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.

Deeper Thinking About Writing Your Scenes

by Larry Brooks

Deeper than what, you might fairly ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read on. And on. It never did.

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes are, by definition, strategic in nature.  

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

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

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

The best scenes accomplish both.

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

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

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

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

Here are more questions you should ask about your scenes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is your scene part of a dramatic sequence?  

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

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

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

After the mission is clear… then what?

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

9+

Three Quick and Easy Tips That Will Make Your Novel Better

by Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three of them, for your consideration.

1. Give your hero an interesting career.

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

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

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

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

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

2. Give your hero a distracting personal relationship.

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

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

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

Welcome to your sub-plot.

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

 

3. Give your antagonist a noble goal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

19+

Craft 101: Theme… as a Storytelling Intention

by Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One approach: stop trying to be overly thematic.

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

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

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

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

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

Separate your plot from your theme.

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

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

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

Some writers begin with a theme in mind.

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

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

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

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

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

Keep playing with this notion.

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

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

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

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

12+

First Page Critique: “Blues In The Night”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————

Blues in the Night

Everett

Miami Beach, Florida

Tuesday, October 16, 1951

12:10 AM

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

Not bad for an old gal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————

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

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

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

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

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

Not bad for an old gal.

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

Play up the sickness playing in his head.

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

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

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

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

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

Present tense would put us more in his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

I wish you great success going forward!

Kill Zoners, what say you?

8+

When “What if?” Isn’t Enough

By Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

Run.

See if the idea chases you.

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

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

This all came up during lunch with a writer friend. 

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

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

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

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

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

Like, in the bathroom, for example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story ideas are just that, and nothing more.

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

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

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

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

That’s the story you should write.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write the story you should be writing.

Which is an even better writing this than… run.

8+

Who You Are and Who You Ain’t

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

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

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

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

Who You Are, and Who you Ain’t

By James N. Frey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The price you pay for being a writer is high.

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

Visit James’ website HERE.

8+

Two New Writing Resources from Writers Digest Books

 

By Larry Brooks

Just what we need… another writing book or two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8+

The Empowering Triad of Storytelling

By Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

Because this is art, damn it.

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

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

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

The Trouble with Craft

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

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

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

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

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

Three things to grade yourself on.

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

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

This will help.

The Fiction Trifecta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same with The Davinci Code, another modest success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

 

6+

Is Writing a Good Novel Something That Can Be Taught?

By Larry Brooks

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

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

You know, like Stephen King?

He was born that way, right?

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

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

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

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

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

Anyhow… this happened:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, because that’s what The Bard says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5+

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

By Larry Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initial feedback shows in red.

*****

Genre: YA, after an initial draft as Middle Grade

What is the CONCEPT of your story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the PREMISE of your story?

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

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

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

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

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

Already an emotional button-pusher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better story requires rethinking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark’s struggle both internal and external.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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