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*****

You’ve heard of the novel and you’re aware there’s a major film out there based upon it. You may or may not know that the author of the novel, Gillian Flynn, also wrote the screenplay for the film.

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Six million hard covers were sold. Millions more in paperback.

There is much to learn – especially relative to the reinforcement of storytelling principles, including structure – from this novel.

Some writers resist the principles. Some writing gurus even advise us to reject them in the mistaken belief that our “instincts” are enough. And yet, time and time again those structural principles show themselves in stories that explode into the market.

Coincidence? I think not.

In many cases this resistance actually pertains to structure. It’s a “nobody is going to tell me how to write a book or what it should look like” attitude, which is fine if your fundamental experience and talents lead you to a workable story without using the principles themselves – which will be there in that story once it works – as guiding beacons.

Good luck with that. Out of every 1000 writers you’ve never heard of writing and submitting manuscripts for publication – this is an unofficial statistic, based on my own significant database of stories submitted to me for coaching – only about 10 demonstrate the requisite storytelling instincts.

Not ten percent, but ten total manuscripts out of 1000.

That leaves 990 stories, a large percentage of which were written using the author’s instinct alone, wondering what went wrong.

About half the time what went wrong was the story idea itself. The confluence of concept and premise. Coming up with a truly compelling story proposition is as much a product of instinct (also known as story sensibility) as anything else relative to craft, and like structure it, too, has principles and benchmarks to help us accurate predict if others will like the idea as much as you (the writer of it) will.

The other half, some of which do propose an inherently compelling story idea, fumble the execution. Which is almost always connected to structural weakness within the story.

Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, has a story sensibility residing at the top of the class. I have no idea what she thinks about the principles of structure or how she leverages them in her work – for all I know she may stare into a pile of tea leaves for inspiration– but we don’t need to know.

Her work speaks for itself, which means her instincts are to be reckoned with.

Both versions of Gone Girl – novel and screenplay – are models for classic story architecture. You know, the very principles that those nay-saying writing gurus tell you to beware of. Whether instinct or referencing a structure poster tacked to her wall… doesn’t matter. It’s there.

If you want to write a story as solid and compelling as those Gillian Flynn writes, then you either have to be at her level, or you’ll need to tap into the power of those principles.

For all we know that’s precisely what she does.

Story Architecture

Some argue that novels and screenplays have very different structures. But the truth is, at the core of both forms resides a structure that is very much alike. While it’s true that many writers can’t write their own screenplays, its truer that studios won’t let them. Because there aren’t any structure nay-sayers in that business, everybody who knows anything at all about storytelling for the screen depends on these principles to get it right.

Gillian Flynn, though, didn’t have to worry about that. Because her Gone Girl screenplay tracks almost identically, beat for beat – and in perfect alignment with the very structural principles I’m discussing here – with the novel she wrote, which happened long before she was asked to do the screenplay.

Translation: she use the same structure in both projects. No difference.

Another coincidence? Absolutely not.

Here’s a distinction, one you should thumbtack to your forehead: it wasn’t her instinct that made the story work, it was the principles of story architecture. Which, for her and some writers, are precisely what they instinctually understand.

This is true for almost every novel, in any genre, that ends up working well.

Gone Girl… the Milestone Placement Targets

In the section below we will look at the three critical story milestones that separate the four sequential contextual parts of a well-told story… novel or screenplay. Separating the four quartiles, those transitions have a targeted (optimal) location (in reality there is ample wiggle room to accommodate the needs of the narrative) as follows.

The novel: 414 total pages
FPP target: 20 – 25th percentile (p. 83 – 104)
Midpoint target: p. 207
2nd PP target: p. 312

The film: 137 minutes running time
FPP target: 27th to 35th minute
Midpoint target: 69th minute
2nd PP target: 103rd minute

Now let’s see where they actually show up in the story.

Prepare to be blown away.

The First Plot Point in Gone Girl

Sometimes the milestones that reveal and propel structure are hard to spot, especially for writers who are new to these principles, because the narrative approach tends to mask them in terms of expositional content. Gone Girl is no exception.

But once you know what Gone Girl’s major story milestones are, you’ll find they reside very near to where the principles say they should (optimally) be found.

For the third time… this is not a coincidence.

The First Plot Point within this complex narrative is when Amy (the wife) confesses from within her diary that she believes Nick, (her husband) may be capable of – indeed, intending to – kill her. This concludes a setup quartile in which the police, and the readers, have been led to believe he is somehow involved with her disappearance.

Amy herself seems to be confirming this to be the case. It happens on p. 102 (the 24th percentile mark), at the very end of Amy’s narrative chapter (one of many; she alternates with Nick’s narrative throughout the novel), when she says, “I feel like I could disappear.”

And she does. And clearly, if all the evidence it to be believed, it is Nick’s doing.

What the reader senses – and is right when they do – is that Amy’s diary will soon surface as part of the evidence exposing Nick’s complicity. In writing this, in telling us about it at precisely this point, she is defining and launching the hero’s story quest (the definition of the role of the FPP), because Nick is about to get nailed for his wife’s disappearance and, presumably, her death.

That’s the core story. That’s what this FPP launches. And it’s right in the sweet spot of the First Plot Point’s mission within the structure.

In the film this happens at about the 35th minute in… spot on at the 25th percentile, capping a First Quartile full of crazy inciting incidents and pace.

Again… coincidence? I think not.

Of course, nothing is as it seems in this story, which brings us to the Midpoint.

The Midpoint in Gone Girl

If you are even the slightest bit confused about what the Midpoint milestone is intended to do within a story, Gone Girl is the best clinic you’ll ever find.

The mission of the Midpoint, generically, is to shift the context of the story and spin it in a new direction, thus giving the hero (heretofore less than fully informed) something to either go on, shoot for, or unwittingly pursue. Everything increases as a result: dramatic tension, pace, reader empathy, and the proactive intentions of the protagonist and the antagonist (the villain).

When the Midpoint of Gone Girl arrives you can’t miss it. It’s like someone bringing a shotgun to a wedding and shooting up the place… literally changing everything. What it does to the story is astounding: it explodes the entire story into something you weren’t expecting, completely transforming it through revelatory context-shifting.

Amy has planned the whole thing to frame Nick for what will not only be her disappearance, but her murder. Because she intends to kill herself as the grand crown jewel of her frame-up scheme, which she also explains (in direct voiceover) to the viewer, piece by diabolical piece.

It happens in a new Amy-narrated chapter beginning on p. 203 – which is the 49th percentile. Spot on target, and perfectly executed.

In the film that occurs at 67 minutes in – also the 49th percentile mark (48.9, actually).

If this was a trail, the jury would be coming back into he room. This is not a coincidence. This how it is done. This is how story structure works.

Prior to the Midpoint in Gone Girl we’ve only heard from Ally via her diaries, written long before her disappearance. But here at the Midpoint, we actually meet her. We see her. She tells us – literally – the truth about everything we’ve been led to believe thus far.

In effect, the story transforms from a mystery (discovering what really happened) to a thriller (sticking around to see what will happen).

Remember, the core story here is the hero’s, not the villains. Which in this case, now that we know which is which, is clearly now Nick’s story. He’s being framed. He needs to get out from under this. And we’re hooked because we want to see how he does it, and what happens to her at that point.

It’s genius, really. So much of it is her instinct on what will work, implemented according to principles that will never let us down.

Suddenly the hero (clearly it’s Nick, newly positioned as an anti-hero for whom, despite his loutish ways, we are now empathizing with and rooting for) has a different path before him. He doesn’t realize it at first, but we (the reader/viewer) is fully in on it now. The fun of the second half of the story is seeing how he will discover the truth, and what happens to everyone when he does.

And it isn’t pretty. In fact it’s scary as hell.

Those who doubt the veracity of the principles of story structure now have a two-by-four solidly implanted between their eyes.

The Second Plot Point in Gone Girl

If you thought the Midpoint of this story came out of nowhere, wait until you get to the Second Plot Point. I can say with confidence, even though you know so much more about Amy’s dark scheme at this point, that you’ll never see it coming.

On p. 303 (the 73rd percentile mark) Nick is being interviewed on television about the disappearance of his wife. It’s a strategy cooked up by his lawyer, who knows that in the face of all the planted evidence Nick would benefit from some sympathetic public exposure. At the end of this interview he looks directly into the camera, and which the sincerity of a father holding his newborn and promising to take care of her, he tells Amy herself that he loves her. That if she comes home, comes back to him, he will love her forever.

Amy is watching. And everything changes here. The final act, the confluence of all this darkness is at hand.

Nick says he will find her. And he will love her.

This is the husband she never had. Or at least the husband she lost. Not the man who has driven her mad, who has cheated on her, who has made her resort to this unthinkable scheme to take him down… but now she can win. Without killing herself.

If nothing else, if she can find a way back to him she can, in the privacy of their home going forward, find ways to torment and punish him while he loves her forever.

The perfect outcome. She wins.

A few pages later she slits the throat of her lover (an obsessed old boyfriend) to cement a story that has him kidnapping and holding here, until she took advantage of a weak moment and killed him in her escape.

She will return home a hero, a victim, into the arms of her insanely sorry and humbled husband… who has told the world he will love her forever.

All of this is the stuff of the Part 4 resolution, as launched at the Second Plot Point in that moment where she watches him speak directly to her through a television screen.

Nothing about this structure simply happened to show up at the prescribed places according to the principles of story structure.

If it was indeed Gillian Flynn’s genius instinct that caused it to happen, that doesn’t negate he power of the principles. How we get there isn’t the issues, getting there by whatever means – investing years in honing your instinct to understand that this really is how stories are built… or cutting years off that learning curve by internalizing these principles early on – is the whole point.

I’ve often said that seeming story architecture at work – you don’t have to look far to find it, just read a bestseller or go to a feature film.  Those four parts and three major story milestones will be there, almost certainly waiting for you very near to those prescribed points – and there’s no better story, among thousands of good examples, than Gone Girl.

A bonus is there is no much more to learn from this story, as well. Narrative strategy has never been so well-played in a thriller. Her voice, through her characters, is fresh an disturbing and brilliant. In fact, all six core competencies and all six realms of story physics are there for you, showing off from within a story that rewards and disturbs and entertains on the grandest of scales.

*****

If you’re interested in seeing how your story plan measures up to these principles… I’m revising my story coaching programs with an enhanced Questionnaire experience, effective at the first of the year. Four levels, four price points, something for everybody, from the simplest of concept evaluations to a full manuscript analysis. Stay tuned for updates, including a new design for the Storyfix.com website itself… all right after the first of the new year.

If you can’t wait, the existing program levels remain available… use the links directly above this post to learn more.

*****

My newly released novel, a republished edition of The Seventh Thunder, has been hanging around all week among Amazon.com’s top 100 titles in the “supernatural thriller” category. If you like your concepts massively huge and provocative, with a story that is (cliché alert, but it’s apt) ripped from today’s headlines, please consider giving it a shot.

 

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Win a free copy of my new novel… this week only!

by Larry Brooks on December 16, 2014

Plus a little content for you today.  First, the promotional deal:

My publisher (Turner Publishing) is running a little lottery to give away a few dozen copies of my latest release, “The Seventh Thunder” (click to learn more about the book).  There are no strings, though I’ll add that if you’d like to post a review I’m be most grateful.

Click HERE to enter.  Your odds are good on this one.  (Click HERE for the Amazon page.)

Just republished!  New title, even more frightening relevance to today's headlines.

If you run blog and would like a review copy – and you don’t win this time – let me know, I’ll make it happen.

Here’s something to think about in the meantime.

 

Selling a story is like a job interview.

Maybe you’ve never thought of it like this.  Maybe you should, because the parallels are… disturbingly accurate.

Employers have expectations and criteria when they post a job opening.  Or even when they consider walk-ins.  Applicants need to not only qualify for the job according to those criteria, they need to stand out from the other applications.

Writers tend to miss this perspective.  Instead they “write from the heart,” and throw it out there, hoping that their heart is something others will want to read about.  The truth is, readers want more from us, they have expectations and standards when they choose what to read.

So, if your story is a job application, the employer is an agent, an editor or simply a reader shopping for a good book… what are you offering them?

Most importantly, how will your book stand out from the crowd?

The crowd itself is genre-dependent.  If you write sci-fi you aren’t competing with literary fiction or mysteries, the stage is already set for what you must present upon it.

Ask yourself: what sets your story apart?  What makes it worthwhile?  What constitutes an edge, something new and fresh and unexpected and – most importantly – compelling?

As in an interview, you get points for presentation, as well.  How tight is your pitch (query)?  How perfect is your manuscript on the page?  How do you introduce the story using a logline that grabs attention, that differentiates, at a first glance?

From my own database of over 600 analyzed stories in the past three years, I can tell you this with certainty: most writers don’t think this way.  Most of the stories I receive – and have to assume, represent most of the stories circulating out there – are generic, as if they are actually trying to join the crowd (even imitating it), rather than rising above it.

If it sounds like this: “the story is about two brother growing up in rural Iowa during the depression”… good luck with that.  The waiting room is full of applicants with a better story to tell, and you may want to buff up on those criteria before your name is called.

If you want to land the job, make sure you can compete for it.  The criteria is available, and when you compare your story to those principles and benchmarks, you may be surprised at the outcome.

Here’s hoping that outcome gets you hired.

But if you have more work to do… I can help.

I’m redesigning my story coaching programs, effective January 1, 2015.

Check back for details, but here’s a hint: you can get your concept evaluated for under fifty bucks, and the Questionnaires I’ve used are now beefed up to the extent they are more tutorials and interactive exercises you can apply immediately to your story, rather than just a pop quiz that accesses where you are (that’s important and useful, but now you’ll have a strategy).

More information will be posted soon on this, stay tuned.

*****

PRICE REDUCTION on my ebook, “Warm Hugs for Writers.”   Now available for $2.95.

The book was a finalist in the crowed ebook category of the Next Generation Indie Awards, and delivers a combination of craft and comfort, along with a few laughs and shivers.  Hoping you’ll check it out.

 

 

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The Role of Concept in a Real-World Story

December 6, 2014

Quick story to encapsulate the mindset – complete with barriers and old tapes and other priorities – of the writer who struggles with the notion of concept. Concept, of course, is the presence of something conceptual within a story.  It’s not the story itself, but rather, the landscape for one.  A framework.  A compelling notion […]

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Can Your Concept be TOO Big?

December 3, 2014

To open this can of worms… Announcing the re-release of my novel, “The Seventh Thunder.” The concept is massive.  So much so it initially scared agents and publishers away.   A few years ago I used this novel as my calling card to find a new agent.  Leveraging the endorsement of my former editor at […]

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An Easy Approach to Story Building : The Bedtime Story Model

November 30, 2014

A Holiday Gift to Writers, from Art Holcomb Novelists and screenwriters are like cousins twice removed. We only cross paths occasionally but, when we start swapping stories, it can be fascinating what each can learn from the other. (Larry note: it’s also fascinating how much they can resist each other.  Which is a shame, because […]

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Story Structure: What “going with the flow” Really Means

November 22, 2014

From Plot Points to narrative quartiles.  This truth will set you free. Anyone who tells you to ignore the principles of story structure is: a) confusing process with outcome; b) telling you to “do it like I do it, because I am a genius,” and c) making the entire storytelling proposition orders of magnitude more […]

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Story Structure for Dummies

November 15, 2014

A Ceiling-Cracking Epiphany for Newer and Unaware Writers An Explanation of the Inevitable for Frustrated Practitioners There was a time, a decade or so, when you couldn’t write a headline like that. Because it seems to say one of two things: if you don’t understand this then you’re a dummy… or… you know you’re not […]

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Writing Successful Fiction: When What You Don’t Know Trumps What You Do Know

November 6, 2014

A tale of mishandled craft sinking the story ship. Quick story from the writing conference front. A few weeks 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 […]

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There’s Power in the Public Domain — A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

October 29, 2014

Stuck for an idea to develop? As a writer, I’m constantly looking for new approaches and new ideas to write about. I’m guessing you do the same. In recent years, there have been a number of books that have been written about characters developed by writers in the past – such as Sherlock Holmes, Dr. […]

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Getting Published: The Genre-Concept Connection

October 15, 2014

Somewhere deep within the genealogical family tree that illuminates the origins of the word genre, we find another word that confuses the whole issue: generic. And that’s the problem. Your genre-based story can easily become generic – it simply becomes another face is a crowded sea of stories – rather than standing out. This very […]

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