Monthly Archives: December 2011

Mini-Workshop Part 2: The Great Seductive and Often Fatal Temptation of the New Writer

We all begin our storytelling experience as new writers.  And thus, we all have a journey to take.  Each journey is unique, with an infinite number of starting places and contextual baggage to either help us or weigh us down.  Usually both.

Irrespective of those differences however, one thing is true: we all end up – or strive to end up – in the same place.  To become writers of effective stories. 

When we get there, the technical underpinnings of our stories – the physics of them, the forces that make them work – will be virtually the same. 

Storytelling is like gravity – you can play with it all you want, but in the end you have to honor the underlying forces and create your vehicle in context to them, or what you create will never arrive safely at its destination.

The process of getting to that point is the subject of much debate. 

In my view, seeking out the nature and limits of those storytelling physics (forces) is empowering.  It gives us a framework and a roadmap along the way. 

Some writers prefer to set out on foot, foregoing the road and climbing the mountains with a pick-ax.  To learn the physics through the pain of failure and/or the deductive reasoning of a child learning to walk can work, or even simply trying to imitate other writers… it’s all a certain ticket to frequent falls before you begin to walk with confidence. 

In my view, the biggest and saddest mistake a new writer can make is to fail to recognize the physics that govern the effectiveness of what we put on the page.  To believe that there are no rules, no physics, and/or that they reside in some magical, muse-governed realm that is accessible only through pain and decades of experience.

A lot of writers, and even writing teachers, like to say “there are no rules.”  That’s semantics.  That’s rhetoric.  Okay, there are no rules… but there are underlying physics at work… EVERY time.  Violate them, compromise them, and your story will fail.  Period.

That “no rules” thinking is just so wrong, at least if you don’t recognize it as semantics.  This is stuff you can learn, and quickly.  Not easily – it’s complicated, but eventually.  When you do, storytelling physics become the context from which you write.

Those physics kick in on Page One.

Which means that if you use your draft as a means of discovery of your story, meandering in and out of character and dramatic exposition without a clear path… then suddenly you find that path and finish your story accordingly… that can work.  Takes a while, but it’ll get you there.  But… if you don’t go back and revise those wandering first pages in context to the newly-discovered chosen path of your story… it’ll fail.  Or at least, it won’t work as well as it could.

And that’s the Great Trap so many new writers fall into.

You really can plan your story… then write it, then play with it.

Or, you can begin writing drafts as a means of discovering your story, beginning at Square One.

But if, once discovered, you don’t go back and revise your story in context to the newly discovered path of it, it’ll fail.  Every time.  It’s like a cook who begins with hamburger and decides she wants chicken enchiladas before her guests arrive… you have to start over.  Even if the table was already set.

That’s the most common mistake I see in my work as a story coach.  Writers who don’t write their stories in context to something… be they the principles of story architecture, or a story plan… something that becomes the very heart and soul of the story they are working on.

This trap is avoidable.  And we all get to choose.

I’m not saying you must plan.  That’s not a rule, it’s a recommendation… and once you begin to understand the underlying physics, a bit of an inevitability.

I am saying that, to write a successful story, the universal physics of dramatic theory must be honored and observed on the page, at some point, no matter what path you choose to get there.

I originally prepared these two mini-workshop posts for Lisa Miller, who ran them several months ago on her terrific site, which you can check out HERE.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

A Little Holiday Gift for You: Part 1 of a 2-Part Mini-Workshop

(Refresher or Breaking News… this is essential, 101-level, can’t-hear-it-enough story coaching.)

Part 1: The Make Or Break Moment in Your Story

It’s not the ending.

And it’s not the opening.

The entire realm of story architecture is complex, and therefore challenging to discuss without a Big Picture view.  It’s like talking to an engineer about weight-bearing stress points on a bridge… it’s all in context to the Big Picture of building bridges that will never fall into the water.   To someone new to bridge building – even if they’ve driven over a million bridges in their life – they can’t really get it until they’ve gone through Bridge Building 101 and learned the physics of it all.

Storytelling has physics, too.  Nearly every unpublished story ever submitted has been compromised, to some degree, by the author’s less-than-full grasp of those physics.  Many times those stories were simply winged, written from the author’s intuitive, been-reading-novels-since-I-was-a-kid sensibility, which rarely is enough.

So, as I launch into a little rant about what I believe to be the most important moment in a story – any story – I realize that what I have to say is indeed in context to that Big Picture called story architecture.  Or, a four-part, three milestone, six core competency-dependent framework peppered with dozens of lesser but nonetheless important features, all of which are weight-bearing stress points within a story. 

When one cracks, the whole thing falls into the river.

That Most Important Moment is the First Plot Point. 

It’s sometimes called the Inciting Incident, but that’s only valid when the FPP and the II occur at the same moment (which they can and often do, but don’t have to; sometimes a killer II can occur as part of the set-up, prior to the FPP). 

Confused yet?  If you’ve already wrapped your head around the principles of story structure (which is a subset of story architecture), then probably not.  If you haven’t, then that’s the most empowering, urgent and magical tip you can receive: go out and find that knowledge.  It’ll change everything about your storytelling experience.

Once you do – or if you have – then you know that the First Plot Point is the milestone that transitions a story from the opening (Part 1) “set-up” scenes, and thrusts it into the reactive (Part 2) scenes that are all in context to it.

The First Plot Point usually occurs — it should occur — between the 20 and 25 percent mark of the story.  Prior to that moment, the scenes have introduced the players, shown us their world view, established stakes and reader empathy, and either planted or foreshadowed the elements that will come to bear on the dramatic tension. 

The launching of that dramatic tension is the mission of the First Plot Point.

Not to say there can’t be significant dramatic tension (the hero’s goal in opposition to an antagonistic force with an opposing goal) prior to the FPP.  Even so, the FPP needs to be there, because it changes the entire story by expanding it and/or shifting toward a new path: the hero suddenly has a problem or a quest or a need or a challenge… there are stakes already in place that hang in the balance… and there is opposition (either visible or implied) that stands between the hero and the achievement of that goal.

This is a universal structural principle.  It applies to any story, every story, in any genre.  It happens in a moment, within a scene, sometimes in a single sentence, at approximately the same place in every novel or movie you’ll read or see these days.

If the FPP happens too late, you risk losing the reader and diluting the pace.

If it happens too early, you risk a low level of backstory, weak reader empathy, thin stakes and a flat middle.  An opening “hook” (a very early moment that grabs and holds) isn’t a First Plot Point, it’s a powerful part of the set-up of that milestone.

If the story was a circus tent, held in place against the elements by strong poles, the FPP is the tallest and most important of those weight-bearing poles.  Because everything that happens before it is a set-up for it, and everything that happens after occurs in context to it.

Next up: #2:  The Great Seductive and Fatal Temptation of the New Writer




Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)