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.

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


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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When “What if?” Isn’t Enough

By Larry Brooks

Those two words — what if? – can be a powerful tool for writers in search of their next story. In much the same way a chain saw can be productive for someone who understands what a chainsaw is for.

But they can also be seductive in a potentially toxic way (suddenly switching analogies here) in much the same way that someone with the face of an angel can walk through the door can end up breaking your heart. Because like a guy chasing a windmill, what if? can lead us toward a dead end. Or even a cliff.

Great stories — including great thrillers and mysteries, the stuff of our Killzone focus — need more than the intrigue of a puzzle or even the attraction to a character. They also need to launch a compelling dramatic arc that is worth reading about within a story world worth visiting, leaving the reader breathless from intrigue, raw with emotional resonance, and fulfilled from their return to reality from the vicarious experience you’ve thrust them into.

Toward this end, allow me to share one of the best writing tips I’ve ever heard, from the mouth of a New York agent who has lived even more decades that my very ancient self: when you feel an idea dawning, and your first impulse – versus instinct, which is different and orders of magnitude more valuable – is to jump on it and start writing (whatever that means to you, be you planner or pantser), the wiser writer (one with the scars to know better) will do this:


See if the idea chases you.

See if come morning that idea seems as ripe as it did in the heat of the brainstorm, or amidst the swoon of too many writing conference happy hour cocktails. Our goal should be to apply a higher level of criteria to the ideas that call our name (you wouldn’t marry someone after the first date – a blind date, at that – now would you?).

Here’s a fact: in the world of agents and publishers, more projects get rejected because of the story than because of the writing. These days your novel needs to be a home run piece of dramatic and thematic imagining, something fresh and compelling, rather than a thin, been-there-read-that shell that exists merely as a vehicle for your brilliant sentences. Which, in that league, are the ante in, such skill is as common as footspeed and strength is at an NFL Combine pre-draft tryout.

This all came up during lunch with a writer friend. 

Like most writers, my radar for “what if?” propositions is always rotating, and I got a hit when the topic (my friend, her sister, and my wife… I was out-numbered) brought up the ladies room at one of the area’s hottest bars, the kind where all the women look like they’re vying for a spot on The Housewives of Scottsdale, and the men like the buzz cut, cheesy golf shirt wearing guys they’re married to.

The talk focused on a woman who has served as the hostess in the ladies room at such a famous night spot for the past decade. A woman beloved by all who have washed their dainty hands there after reapplying lipstick. Oh, the sights she must have seen in the room, the stories she has heard. 

She, it was offered, should write a book. Which led to… hey Larry, there’s a novel in that! You should write this!

Like, I didn’t have enough rusty ideas kicking around in my head.

And then, like any author worth his printer ink, the “what if?” descended on the table like a bird dropping: what if this woman heard something in that bathroom that she shouldn’t have heard? About someone in the bar who wasn’t supposed to be there, saying and doing things that shouldn’t be said and done? And what if something happened later in the evening inside that bar, something bad, lighting a fuse toward the elimination of anyone who might have heard too much?

Like, in the bathroom, for example.

Approval was immediate. Because — let’s call it what it was — they weren’t the ones who had to to turn this turkey of an “idea” into a novel.

We brainstormed for a while, taking it through the First Act to a proposed first plot point, at which time the food arrived and we turned to other things. Like why some writers drink and others simply go mad.

On the way home my wife asks me, “so, are you going to write that story?”

I didn’t have to think about it.  My answer was a firm, no-looking-back, no.

I didn’t have to run away from it to be sure. As sure as I have been every time someone pitches me the idea of, “hey, you should write a story about someone who is born old and ages… backward!” An idea I’ve heard put forth at least a half dozen times.

Bad ideas are just that. Because they’re too easy, too obvious, and too done to death.

Story ideas are just that, and nothing more.

They are aromas, not food. Promises, not deliveries. Seeds, not gardens. And if the flower isn’t something that floats your boat, then the seed is better off as bird food.

One of the great pitfalls of newer writers opens wide when you sit down and try to write an idea that is only an idea, without having sprouted the wings of a story, and too often, don’t have wings to sprout after all.

Ideas – especially in the form of “what if?” – acquire true value when they open doors (rather than yawning pits) to something more substantive than whodunit gratification. When they put you, the writer, into a place that transcends immediate gratification and allows you to go deep and wide into the things that matter in a novel.

Ideas should scare the crap out of you, more than they tickle at first blush. Or at least, excite you to the point of an enduring, informed obsession. When you link a compelling “what if?” proposition to a deeper realm of time-tested passion, vetted in context to an awareness of the higher criteria of story – conceptual allure, dramatic tension and arc, emotional resonance, hero empathy, vicarious experience, and a fresh way to tell the story… now you’re on to something

That’s the story you should write.

I had no real passion for the ladies room at this club, or for the dynamic that becomes the social arena of such a story. I admit, I’ve never been inside a crowded ladies room full of preening cougars – and yeah, that sounds kinda interesting – but who am I to write this story?

Not that you have to have lived every story you tell. But at least you should want to have lived some form of it. Want it beyond that first glimpse of it. Starting a book on the heels of a breakfast conversation is like getting married after a conversation in the check-out line at Costco.

It happens. It hardly ever ends well, even in the most romantic of fiction.

The desire to live vicariously in our stories needs to be matched by our passion for the dramatic landscape across which the story will unfold.

And that’s the question a writer should ask before taking any “what if?” idea seriously. What floats your boat, each and every time something like this has crossed your mind?

This crystallized for me one morning while reading about a new J.J. Abrams television show (Alcatraz), in which criminals who seemingly disappeared from an island 50 years ago are showing up in present day San Francisco, and they are killing people. They’ve traveled through time. They might be ghosts. But the dead bodies they leave in their wake are real, and these time-traveling killers must be found and stopped.

Now that interested me. Both on a “what if?” level, and on a time-tested passion level. I wish I’d thought of it. Time travel is one of the most intriguing premises I can think of… and yet, I’ve never written a time travel story.

Come to think of it, the idea hit me in the checkout line at Costco. And it’s chased me ever since.

Don’t jump too fast at your what ifs.”

Develop stories from a place of passion and obsession and innate, time-tested curiosity and passion, a place where thematic issues collide with the conceptual, set in an arena that fuels the dramatic as much as it informs any characters you can place within it.

Write the story you should be writing.

Which is an even better writing this than… run.


Who You Are and Who You Ain’t

From Larry Brooks… introducing you to an article by James N. Frey.

Chances are you’ve heard of James N. Frey.  He wrote one of the iconic writing craft books of all time, How to Write a Damn Good Novel (1987), which after three decades remains a consistent seller and presence on the craft shelf of most bookstores and collectors of writing wisdom.

He’s been very generous with me, relative to my own work, blurbing not only my own writing books, but also my fiction. But that’s not the sum total of why I like and respect the guy (which are separate criteria). He tells it like it is – something I’ve tried to emulate –  which in the polite company of the collective writing conversation is both a rare and refreshing clarifier among a plethora of vague and often contradictory and downright confusing advice (“Story Trumps Structure,” anyone?).

So today I’m rerunning an article he contributed to my site, Storyfix.com, some eight years ago, a piece that still comes up at conferences as something writers remember, and credit as a milestone in their own writing journey. I’m the first to line up with that response, because it’s one of the boldest, most cringingly accurate musing on the writing life I’ve ever read.

Who You Are, and Who you Ain’t

By James N. Frey

Did you notice, when you told your mother or father, sister, brother, or friend that you wanted to be a writer, the shocked, hurt, bewildered expression on their faces?  Spouses, upon hearing the news, often get ill or take to the bottle. Some start packing.

There are a lot of great quotes from famous writers on writing that tell of the struggle writers go through.  Supposedly Hemingway said that to be a writer all you have to do is “go into your room, sit in front of your typewriter…and stare at a blank page until blood comes out of your forehead.”

We all know what it feels like to have blood trickling down our forehead.  We all know there are days when the words will not flow from our brain to our fingertips, days when the most used key on the keyboard is the delete key, days when you think your mother was right — you should have taken the Post Office exam.  We all know days when we say, what the hell am I doing bleeding from my forehead when I could be…playing golf…or fishing…or playing frisbee with my dog.

Of course writers don’t play golf or go fishing or play frisbee with the dog.  Few writers even have dogs.  Who the hell has time for dogs?  Writers don’t go out to a lot of movies, or baseball games, or picnics in the park.  Writers don’t do much of anything but write, think about writing, or talk about writing.  We go into our little rooms, turn on our music, and turn on our machines and stare at the screen until blood comes out of our foreheads. That’s the writing life.  Not all that glamorous or glorious, is it?  Taken a day at a time.

And then after countless hours of agony writing, rewriting, workshopping, editing, getting critiques, reading books on craft — some of which are damn good — we try to get published and we find that bleeding from the forehead wasn’t all that bad. Now we’re getting banged on the forehead with rejection slips that hurt more than getting hit with a sledgehammer.

Anybody ever tell you your work was not right for their list?  What the hell that does that mean?  They have too many critically acclaimed bestsellers on their list?

How about they tell you it’s beautifully written…they loved your characters…you obviously have a lot of talent and a great future,  but, gee, it’s just not right for our list…we’re not taking on any new clients at this time.  Then why the hell did they say yes to your query letter?

We try to find out what’s wrong, so we go back to book doctors and writers’ workshops and hear that our work is boring or not right for the market, old-fashioned or too avant-garde, doesn’t fit the genre, or is too derivative, and we go back to our room and bleed some rewrite out of our foreheads.

These book doctors charge like hell — there go the kid’s braces — and so we try agents who charge reading fees to finance their trips to the French Riviera.

And then the big day comes and you finally get an agent who seems to really like your stuff. And after it makes the rounds to a couple dozen houses, you hear that the editor loved it, but the pub board said it wasn’t right for their list, that you write beautifully, they loved your characters, but your book, well, is not quite right for their list….

At least, your writer friends tell you, you aren’t still getting printed rejection slips made out to “Dear Author.”

You have by now disabused yourself of the notion that there is an editor waiting in a book-lined office to shepherd your book through the process of getting you critical acclaim and your rightful place on the New York Times bestseller list.

It may happen some day, but in the meantime you’ve found out the first big truth of the writing game — the publishing industry treats writers like shit on their shoes.

The price you pay for being a writer is high.

Read the remainder/entirety of Frey’s article HERE (the entire piece weighs in at well over 3,000 words, too long for this venue. You’ve just read the first 800 of them… the rest are well worth the time, in my opinion.)

Visit James’ website HERE.


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Two New Writing Resources from Writers Digest Books


By Larry Brooks

Just what we need… another writing book or two.

No, I’m serious. This may be just what we need.

Shown above are the two newest anthologies of writing mentoring, coaching and philosophical dissection and author interviews from Writers Digest Books, culled from their magazine and blog and a few excerpts from the titles they’ve previously published.

You may be interested to know that two of your humble KZ servant bloggers have entries in both of these volumes:

… James Scott Bell has two pieces in Writing Voice, and four in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (3rd edition);

…much less impressively, yours truly has one article in each book.

We hope these and the several dozen other entries in these two fine volumes will contribute to your writing journey.

(The links offered are to Amazon.com; both titles are also available through all major online venues and bookstores.)


The Empowering Triad of Storytelling

By Larry Brooks

What seems to some to be so simple turns out to be anything but. Because we read excellent stories all the time, and they really do seem, well, if not simple, then at least clear and clean and accessible, and therefore not beyond our means.

The blank page both calls to us and mocks us. And so we fill it up with what we have to offer, arising from the pool of what we know, fueled by dreams we dare not utter aloud… sometimes soured by what, either in ignorance or arrogance or simple haste, we’ve chosen to ignore.

But too often it is what we don’t know — especially when we don’t actually know what we don’t know — that is our undoing.

Because, in spite of all the books and workshops and websites and analogy-slinging writing gurus out there, we cling to the limiting belief that there are no “rules.” The mere mention of that word causes you to rebel with artistic indignation, even conclude that principles and standards are mere “rules” with polite sensibilities — this one, too, being our undoing — and from there we decide that we can write our stories any way we please.

Because this is art, damn it.

Often we don’t find out that what we have to offer isn’t good enough until the rejection letter arrives. Or the critique group pounces like Simon Cowell on a bad day. Or when a story coach doesn’t tell you what you want to hear.

As one of the latter, at least until lately, my job involves telling writers — frequently — that their story is coming up short, followed by my best shot at explaining why. To explain that the wheels fell off, very often at the starting gate. It’s the why part that allows me to sleep at night, because I’ve been on my share of the receiving end of the sharp pokes this business delivers. But like a doctor giving a screaming kid a vaccination shot, I take solace in the hope that once the sting subsides the writer will see the pit into which they are about to tumble.

And that they may finally begin to know what they don’t yet fully know.

The Trouble with Craft

Craft — the mechanics and architecture and sweat of putting a story together — is complex, if nothing else than for its sheer immensity. It’s anything but simple, complicated by a writing conversation out there that seeks to over-simplify it. Even in those stories that inspire us, bestsellers and favorite authors and even the classics, we’re witnessing the symmetry and fluid power of simplicity on the other side — beyond — complexity.

I’ve sought to put fences around it all, create labels and levels and subsets of supersets and connect those dots in ways that facilitate navigation along that path. Six core competencies, six realms of story physics, and about five dozen subordinated corners of the craft aligned under those twelve flags.

Trouble is — just like in love and careers and gambling — you can get them all technically right… and your story can still fall short. And that’s the thing — the holy grail of “things” we need to understand — that separates craft from art. Unpublished from published. Frustrating from rewarding.

So without minimizing any of the myriad corners and nuances of craft — indeed, they remain eternal, consistent and the non-negotiable ante-in — allow me to once again attempt to simplify. To break it down into three buckets, three qualities, three goals, that any successful story will embody to some extent.

Three essences to shoot for (apologies to the more than one writer who can’t quite wrap their head around the notion of essence… in the business of words, it is good to know what they mean). Three qualities to evaluate about your story intention, and then your execution.

Three things to grade yourself on.

Three things about your story… things that readers will, upon finishing your story, notice.

If at least one of those grades isn’t an “A,” then you’ve got more work to do. It’s a mission impossible moment: your job, should you choose to accept it… is to write a story that competes for readership.

This will help.

The Fiction Trifecta

No surprises here. But be honest, have you really evaluated your story on these things, regarded as criteria? Have you asked yourself what your strategy will be to optimize one or more of these things within your narrative?

In no particular order, because each stands alone as a potential windfall:

Intrigue – A story is often a proposition, a puzzle, a problem and a paradox. When you (the reader) find yourself hooked because you have to know what happens… or whodunnit… or what the underlying answers are… then you’ve intrigued your reader. It may or may not have an emotional component to it — mysteries, for example, are usually more intellectual than emotional, they’re intriguing because the clues lead somewhere, and we want to know where, even see if we can get there first.

Mysteries, as a genre, are almost entirely dependent upon reader intrigue. Not necessary “dramatic intrigue” within the story itself, but rather, the degree to which a reader is “intrigued” with the questions the story is asking, as well as the characters that pose the questions.

But this kind of intrigue isn’t limited to mysteries. Sometimes intrigue is delivered by the writing itself. A story without all that much depth or challenge can be a lot of fun, simply because the writer is funny. Or scary. Or poetic. Or brilliant on some level that lends the otherwise mundane a certain relevance and resonance. Make no mistake, these attributes are, at their core, a form of intrigue.

Emotional Resonance – When a story moves you, which so many great stories do, it’s because we feel it. It makes us cry. Laugh. It makes us angry. It frightens, it seduces, it confounds and compels.

Les Miserables isn’t the classic it is — book, stage and screen — because we must find out what happens or whodunit. No, it works because it makes us weep. John Irving’s Cider House Rules is a modern classic because it pushes buttons, forces us to confront alternatives, compelling us to behold the consequences of our choices reduced to the realm of feeling.

Same with The Davinci Code, another modest success.

Every love story, every story about injustice and pain and children and reuniting with families and forgiveness — name your theme — is dipping into the well of emotional resonance for its power.

Vicarious Experience – reader, meet Harry Potter. Go with him on an adventure to a place you’ll never experience otherwise. Or Hans Solo. Or James Bond. Or Sherlock Holmes or Merlin or Stephanie Plum or some alien with an agenda. The juice of these stories isn’t so much the dramatic question or the plucking of your heart strings as much as the ride itself. The places you’ll go, the things you’ll see, the characters you’ll encounter, the things you’ll experience and encounter.

Of course, emotionally-vicarious experience (versus setting-driven) can be a ride, as well — a story about falling in love, or getting fired, or winning the lottery — and when that happens you’ve been given an E-ticket on the Slice of Life attraction. These stories strike two of these Trifecta chords by making us feel the experience of falling in love, or feeling loss or simply walking a mile in shoes that seem compellingly familiar.

None of this is new. But few writers shoot for these as targets as their story emerges, taking for granted that they will be in evidence. But when used as criteria and quantitative raw grist, you are better equipped to understand how well your story will work… or not… as the narrative comes together, rather than because of the sum of its parts.

The common factor here is this: something compelling about the story.

Either intellectually, emotionally, or on some other level (usually the result of a combination of these three gold standards). An allure that resides beyond the tricky or original or otherwise “interesting” nature of its concept.

Your concept, however tricky or original or interesting, isn’t completely compelling until it lands on one or more of those three powerful forces: intrigue… emotional resonance… vicarious experience. A story about aging backwards, for example, or about going to another planet, or finding a secret code… a story driven by something conceptual… may not be enough.

It’s the difference between a beautiful store window mannequin and a beautiful model strutting the runway. One percolates intrigue, the other… just lies there, cold and still.

The goal is to juice your concept with some combination of the Trifecta elements.

Until that happens, that’s all you have: an idea. In this business, concepts are commodities. But intrigue, emotional resonance, and vicarious experience… those are pure gold.


If you’re in a mood for a deeper dive into craft, I invite you to consider my training videos, available now on Vimeo. Even better, through February they are all HALF OFF… just use this code — Feb50off — in the checkout sequence for each video you want to download.



Is Writing a Good Novel Something That Can Be Taught?

By Larry Brooks

Or are we simply dangling from puppet strings manipulated by cloud-dwelling muses who are toying with our dreams?

Or put more scientifically, is our fate determined by some naturally-imbued literary DNA that simply needs awakening?

You know, like Stephen King?

He was born that way, right?

A few weeks ago I rolled out a new line of training videos that seeks to impart some modicum of knowledge and a little principle-based perspective on how to turn that idea kicking around your skull into a viable novel that someone else would actually want to read.

And so, like so many that have partaken of the digital marketing kool-aid, I posted a few announcements and a trailer on Facebook, where I have about 4200 writer “friends” who, of course, are on pins and needles awaiting my next project.

Not one of whom, by the way, even clicked through to my new Vimeo VOD page.

Which only goes to confirm – in my mind, at least, though it’s something I’ve heard repeated a lot lately – that Facebook is an absolutely worthless venue for trying to get other writers to pay attention to what we’ve written.

Ask them if they’d spend a night in a creepy house for one million dollars… sure, that’s what Facebook is all about.

Anyhow… this happened:

Writer/”friend”: Larry, do you know of one successful serious writer who recommends writing classes, courses or study groups? I can name several who advise that writing – creative writing – cannot be taught but is inherent – Twain, Clancy, Rowlings, The Bard….

Me: I know of hundreds, actually. Far more writers who succeed actually dive in to some sort of learning venue, than those who claim to have learned it or delivered it naturally (not sure what that even means). I’ll GIVE you one of the videos, if you doubt its value. Message me if you are willing to see.

Writer/”friend”: Grammar – yes, Structure -of course.

Me: I think the “natural instinct” part best describes a writer’s ability to come up with killer story ideas (Stephen King, for example, the “king” of self-taught, naturally-gifted writers), or not… versus some DNA-driven knack for understanding how it works best on the pages across a story arc, which really doesn’t happen to anyone. Even very highly trained authors still depend on that ability to land on a glow-in-the-dark story idea, and struggle over many drafts to get it right. When we can do both – great idea leading to a strong premise, and we actually understand (because someone has taught us) how to craft dramatic and character arcs, with the perfect touch of prose… that’s the recipe. The latter — it absolutely can be taught. It’s like reading music… it doesn’t make you a great singer, but it helps if you are a composer. So… do you want to see a video? I’d like to make a believer out of you.

Writer/”friend”: Every serious writer struggles, A word, sentence, paragraph, character, loose-end solution, ending, juggling multiple threads, and on. Some are brilliant, have an extraordinary story, a unique point of view, a fabulous editor and some have all of those within their grasp and they get it out, on paper. It’s called talent. You can’t teach the sky to be blue.

Me: Yeah, but you can teach them what a story arc is, the difference between dramatic arc and character arc, the optimal presentation of a scene. I don’t know how many in-progress, unpublished manuscripts and premises you have seen, but I have seen many hundreds (over 700 in the last three years), and I can assure you, the “natural talent” you describe is rare where story execution is concerned. A writer who believes that they are one of them, it’s more likely naiveté and hubris than it is a truly natural talent. I’ve never met a “natural talent” in over 30 years of doing this, at least to the degree you claim is what fuels a successful author. Many people are naturally smart, but that’s a start, not a writing

Many people are naturally smart, but that’s a start, not a writing destination. Because there is so much to know. In athletics, for example, fast and strong beginners don’t go anywhere until and unless they get some fundamentals and muscle-memory in their head. Sounds like you’ve been brainwashed on a lie. If you can truly go to a writing workshop, and walk away saying you didn’t learn anything, that it was of no value… then I’d say you are kidding yourself. I made you an offer to help… you aren’t taking me up on it, which is symptomatic of the hubris that deludes the legion of writers who will never publish a

I made you an offer to help… you aren’t taking me up on it, which is symptomatic of the hubris that deludes the legion of writers who will never publish successfully or at all, because they’ll never be humble enough to admit they don’t know everything they need to know. Most writers, when they begin, don’t even know what they don’t know, and that’s the problem. They think they do, and it’s a lie.

In the end, added to the list of things they don’t know, will be the truth about why their writing dream never came true.

Yeah, because that’s what The Bard says.

That ended the thread. She didn’t take me up on the free video, which was, by any possible interpretation, an opportunity to be trained.

Writers come to the intention of writing a novel armed with a massive breadth of backgrounds.

The most noted commonality is that anyone who wants to write a novel was first, and remains, a reader of novels—let us hope this is true—followed closely by the belief that they “have a way with words.”

Which, among the dozen or so core competencies that a novelist needs to demonstrate, comes at in #12. Because good clean prose, nothing too fancy, is the gold standard in commercial fiction; any attempt to sound like John Irving channeling John Updike will actually get you tossed.

Ironic. Maybe you have a natural gift for words. But in writing, that’s like an actor being good looking… and nothing more. If you’ve ever been to an audtion for a part in a Hollywood movie (I have), you know this gets you nothing other than a seat in the waiting room.

When we read a good novel, it can look easy.

This is true with many avocations, especially in the arts and athletics, where the learning doesn’t seem to be academic in nature. It is said that human beings are natural storytellers because it is in our social DNA, the lineage of our specifies, the very history of it has been marked by stories passed on over generations.

But does that make us storytellers, or story consumers? If it does, it woudl follow, then the inherited inclination to protect our children should make us the next Dr. Phil.

For all the hundreds of billions of human beings that have preceded us on the planet, swapping stories along the way, the names of the immortal storytellers can be fitted onto a plaque on a library door.

My Facebook writer “friend” could not be more wrong.


Story Critique: When Concept Doesn’t Play Nice With Premise

By Larry Brooks

(I’m sharing this from my website, because it has received some interesting feedback, much of it sent to me directly (via the Feedburner email distribution) rather than appearing in the online Comment thread. It’s a variation on the First Page Critique format we use here on KZ… more a Concept/Premise critique, which is bigger-picture than just a first page critique, which by definition is more scene, voice and style focused than it is a story-level focus. Both are useful. Feel free to chime in with feedback of your own.)

The traps that would compromise or even sabotage our best story intentions are everywhere.

Even when it all begins with a strong conceptual proposition… which is what’s up with today’s case study.

Notice how the premise really states a situation, without ever really defining a hero’s challenge and path and goal, which in a good story becomes the core dramatic question explored along a core dramatic arc.

Notice how the weight of the themes tend to overwhelm (this often happens when theme is the initial inspiration), isolating the circumstance (which contributes to the setup) from expository conflict arising from dramatic tension, which in a solid story is what elicits an empathetic response and emotional resonance from the reader.

Rather, in this story the reader ends up observing, rather than rooting, because there is little to root for.

Notice, in the final answers, how the whole thing changes lanes and becomes about something else entirely (a killer of stories), or at least seems as clear in the setup of a narrative as it is completely void of a third act (parts 3 and 4 of the four-part structure model), thus leaving us without an actionable story plan.

As an organic/pantsing, free-writing exercise… maybe this would work itself out. That’s the upside of organic writing, it is primarily a story discovery-centric process, but without the ability to sense when it isn’t working and vet what you believe is working, it can become portraiture via fingerpainting.

As a story plan, though, as it sits now… it is only half there, and even then, is problematic.

After reading the author’s statement of concept, take a moment and ask yourself what story you might cull from that proposition, and where that inspiration might take you.

This is a study in story sense that is unfocused and unsure, without ever reaching a cohesive destination.

All of it fixable, but only with a clear hero’s quest—one with a more empathetic and rootable vision—in mind.  What do you think?

Initial feedback shows in red.


Genre: YA, after an initial draft as Middle Grade

What is the CONCEPT of your story?

What if a kid looked white, grew up thinking he was white, and later found out he was black?” What would happen? How would he feel? How would his ideas of identity change? His view of race in general?”

Nice, especially in terms of one of the criteria for a strong concept: the notion that several stories—even many different stories—could be written from this singular conceptual idea or proposition.

There are other criteria (for concept) that apply as well, and this one works particularly well relative to the potential for dramatic tension, and the creation of an “arena” (racial tensions, in this case).

Of course, we still need a premise that works, but this is a good start.

Restate your concept using a “WHAT IF…?” proposition:

What if a blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy discovers he is black in 1960s Alabama?

Even  stronger, now that you added this placement in time (which is fraught with drama and tension, and – especially – emotional resonance). This thematic arena is what made “The Help” work as well as it did, and is a good example of concept in play. Because time/place/setting/arena can indeed be conceptual.

What is the PREMISE of your story?

Before I read your answer and comment, allow me share what I’m looking for in this answer.

I mention this because sometimes a strong thematic and setting-oriented concept (which is what you have) can lead the writer into a trap… they end up writing ABOUT this condition and circumstance and setting, but do so as a “series of things that happen, this is what it was like”… instead of what we need to see, which is a linear dramatic story.  A plot.  A hero with something specific he/she needs to do, or solve, or accomplish, or avoid/survive, driven by stakes, leading to an opportunity to become heroic… and with an opposing force (a villain, an antagonist; racism is NOT sufficient antagonism, it needs to have a face, be a character, be a villain… like Miss Hilly in The Help), all of it driven by emotionally-resonant stakes.

Concept doesn’t do all of that. This becomes the job of premise.

I see this so often, I feel the need to forewarn. Hopefully, I didn’t need to mention it, because you’re already there.  Let’s see.

I started with the premise of a 12-year-old boy (Mark) on a baseball team in Montgomery – a team that was beginning to integrate. Not by choice but by law. He and his teammates are not in favor of this and give the ‘colored’ kids a hard time. One colored kid (Bo) is a great pitcher and Mark tries to befriend him in secret. They get to know each other and then Mark gets a letter from school telling him he is expelled due to the discovery that he is colored (Mark’s dead father was mulatto).

Already an emotional button-pusher.

By the way, this could be (probably is) your First Plot Point moment (occurring from 20 to 25 percent into the narrative). Or – and this is why structure is not formulaic, because the writer needs to (gets to) make a call on this issue – it could be an inciting incident withing the first setup block of narrative (about 20 percent in, or so), leading toward and even more story-defining first plot point turn.

Mark refuses to believe he is colored and immediately assumes this is payback for befriending Bo (at this point, he does not listen to anything his mother tries to explain). She kept the secret, hoping he could ‘pass’. Now Mark wants nothing to do with Bo. Why? Because Mark’s goal is to get an afterschool job to help his single mother pay the bills, and most of the errand boy type jobs are with businesses owned by the Justice family, who are racists (in the book, I show that not all whites in AL were racist at that time).

So Mark has a problem, and a choice: “un-friend” Bo so he can help his mother… or, not bow to social pressure, even when there are consequences.

Good… and so far, a continuing setup. Now, you need to give Mark SOMETHING TO DO, rather than a situation merely to ponder, to exist within, however emotionally resonant. It’s a good/strong setup, too… but until you put Mark in motion (because is NOT a documentary about “what it was like to be him,” but rather, a DRAMA about him setting out to accomplish something specific, with stakes and opposition), it is not yet a strong novel. Add that hero’s quest for Mark, and it will be.

“The Help,” a story with similar historic and thematic raw grist, didn’t just depend on the situation of the maids working Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. The author created a hero with something that she must do and accomplish: Skeeter needs to convince the maids to help her write her book, which is her vehicle to launch her journalism career. Notice that originally Skeeter’s goal was not – at least not primarily – to solve the racism problem of that time and place. Rather, her goal was self-focused. But her character arc was the discovery of what it all meant, and what would come it within a bigger picture beyond herself. In doing that, the author turned the story from a documentary into a drama, and did so brilliantly.

Mark has been trying to get in good with his teammate Billy Justice in order to get the job (not really an admirable thing, to “use” the guise of friendship to advance one’s self; you shouldn’t place your bet on the reader rooting for this as his core quest). So the story follows Mark as he tries to overcome the obstacle of prejudice in order to reach his goal.  (That’s a bit of a rationalizing over-generalization which really doesn’t describe Mark’s problem. He’s facing some tough choices, created in the context of racism, but he still must be called to do the “right thing.”)

This is a yellow flag. What does this mean – “follows Mark?”  Can you see how this promises a bunch of stuff, an episodic series of moments and circumstances that show Mark in this frustrating, angry, unfair place?  But it isn’t moving forward toward something, along a dramatic spine (versus the episodic narrative this promises)… until you state what he does about it.

The story doesn’t work as a documentary, simply allowing us to observe a hero in a situation.  Rather, as readers we need to root for him to take action that leads to a satisfying outcome. Which is a different thing than simply watching, even if we marvel at it all.

The novel, as described here, is just that: about showing us this circumstance.  But it should be more about showing us what he DOES about it… how those efforts are opposed (antagonism from an external source; i.e., a villain), creating tension and conflict… how he ups his game to get to the goal (which must be much more succinct that “get the job” – because simply getting the job is NOT particularly heroic, even with these motives), and ultimately, within the context of this racial culture, courageously accepts the consequences of acting heroically, versus acting selfishly.

It’s not heroic, as his story is written thus far, because of the moral cost of his choices. Our stories need heroes, not people who buckle to weakness. At first… sure. But ultimately, Mark needs to triumph over this situation and do the right thing.

What are you asking your reader to root for? It can’t be to just “get the job.” It can’t be for him to escape his true color and that situation, through deception or cowardice. Rather, we need to root for Mark to CHANGE things, to create fairness and opportunity, not just for himself, but for Bo, as well. To step into the risk of doing the right thing. To show these people what is right, to show them how things must change.

That, the reader will root for. Because it is so much more emotionally-resonant that him just “getting the job.”

In the interim, he rejects the colored school he must attend, tries to get back in Billy’s good graces, and refuses to fix his friendship with Bo.  (This is him buckling to social and peer pressure, without realizing or having the courage to do the right thing by Bo.  But the reader will root for NONE of this. These can’t be his goals – at least past the story’s mid-point – because this isn’t the story arc… the arc needs to be the exact opposite of this.)

(Reader note: this is example of the author’s story sense not serving the opportunity here. A good idea, rendered impotent because of the stated direction of the context of the hero’s arc, as described. It won’t work like this, unless there is some contrary resolution at the end, which hasn’t been hinted at yet.)

A better story requires rethinking:

The story should ultimately show Mark embracing his true race, fitting in at the new “colored” school (because that’s one inequity he can’t fix realistically), while STILL winning over Billy, and becoming friends with Bo because it’s WRONG and weak if he doesn’t. If he can show Billy a higher road in the process, all the better.

As told, Mark becomes part of the problem. A better story would show us Mark becoming part of the solution, a beacon of hope and courage. In other words, a hero.

If you head in that direction (perhaps in the next paragraph), then you’ll have a nice story arc. But if you don’t… you’ve sabotaged your own story. More clearly put, it’s not good enough yet, it’s off the mark (no pun), and needs further thought and development, toward what I’ve described here.

The ‘ah ha’ moment for him is when he is betrayed after trusting, and finds that his friendships were based on color and not on who he is as a person.  (Sounds like the midpoint context shift turn, to me; it also sounds like you might turn this around…)

In the end, he embraces both worlds in order to survive and make peace with himself.

That’s it? It’s a good statement of intention, but without any “plan” or description on what or how, specifically, he does to embrace both worlds. What happens that becomes a catalyst for him to “embace both worlds?” How does he do the right thing by Bo (better put: what does he do to create that pivot?)?

And there’s this: “making peace with himself” is an outcome, not the journey itself, or the plot or the story goal.  

You’ve SKIPPED the entire meat of the novel: what Mark DOES about this situation, to fix things, to make things right. He doesn’t have to earn the Nobel Prize by solving the race problem in that day and age (indeed, in “The Help” that problem isn’t even dented by the characters; rather, the characters we have come to know achieve resolution for themselves using courage and cleverness, and it changes them going forward).

You’re not done. You have a strong concept, but an incomplete premise.

You describe a story about a boy who is on the wrong path, who rejects and fears doing the right thing, who gives into fear and peer pressure. All of this is bad… all of this is what he must OVERCOME, not embrace.

Then you very briefly – too briefly – mention an “ah-ha” moment without coming anywhere near telling what it is, how it changes him, and what he does about it…

… which IS (or should be) the entire second half of the story. And it’s not here.

What are you asking the reader to root for and care about in this story?

Mark’s struggle both internal and external.

This is incomplete. We don’t root for the internal struggle, we simply observe it, note it, and see how it impacts his journey. Rather, we recognize it as a factor—an obstacle—conflicting the external struggle that we do root for.

As we watch the hero move through the arc of the story, we need to root for him/her in the moment… and we also root for an OUTCOME to it, which is rewarded by the author showing us how, courageously and cleverly, Mark embraces that higher road and gets it done.  In this case, for Mark to get it, to do the right thing, to step into risk with new courage… to do the right thing for the right reasons (not self-serving reasons).

It seems you want to write about the struggle as a primary focus. But is he really struggling, or just choosing?  Ultimately, the story should be about his victory within that inner struggle, manifesting as choices and actions in confronting his exterior antagonist. Which in this case is vague. There is virtually nothing at all hindering him along the path, he simply gets to choose. And when the consequence of his choice move him toward morally ambiguous and self-serving outcomes, that’s not heroic, nor is it something we are rewarded for watching.

The story you are describing reads as inherently episodic. The better story wouldn’t be.

You have some work to do on that front… because none of that “take the high road” context is described here, and for the most part, not even alluded to.

What do you believe will distinguish your story in a crowded marketplace, setting it apart from and above the competition to attract the attention of agents, editors and readers?

I put this concept out last year in a pitch party where six agents and four editors requested to see the manuscript.

My guess is, they asked to see it because the concept, at a glance, is compelling. It is rich conceptual fodder. They assumed the story would turn the corner and become about Mark’s fight to do the right thing, as an empathetic hero’s quest. That is what they were hoping for when they requested more pages, because that’s where the emotional resonance and payoff come from.

So the concept attracted attention, yet the premise (maybe even the writing) was off. A few agents asked that I re-engineer the book and re-submit.

Precisely what I’m recommending, as well, per these notes, for reasons herein explained.

You don’t have the best story yet, or even the right story, IMO. Or at least, the more complete and compelling story. Because ultimately you don’t have a story that brings us a hero to root for (versus what you do have, which is a kid in a tough spot that we observe, and within that observation, must endure a series of his bad choices). You have the setup for one, but you imply this is the whole narrative… and it doesn’t work because it’s incomplete. If this is all it is, then it isn’t working that way.

And to the extent you don’t imply it, you don’t actually describe a story path in the second half of the novel that brings out his heroism through courage and empathy.

Second, this is not a book about racism in the normal sense. This is more a story about how one wraps their head around a life-altering situation at a time when being ‘the wrong color’ in the wrong state, at the wrong time, had enormous consequences.

Which isn’t enough. You are saying here—this is a story about a situation. Which really only works for the setup portion of a story (the initial pre-FFP quartile).

What you’ve given us is a story about Mark’s attempt to avoid doing the right thing, to get what he wants by doing a work-around of some kind that serves him…. without the payoff of going with him (emotionally) as he pivots onto a higher path.

In its current state (as an MG in first person) I do not feel I can do it justice, mainly because I came to the realization that I cannot write the MG voice; it’s just not in me.

Voice isn’t the problem here. The context of the story as a hero’s journey and quest… that is the problem.

In the new version I am writing the boy as 14, he is off to baseball camp in Alabama where he was born but has not been since he was four. His mother has relocated him to Bridgeport, Illinois and has remarried. It is 1970. (Montgomery did not integrate schools until that year so prejudice was still very much alive in the attitudes of residents). His mother has not told Mark or his stepfather that he is black. She does not want him to go to Alabama and checks out the camp instructors thoroughly but never says why. So, the first line of chapter one is: When Mark told his mother that this year’s baseball camp was in Alabama, her rosy cheeks went pale.

Nice line. But… where is it taking the narrative from there? I sense a massive lane change here… but would need to know more about this new plan to comment on it.

What you’ve described here is the opening. But where’s Bo? Where’s Billy? Where is the prospect of the new job?  What you have is another flavor of a  situational opening setup. But if you dwell there, you risk setting up the wrong story entirely, rather than the one you describe earlier.

At the camp, one of the white instructors gets hurt and is replaced with a very fair-skinned black man who is an ex minor leaguer. This is significant to Mark’s goal because he has spent most of his young life trying to please the man he thought was his father – who does not like sports and gives his attention/affection to the younger brother who is his real son.

I already don’t recognize this from the previous answers. Lane change… a red flag. 

Therefore, the book unravels the reason for his mother’s deception/secret, the real father’s reaction/rejection to learning he has a son, the treatment by the kids on the team, and Mark’s discovery that his real father is dying of prostate cancer.

But the book isn’t about THAT. That’s an issue, yes, but as context for the story you promise in these answers. You seem less than clear what the dramatic spine of this story is, and needs to be.

So I’m wondering… it appears you have moved on to another story altogether. But if that’s true, what are we to make of those initial answers? Why are you submitted a trashed story for analysis, when you’ve already moved on to something else in terms of the core dramatic thread, the stakes and the hero’s quest within the story?

Is it a story about a boy and his father? Or his mother? Or his friend, Bo, and the racial issues that separate them? Can it be all of these? Perhaps, but only in context to a core dramatic thread that is clearly dominating the forward motion of the narrative… which isn’t clearly established here.

You need to rethink and expand on the concept as it informs a revised premise, to bring it around to the solutions-orientation I explain here.

Hope this helps you rethink this, beginning with a clearer understanding of why it isn’t working.


As part of what’s next, I recommended that this author study my new video, “The Beautiful Collision Between Concept and Premise” (91 minutes), which you can download HERE and HERE, as part of my new Storyfix Virtual Classroom series of hardcore craft training modules (there are five training modules posted thus far).  Killzoners can use this code –  Killzone25off – to get 25 percent off any/all of those titles).


What Happens When You “Just Write” Without Truly Understanding How a Story Should Be Written

By Larry Brooks

There is an article in the latest edition of Writers Digest Magazine about story structure (written by a story coach), built upon this assumption: human beings innately understand storytelling, because we’ve experienced stories all our lives. It’s in our DNA. This is why stories work, why they touch us and teach us and entertain us.

But it doesn’t remotely empower us to write one. That article, however, would have us believe otherwise. To be fair, the article is otherwise valuable and useful, especially the seven questions put forth about a story, the answers to which will pave the to a structure that will work. Trouble is… the article seems to suggest that it is that natural instinct that will empower the reader to know what to do with the answers.

And that’s where it falls apart. Knowing what your character wants and what blocks the path is different than understanding the key principles of story structural that are already there – you don’t have to, nor should you, try to reinvent them every time you write a story – that propell those answers into the story with dramatic effectiveness.

The article and this assumption imply that anyone can, in fact, sit down and write a novel, presumably by tapping into this natural gift, which, like riding a bicycle, is available only to human beings. Never mind that with other natural gifts, some of us end up being better athletes or musicians or professors… with storytelling, it seems, we’re all in the same creative boat.

To which I say… what is more true is that we all have equal access to learning the principles that could result in you writing a crack story worthy of publication and readership. My hypothesis here, my counter argument, is that unless you engage in a dance with those principles—which are deep and wide and clearly evident in the books you read—you are nowhere near knowing what you need to know to make your story work, at least without spending years trying to get there.

And you can get there, draft after draft, feedback upon feedback, year after year. But even then, your ability to comprehend and implement the feedback that will facilitate how your story needs to change—or simply realize what needs to change on your own, which certainly can and does happen—depends on your understanding of those very same principles.

This is no different than your family doctor of forty years knowing more about medicine than your nephew who just entered med school. Natural DNA gifts aren’t part of the equation.

If you’ve tried this “just write” DNA approach to writing a novel, you may already have formed an opinion about the natural state of the ability of human beings to write publishable stories, versus the accepted principles of storytelling that professionals end up abiding by, almost every time. Perhaps, upon realizing how challenging this is, that you didn’t win the DNA lottery after all. It’s why so many of us have a novel we started and couldn’t finish, or a drawer full of manuscripts that nobody wanted, and perhaps we now understand why.

Or not.

Look Ma, no hands! I’m a natural!

The WD article contends that, using our innately informed sense of story, we are all equipped to sit down and write a story that is within revision-distance—which is a little like shouting distance, only further, like yelling a message from Miami to Houston—from being able to take what you’ve assembled from the first pass and actually suddenly, tapping into that secret DNA, know enough to credibly fix it.

Analogy: you open a jigsaw puzzle without studying the image on the cover, you pour it out on the floor… and then you fix it. But you have to look at the picture to do that within a reasonable lifetime.

Another analogy for those who don’t do jigsaw puzzles, or don’t agree than a novel is at that level of complexity: Imagine you are on an airplane. Suddenly an announcement comes over the PA asking if anyone knows how to fly, because the pilots are inexplicably unconscious. So, because you’ve flown so many times—equivalent to having read a lot of novels in this analogy—and you are the hero of this story, you volunteer to head up to the cockpit, pausing only to throw up in the unoccupied mile-high bathroom next to the cockpit door.

What the heck, you rationalize… if it doesn’t work, I’ll just fix it later.

I’ll just fly.

There is no shortage of writers who adopt this approach toward the writing of a novel. They’ve read hundreds if not thousands of them, so they believe they possess the natural sense of story required to get it right. They regard craft with a grain of alcohol, betting that they can get there from the seat of their pants.

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking away.

There are actually three assumptions at work here. 

First, that there actually are expectations and standards and forms and functions within the craft of storytelling, principles that published novels abide by. Principles that all such books demonstrate, once you know what to look for. A published author can explain, for example, why The Girl On The Train works (discussing setup and foreshadowing and subtext and structure and emotional resonance and narrative arc and thematic weight… all the stuff that article contends we innately already grasp), and do so in writerly technical terms.

Readers, however, explain it in a way that only skims that surface: It held my interest. I felt for the girl. I wanted to see how it turned out. I couldn’t’ get it out of my head.

The reader experiences… but the writer knows.

There actually are things we need to know and understand… a deep well of knowledge, in fact, before we can reasonably expect to drive the literary bus. The good news is that it is learnable and accessible, and when you do finally wrap your head around it, you’ll see it bursting from between the covers of every novel you read and film you watch.

Second, that we do indeed—all of us, endowed equally—possess such an innate understand.

Pigs are flying everywhere in the light of this assumption.

Let’s agree that our high school freshman offspring is not yet able to do this, so we can therefore assume that somewhere between the appearance of pubic hair and finishing one’s first pass at Lord of the Rings, the ability to naturally craft stories manifests in our brain cells.

And third… other is that the same sense that results in the brain-drain draft that is part of the initial assumption, is equipped to then fix it through revision. As if this supposedly natural gift, the one that we all possess, can think “oh, that’s what I should have done the first time,” and move toward publishability from there.

Tick tock.

The article then goes on to suggest…

… that anything beyond a learned modeling of story (from the same reading experience that fed the story DNA, I suppose) is reduced to mere formula. Which is assumptively regarded—disregarded, actually—as a bad thing indeed.

Tell that to the halls full of successful romance and mystery authors who are on their twentieth title. Tell them that what they do is formula—because nobody will argue, the linear contextual unfolding of genres in those and other stories is nearly identical in every book—and that it is a bad thing.

It’s not formula. It’s form. Narrative flow. Context. Story arc. Dramatic theory.

We are pressured to abide by the truism that there are no rules in storytelling.

All the Big Names tell us this.

But, ask around. Ask those halls full of successful authors. Ask the crew here at Killzone. “Rules” is just a word. What is present within the storytelling proposition is the looming, story-saving imposition of principles, including those that relate to story structure, that are the very thing that become the benchmarks, criteria and targets for which we strive—and must reach—as professional storytellers working genre fiction.

All successful writers use them, even if they don’t have names or labels for them, even if they claim to have summoned the story forth from the depth of their gifted genius.

On top of the basic principles, there are specific principles that create expectations within the various genres. The author doesn’t tell us that we are born with those, too… that Nora Roberts was a born romance author, but not so much when it comes to… wait, she is a killer mystery writers, too, and I bet she could know a time travel story out the part, too.

Because of what she knows.

Literary fiction… there are principles there, too. A bunch of them, in fact, just like us. It actually gets more airtime out there, which becomes a sort of toxin in the learning experience of new authors, who buy into the notion that it is all about the hero, and the other characters. But that’s a loaded statement… not wrong, per se, but in genre not yet right enough. In genre fiction, it’s all about the dramatic arc, fueled by something conceptual, that becomes a window through which we manifest and observe characters and their story arc.

Where in the DNA mind-map does that little subtlety show up?

No, that is something we must learn.

Without a plot fueling our genres (thrillers, mysteries, romances, fantasy, science fiction, and all the mashups you can think of) that is infused with a hero’s problem/quest/journey, in the face of something antagonistic that seeks to block their path (or kill them), and with significant, emotionally-resonant stakes motivating everyone on both sides… without all that, we are left with the biography and episodic adventures of a fictional character, with little to root for.

Without rooting, all that’s left is observing. And outside of literary fiction, that doesn’t work.

We must learn that, as well.

It’s like the difference between staring at and analyzing a still photo, versus being swept away by a motion picture driven by those same story elements and essences.

So no… we’re not born with that sensibility. I’ve worked with hundreds of new writers, really smart people with big brains and big ideas, who didn’t have a clue. Who write 200 pages of setup in in 380-page manuscript. That write “the adventures of” their own life, or a span of it, that amount to nothing more than a diary, without the slightest connection to a dramatic spine or the posing of a dramatic question.

Did you know, when you started, deep in your gut, in your DNA, the same storytelling DNA that the WD article claims will take you the promised land… that a story unfolds in a series of differing contexts which are non-negotiable (labeled as parts or acts), one bleeding into the next, and that there are optimal places for the insertion of escalation and twists? That these things aren’t random, but rather, the very thing that one cleans up—moves toward—when the story isn’t working, when it was poured from the box of your brain onto the floor of your manuscript to become a pile of disconnected notions and intentions?

You didn’t know that upon finishing your first read of Lord of the Rings. You had to learn it. If not through craft, then through assimilated experience that never saw a shred of that magic DNA.

You must learn this stuff.

Sometimes over years of experience and feedback. Sometimes—often both—with the eventual embrace of story modeling that impart all this craft into the same brain cells, in the right way and right order, that this article author claims you possess naturally?

What we’re talking about here is story sense.  That author claims you have it already, that you only have to ask yourself the right questions (seven of them, included in the article) to tap into it and empower your ability to navigate the narrative path that will ultimately make the story work.

But consider this: all of the craft out there that awaits you, on this site and others, in books like my three writing titles and training videos, and those of Jim Bell and Robert McKee and Michael Hague and Art Holcomb and a bus full of other so-called writing gurus… all of it has one purpose, and one purpose only: to ignite and empower your sense of story.

To render you capable of the just write approach.

Once fully ablaze with a full awareness of the principles of craft, then you actually can take your story idea to your keyboard and just write. Because with those principles grinding and vetting and molding the narrative before it reaches your fingertips, the story will appear in your first and early draft in a vastly elevated form… something you actually can fix using those same awarenesses.

Some clarification is in order here. 

Our friend and my colleague here on Kill Zone, Jim Bell, has a new book out entitled Just Write. It’s terrific, robust and empowering. But don’t be fooled by the title (just as you should not be fooled by the title of another book by another guru, “Story Trumps Structure,” which it absolutely does not), Jim is not remotely suggesting that as your first line of attack on a story you should just write, nor is he saying you’ll be fine because of that secret storytelling gene that will unlock the story upon command.

Rather, he’s saying pretty much what I’ve said here. Jim and I occupy the same space on the writing shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. We are craft guys. We preach it, teach it, model it, deliver it as best we can. What I believe Jim is saying in his book is this: armed with some awareness of the principles of storytelling, and fueled by a vibrant idea that this awareness allows you to vet, then one of your options in the continuing process of discovering and developing your story is, in fact, to just write.

Another option—because it leverages the same body of awareness—is to just outline. Just line your walls with yellow sticky notes. Just compose as much of the narrative shape of a story in your head before you sit down to a draft.

All of these processes are viable. Because they are all equally dependent upon an understanding of story. To “just write” without that awareness is to step into the forest without a map, an umbrella, or a stun gun, or even without shoes. Many writers use drafts as their vehicle of story discovery, years and years of them—this being another, very different context of “just write”—versus a separate track of more principle-based training, or at least a concurrent focus (which gives you two avenues of evolution as a writer, versus either one alone).

It’s all story discovery and development.

It’s all process.

And while the principles will put you in a specific lane defined by specific story criteria—this is a certainty; if you deny it or fight it off, ask yourself if you can find a published commercial genre story that doesn’t abide by the principles of craft… you actually can’t, any more than you can find a bird or an airplane without wings—you will actually be more empowered to trust your gut as you… because now your gut is in a different league of capability.

Versus, say, the writer who doesn’t know a setup quartile inciting incident from a midpoint context shift.

The physics of stories is no more flexible or forgiven than, well, the physics of gravity. We can harness gravity, we can manage it to fly and dance and play, we can optimize it for specific purposes, but without wings that harness that power, we end up on the floor, right next to that pile of story that you tried before you knew.

It’s time you learned how to play this game, regardless of the state of your natural literary genius.

Tick tock.


Are you interested in learning more about craft, framed in a fresh and empowering way?

Over the break I’ve launched a series of hardcore craft training videos for writers, called The Storyfix Virtual Classroom. At this writing there are FIVE topic focuses (one of them on structure), from 61 to 118 minutes in length. These include a classroom-style lecture, with “live” talking head and PowerPoint data points, all instructionally-designed and optimized.

Go to www.vimeo.com/ondemand/storyfix to check them out. Or to read more, go to my new training website at www.storyfix-training.com.

Here’s a 25% discount for Killzone readers: use this code – Killzone25off –during checkout to receive this deal.




The Bestseller Code

by Larry Brooks

If today’s title rings familiar, that may be because there is a new writing book out by that title (with a subtitle added: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers) .

The title at first struck me as shamelessly derivative (what’s next, The Lovely Funny Bones?), but when I investigated further I realized that it is actually clever, since the book describes how novels like The Davinci Code achieve as they sometimes do, with over-the-moon success that everyone immediately tries to explain.

With — literally — a code, no less.

The Davinci Code is, of course, a gift to cynics — Dan Brown? A symbologist? An albino assassin working on retainer for The Vatican? Really? — but the numbers prove them wrong. Inarguably so. Sometimes when a novel breaks that big it can be explained — even cynically — as some happy confluence of social temperature, marketing budget and the unbreakable Tipping Point Code (not a novel yet, just a mystery we all strive to solve), rather that what it really is: an intense application of the forces of story that make novels work. Which include a conceptually-rich premise, dramatic tension, an empathetic hero in a world of trouble, more dramatic tension, thematic weight, killer scenes, and a passable writing voice… stir in a publisher’s commitment to back it strongly, then hope the media likes it as much as that pub committee did… then pray for a little luck and a big order from B&N.

But there is always a better explanation behind the numbers. And, even in this book, it begins with the list of story attributes I just described.

Writing is a lot like love, in that regard. The principles are simple, but the chemistry remains beyond defintion. And so we dive in, do what we can with our best choices, and keep hoping we hit the jackpot.

Writers of these iconic blockbusters have done something right. I mean, really right. Saying you aren’t impressed with the writing is like saying you don’t think that Cate Blanchat is good looking… it’s not the point. The explanation goes much deeper than what meets the eye and ear, and for the serious emerging author it’s worth pursuing.

The Bestseller Code is to writing novels what sabermetrics is/was to baseball, and to the novel Moneyball: The Art of Winning Unfair Game (Michael Lewis, 2003) that broke it to the public, and popularized it with a movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt (because yeah, all baseball GMs look just like that). It is an attempt to codify the aesthetics of storytelling that go ballistic in ways that transcend basic, commodity craft — not to mention logic — to reach people on a deeper level. It actually seeks to explain the numbers as a form of algorithm that can be analytically applied to raw manuscripts to access potential for marketplace success.

I’ve attempted that same explanation myself, in my book Story Physics, which covers the same elements of craft without the ones and zeros.

The Bestseller Code presents a case that I believe fails in its aspiration — that we can predict success based on a survey and quantification of story essences… while indeed landing on the identification of the core elements of dramatic fiction that tend to whip readers into a frenzy. The authors duly observe that books come and go that score high on that algorhythmic scale (as high as the home run titles) and achieve little notice, while some novels with C-level scores end up on bestseller lists without an explanation at all.

Proving what William Goldman famously told us in his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade: “nobody knows anything.” Including the 46 agents who rejected Kathryn Stockett’s manuscript called The Help a few years ago.

So I’m not here to recommend the book, per se.  Rather…

… just to flag it for you, and to suggest that you go to Amazon, click on the cover and read the first chapter (The Bestseller-Ometer, or, How Text Mining Might Change Publishing) shown in the Look Inside feature. It is a fascinating 1500 word read, quite well written, which circles around the drain of suggesting that success can be predicted based on which boxes are checked off (something us writing guru types like to echo), instead of the more easily swallowed rationale that to achieve massive success those boxes corresponding to issues of core craft must indeed be honored… the very thing this magic algorhythem seeks to digitize.

It’s finding a publisher and a handful of reviewers who notice that’s the real math of it.

Click HERE to give it a read. Chewy food for thought, indeed.


This is my last KZ post of 2016, before we break for the holidays to catch our breath and plan our assault on 2017. I wish you all a blessed season, rich and warm with family and friends, and may you arrive at the New Year story milestone refreshed, renewed and armed with a killer premise that will make Dan Brown wish he’d thought of it first.

See you back here in January!



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The Most Important Aspect of Craft That Gets Almost Zero Airtime

By Larry Brooks

I bet you know a writer who isn’t shy about declaring how “bad” Dan Brown’s writing is. Or James Patterson’s. Or even John Grisham’s, among a roster of other A-list names with more readers that any of us should dare to dream.

Certainly, the shaded prose stylings of E.L. James, too.

I’m not here to argue that.

I could argue that, by the way (my guess is Ms. James is laughing all the way to the bank), at least for some of those names, but that’s not my intention here today.

Conversely, we hear much conversation about how wonderful the writing is in, say, a Raymond Chandler novel. Or in the novels of Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille or Neil Gaiman.

Or in the novel Goldfinch, by Donna Taart, who has a Pulitzer on her mantle to show for it,  (though – perhaps ironically – I will say, I haven’t met a writer who will admit to being able to finish that one…) even though critics weren’t overly impressed.

Rather than stake a position on either end of any “good writing” estimation, my mission here is to put forth a counterpoint.

It is this: While you may insist you know writers who are better than these and other authors of homerun bestsellers… I’ll also wager that you’ve never met a writer who has had a better story idea—a premise—as thematically rich and dramatically-promising as, say, Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code.

Or even as commercially resonant as 50 Shades of Grey.

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of authors at the writing conference aren’t seeking to become the next Raymond Chandler. That’s a rare dare-to-dream.

Rather, they are looking to unlock the key to breaking into the business.

And while there is a long list of such stuff on those agendas, perhaps the most important aspect of craft in that part of the equation gets almost no attention.

Which is: how to land on a better story idea. An idea that is truly good enough.

Tell me the last time you saw that one on the conference agenda.

I can hear the outrage now… but if that’s you, you may be missing the point.

Within the polite kumbaya of the writing conversation, the unspoken etiquette holds that nobody can—almost nobody will—tell you that your story idea is weak. That it actually sucks. The focus is on your execution… of whatever story idea you deem to bring to the party.

And yet, at least half the time, if the writing itself is good enough, it is that idea that will get you rejected. Nobody dares tell you that you can’t write your way out of a bland story idea (sort of like an average Joe auditioning for the lead role next to George Clooney)… without elevating the premise itself.

This imprecise corner of the writing conversation is always compartmentalized. Only one of those compartments has anything at all to do with glowing narrative prose, the very thing you are judging when you look down your nose at Dan Brown.

Rather, the conversation breaks down with a divide between: brand new writers… working apprentice-level writers… journeyman novelists… and A-list bestselling writers.

Look closely. Only that last group can get away with a novel that is built upon a less-then-stellar premise.

And yet, only the first three are overly-focused on the tactile sound and pitch of their writing voice.

And none of them–yes, you read that correctly–totally depends on the stellar writing chops of the John Updike variety.

Let’s take those compartments one-at-a-time.

Agents and editors like to say they are looking for the next great writer. The next great voice. But upon that closer look I just asked you to take is a clearer truth: they are actually looking for the next great story.

A story that will sell.

Truth be told, agents and editors are looking for the next great homerun.

Which means, if your story idea is remotely rote or familiar, anything smelling of vanilla or promising an overly-characterized narrative that is light on a conceptually-rich premise (which is code for that dirtiest of lit school words: plot), they will most likely pass.

No matter how lyrically rich or promising your prose. The world us full of brilliant lit majors with MFAs who can’t get arrested in the commercial marketplace.

In a game full of 90-plus-MPH fastballs, beginning at the high school level, the scouts are out there tracking down the next 98-MPH heater. And yet… all of those pitchers look pretty good on the mound.  And then–to morph this story analogy toward a prose analogy–the ball needs to come in at 102-plus on that count… something that happens about once a decade.

In other words (no pun intended there), the truly great story idea/premise is not remotely a commodity proposition, while pro-level prose (90-MPH back in our analogy) absolutely is. Think about it: at a conference with 800 writers in attendance, all of them seeking a spot on the bookshelf, how many are in possession of a story premise that would keep an agent awake all night? And how many realize that is precisely what is required to break in?

It isn’t going to be your beautiful sentences, you can pretty much be assured of that.

Maybe that’s why we spend almost no time at all talking about or describing what such premises are made of. Rather, we talk about how to hammer a middling premise–without ever really labeling it as such–into something that works… which is a tall order.

That’s the wall—the towering monolithic obstacle—that all three of those first four groups (the exception being the established author with a waiting readership and the sales data to prove it) must scale: you need an idea that lifts the agent or editor out of their seat.

A premise that makes their skin itch with excitement. Deliver that, and the prose bar falls quickly to eye level, from the ceiling where you once believed it to be.

That killer story idea is not remotely an easy task, because agents and editors have, literally, seen it all. They are not easily impressed.

And yet, that should be our goal. At least until your name is David Baldacci.

We share a venue here called The Kill Zone.

Which by definition means we are writing genre novels. Not The Great American Literary Novel, ala Ms. Taart’s Goldfinch.

The math, then, takes us to the other side of the = sign: you need a killer premise. A plot. Dramatic tension along a hero’s path arising from conflict driven in context to emotionally-resonant stakes.

Don’t hear me wrong, great characterization remains important.

To argue this as anything close to a counterpoint is like saying salt is critical to the work of a great chef.

But it is not the primary mission, or even the point. Because voice alone, born on the wings of your angelic prose… will get you quickly rejected in our dark corner of the marketplace.

And therein we find the Great Abyss into which new and newer and even some frustrated experienced authors find themselves tumbling head over tookus: the premise-void, character-driven novel, sometimes fancifully described as a thriller. A book that, however beautifully narrated, isn’t driven by the same premise-on-steroids story ideas that has allowed Dan Brown to build a 55,000 square foot home with a view of the Pacific, and pay cash for it.

But what about those famous folk, you ask.

Many of which are indeed genuinely literary.

Fact is, they are held to a different standard. Which means their premises no longer must glow in the dark.

Rest assured, they too have a concept that propels their stories into the marketplace faster and deeper than a musketeer’s kill thrust. But what takes such writers to the mountain top may not be the originality and edge of their story idea.

Rather, their concept is their name.

On the benchmark for what constitutes a compelling concept, nothing says sign-me-up faster than a book with the words John Grisham on the cover. There isn’t an agent or an editor in the business who would look the other way if such a manuscript came their way (yeah, as if Grisham and Connelly are shopping for new representation) saying, “well, the writing just didn’t speak to me.”

Which leaves us with an opportunity to grow… through this realization.

As someone who trades in unpublished and unpublishable story ideas (in my role as a story coach and workshop presenter who hears pitches in the same context as the agents and editors in attendance), I can attest to the fact that a truly compelling, conceptually-rich concept is a rare and beautiful thing.

Take note: it is that hyphenated adjective—conceptually-rich—that will get you published.

Rather, too many new-ish authors are serving up middle-shelf, been-there-read-that yawns for story ideas, some of them rendered with legitimately terrific prose. Which doesn’t serve them in the least within their genre… at least until they finally do find their book in the B&N window, which will precisely because of the premise, not their voice.

Story conception and writing voice are separate core competencies. In much the same way that storytelling and self-promotion are the separate muscle groups of the successfully-self-published.

Or, rather than that commodity premises,  new writers are pitching plot-light (or void) character studies wrapped within episodic documentaries. Such as… “I spent a summer traveling the Far East just after grad school, and it changed me… my novel is about that.”

And the agent looking for the next genre-driven homerun says: “Pass.”

If you’re lucky, they might add: “Your writing is good. But you need a better story.”

But don’t hold your breath.

Note: Eat, Pray, Love was not a novel.

Too many new authors are shocked to hear this. Stop pitching stories with something similar as the premise of your novel if you want to break into the fiction business.

Learn what a novel is. Learn how, among the wide breadth of novels, literary novels are different than genre novels. And within the genres, each has certain tropes and expectations that define what readers are expecting.

The last thing an agent will do is represent a genre novel that doesn’t deliver what fans of that genre are expecting. And the last thing they are expecting is a “novel” that describes what you did on your summer vacation.

Understand that your writing voice is only one of the six categorical core competencies you need to play with the pros (the others being concept/premise, character, theme, structure, and scene development). Accept the paradox: among those six, voice presents the most reachable bar (because odds are you were decent at it from Day One, it was probably why you’ve hung out your Writer shingle in the first place), and yet, it remains a lofty bar, indeed.

And finally, stop trying to write the books that already-famous authors are already writing.

The trick, the ticket in, is to write within the expectations of your genre, or genre mash-up, but do it with something that constitutes a fresh twist, a twist on steroids, combined with massive layers of emotional resonance within a vicarious reading experience.

Learn the difference between a concept and a premise, and make sure your story idea leads deeply into both. That particular understanding is key to nailing consistently fresh story ideas that result in rich story premises. Because it is precisely that element—something conceptual—that makes the difference.

And then, pay attention to what is selling. Notice the stories that create break-in opportunities for writers you haven’t heard of, and notice the wider latitude more established authors have in this regard. The conceptual bar is lower, precisely because the name on the cover is bigger.

Do these things, and one day your prose might matter to the extent you wish it did.

Until then, your writing voice should play like fresh, unfettered air… clean and invigorating, with only a carefully-placed dash of irony or wit, uncluttered with anything that smells up the place (read: adjectives are largely toxic)… because one reader’s perfume may be another’s stench.

There is precious little out there that will lead you to a better story idea. The kind that makes agents and editors sweat. Our job is to understand what the means, and the stuff it is made of when it happens.

Better story ideas leading to stronger story premises are a product of an evolved story sensibility. That is the goal of the truly enlightened writer at any stage of the game.

Character will always be there. But mostly, giving the character something amazing and intense and emotionally-resonant to do—giving the reader something to root for, rather than simply observe—is the recipe you are looking for.

Build your sense of story around that truth, and your ticket may be destined to be punched.



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