Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Learning Curve That Keeps On Curving

In all my years as a writer, writing teacher and blogger, I’ve never run into anybody who claims to know everything there is to know about storytelling.

That’s because the more you know, the more you realize how complex and deep it all can be.  Stories are like people, no two are completely alike, and therefore each needs to be regarded, analyzed, appreciated and repaired separately.

That said, certain fundamental principles and physics apply. 

Just like they do to people.  And they can be learned.

And yet, while nobody is claiming to know it all, I have run into writers who claim they don’t need to pay attention to those pesky fundamental principles and storytelling physics.  They say something like this:

“Don’t over-think it, just sit down and do it, let the story flow, trust your instinct, do whatever the hell you want, keep working on it and it’ll turn out like it’s supposed to. There are no rules.”

Not long ago I flew into Salt Lake to give a keynote and writing workshop at a major conference.  The young writer who picked me up at the airport was curious about my book (which is all about writing fundamentals and storytelling physics), and in the course of our conversation told me that one of writers who would be attending the conference – an older guy who had been writing for years – said my book was ridiculous, that there are only three things a writer needs to ultimately know, the rest is just hot air: the beginning, the middle and the end.

That’s it?  Who knew.  All these years, I’ve missed that one on the writing shelf.  This is the same guy who claims all he needs in life is “three hots and a cot.”

I asked now many books this guy had published.  The answer was none.

Interesting.  While I have run into writers who line up behind this simplistic belief system, none of them – zero – have been published.

Coincidence?  I think not.

And when it does happen – and I’m sure it does – it isn’t proof of the theory.  Rather, it’s the writer not understanding what just happened.

There are a few Big Names out there who claim to be listening to some muse, that they simply sit down and channel it.  But the truth (IMO) is one of three things: this is a transparent stab at modesty, they have a great editor, or they’re truly clueless and therefore just lucky to be where they are.

I don’t think the last two are it.  Such writers probably write organically, on instinct… but what is instinct if not the expression of something that has been learned?

In essence these writers are saying that they’re some kind of genius. 

Diana Gabaldon comes to mind.  As does Stephen King, who is a genius, but in talking about “how to write” laughably discounts the fact he’s published hundreds of stories over many decades, which by definition means he’s learned something along the way, which again by definition means if something can be learned, it can be sought-out and it can be taught, if nothing else through acknowledgement.

Just because you haven’t filed a flight plan, it doesn’t mean you don’t know how to fly the airplane.  No, that part you have to learn.

Life itself the palette for the art and craft of writing.

Nobody argues that craft cannot be learned.  It is always a learned thing. 

And because few argue that life can be fully and completely understood, that the learning about life stops at some point, the same must be applied to writing about it.

We are always in school.  The learning is always available.  The only time we are excused from class is when we turn our back on it.  And then, we are very much on our own.  In which case you better be a genius to get anywhere.

Great storytelling is hard.  It is complex.  It is a pool with no bottom, an ocean full of darkness and beauty and forces we do not understand.  And so, some minds shut down and turn to the quote given above, instead of learning how to swim.

At a glance one might suggest that old-timers have been exposed to all the learning, that the only available growth option is practice.  But I promise you, every day we live, and every time we read a story or see a film, we are learning. 

The proving of a truth is, in fact, a means of learning that truth.

The ignorance of a truth is, too often… fatal.

You can’t go out there and prove the earth is round. 

You just accept that it is.  You have pictures from the space shuttle that make you believe.  Just like we have stories that make us believe, even when we don’t understand the forces that make them work.

But you can go out and prove that a story without certain things going for it won’t work.  In fact, it’s actually harder to prove that it won’t than it is to prove that it will work.   

Doubt this?  Go ahead, write a story without compelling dramatic tension, with a hero who is not easily empathized with or easy to root for, without emotional resonance, without pace, without sub-text, without thematic depth, without voice. 

You can prove that these principles work simply by writing a story without them.

Watch what happens then.

The proof is that the story will be rejected

And it will continue to be rejected until you learn to apply the truth about storytelling fundamentals and physics.  Even then, though, it will need something else, including a dash of luck, to stand out from the crowd.  To prove that it can work.

Successful storytelling isn’t about the math.  Sometimes it doesn’t add up.  It can’t work if certain fundamental principles and physics are not there… yet it might work if they are.

You get to choose which game you’re playing.

That is the art of it.  An art that depends almost entirely on the craft upon which it is based.

Check out the March/April issue of Writers Digest… I have an article on page 55, about how to deliver “voice” in your stories.

I also recommend Andrea Hurst’s webinar, “Crafting Fiction and Memoir that Sells: An Agent’s Point of View,” this Thursday at 1:00 pm (Eastern). Click HERE to learn more.




Filed under getting published

The Secret Weapon of Storytelling… Right Under Your Nose

It’s good to find an edge.  Something extracted from the vast wealth of storytelling tips, techniques, principles and strategies already on your radar.  Something that is rarely talked about.  Yet when you know what it is, you see it everywhere. 

Once recognized and understood, you begin to see how it elevates a story into print, onto bestseller lists, and into theaters.

Any genre.  Any writer.  Any story. 

The nice thing about this little kernel of literary gold is that makes virtually any story better.  Even stories in which setting, in a more obvious context, isn’t all that critical.  Sometimes in these stories this little tactic is precisely what makes such a story a winner. 

All the writer has to do is recognize its power, then choose to build their story around it.  To optimize this ingredient.

I wrote about it earlier this week.  I call it vicarious experience, one of the major underlying story forces – essences – that impart power, weight and impact to novels and screenplays.

Vicarious experience is delivered through setting, or though social, cultural or relational dynamics. 

By definition, it means transporting the reader to a place, time or into a situation that:

a) they can’t or probably won’t ever experience in real life…

b) is inherently exciting, curious, dangerous, titillating or rewarding…

c) is forbidden and/or impossible, or…

d) is inherently compelling for some other reason.  Like, it really happened.

Using those letter denotations, this translates to: a) afterlife stories, historical stories, supernatural stories… b) arena stories (The Vatican, a corrupt law firm, a crack den, a major league baseball office), adventure stories, mob stories, stories about storms and mountains and sinking ships, dark love stories, prison stories… c) ghost stories, meth lab stories, corrupt cop stories, speculative fiction… d) issue-driven stories (like “The Help”), true stories, war stories, historical event stories, etc.

This is so common that it is often taken for granted. 

Every story unfolds upon a dramatic stage.  What we’re talking about is recognizing the opportunity to make that stage – both in support of your story, and as an independent source of focus and fascination – more compelling.  This is the forgotten step-child of both story planning and story “pantsing,” when in fact it can empower either process.

A love story set in rural Idaho?  This relies almost entirely on the character dynamic, nobody out there  is really wondering about the experience of being inTwin Falls.  But a love story set in, say… the White House… a nunnery… a pro sports team… the space shuttle… another planet… the afterlife… a big-timeHollywoodtalent agency or studio…

… you get the idea.  Same love story, better setting.  It’s vicariously rewarding just to be there.  The setting itself (as defined above, in this context)  has inherent appeal and reward for the reader.

It is the nature of the experience of being in such a setting that delivers vicarious experience.  We can’t go back to 1962 Jackson, Mississippi (nor would we choose to), but we can go there in The Help, which empowers its thematic intentions with the vivid landscape of its setting. 

When you add your story to a setting that delivers vicarious experience – when you set your story within this time, place or context that is, when regarded alone, inherently interesting – then you get a sum in excess of the parts.

Some stories are almost entirely about the vicarious experience.  Remember Top Gun?  A pretty pedestrian story.  And yet, it put us in the cockpit of a jet fighter, resulting in a billion dollar box office.

You’ve seen this executed over and over, but perhaps haven’t recognized what it has contributed to the reader (or viewing) experience.

Never again.

Let me show you how this exists out there right now.

One of the hot new novels these days is The Darlings, by Cristina Alger.  It’s a coming of age story set during the 2008 financial collapse in a family of billionaires living in the Upper East Side inManhattan.  The reviews almost entirely focused on this contextual setting – how it takes us into this forbidden realm – made all the juicer by the fact that the author is the daughter of a real-life hedge fund Big Cheese. 

Pure vicarious experience.  Same story, set on a cattle farm inKansas… it wouldn’t fly, wouldn’t get the buzz. 

Occupying the #6 position on the bestseller list is Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift, about – wait for it – werewolves.  It’s fantasy, but like all of Rice’s novels, it’s vicarious in that it allows us to live inside a world in which such creatures exist.  Not only exist, but love.

Harry Potter and Twilight and The Hunger Games all rely on pure vicarious experience.  We get to go to Hogwarts, we get to make love to the living and gorgeous dead, we get to live in a post-apocalyptic world in which moral sensibilities have melted down.  All of these stories have characters and plots and sub-plots – the author could have set them virtually anywhere and in any time — but they are all rendered special and defined by the vicarious experience they deliver.

When Stephanie Meyer decided to write about vampires (and largely reinvent the mythology), she was opting to deliver a vicarious experience.

Same with James Cameron when he made Titanic.  The vicarious experience of being on that ship as it went down was the central appeal of the whole thing.

I lived this firsthand, with my 2004 novel Bait and Switch.  Virtually every review (including the starred review from Publishers Weekly) mentioned “the world into which” I took the reader, that of Silicon Valley high tech billionaires and their trophy wives – a place where none of us can go, many of us wonder about, and where intrigue, danger and private jets await. 

You already understand the importance of setting. 

But vicarious experience, as a goal, can be more than simple time and place.  You can be delivered through social and character dynamics, as well.  What would it be like to be married to a serial killer?  To discover your child has supernatural abilities?  To be suddenly possessed of supernatural abilities yourself?  To live in a world in which aliens have taken over?

The answer to each of these is pure vicarious experience.  These are contextual story landscapes that could unfold in any place, at any time, and within any social system.

So there is it, a secret weapon just waiting for you.

Take a look at your story and ask yourself what kind of vicarious experience you are delivering to your reader.  All stories take us out of our own lives and into another existence, but does your setting – either time, place, contextual or relational –contribute to the reading experience in an exciting, compelling, even frightening way?  One that is vicarious?  One that readers will be drawn to – drawn into – by virtue of this alone?

Like everything else about your story, you get to choose. 

When you understand the power of your choices, not to mention the consequences, more than ever you begin to comprehend that the future upside of your story is yours to craft.

What stories can you think of that leverage the power of vicarious experience to make the story elements even more compelling?


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)