Monthly Archives: February 2012

Your Story: It’s All in the Mix

Mixer board

You may be aware of my penchant for analogies.  A tool that paints a clear picture of the complexities and choices and skillsets involved in writing a great story.  I did a workshop this weekend and managed to cram about eight of them into a single 50-minute lecture.

Only one person fled the room.

I do this because I like mental models.  Writing a story is not, in my view, intuitively complex – although that’s a false mask, the truth is it is magnificently complex – and yet it is the absence of complexity that can render a story flat and vanilla. 

So when we compare storytelling to other avocations and tasks that seem, at a glance, to be linear and singular in focus, and discover that success at the professional level depends on the mastery of nuance, balance, harmony, complexity and the unspoken… all rendered with the touch of an artist, those examples become windows of learning for us, we who are storytellers.

It is that mastery of nuance that imbues the work with artfulness. 

Without it, craft only takes you so far.

So consider this: writing a story casts you in several critical roles: designer… architect… general contractor (big picture)… craftsman (for the detail work; use of the word here intended to be gender-free, by the way;)… and – don’t short-change yourself by taking this one for granted – engineer.

You are the producer of your story.  Before, during and after your role as the composer and artist of your story.

Here’s the analogy of the day: this dynamic parallels the means by which music is composed, compiled and rendered to a hard disk in a studio. 

If you’ve seen a mixing board in a professional studio, you know it competes with the cockpit of the space shuttle in complexity and options.  More knobs, gauges, levers and buttons than one who is not a sound engineer could possibly comprehend.  And yet, to the engineer, they are all viable candidates in the ultimate mix, each controlling some nuance of the whole, each subject to artful taste and a vision for the end product.

The touch of an artist, extending that of the composer and the performer.

Notice, too, how in this analogy nobody is playing with those knobs all that much while the musicians are jamming behind the glass.  No, the mixing takes place after the tracks have been laid down… which parallels our process of revising and polishing our stories after we’ve discovered them via planning or through drafting.

A great story is just too complex to pour out of your head as a fully nuanced whole without consideration, after the discovery of the story, of the mix.

Facing the variables in your story.

Here’s a list, off the top of my head. 

Certainly not complete – mixing boards come in all sizes. 

You can create music by attending to only a few of the myriad sliding levers, or you can consider them all… some get a nudge, others are jacked up to eleven. 

It’s always your call. 

And while some of those choices are made in the studio while the tracks are being laid down, most often the genius touch of the engineer comes forth in the mix, turning the live performance into harmonic, layered perfection.

Okay, that list.  Here are the knobs on your story mixing board:

Conceptual strength and focus… originality… a fresh twist… leveraging the familiar… scene strategy… chapterization… arena… setting… time-frame… social context… credibility… genre… target readers… marketability… visualization…

…dramatic tension… story complexity… layering… degree and nature of set-up… power of the hook… context… stakes… sub-plot… sub-text… pre—plot point worldview… sequencing… twists… plot points… pinch points… the mid-point…

… the whole row of knobs and sliders that comprise story structure… (opening, prologue, hook, part one, plot point one, part two, first pinch point, mid-point, part three, second pinch point, second plot point, part four, denouement, close, epilogue)…

… antagonistic nature… antagonistic force… that backstory… bad guy’s goals and motivations… obstacles offered… obstacles encountered… the dark game plan… antagonistic metaphor… window into life itself…

… hero backstory… inner demons and obstacles… character arc… the hero’s journey… the hero’s need… the hero’s stakes… the shifting landscape of the story… secondary characters… catalytic characters… background characters… sidebar moments… flashbacks… fast-forwards…

… imagery… point… counter-point… theme… vicariousness… empathy… likeability… or not… emotion… meaning… relevance… hypothesis… history… fact vs. fiction… legality… gray areas… sex… violence… reader manipulation…

…voice (first person? third person?  both?)… volume… harmony… humor… point of view… backgrounds… foregrounds… dialogue… exposition… pace…

… outcome.

That’s a lot of little knobs and sliders to consider. 

Each one an entire workshop.  No wonder it can take years to even crack the surface of an understanding of this thing we call storytelling.

Each one is addressed in context to what took place behind the glass, where the voices and instruments are: melody, harmony, structure, tonality, emotion, musicianship, voice.

All those knobs, staring up at you.  Waiting to be set just so.  Hoping they won’t be ignored, because if they are, they’ll set themselves in context to the rest of the settings, and do so at a lowest common denominator.

You are the story engineer.  Before, during and after you are the author of the story itself.  At some point they become one in the same. 

Just know that when you change hats, and how, will make a significant difference in how your story ultimately works.

Check out my latest guest post, now up at The Chicken-Egg Paradox of Storytelling.  There are links to five other guest posts at the bottom of the page.

Image courtesy of Samuel M. Livingston.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

Elevate Your Story Through the Sublime – and Subliminal – Use of Sub-Text

All stories have sub-text.  No exceptions.  Because life itself is riddled with it.

The real issue for writers, then – the real opportunity – becomes this: will anyone notice?  Will the sub-text of your story contribute to a sense of tension, emotional layering and expositional opportunities?

An under-appreciated truth: in a world full of genre-based fiction and character-driven mainstream stories, sub-text is perhaps the most differentiating and inherently powerful aspect of storytelling.

If you’re looking for an edge, an advanced tip, a “secret the bestselling authors don’t want you to know”… this is it.  Master this and you’re immediately playing in a league above the norm.

To not proactively address the issue of sub-text with the intention of harnessing it’s power in your story is like a musician ignoring harmony.  Because there is so much inherent potential above, below and between the layers of the main melody-line.

Without the use of differentiating, compelling sub-text in your stories, you are singing a cappella.  And when was the last time you heard that on the Top-100 list?

You don’t have to completely understand sub-text to actually use it to your advantage as a writer of fiction.  Because sub-text is the offspring of setting, characterization, backstory and dramatic exposition.

Sub-text in your story is like stuff growing in your yard.  You can seed it and care for it, or you can let it spring up on its own.  Either way, it defines the street appeal of your home, either adding to or compromising what you’re going for.

That said, sub-text is always an available layer to make your story richer, deeper and more compelling.  The evolved, professional writer gets this.

Of course, knowing what sub-text even means is the starting point. 

So let’s go there.

You already know that you must set your story somewhere.  That your story unfolds in a world of your creation, either real or surreal.  

In a setting.  A location, a timeframe, a culture or society, even within a family or a workplace dynamic of some kind.

But it is more than setting, too.  Sub-text often equates to, and facilitates, theme.  It’s fair to say that setting becomes theme when proactively applied as sub-text.

When you make choices about setting, physical and cultural, you are choosing your sub-text.  Because these choices apply certain pressures – forces – that define and influence what happens within the settings and themes you’ve chosen.

To optimize sub-text, the writer elects to make the story about the setting, time, place or social context by making those pressures and forces actual factors in how the story unfolds.

Remember the movie “Witness,” with Harrison Ford? 

The witness to the crime that anchors the plot was Amish, a belief system that applies significant pressure to the choices of those who adopt it, and defines how the outside world views those who adopt it.  And thus, that sub-text was key to the story.

Without that particular sub-text, “Witness” is just another mystery.  One without eight (1885) Academy Award nominations and two wins. 

In “The Help,” both book and film, sub-text was the most significant thing about the entire story – the racial biases, norms and inequities of the chosen time and place.  When Kathryn Stockett set out to write this story – it’s entirely possible the term “sub-text” never entered her mind — she knew her story was about this thematic issue, and everything that happens character-wise, and plot-wise, connects to and is informed by it.

Imagine that story unfolding today, anywhere.  It might work, but it would be a completely different dramatic paradigm.  This next Sunday you’ll see the fruit of Stockett’s choice, beyond the tens of millions of copies she’s sold – Academy Awards up the wazoo. 

Remember Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill”?  Pure sub-text.  Without that southern setting from the 1950s, it would all be old news.  When a novel uses sub-text to define the times, that’s seizing an inherent opportunity beyond the compelling nature of its plot.

“The Davinci Code”… duh. 

In fact, when you look closely at iconic bestsellers and critically-acclaimed movies, you’ll see sub-text as the essence-in-commonWatch, read and learn.

Examples are everywhere.

In romances, sub-text is often the social barriers that separate lovers.  The era of the story, and the social norms of the culture, defines what can happen and what can’t.  Which is the sub-text, if not the theme itself.

In mysteries, sub-text is often police corruption, sexual deviation, corporate or political greed and self-service, or a landscape of human darkness springing from jealously, sociopathology, opportunism, fear or hatred.

In science fiction, sub-text might be the impending death of a planet, or a post-apocalyptic setting in which survival is defined by the environment, or the presence of non-human intelligence.  Technology versus humanity.

Every story has sub-text. 

You have a choice – you can manage it, or allow it to manage your story for you.  But know this: without throwing a lasso around it, followed by a harness, it’ll run wild and perhaps run away, rather than leading you somewhere it might not otherwise go.

The Optimization of Sub-Text

As story developers, we are always making decisions in the realm of setting, character arc and dramatic tension.  So it is easy to overlook or take for granted the role of sub-text in how our stories play out.

Sub-text is conceptual (one of the Six Core Competencies), in that your choice of setting or underlying story forces creates the compelling X-factor of the story.  A love story set in rural Iowa farmland… you better be Jonathan Franzen or you’re bucking the odds. 

A love story set in a nunnery… that’s a lasso that can make you famous.

What was the sub-text in some of your favorite novels?

Can you describe the sub-text in your current novel or screenplay, and in doing so, is it adding impact and weight to your story?

Personal Newsflash

I’m excited to announce that I’m now represented by the Andrea Hurst & Associates Literary Agency, with three submittable new projects and a backlist still alive and kicking. 

Landing a new agent is a Big Deal.  My wish for you is that, if you haven’t already, you soon experience the sense of purpose and hope that having the right agent brings to your work, and your life.

Thanks for reading I’m here to help you get there. L.




Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)