Mining The Foundations of Your Story
Art – indeed, life itself – is all about recognizing and building layers. Some theoretical, some physical, some experiential.
This is why the President of the United States, according to law, must be at least 35 years of age.
This is why kids shouldn’t drink and octogenarians shouldn’t pilot airplanes. It’s why you need an advanced degree before you operate on someone’s brain.
Because there’s the procedure… and then… there’s science, based on proven theory.
Same with art, too. Any painter will tell you that their work is layered, and that experience is what unlocks the potential of those layers. Whether it begins with a pencil sketch or simply spilling color onto a blank canvas, the finished product is always a process of layering and evolution.
Same with architecture, teaching, psychology, engineering, venture capital investing, accounting, landscaping or just about anything else that has even the slightest element of skill involved.
Bridges, for example, come in all sizes and shapes and styles. Yet even so, every bridge depends on an identical set of natural weight-bearing laws, called physics. Violate them and the whole thing comes crashing down, no matter how beautiful the arches.
So it is with storytelling.
What I call the Six Core Competencies of storytelling – concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice – is really a way to describe story development. To identify the standards, criteria and specific realms that must be addressed for a story to work.
These, too, are simply layers. But they are based on something that resides beneath them, propping them up, bearing the weight of the story. Without these foundations, the six core competencies are just power tools without an outlet.
When regarded alone, each core competency is a discreet layer that contributes to the architecture of the overall story. When combined (and plugged in), however, they become a higher stratum of storytelling – this is where the art resides – and when that layer is polished, this is what the world will experience, for better or worse.
The undoing of many writers is to begin with and focus on the skills without an adequate understanding of what resides beneath it all, bearing the weight of the story and holding everything in place.
What does lurk beneath it all?
The answer is, as with that bridge, physics. Literary physics. Forces that, when applied, always empower a story and, when absent, render it inadequate.
Don’t like bridges? Try this: these literary physics are what the principles of aerodynamics are to the designing of an airplane. You can fly one without an understanding of them, but you cannot build an airplane without it.
We are the designers of our stories before we are the builders of our stories.
And as such, we are bound by theories of dramatic physics. It is incumbent upon us to understand the underlying literary principles –natural dramatic forces – that make fiction work.
Just like the Six skill-based Core Competencies, these foundational, theoretical principles are non-negotiable. And yet they are malleable and can be rendered artfully – indeed, this is what separates the great from the good and the good from the rest – while always residing in some for at the very core of a great story.
A surgeon must understand biochemistry. An architect must understand engineering dynamics. A visual artist must understand perspective and dimension. A musician must understand musical theory, even if it is instinctual.
And a writer must understand dramatic theory.
The good news is that, unlike bridge building, literary physics are often instinctual – the so-called “natural storyteller” – much more so than a mastery of the Six Core Competencies that brings them to life.
Dramatic Theory: The Foundations of Fiction
Just as the Six Core Competencies become discreet skill categories that house its own roster of storytelling tools, so too do the foundations of dramatic theory break down into a handful of separate buckets.
There are four major dimensions of dramatic theory to consider:
There must be opposing goals or forces in play in your story. Otherwise the story becomes episodic, more descriptive than expository. An essay, a memoir, a vignette, a character sketch. A good story is a question asked and answered. Unless there is a hero who needs or wants something (the compelling nature of which is the power of the story), and there are forces opposing that need or desire (the fear of which is also empowering), and there are consequences hanging in the balance, it’s not yet a fully functional story.
All six of the core competencies are in context to this truth.
This is a make or break deal. The reader needs to care. They need to be involved in the story, both emotionally and intellectually. This is done through a combination of character craft and the establishing of stakes.
Flow and Pace
Like a pretty face, things get much more interesting when that face says and does things that surprise and compel us. When there is complexity behind the smile. A story must move into that complexity, both forward and backward (through the implication of backstory), in and out of various focuses, but always driving toward an outcome through the addition of expository information and an evolution of dynamics brought about by the actions of the characters.
The largest can of worms among the six core competencies – story structure, with its attendant parts and mission-driven milestones – is the tool that puts this theory into practice.
For all its potential, even all of this can fall flat if the reader doesn’t feel the moment in the key scenes of a story. This is where vivid description and visceral linguistics come into play (the core competency of writing voice), bringing the narrative alive in a way that transcends the page and becomes a portal to another existence.
Issues such as time, place, setting and arena are driven by this theory. If the reader is immersed in a new reality or within a realm so compelling they’ll forgive even a pedestrian story – think The Davinci Code – you win.
The extent to which these literary physics are seized and optimized is the extent to which the story will be effective. That said, the extent to which they are assembled and rendered via the Six Core Competencies also becomes the extent to which the story will be effective.
The airplane needs the pilot, the pilot needs the airplane, and both are subject to the natural laws of aerodynamics that get the thing off the ground.
This is why writing a great story will always be art. Just as long as the craft embraces both realms. It is always a dance between art and craft, music and lyrics, singer and song.
This dance becomes our goal and our journey as writers.
In my book and on this site, I’ve often said that the Six Core Competencies that build on these foundations (an optimization of dramatic theory is the goal of the six core competencies) are just the ante-in, the entry-level skills to get into the writing game at a professional level.
That said, one might legitimately wonder why, then, a story that covers all of these bases with a nifty level of skill still might not find a publisher or an audience. Both a fair and frightening question.
The answer is found beneath the core competencies – down there under the bridge below the surface of the water – because it is here where a qualitative assessment kicks in.
A story that nails all six of the core competencies can still suck.
But a story that nails all six and in the process optimizes the four foundational realms of literary physics – dramatic tension, reader empathy, flow/pace and vicarious experience – will never suck.
When we arrive at a place where we finally understand the architecture, nuances, elements, skills and essences that make a story great, we will have one foot planted firmly in each realm.
How are you doing at the foundational level of your storytelling? Can you differentiate this realm of story dynamics from the realm of competence in story design and execution? Or are you just flying the airplane — pushing buttons because the operator’s manual says to — without a clue as to how it gets off the ground?
One is physics, the other is physical.