side, then the other, to maybe discover some new feature of the droplet visible only from an odd angle.

The urge to lick the little red bead off his finger was great, and he thought about taking some of Sarah home with him, having her protein — her very essence — flowing through his own veins.

He recalled Violet. He hadn’t done that with her. But now? Yes! He swiped it off with his tongue and let it glide down his throat, then stood up and went into the bathroom to wash the blood from his arms and torso.

He got dressed, then rifled her purse for money and grabbed what jewelry he could find, including what looked like a nice diamond bracelet and a pair of emerald earrings.

He pulled a few drawers out of her dresser, looking for that stash. Everyone like her — rich, that is — had a big stash somewhere close by. He only had to find it.

——————————————

Here are my notes. In general I like the writing, but like everything just out of the printer, it could use some re-thinking to make it even stronger. It could be more visceral, more nuanced, and thus, the scene rendered more disturbingly.

One of the things that hit me is that this is more than a little terrifying. Which I suppose is a good thing in its genre. But keep in mind, a first page has a specific and unique mission: to thrust the reader forward, compelling them to keep going.

With that filter, read this again and ask how much invitation and motivation you’ve given your reader. While you tell us this isn’t his first time, there isn’t even a hint of motivation (beyond psychopathy) or a general sense of why we’d want more.

That becomes the context for my input today. Look for ways to get into the heads of these players, minding the fence of POV, using inner dialogue and context to intensify both vicarious roles.

Sarah rolled naked out of bed and sashayed into the kitchen to pour a couple of drinks. Her cute ass, uncommonly tight for her age, swayed from side to side as she left the bedroom, putting a smile on Everett’s face.

Not bad for an old gal.

Okay, this is seriously twisted.  But you don’t bridge it from what seems innocent to what ends up being incomprehensible… and you could. Perhaps add a comment that, a few sentences from now, will link his appreciation of her “”sashay” – am thinking you could find a better verb here; who gets out of a bed and sashayes anywhere? – to what will be her dark fate? He enjoys having put her at ease, it makes the take-down all the sweeter.

Play up the sickness playing in his head.

When he heard her puttering around with the drinks, he slipped out of bed and across the room, and grabbed her custom-made replica of the Maltese Falcon from the occasional table. Stoneware bird in hand, he moved to a spot behind the door.

You have three actionable movements here, in one sentence: hearing the drinks, slipping out of bed, and grabbing the fake Falcon. That’s too many. Chunk it up. While the writing is good, this is the most amateurish of all your sentences on this page.

And “stoneware in hand” is just… rewritable. Do so.

She never saw it coming. (Skip that… this is obvious.) As she walked in with their drinks, he swung the falcon, which had to weigh five pounds, smacking her in the temple. The glasses flew from her hands as she sank to the floor, blood flying from the wide gash on her head.

Could be tighter: He swung the falcon the moment she appeared in the doorway, anticipating,his feet leaving the floor from the force of his effort. Ceramic colliding into flesh, framed in an arcing spray of red. Bone shattering, creasing the skin before it tore apart. It played before his eyes as if in slow motion, a moment he would revisit again and again, turning up the sound to capture the wet thud of it, going in for a closeup on her eyes, scanning for the moment she knew she was dead, wondering if she could connect him to it before the darkness fell.

Present tense would put us more in his head.

He was on her as she fell, straddling her already limp body. Hands wrapping around her neck… tight, tighter, tighter. Her eyes, only minutes from gazing at him with unbridled lust, now bulging outward, a confusion of astonishment and realization. Her face took on a ghastly blue tint.  (Would that happen that quickly, moments after impact?  I don’t think it would.  And… not the time or place to comment on her well-tended complexion.)

His hands froze on her throat, his forearms screaming at him until the faint rhythmic throbbing beneath his thumbs fell still. The only sound now was soft (we don’t care if it’s a band or an accordion) music wafting (wafting? Really?) out of the console radio, tuned to the late-night Sleepy Time Gal program.  (Why do we need to know the name of the program?  Don’t think we do. You’re trying too hard here… stay in the moment, author, go deeper into it, don’t dress it up with peripheral uselessness.)

Overwriting. The bane of the new author. Start to notice, and start to avoid it.

(cut this: Her hair hid the split in her skull but not the last of the blood.) Everett watched the blood emerge from beneath her hair, seeking its own level, changing from red to reddish-brown as it spread across the rug (nope, it wouldn’t change color before his eyes, moments after impact). He touched it with the tip of his index finger and examined it, tilting his head to one side, then the other (you already said “side to side,” so what do you mean by “then the other” – which translates to “side to side to side”… need to clean this up), to (not maybe) discover some new feature of the droplet visible only from an odd angle. (this sentence is a stretch, I think… nobody looks for, or cares about, a “new feature” of a drop of blood; you’re contriving here.)

The urge to lick the (don’t need the adjective “little” here; we’re pretty sure it’s not a “huge” bead of blood) red bead from his finger was tugging. (new sentence, avoid the run-ons) He thought about taking some of her (we don’t know her name, this isn’t the time to tell us, either) home with him, having her protein — her very essence — flowing through his own veins.  (I like this… it’s twisted as hell…)

He recalled the last girl. Violet, he recalled. He hadn’t done that with her. But now? Yes! He swiped it off with his tongue and let it glide down his throat, motionless, submitting to the sensation. He then stood and went into the bathroom to wash the blood from his arms and torso, tasting it again before it was all gone.

He dressed (did he “get dressed, or perhaps a more active verb – dressed – works better here), then rifled her purse for money. Coming up with nothing, he rifled her dresser for jewelry, grabbing what he could find, including what looked like a nice diamond bracelet and a pair of emerald earrings.

He pulled out the remaining drawers, looking for that stash. There was always a stash. Everyone like her — rich, that is — had a wad of cash somewhere close by. He only had to find it.

But even if he didn’t, he would go away satisfied.

(This closing line punches up the darkness of it all.)

____________________

Of course, these are editorial prompts only.  They suggest a deeper dive into the moment, into the perp’s head, which is the scariest place of all you can take your reader. We get a sense he’s not done, which is why we’ll stay with him in this story.  Because we want him to go down.That context – not so much to experience him, but to build a sense of dread, so that we will root for his ultimate failure and demise – is the nuance that will add to this project.

I wish you great success going forward!

Kill Zoners, what say you?

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