About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

First Page Critique – “My Special Messenger”

An analysis by Larry Brooks

As usual with these First Page Critiques, here is the untouched submission, followed by a hands-on analysis. Also as usual, caveats apply.

First page critiques provide a valid quick first look at a writer’s narrative skills, and perhaps, how they launch a scene. And in a rarer instance, some visibility as to how that opening scene launches a story.  That said, first pages – and first scenes, for that matter – are unique among all the pages and scenes that appear in a finished novel. The criteria is different. The context and the mission is different. And because it doesn’t demand either a payoff within the confines of a “first page,” nor does it need to be completely clear (often the comments offered on a first page, perhaps because so little else is contextually available, seems to criticize a lack of a sense of what the story will end up being about), any input to it beyond the writing itself, at a story level, should come with an asterisk.

Heck, we don’t even know the genre yet, something virtually every reader of every published novel knows before they even pick it up from a bookshelf, or click the BUY NOW button on Amazon or elsewhere online.

Here is today’s first page, asterisks and caveats implied, as submitted:

*****

Charlotte clutched the armrest with a vice-like grip. The plane pitched. Black clouds loomed outside the window.

I’m going to die!

A chime sounded. The seatbelt sign lit up.

I knew this would happen.

She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.

Think of something nice. Freshly shaved truffles–Domingo singing O Sole Mio–Rosy waiting for me at the airport.

Reaching up with a trembling hand, she twisted the air vent nozzle to full. A baby screamed in the row behind.

Shit! ­­­– Another frigging bump. I don’t like this. Get me off this plane!

The wine in her glass sloshed from side to side. She gulped it down.

I need another drink.  

Thoughts flashed through her brain so fast, everything blurred. She’d been impulsive, booking this trip. And she desperately needed a change. But this? Going half-way around the world? Perhaps she be running away from her problems. Perhaps she should have done something safe and boring, like she’d always done.

She jumped when she felt a gentle touch on her arm.

“About a million people travel safely by plane every day,” said an accented voice in her ear. “Statistically speaking, you’d have to fly every day for nearly two hundred years to experience a problem.”

Was it that obvious she was scared? Could the stranger hear her heart hammering?

She looked into the rheumy eyes of the man in the aisle seat. An elderly gentleman swathed in an immaculate pinstripe suit two sizes too big leaned toward her.

Ravi Shankar!—Is Ravi Shankar still alive?

Enormous eyebrows sat like whiskery caterpillars on the stranger’s broad forehead, tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears. A spotless white handkerchief peeked from his lapel, and the Band Aid on his chin showed evidence of a tour of his facial terrain by an unsteady hand.

He patted Charlotte’s arm with a sinewy hand.

“I think of turbulence as bumps on a road. Does it bother you when you’re in a car and go over a few potholes?”

“No.”

“Then imagine the sky as a big road and the plane as a car. A couple of bumps won’t make a difference to a safe journey. Besides, there’s less traffic up here.”

He let out a high-pitched chuckle, covering his mouth as a cough caught in his throat. Pulling out the handkerchief, he dabbed beneath his eyes. A piece of paper floated from his lap beneath his seat.

“Oh! My landing form. I didn’t fill it out yet since my eyesight’s not too good these days. I’m a bit concerned I may do something wrong. Would you mind helping me please, young lady?”

Charlotte unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned down to retrieve the form from below his seat. The stranger handed her a sterling silver fountain pen with the initials “RCF” engraved into the cap.

“Use this. It’s my lucky pen. Perhaps it will make the flight smoother.”

******

A Few Comments

First impressions: I like this. It has a sense of being in the moment, and it is something to which we can relate. It also has a dash of wit, countering a hint of fear. And a final line that leaves a question mark – perhaps compelling, perhaps not – that may be addressed on the next line page… or not.

Short of a few comments on specific lines – the low hanging fruit of editing – I don’t have much beyond this positive overall take away. And yet, in many first page panels I’ve seen (at workshops) and read (here, and elsewhere), there seems to be an obligation to find something to criticize, all of it, of course, within the context of trying to find something to help.

But in this piece… honestly, I think it works. Do I know what the story is yet? Not at all. Unless accompanied by a short synopsis that includes, at a minimum, the target genre, it’s impossible to tell. Are we reading the first plucked strings of a love story? A setup for a seduction, perhaps one with nefarious intentions? Will the plane crash land and strand these two on an island?

We don’t know. Should we criticize it because we don’t know? Absolutely not. Full disclosure is not the mission, or even the expectation, of a functional first page. Rather, highest mission is simple and clear, beyond delivering narrative that makes sense either in or out of context.

That mission is simply this: does the page make the reader want more?

My answer here is hell yes. Not so much because of the story – there’s not a lot of story here yet – but because of the writing. I think this writer has some chops, and this story may have legs. Chops and legs combine tend to become a sum that exceeds either part.

So, not to short-change this writer, here are a few little nits. There aren’t many.

When you say, “Perhaps she be running away from her problems,” I’m not sure if you’re trying to be colloquial or if it’s an outright omission of a word or two. Either way, it doesn’t seem to fit the tone. The italicized inner thoughts you offer don’t sound like someone quoting from Shakespeare or Eminem, which this particular line does.

Your narrator poses the rhetorical question: “Was it that obvious she was scared?” and does so in an odd way… because this isn’t an inner thought, which you show in italicized first person. And yet, by definition it is an inner thought, a musing, because an omniscient narrator wouldn’t pose the question, while she absolutely would. And yet, it’s clunky, because it’s pretty darn obvious – to the reader and to the guy sitting next to her – that she actually is scared out of her mind. He notices, which is why he reaches out to her. So posing the question makes her seem a little dim, a little less than self-aware.

The initial description of the Ravi Shankar-esque seat mate… wonderfully done. But you can do better than a “sinewy” hand. You’re being sarcastic in describing him, be sarcastic in describing his hand, too. Like, “his hand looked like it belonged to Keith Richards.”

For a moment, after that paper slips from his lap, we don’t know who is speaking the next line of dialogue. ‘ “Oh! My landing form,” he said’… might work better.

And a landing form – whatever that is… I’m not sure, do we need a slip to land? If you’re suggesting a customs slip to land in another country, say that instead. Otherwise, this sounds like the author has never been on an airplane before.

See, I’m having to work hard to find something to help here.

If there is one thing that might make it stronger, I’d say to give us some stronger hint of what’s coming in a dramatic/story arc sense. A bit more of a hook. A little nub of foreshadowing. Remember, in virtually any genre that isn’t “literary fiction,” it isn’t a story until something goes wrong. And while it doesn’t have to go wrong on the first page (in fact, it really shouldn’t), it helps if we get a sense of something that will be happening, even if it is barely discernable, which is a bit light here. Short of that paper drop, which doesn’t really qualify as a hook, and the assumption that the airplane isn’t about to crash, there’s not much of a sense of what that might be.

A nice start, me thinks. Says the guy who doesn’t recommend trying to sound Shakespearean, ever.

What are your thoughts on this first page submission?

This is my last Killzone post.

I’d like to thank the folks who run and contribute to this post for inviting me and tolerating me. These two years have been rewarding, and I’ve connected with a lot of writers who I wouldn’t have bumped into otherwise.

I’m in the midst of reinventing and relaunching my website, Storyfix.com, working in conjunction with writing guru and contributing writer Art Holcomb. I invite you to check it out (there are nearly 1000 posts archived on all forms of the craft of writing fiction), and if you like what you see, subscribe to the email feed.

I’ll remain active in this wonderful community of writers, though, chipping in when I feel I can contribute.

I wish massive success for you all. And I join you in welcoming my friend Sue Coletta, who slides into my every-other-Monday seat here armed with a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to share.

5+

First Page Critique: The Fish Thieves

Must be the season for First Page Critiques here on KZ.  My last post was a FPC, several others followed, and here we are again.

As usual, here’s the call to chip in with your feedback. Which I will do after presenting today’s Brave Writer Submission.

It was always about the water.

Trina hacked through saw palms, ducked under spider webs, and climbed over fallen oaks and loblolly pines. She passed an overturned, rusted out SUV. It guts and doors removed, used for another purpose now. A mountain of garbage blocked her way—a baby stroller, plastic CD cases, kitchen utensils, plastic bottles everywhere. She picked her way around the mess—remnants from a previous life, a previous time. The brackish, sulfur-tainted saltwater tickled the hairs in her nose and she gagged, stifling a sneeze. She paused in the semi-darkness, aware to the dangers of walking through the forest, long enough to listen to her surroundings.

The lack of the natural sounds—birds chirping, frogs grunting—still offended. But she tightened her core, felt the weight of the automatic on her hip, brushed sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and swallowed hard. Then she stomped on a No Trespassing sign. The tattered faded sign had been X’d out, another stark reminder that she wasn’t in Louisiana anymore. Or anywhere else familiar. A reminder that the laws that once governed the United States of America no longer applied. But she wasn’t deterred. Nor was she afraid.

Trina moved at a faster pace now, aware of the emerging predawn light, the guards and the Exiles—the unfortunate people who, once the tsunami hit the Gulf coast and changed the land they once knew, were neither afforded a place in academia, or could find work in Texicana. Those underprivileged, uneducated people who had it bad before The Big Rise, are now worse off. If that’s even possible. Recent rumor in the lab said Exiles are uniting and gathering strength.

The iridescent glow from the activity on and below the surface of the water illuminated the morning—thousands of tiny moon jellies and hopefully shrimp fry—made the risk of being caught worth the monthly trip. 

I lean into liking this, though it confused me a bit. Delivering a sense of confusion on a first page is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the confusion compels the reader toward forward movement toward clarity from a sense of intrigue. Which for me, this does… in spite of rather than because of the confusion I’ll describe below.

But I suspect that may not be true for all readers here. So the confusion that troubled me may end up being on the problematic side for others, as well.

But first, the nit-picky stuff. There are a couple of grammar things to clean up. These nits are like flies on frosting, they always deter more than they should, but deter nonetheless. Here they are:

Second paragraph, second and third sentences: …rusted out SUV. It guts and doors removed… should read – It’s guts and doors removed. Probably a typo, but if so, then consider better proofing before you submit, or in this case, hold this up in front of a few thousand readers. But before that, I’d recommend not using the period after “SUV” and, with a comma, conjoin those two sentences into one. The second sentence, as used, is a fragment anyway, so this solves that problem, as well.

Then, first sentence in the third paragraph: The lack of the natural sounds… This would read better if you lose the word “the” here, to read as – The lack of natural sounds…

Okay, now a few words about the aforementioned confusion.

Your first line… what is the object of this, the “it” of it? Really, if you pose this question – as you’ve done – then your next line should begin to address the explanation. As presented, the shift is kind of a jolt that leaves the opening question hanging and unattached to anything, and as such, renders the opening line… confusing rather than compelling.

After that you open in a forest. Trees and stumps and such. And “loblolly pines”… huh? As a guy who grew up in Oregon, where there are as many pine trees as anywhere else on the planet, and who didn’t major in botany, I have no idea what a loblolly pine. When an author summons obscurity with no real upside to it, it screams “look at me, I’m a smart writer who is trying too hard to demonstrate that fact!” You don’t want to elicit a WTF? moment from readers, and this one might.

Back to the forest. Now we have the gutted carcass of a car, some garbage, and assorted plastic stuff from a house, and then the smell of brackish salt water. In a forest? What, is the forest flooded? And how can this be salt water, unless there was a tidal wave that reached an inland forest? Maybe that’s precisely what you mean, but in one short paragraph you’ve got the reader on unsure footing at this point.

Is the forthcoming disaster natural, social, military, or something else that ends up with a forest deluged with salt water? Political or criminal mischief would not accomplish that, but that feels like where you might be going… so its confusing.

I just think you can clean this up a bit, and the read will be better for it.

The next paragraph is good stuff. A girl with a gun, always interesting. A sign on the forest floor… did it float here? Was it a camp? Not sure. Still somewhat confusing, but hopeful.

Here’s the whopper moment on the confusion scale: “…she wasn’t in Louisiana anymore. Or anywhere else familiar.” Unless she was brought to this place in a coma and then awakened, I think she’d know where she was. But to suggest she has no idea where she is… really, this makes too little sense. An easy fix, because surroundings feeling unfamiliar is perhaps clear, while literally not being in Louisiana but not being sure where you are… isn’t.

This feels like a speculative and/or futuristic thriller, and if so it’s a good start. It’ll be a better start, though, when the vagaries are given a little more resolution. It would be good, too, to have her stumble into something truly baffling (to her) and frightening on the next page, which would complete a pretty strong hook overall.

One more thought. Wherever this premise goes, it needs to circle back to actually being about the water (aka Chinatown) as the underlying McGuffin or ultimate prize. If it doesn’t – and because it’s salt water, which isn’t a commodity with either economic or political value, I’m fearful it won’t – then you probably need to rethink that opening line.

Okay KZers, share your thoughts on this one. In any case, congrats to this author on going out on an edge early.

5+

First Page Critique: “Deliah and the One Penny Blue”

Today we have yet another in our series of soul-crushing First Page Reviews.

Of course, I’m being a bit sarcastic. The intention is never to be soul-crushing, even when that seems to be the outcome. (We’ve all been there, on both sides of these little eviscerations.)

I’m not a big fan of first page reviews. They aren’t without some value, of course, because certainly they provide a glimpse of the writer’s ability to render readable prose, which is a square-one necessity in this business. (You’ll notice that this alone usually eats up over 90 percent of the feedback we provide here, and about 60 percent my own feedback today). And perhaps, to set up a scene… specifically, an opening scene. But that’s about it. They tell us little about the story arc itself. Nor should they. Stormy skies and perfectly coiffed hair and the color of sunsets, because we’ve all seen the color of sunsets and don’t need to be told – often the hallmarks of a first page – aren’t really the point, while they certainly can be stage lighting if handled properly.

We also often get some sense of initial foreshadowing, of course, but if the entire story is visible beyond a vague hint on page one, that, too, is a mistake. First pages aren’t there to tell us about the story itself. Nor should they. They are there to begin the process of setting up the story. Stormy skies and perfectly coiffed hair – often the hallmarks of a first page – aren’t really the point, while they certainly can be stage lighting.

And therein resides a paradox. Because if we don’t yet know the story arc, we can’t really access how well the setup for it has been handled… beyond, of course, the prose itself. So here we are, having come full circle to focus on the sentences.

That said, let’s see how today’s brave author (we are contractually obliged to include that phrase in these intros) does with her or his first page.

My not-quite-as-cynical commentary (really, I’m hoping I can help) follows.

Twilight coloured everything with purple shadows. Squeals echoed down the slope while the last of the kids raced the darkness home, the boys rounded up and kept safe by girls like us.  Surrounded by poplar trees, at sea in a stretch of grass and daisies, the tall ship appeared around the curve of the hill. A well-worn and familiar playground in Old Town, the tilted deck was strung with rope nets and a faded black flag flew above.

Our shoes stirred up the damp smell of woodchips as the two of us reached the hull and climbed up onto the deck. The boards sounded hollow, empty beneath our feet. Leaning back against the worn timber, I tore open the paper, and hot vinegar clouded up into my face, sharply comfortingly. With my eyes downcast, I offered the chips to Martha.

We ate in silence as the night pressed down around us. My wet clothes had chilled with the evening air and kept me from forgetting what had happened earlier. Though I tried to fill up somehow, swallowing past the rawness in my throat, my jaw was hard with tension. I felt overly conscious of every gesture and the quiet was building.

When the food was gone, I scrunched the paper, holding it close to my nose to inhale the familiar scent. It smelled of late nights; the familiar bustle around the fryers and the fluid motion of Martha working beside me. I clenched the paper tighter, wringing it between my hands. Sweat budded over my top lip and I coached myself to speak, to break the spell somehow.

Alongside, Martha crossed her arms and tilted back against the wooden balustrade, looking up at the sky. Waiting.

It was lonely, sitting side by side with my oldest friend. I toyed with the discarded paper, flicking it back and forth with my fingertips. I had a sense of something counting down.

“Can you stop that?” said Martha. Still, she didn’t look at me.

My cheeks flushed hot but I imagined I could hear ice cracking over dark water.

“I didn’t mean for it to go that far!” I choked suddenly, swiping at my eyes.

Martha finally looked at me, lips pressed tight together. “So, what the hell happened, Penn?

Here’s my first impression. And really, I say this with love and empathy: you’re trying too hard. Much too hard. My fear is a crusty old editor, whose taste for purple prose (ironic, since this is the color you evoke in your opening line) has soured like the tongue of a senior chef auditioning newbies for a cooking show.

Okay, now I’m trying too hard.

Shadows aren’t purple. Dusk skies are purple. Shadows are a lack of color. It’s never wise to try to revinvent nature.

So the girls have rounded up the boys and are keeping them safe on the way home, all of them squealing. Really… I don’t think this works. And if they’ve all headed home, nobody is squealing anymore.

Your sentence introducing the “tall ship” works better if you flip it around, like this: The tall ship appeared around the curve of the hill, surrounded by poplar trees, at sea in a stretch of grass and daisies. Another note: hills don’t curve, they slope. And the ship doesn’t “appear” unless ot or you are moving (a point of view thing); rather, om this case it is fixed in place, because it isn’t really a ship at all.

You’re trying too hard. The biggest rookie mistake, and the most common, is to try to sound like a professional author, but end up sounding like someone trying to sound a certain way. Professional authors live in a world where they understand that less is more, where adjectives and adverbs and over-wrought metaphors are the very things that mark the writing of a newbie.

This essence – sounding like a professional – is the hardest thing to teach and to learn (among a core set of more precise principles, which are absolutely teachable and learnable). The best way to learn is to have someone blue pencil your own narrative to understand why it is perceived as otherwise.

Your next paragraph is a confusion of up-and-down geometry: shoes stirred up… climbed up… empty beneath… leaning back… tore open the paper… clouded up… eyes downcast. This is literary motion sickness, I’m afraid.

Martha looked up at the sky… waiting for what, exactly? Whatever she was waiting for, it wasn’t going to descend from the heavens.

Nothing (beyond description) happens until your sixth paragraph. This is the whole point of the scene (and the first page): they feel like something is coming. That all of this is “counting down” to something, and this is the something that will crack open the story. This moment is the point of the scene… I suggest you get to it a bit quicker, cutting out all the existential pondering of sights and sounds, which really means nothing in context to what’s about to be revealed between the two girls… who must have taken a pass at gathering boys and protecting them on their way home.

Because that is what the reader will care about. The reader won’t care about what kind of tree surrounds them, or what smells are wafting about, or what vinegar smells like… because none of that is what the scene is about.

Begin with this awareness, and build an impactful lead into the moment when the girls get real about whatever happened that still haunts them, in context to what they know or don’t know, and can discuss or shouldn’t discuss.

This upgrade is an example of what I like to call mission-driven scene writing, versus overly sensated English Comp 101 scene writing. At the professional level, even on a first page, crusty old agents and pub house readers and even browsing readers on Amazon’s preview pages instinctively know the difference.

One other comment: your title… it makes me go, “huh?” You can do better.

Hope this helps. Killzoners (I won’t say “what think ye?” again, I got killed for that one), please weigh in and help this writer get over this purple hump.

 

 

2+

A Movie (that could be a clinic) for Novelists

by Larry Brooks

While we don’t always agree on everything put forth here on Killzone (remember the “I don’t think writing can be taught” hypothesis?), I’m guessing we’re all on the same page with one thing:

We like movies. Maybe we even love movies. Because as authors, we like to observe, marvel at and learn from all forms of storytelling.

Not all movies, of course. Some we like just because of the popcorn. Others because they are adaptations of books we love. Which too often leads to us finding ways that the movie isn’t quite as good as the book that inspired it.

Not a problem with today’s writer-to-writer movie recommendation. This one is an original screenplay, and stands alone as its own example of iconic storytelling.

Today I’m tossing out a current movie for Killzoners because of the other reason we love them: good movies delivering a great story can teach us something about narrative exposition, characterization, dialogue and the power of place and setting (that is, if you believe that storytelling actually can be taught, if nothing else than through example, which I’m confident includes most of us).

This particular movie is a powerful two-hour workshop on all of these narrative fundamentals.

It’s called Wind River, starring Jeremy Renner in an Oscar-worthy turn as the hero (a Fish & Game enforcer who carries a chrome-barreled cannon of a rifle) and Elizabeth Olson (a rookie FBI agent), with a stellar supporting cast of very serious dramatic artists.

Place and setting are the first things you’ll notice. It’s set per the title, deep within a 185-stretch of Wyoming wilderness in the dead of winter among a largely Native American community, and you’ll swear you can feel a brisk chill in the theater once the house lights go down. The setting – both geographic and demographic – becomes a narrative framework that exerts its power on the story arc, as well… it’s fun to watch that happen, and it’s a clinic on how to do it, as well.

It’s a flat-out murder mystery, as gritty and raw and emotionally-resonant violent as it gets. And yet, the dialogue delivers the rare duality of pitch-perfection and jarring humanity. You might want to bring a hanky, because there are moments of writing so spectacular – and let’s acknowledge the partnership between writer and actor on this count – that will take the chill right out of the air and send you into a swoon of envy that only another writer might sense.

Notice the Prologue, too. It makes a solid case that Elmore Leonard (who hated them enough to include Prologues in his list of things that we should never do), has at last been proven wrong on that count.

And then notice how the writer wraps in the backstory (at the third act turn) to inform all the troubling questions that have kept the players up at night and the viewers on the edge of their seats.

All that credit goes to screenwriter and director Taylor Sheridan.

If you look him up you’ll think his mug shot looks more like a leading man than someone behind the camera, and if you read further into his bio you’ll see that he was indeed an actor on the cable hit Sons of Anarchy. 

Not an easy shift, as George Clooney continues to prove (the forthcoming Suburbicon is evidence to the degree of transitional difficulty).

But that’s not why Mr. Sheridan is Hollywood’s newest and hottest it boy. He’s already an Oscar nominated screenwriter, having penned last year’s Hell or High Water (with Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges), and before that, the well-reviewed Sicario (with Emily Blunt). Both of those are writer’s-movies, as well.

Oh, and the ending… that’ll rock your world.

Read the reviews for Wind River on Rotten Tomatoes (which scored it a very respectable 88/93; I’m thinking some of the very few naysayers just didn’t hear the poetry and angst in the dialogue) and see what they’re saying about this guy. This movie is the fulfillment of the promise of those first two scripts, and because he directed Wind River as well, this is someone we’ll be hearing a lot from going forward.

You can click on the trailer for the movie at Rotten Tomatoes, as well.

We should all strive to summon a hero with this level of complexity, courage, backstory and heart to our novels, especially in the mystery/thriller genres.

This movie just might help us do just that.

Enjoy. If you’ve seen it (or if/when you do), please share your thoughts here from your writerly point of view.

6+

When the Obvious is Golden

by Larry Brooks

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

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

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

They execute the game at a higher level.

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

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

In a word: duh.

Maybe it was a good question after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elevate Your Novel By Infusing Your Premise With Something Conceptual

by Larry Brooks

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

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

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

Concept and premise are different things.

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

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

Concept is a tricky issue.

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

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

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

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

The acid test of a compelling concept is simple.

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples of inherently conceptual concepts.

 “Snakes on a plane” (a proposition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Concepts vs. Real-World Concepts

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

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

Concepts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Are We Having Fun Yet?

by Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

Who here wants to write for money?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing may indeed be a different breed of profession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can explain why you may be frustrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A final story… that is not an analogy.

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

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

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

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

But then the finals happened in May.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All hell broke loose at home…

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

Which he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So go ahead, have fun.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why you’re here.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

By Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

And thus a sense of storytelling craft begins to crystalize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lately, though, things have changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

by Larry Brooks

Quick story from the writing conference front.

A while ago I was doing a couple of workshops at a major writing conference, and as is often the case at these gatherings, the spare hours between sessions were spent meeting one-on-one with writers to go over their projects.

One writer’s novel stood out as a case study in what can go wrong… when you don’t know what you don’t know.

This writer believed he knew what he needed to know about writing a novel. Because he had read a lot of them, he was a really smart guy, and he’d been working on this story for years.

It should be noted here that this writer had a way with words. What some call natural talent. But here’s what may be a newsflash to some: a talent for writing sentences and a talent for choosing and developing good stories are different things.

Millions have the former. Few are born with the latter… which is where the learning comes in. Because how to cobble together an effective, compelling story is, contrary to recent popular belief on this site, something that can absolutely be learned. It happens all the time, especially for writers who don’t buy into the lie that it can’t.

This is where the learning comes in. Because how to cobble together an effective, compelling story is something that absolutely can be learned. It happens all the time, especially for writers who don’t buy into the lie that it can’t.

Which means it can be taught, as well. Let us hope so, lest all of us on both sides of the head table at all of these writing workshops and conferences (guys like Jim Bell and myself) have been wasting our time for half of our lives.

Me thinks that’s not the case, however. I have hundreds of letters from writers – published writers – who have written to thank me for showing them what they did not know, many after years of seeking out enlightenment, are to be believed.

This writer’s story pitch had promise. It was a spy thriller with a hero and a bomb that must be found before Paris went up in smoke.

But when we popped open the hood to see how the thing was built, the wheels started to come off.

I asked him about his opening hook. His response was that he’d opened the story with some deep backstory about the hero. I asked if it would link directly to the forthcoming plot of the core story, and he said no, he just wanted to add characterization before putting the hero in harm’s way. “So we would really know this guy,” he said.

Strike one. Because a thriller needs a killer hook, almost every time.

Which implies the writer knows what a killer hook is, where it goes, what it does. It doesn’t matter if someone else shows that writer this knowledge (this being, of course, a case of the writer learning how to write), or if they figure it out for themselves… either way, they need to know.

Also, this writer didn’t know that a thriller is not a character-driven vehicle, but rather, a premise-driven narrative, one that does indeed give us a compelling character chasing a specific goal, against specific exterior antagonism.

Which means the hero’s crappy childhood is not a primary story element.

He seemed surprised by this. Because apparently this principle had not been taught to him, an chances are he’d probably misunderstood the half-truth that “fiction is all about the characters.” His personal story instincts – the very same instincts that some claim are all you need to get you there – weren’t able to recognize and assimilate this principle.

That’s the thing, you see. Not all really smart people who want to write a novel are able to recognize and assimilate what they need to know simply by reading novels, or sitting in a room discussing them with imaginary beings. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have talent (also a recent assertion), and it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t learn these truths.

This instinctual shortcoming is everywhere. In fact, it far exceeds the number of writers who are born with a natural gift of story, to the extent of the degree of resolution required. And thus this explains, as a generality, the primary reason so many writers never reach the finish line in one piece: not because of a lack of talent, but from a lack of knowing. Which too often stems from not knowing what to know.

Two strikes now. No hook, and character-intro overkill. An editor at a publisher would have already bailed.

I was still in listening mode. I wanted to see how badly he’d mangled other principles before I got specific about what his story – any story – should look like.

Before long, though, I had to ask the deal-breaking question: “So when in your story do you stop showing backstory and put your hero into action?”

He quickly answered, “When he gets his assignment to find the guy with the stolen bomb.”

That was the what and the how. I’d asked for when.

So I explained, again: the hero needs to seek something in the story, have a need or a mission to engage with, to take action toward, with something at stake and significant obstacles – a villain – in his/her way. And within classic story structure – not a rule, by the way, but a principle observed by nearly every published commercial novelists working today… including those that will tell you earnestly that they don’t – there is an optimal time and place to turn that corner in the story.

“Oh sure,” he said, momentarily relieved. “It has that. Like I said, it’s when the spy gets his assignment to find and disable the bomb. That’s when all hell breaks loose.”

I was nodding, but not in agreement.

“So when does that happen? Give me an approximate percentage based on total length.”

Mind you, this was a thriller he was writing. Not a literary novel. Not that it changes the answer… the best answer is the same for any genre.

He had to think a moment. Then his eyes suddenly lit up.

“It happens just short of the halfway mark.  Maybe, like, forty-five percent in.”

I think he heard me gasp.

Or maybe that was the sound of his story going off the rails.

Because he didn’t know what he didn’t know. Which was something he needed to know – a fundamental principle – because of its critical role in the efficacy of his or any other story.

I asked what his hero was doing in those first 200 pages of the manuscript, before the hero’s primary quest entered the narrative.

He said, with some amount of confidence, that he was building up the character, showing us his life before he became a professional in the black ops business, adding a lot more backstory. Mostly backstory.

For the first half of his novel, there was no plot. No conflict. No dramatic tension.

He was certain that this was a good thing. Because he didn’t know what he didn’t know.

That’s when I told him that, in my opinion, he needed a major revision before it would work.

“How can you know that?” he asked, not a happy camper at this point. “You haven’t read it yet.”

“That’s true,” I replied, “I haven’t read it. I don’t need to read it. Let me ask you this – did you understand my question about when you begin the hero’s core story quest? The actual plot itself? And was your answer accurate?”

He assured me that he did, and that it was.

Both of those answers were wrong. He didn’t know at all.

And then I told him the deal-breaking truth:

Based on his responses, he didn’t actually know. He knew when, as I’d asked, but he didn’t understand that he hadn’t aligned with a core structural principle in doing it as he did.

I told him that until he knew about this principle and understood that it wasn’t something he could ignore, or even stretch to that degree, he would continue to struggle.

A setup simply cannot take that long. And the optimal place to turn the corner from setup, via something massively significant happening, toward the path that the hero would embark upon in the story, was closer to the twenty percent mark, give or take. The more give or take, the higher the risk.

No matter what you call it (because it is labeled differently from teacher to teacher, and probably not labeled at all if this is something you figured out on your own, which is rare), the is arguably the most important moment in a story – especially a thriller.

He thought a moment, then I saw a light in his eyes.

He said, “Okay, then. I’ve got it. I’ll open with it. Make it a hook.”

Still shaking my head. Because he still didn’t get it.

While there may eventually be a way to make that work, simply moving the First Plot Point into hook position wasn’t it. The principles of story architecture demand more finesse than that, which is the entire reason for knowing and using those principles, so the forces of story – what I call story physics – have a chance to work their magic on the reader in the best possible way.

This, too, being something he didn’t know that he didn’t know.

And since he’d been tinkering with this story for years, was unlikely to be enlightened on by one of those imaginary beings he was counting on.

More likely he’d heard this and written it off because there are no rules… never understanding that this never was about rules at all, it’s about a principle of storytelling that is universal.

I suggested he dig into this to learn more about the core principles of making fiction work – writing books, blogs, workshops, a writing coach –  to understand it all at a deeper level. And when he does, he should test it out there in the real world – this is where the sitting alone in a room part kicks in… if done in context to an awareness of what you’re looking for, that becomes a powerful learning experience – look for these principles in play within the books he reads and the movies he sees. Especially thrillers.

Seeing the principles in play is to believe in them. To finally know what you didn’t know before, and were unlikely to realize on your own, at least within a decade or two.

Our time was up. He asked me to wish him luck with his agent pitches.

I smiled, forcing a smile, knowing he would need it.

But the story has an epilogue.

Next day I ran into him in front of the hotel elevators. I asked about those pitches. And he was excited to answer.

“Went great! Two agents want a synopsis. I guess they didn’t agree with you.”

Behold, the great head-scratching paradox of confusion on the part of the over-confident, under-enlightened writer. Which comprises a massive percentage of the manuscripts submitted to agents and editors.

Writers who don’t yet know what they don’t know.

Pitches primarily reveal concepts and premises. Rarely do they expose to the listener the nature and depth of what the writer does not yet know.

Now I was nodding. Not in humble contrition, but with sad certainty. Because if he had written that novel as he described, he was in for a dark journey of frustration.

“Are you going to revise the draft before submitting?” I tossed out as the elevator doors opened.

“Naw. They want pages right away. We’ll see what happens.”

He smiled, as writers often do when they mistake the uncompleted conversation for the one that affirms their limited skill set.

This is what happens. This is where rejection comes from.

We don’t know what we don’t know. And thus, what we don’t know squashes our dreams. Usually without us knowing why.

That is, until we finally learn what we didn’t know then.

Story architecture is very much like anything in life that lives or dies by how functional it is. An engine, a first date, your computer… one thousand moving parts can be perfectly tuned and positioned and connected and humming along, but if one single essential thing is off the mark, if it sputters at all, the whole thing will crash and burn.

And the event will be fatal.

Knowing the broad strokes of how a story seems to be constructed isn’t enough. And while you may have heard it before and dismissed it as just one presenter’s opinion – when what we hear contradicts what we have, that’s usually the outcome – it is just as likely that you’ve heard it and haven’t yet fully grasped it.You need to. Not knowing will kill you, every time.

You need know.

When you know the core principles, everything about your creative choices – including how to break the so-called rules – will be enriched.

And best way to know is to seek out this information… and learn it.

 

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A Nuance of Understanding That Can Change Your Writing Career

by Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not every story needs to be “high concept.”

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

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

An Example

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

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

We talked about this one for a long time.

The Definition of Concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Criteria for Concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the agent says, “next!”

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

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

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

Concept is genre-driven.

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

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

Examples of Criteria-Compliant Concepts

“Snakes on a plane.” (a proposition)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just remember: concept is not premise.

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

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

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

Final thought on this, for now.

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

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

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

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

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

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