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The Six Great Epiphanies of Successful Authors

by Larry Brooks on September 2, 2014

I love this word: Epiphany.

It comes from the Greek word epiphneia, which means apparition, in reference to the manifestation of a supernatural or divine reality.

The more contemporary definition, one of four contexts, is:

A sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

In other words, an Epiphany is something that was right in front of us all along.

So it is when it comes to writing our stories.

It represents an opportunity, born of a recognition of the truth.

A truth that may have been holding you back because you weren’t fully acknowledging it, a truth that may propel you further and faster once you do.

When it comes to writing effective fiction, there are a handful of Epiphanies that await. And while the A-list authors you worship may or may not ascribe their success to them, or describe them in this way (as shown below) if they do, they nonetheless practice the craft of writing in context to them.

Every time, in one form or another.

So what do they know that we don’t?

While that’s perhaps a grievously black-and-white way to phrase the question, we can boil it down to a few key awarenesses, skills and belief systems – truths – that elevate stories to a consistent level of effectiveness.

But take caution, because these truths are subtle.

So subtle you might easily dismiss them, or naively believe you already align with them. If you’d prefer to wait a decade to crawl out from beneath a truckload of rejection slips to see the truth and value they represent, that’s an available option.

Or, you can inject them — force-feed them if you have to — into your conscious recognition of what creates successful fiction right now… in a world in which 990 of every 1000 stories written are not yet at that level.

That statistic in itself can and should ignite an Epiphany or two, or five… or at least clear the way for these truths to become one for you.

Here’s what successful authors understand at the very core of their writing souls:

1. They see craft, or the absence of it, in everything they read.

Perhaps the best way to elevate our storytelling craft — once we believe we have internalized the essences and structures and forces of story — is to go out and look for them and acknowledge them in the stories we read and the films we watch.

The enlightened pro sees craft (as structure and narrative forces) in every story, either as an asset or a diagnosis.  They become Dr. House in a hospital full of suffering patients… one glance and they can explain why.

An analogy is in order here.

Let’s say you play golf with someone who is pretty good. To you their swing is beautiful and perfect. They are a 5-handicap, which is darn good, way better than yours. You can’t see a single thing this person is doing differently than the touring pros you watch on TV… and yet, you know that a 5-handicap doesn’t come close to being good enough to be one of those players.

And yet, a golf pro can look at the same swing and see what’s wrong, and what’s strong, right away. They can’t miss it. Why? Because they understand the game at a level of resolution that civilian golfers don’t.

Same with storytelling. You need to be the pro that sees and understands what works, and what doesn’t. Not just as an observer/reader, but as a practitioner who can apply that awareness to your own work.

The Epiphany is when you know you can do just that.

There are specific lists of criteria, benchmarks and levels that define those essences, and thus, the true Epiphany. The pro understands that list, the unenlightened writer either denies or under-appreciates them, preferring to just write.

“Just write” might be the most toxic advice a new writer can hear. Sadly, it’s among the most common pieces of so-called conventional wisdom out there.  Some people “just write” for decades and never get anywhere.

It doesn’t matter if everyone in your critique group is crazy for your story. What matters is what an agent, an editor and ultimately what readers will think about it. The reading experience is very different than the writing experience, and the difference resides in those subtleties and essences.

In my work as a story coach, about two-thirds of the stories that come in are from authors who believe they’ve nailed it. The other third is from writers who know they haven’t and want clarity on what could be better.

Which means, most writers don’t know what they don’t know. And that gap will block their path until they do finally, truly, know.

A deep dive into the building blocks of craft (the six core competencies, and the six realms of story physics), will lead you toward a heightened awareness that is reinforced by seeing it out there in the real world.

Once you see the craft, you can’t unsee it. Seeing is believing. And unless you are content to rely on luck, or place your bet on your own intuitive storytelling sense (which, ironically, is the product of knowing craft) believing is required to reach the goal.

2. They dwell at the intersection of concept and premise.

The enlightened pro understands that the bar is high. That you can’t make a cow’s ear idea into a silk purse story (perhaps the most common downfall of the newer, unenlightened writer). That a story needs to have compelling energy at its very core, at the concept and premise level.

That particular assessment – what is compelling, what isn’t… or worse, what is compelling only to you – is the difference between successful published authors and those who, however fine their writing, can’t seem to break through.

A story was sent to me recently in which a man (the hero, for whom we were being asked to empathize with and root for) talked himself into believing that he could not achieve happiness until he bought his father’s drugstore. Which required him traveling to the third world to resolve a centuries old mystical question in order to raise the money to accomplish). The author believed that others would find this notion, this concept, compelling. I disagreed. There is absolutely nothing conceptual, and thus, compelling, about this idea.  It was too contrived, it jumped lanes, it was highly unrelatable.

Click HERE for a roster of 13 articles on this topic, to see the difference between a concept and a premise (yes, Virginia, there is a difference, and it is critical), and what qualifies as compelling via the various of levels of story physics involved.

3. They understand what burns at the core of an effective story.

I refer to these story forces as story physics, and there are bunch of them (six, in fact). The most important, though, is already on the table and not remotely a new revelation: dramatic tension.

No drama, no story. Period. Conflict, the source of dramatic tension, is the most important and consistently essential element in all of fiction.

The mistake of the newer, unenlightened writer (pre-Epiphany) is when they focus on character (common in romance), time/place (common in historicals), or theme (common in all genres)… to the detriment or even the exclusion of conflict-driven drama that defines the expositional spine of the story.

In other words, not who your hero is, but what your hero does.

The Epiphany is this: the core dramatic question posed by the setup of the story is the element that defines its viability. Not a tour of the hero’s psyche, not a journal of their tormented background, not a Rick Steves-esque outline of the destination/setting and its beauty and historical significance… but rather, what happens to the character – what they need or want, what opposes and challenges them, and what’s at stake.

When a reviewer refers to a book as “a novel of Ireland,” they aren’t suggesting that the book works because it so vividly imagines Ireland, the place. Rather, when it works, it will be about what HAPPENS to someone in Ireland.  Reviewers almost always miss this, and thus contribute to the misinformation that requires an Epiphany to correct.

It boils down to this:

A successful story is never just ABOUT something – a character or a place or an event in history. Rather, a successful story is always about something HAPPENING within the arena of a character’s life, or a place, or an event in history.

The awaiting Epiphany arrives when you completely understand the meaning and implications of those two sentences.

Do that, just that, and you will immediately be among the top ten percent of unpublished writers everywhere. It’s that important and empowering.

4. They understand the true nature of characterization.

You could state the previous entry as this, even though this is slightly different: enlightened writers understand that character is not the centerpiece of story. Oh horrors, your college lit professor is throwing his glass of fine Scotch against the faculty lounge wall as we speak.

But it’s the truth when it comes to commercially viable fiction in today’s market.

Rather – and this is subtle – the essential element of character is empowered by what he/she does in a story, what they decide, what actions they take, and how they conquer obstacles, both interior and (most importantly) exterior… all in context to what hangs in the balance as the stakes of those decisions and actions.

The Epiphany isn’t that character is less important than you believed it be, but rather, the means of showcasing and exploring character is different than you believed it to be.

Wrap your head around that, just that, and you will immediately be among the top five percent of unpublished writers everywhere.

An episodic journal of your hero’s life is destined to fail… unless and until each portion (episode) of the story is infused with dramatic tension. Not something that the reader simply notes and observes, but is emotionally engaged with to the extent they are rooting for an outcome.

I told you it was subtle. It takes some writers decades to get this one down. This Epiphany, a moment of clarity, will get you there quicker.

5. They understand the difference between a draft and a final draft.

The process of writing a story (novel or screenplay, even a short story) always breaks down into three linear phases:

a. The search for the story.
b. The development of the story, once defined.
c. The polishing and optimization of the story.

All processes – planning, plotting, pantsing, or a hybrid approach – engage with these three phases. Often the lines between them are blurry, allowing the writer to jump from phase to phase.

Dangerous, if you aren’t aware of what this means. Joyous, when you are.

Again, an Epiphany is required.

The Epiphany is this: the writer is completely aware of, in command of, the fact that they haven’t yet found the best and complete story. And thus, they are completely aware of which of the three phases they are currently engaged with. They understand that they are still in the search for story phase.

The opposite — when you have moved on to developing an undiscovered and incomplete story — is where the abyss awaits.  That’s like trying to wallpaper the rooms in a house in which the concrete of the foundation is still wet.

Only when the search is complete can you then develop and optimize the story you have found.

Let’s say you’re a pantser. You write organically, with only a vague notion of where the story is going… you are counting on the story appearing before you as you go. Fine, go for it.

This is a viable process, but extremely risky if you are, in fact, less than enlightened about what is required before a story works.

So there you are, writing away, when suddenly – let’s say, around page 140 – everything about the story changes for you. A lightbulb flashes. Muses descend on clouds of hope. You find a different and better path for the story. A completely different ending. Maybe even a new hero emerging from the crowd.

And so you change lanes and keep going, finishing the book from that moment of clarity, writing in context to that clearer vision.

That draft, the one in which you did this, won’t work. It absolutely works as a process – as a means of completing the search for the story – but not as a viable draft.

A truly final, optimized draft will always be written in context to a fully-formed story… beginning, middle and end. Especially the end.

The enlightened writer gets this. They know and accept that they’ve used the draft as a tool in the search for story phase. And now that they’ve found it within that draft, they know they are now in the second phase, which is the development of the story across the four-parts and seven key milestones of its structure.

They know what those parts and milestones are, too, and where they should appear within the next draft, which will be a lot closer to “final.”

The unenlightened writer, however, who doesn’t understand all this, proceeds to implement a polish to that half-and-half draft and then stamps “FINAL” on it.

The Epiphany comes – if, in fact, it manifests at all – when the rejection slip arrives and the writer is open to being shown what went wrong.

6. They know how the game (publishing) is played, and they play to it.

The Epiphany here is the realization that established writers with proven history and a contract are held to a different standard than new writers seeking to break in. Many of which give up the fight and self-publish, thus cluttering this emerging segment of the equation with sub-par product.

If you are one of those established writers, chances are you are already post-Epiphany, so the work you submit comes close to the mark. You also know, because you’ve already received half of your advance – that there is a floor full of editors somewhere (or a single person in a smaller house) that will help you fix whatever needs fixing.

The dark side of not understand this is the likelihood that you may, however subconsciously, be writing a book that is modeled after an author or a specific book you have read. It looks easy from your favorite reading chair, story seems like an accessible thing, so you intuitively try to write it “like Baldacci.”

I once knew a country gentleman doctgor, a guy who was always the smartest guy in every room he’d ever been in.  One day he announced his retirement so he could write a novel.  He was a Clancy fan, and he had a killer spy story tell.  Two weeks later he was done with his first draft, which he submitted all over the place.  The draft was 89 pages long.

Nobody ever told him what had gone wrong.  Because nobody could tell him things like that.  He was A Doc-tor, and he knew best.

He remains unpublished.

Epiphanies only come to those who are open to it.  “Need” has nothing to do with it.

The things that work within a story are subtle and complicated. Hard to see… unless you’re enlightened to them, in which case you can’t not see it.

You could do an appendectomy with a knife and fork, too, and then sew up the incision and pop a beer. When you’re done it looks just like what they do on Grey’s Anatomy.

But the patient is going to die.

Storytelling, at a level required to compete in today’s market, is that complicated.

The Epiphany is understanding what that list of forces, essences and nuances are, and how they are playing in your story.

It can take a lifetime of assimilation to get there.

Or, you can simply go to the right resources — books and workshops and coaching and enlightened groups — and completely immerse yourself in the building blocks of craft.

And when you do, you’ll find yourself circling back to #1 on this list… you’ll see it in play everywhere, in every novel and film and TV show and story you read. And your writing world will be forever changed, thanks to that Epiphany… an awareness and body of knowledge that you’ll now share with every successful writer on the bookshelves today.

Of course there is a long list of other things that come into play.

But pretty much all of them are subordinated to these major truths. Each of which announces itself to you, over and over again along the writing road, until you see it. Until you get it.

Until your Epiphany arrives.

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Sometimes an Epiphany only happens when someone, a qualified someone, reads your stuff and shines a harsh light of critical assessment on it, looking for the basic elements of craft and story physics in what you’ve done. It’s clarity that is hard to find in that context, and invaluable when you do.

This is the mission of my story coaching work. I have several affordable levels to offer… check the links above the header of today’s post, or read the descriptions in the right-hand column.

I can show you where the Epiphanies are hiding in your work. Not just what isn’t work, but why it isn’t working, and usually with a fix in mind.

*****

Click HERE to get a FREE 114-page ebook that breaks down and analyzes my novel, Deadly Faux, from the point of view of the author. My publisher (Turner) has discounted the Kindle edition of the novel  to only $1.99 (again, the deconstruction ebook is free), if you’d care to experience this learning opportunity in context to the actual story.

It’s a well reviewed book so far (check out the blurb from James Frey in the right hand column ), built upon the criteria and benchmarks written about above, so it’s a win-win either way.

Hope you’ll take advantage of this while that discounted price remains in place (which is up to the publisher’s discretion).

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Story Structure: a Graphic You Can Use

by Larry Brooks on August 18, 2014

You are one click away from a useable, printable, post-able (as in, on your wall) graphic  representation of classic 4-part story structure, including the 7 major story milestone transition “moments” within the story.

Get it right here: Structure Graphic.

In the previous post I framed this… as part of a Powerpoint presentation on the subject of: how to put your story on steroids.  While the live version had he witty and passionate audio that assists in clarity, the slides stand alone as a tutorial with punch.

Some readers have commented that a few of the other slides (#24, #25 and #28 especially) are just as valuable, if not more so.  As in: what you need to know about your story before it’ll work as well as it could, and in what order of priority.

Yes, that’s what I said.  Steroids.  A total shot in the petard of your story, to make it stronger, bigger, faster, better.  It’s legal, too, an added bonus.

If you’d like to see that entire presentation, click here: Story on Steroids

Hope you find this useful.

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Click HERE to land a trifecta opportunity: 1) score a mystery/thriller with killer reviews for only $1.99 for the Kindle edition; 2) download a totally FREE, no strings ebook that deconstructs the whole thing, while going behind the curtain to see how this book, and many like it, find their way to market; and 3) snag a rare learning opportunity to go deep and see the principles in play via an in-depth case study.

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How to Elevate Your Story Above the Eager Crowd

August 16, 2014

The “crowd” is pretty good, too.   And they want what you want.   So you need to be better. Greetings from Los Angeles, where I’m presenting at the Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference.  I did two sessions yesterday, and later today I’m doing a workshop entitled: “Your Story on Steroids.” This is why I […]

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The Value of “Pantsing”

August 8, 2014

(Click HERE to land a trifecta opportunity: 1) score a mystery/thriller with killer reviews for only $1.99 for the Kindle edition; 2) download a totally FREE, no strings ebook that deconstructs the whole thing, while going behind the curtain to see how this book, and many like it, find their way to market; and 3) […]

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A Great Read… a Learning Opportunity… a Massive Discount

August 4, 2014

A Major Price Reduction… and a FREEBIE, too! Here’s something you’ve never seen before: A well reviewed novel… written by a bestselling novelist who is also the author of bestselling “how to write novels” books… offered at a 75% DISCOUNT (Kindle version)… that includes a FREE 114-page “how it was done and what you can […]

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The Epidemic and Systemic Sabotage via Brainwashing of Aspiring Novelists

July 30, 2014

As a writing coach and author of writing books and articles, I deal in numbers. Volume. Significant databases of writers and stories. Manuscripts, story plans, synopses, samples, story analysis and the hands-on witnessing of stories under development. And I’m here to tell you… … there’s trouble in River City. I see it, I read it, […]

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A Better Way to Open Your Novel

July 24, 2014

There’s always two ways to put something out there.  The room divides in terms of which hits hardest… the in-your-face “don’t make this mistake!” approach… or the more positive, “here’s a better way you can do it.” Frankly, I can lean either way.  I mention this because today’s headline cuts both ways.  I came to […]

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Why You Should Be Mercilessly Hacking Apart Your Favorite Stories

July 19, 2014

A guest post by K.M. Weiland You shouldn’t be reading this blog. No, seriously. As awesome as Larry’s blog is and as generous as he is for sharing his story sense with all of us, this is not the place to learn how to write a story. (This is the part where Larry kicks me […]

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A “Story Engineering” Success Story: One Writer’s Journey Into Craft

July 15, 2014

An Interview with James Williams A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard I’ve been writing fiction since I was a kid. Now, I’m a writing coach by day and a writer by night (and sometimes also a writer by day and a writing coach by night). But I never had anyone else in my family with […]

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China, Free Stuff, a New Book Announcement, and a Quick Word About “Battered Bastards”

July 12, 2014

I’m heading to Beijing next week… … to help launch the Chinese release of  “Story Engineering,” and to teach a workshop on how writing is taught in the States.  Which is a favorite topic of mine… I promise to be nice. I thought I’d share a couple of things here on Storyfix that might provide […]

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