Monthly Archives: July 2012

Booster Shots for your Search for Story

Things to keep in mind as you plan, draft, revise and dream, in no particular order… because there is no particular order:

An “idea” for a story is NOT a story.  Any more than a seed is a tree.  You have lots of watering and fertilizing to do before the seed becomes something that will live.

There are, at minimum, eleven qualities and specific focuses you need to deliver to your story.  You can stumble upon them or you can shoot for them from an informed baseline of knowledge… your call.

There are six specific realms of “story physics” that determine it’s level of effectiveness and power.  These are the qualitative essences of a story: a compelling premise… dramatic tension… effective pacing… hero empathy… vicarious experience… functional execution. 

That last one is composed of six core competencies (so we don’t count it twice, resulting in 11 things you need to know).  These comprise the toolbox, the design kit, for your story: concept… character… theme… structure (with about 10 sub-topics included here)… scene execution and writing voice.

If you go 11 for 11, you stand a shot.  If you choose to disregard or take for granted any of these eleven variables, you’re playing loose with your odds.  And if you have no real understanding of them as an integrated whole… well, this is why writing a great story is so  hard. 

There is a meaningful difference — in writing and in reading — between a novel and a memoir.  When you try to blur the fence between them in your fiction, then the structural criteria for the novel trumps the sequential telling of what really happened.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but within a novel the truth about what really happened may not be your best dramatic option.

Know what your story is about.  If your take on this is that it’s about a place, an issue, a character, a true account of something, or anything else that isn’t conflict-focused, then your answer is incomplete.  A story is about something happening… with stakes hanging in the balance.  It’s not a story until that takes center stage.

If there’s no conflict, there’s no tension.  No tension, no story.  No stakes, no tension.  It’s simple, really.

Your hero needs a goal to reach, a problem to solve, a quest calling them, a journey to take, or some combination of these… unfolding in context to palpable opposition that will block their path as it (the antagonistic force or character) seeks opposing objectives, and/or simply seeks to defeat and torment your hero.  

Your bad guy needs a motive, too.

Character-based fiction is not immune to this universal law of dramatic physics.  No conflict, no story. 

If you are writing a series and you haven’t been published, then you are better served by writing the first book as a stand-alone.  Because you won’t get to write the series until the first book succeeds in the marketplace.  And for that to manifest, you simply can’t present a “stay tuned for Book #2 to see what happens” ending. 

Anything over 100,000 words is too long in today’s market.  Shoot for 80,000 or less.  This is true for historical and sci-fi/fantasy, too.  Those books you love that are longer than that are by authors who play by different rules than newbies. 

Never let exceptions to any of this seduce you into believing you can be one of them.

You can’t  invent a new story structure.  Even if you try, it must conform to certain narrative expectations.  This was true for Quentin Tarantino, and it’s true for you.  Be creative, be fresh, be innovative, give us something we haven’t seen before.  But it can’t be a new species of fiction.  This is professional writing – for money – not experimental writing.

All writing teachers worth their salt are telling you the same basic things, using different contexts and languages and models.  Which is all good.  The essence of 4-part story structure is nothing but an expansion (necesssary and valuable, because it is clarifying) on classic 3-part dramatic narrative.  It’s the Hero’s Journey without the character-focused, softer vocabulary.  It goes deeper in one direction, while applying specificity in another.  They compliment each other with perfect harmony and fluid logic.

All the paint and accessories and scented leather in the world isn’t worth a dime in the fiction world if the engine doesn’t work.

There is a huge and significant difference between your theme and your plot.  When you write a story that is a thinly disguised platform for your passionate views and beliefs, without conflict at the center of it all, you’ll find the going rough.  You may like the outcome, but agents and editors will say, “yeah, but what’s the story?”  The DaVinci Code had a plot.  And if it pissed you off, then it had a theme, too… one you’d have never heard about had it not been for that plot.

Do you really know what the word “story” means?  If not — and there are criteria here — stop everything and go back to this all-important Square One.  I’ve met writers who have been drafying manuscripts for decades who really didn’t understand what a true story is made of. 

If asked what the most important, required, non-negotiable single word in fiction is, if your answer isn’t “conflict,” then you don’t really know what a story is.

If your story is “character-driven,” you are by no means immune to the necessity to have a plot that presents conflict and stakes.  Plot is the stage upon which character unfolds.  Without that stage, your character is standing on a corner preaching to passing traffic.

The stories put forth by proven A-list writers may not be sufficient models for writers looking to break in.  The game at that level is entirely different, including where the bar resides.   An A-list writer has an entire floor full of editors contributing to the moulding and polishing of the story you read under their name.  You have nothing other than your own sense of craft.  

Your idea, and the story that springs from it, needs a large dose of heat and fascination.  The concept that arises from your idea (note how that works) must ask a question that that reader yearns to have answered.  If the question at the heart of your is banal, vanilla or otherwise old news, there’s not much you can do to pump new life into its execution.  A great character interacting with a boring plot will sink you.  

You can’t write a story about anything, relying on execution to make it work.  The cliche is true: in fiction you really can’t make chicken salad out of chicken… droppings.  Work on the strength of your idea/concept/premise first, jack it to its highest inherent potential, before you begin to develop a vision for the story that ensues from it.  Sometimes you have to actually write that story to discover this… just make sure you recognize what you’re doing in that case — you are engaging in the search for story.  Don’t shortcut it, this is where the gold is found.

Are you writing your story because you really want to write a story, any story… or are you writing a story because the premise keeps you up at night?  This alone is often the difference between success and failure.  The forced concoction of the unlikely and the mundane and the illogical and the ridiculous is the common threat of the slush pile.

There is a difference between a Prologue and an opening chapter.  Both can — and should — deliver a hook. 

If you can’t adequately describe your story in a 30-second elevator pitch, leaving the listener wanting to know what happens, or if you can’t write that down in two pages or less with the same result… if you excuse this by saying, “well, it’s sort of complicated“… then you may, a) not be ready to actually write it; or b) be in trouble if you try; and for sure, c) won’t be able to pitch it to an agent successfully.  Knowing the core essence of your story, the spine, the central conflict and how it relates to your hero, is the essence of knowing your story.  Which you must before you can write it with optimal effectiveness.  Which should be your goal.  

In short, there is more than one way to skin the storytelling cat, but at the end of the day it was still a cat before you took a knife and hammer to it.

If you’re struggling with what to write, in what order, and why… find a published story (preferrably a movie on DVD) similar to yours (yes, you can) and study it.  Break it down.  Notice the structure.  The sub-plot and the subtext.

Sub-plot and sub-text are different things, often wearing the same set of clothes.

Each scene you write should have a succinct expositional mission.  Something to contribute to the unfolding plot, building toward something.  It should also – not as its mission, but as an expectation – illustrate and contribute toward character and sub-text.  A scene that does one without the other is weak.  A scene that does too much of either is also weak.  You don’t seal the marraige deal on the first date, you don’t win the World Series in one inning,so don’t try.

One of the key fatal words in storytelling: episodic.  If you concoct a series of things that happen to your hero, each shown as a new scene, simply to demonstrate how the hero reacts to that particular moment (characterization), one after another, leading to nothing other than a full exposition of a character’s life or experience within a given time span… that’s episodic fiction.  Not good.

The antidote to episodic fiction: a plot.  A problem for your hero to solve, a goal to reach, with an obstacle to it, with something at stake.  One spine, even if it bends.

If you’re stuck – you call it “blocked” – then something may be wrong with your story.  Not you.  It’s your inner editor trying to get your attention, and doing so by shutting down the screen of your imagination, so you won’t continue to pursue a broken idea.  There are two ways out of this mess: return to the basics of story structure and the power of story physics (those 11 things mentioned earlier), and change something.  Play “what if?” games with what you started with, where you are, and where you’d like to end up.  Take risks, think outside the box, and listen when your inner editor begins to scream with approval.

Take inventory of where you are in your story, and ask yourself, for any given moment and every scene and story point… can this be better?  A better setting?  A better backstory?  What will jack up the tension here?  What would make this character, this moment, or empathic and vicarious for my reader?  What would make this more interesting?

Unless your plot dictates what your hero does for a living, give her or him something fascinating as a career.  IN a good way, or even a creepy way.  Something we don’t see everyday, something that takes place behind the common curtain of awareness.  And then pull that curtain back for us to see.  If this becomes part of the story, contributing context or a story point, then you have an “arena” story on your hands… a very good thing.  I’ve said this before, but here goes: a love story set in an accounting office… boring.  A love story set in a convent… now that’s interesting.

There is a critical difference between a hook, an inciting incident and a First Plot Point.  All three are powerful tools in the Part 1 (first quartile) set-up of your story.  Know the difference, because any attempt to swap one for the other, including a casual placement that doesn’t optimize story physics, will render your story in a lesser form.

The First Plot Point is the most important – and the most heavily imbued with purpose – moment in your story.  Screw this up and everything in your story suffers for it.

Overwriting, trying to make the reader notice your eloquence or style or wit to the point where they are distracted, will hurt your chances.  Your writing voice is like a scent in the air: be careful you don’t stink up the place with too much cologne.  Less is more.  Timing and subtlety are everything.

Story trumps prose.  Story trumps character.  Story trumps theme.  If you doubt this, ask an agent or an editor in the publishing business.  Oh, they’ll tell you that its all important… but if the story doesn’t cut it, no matter how good the rest of the effort, they’ll reject you.

Agents and editors view prose, character and theme as minimum requirements, and when judged as weak it becomes excuse to reject the work (see if this sounds familiar: “You write beautifully, but I couldn’t invest in your hero and found myself skimming, the story needs more meat.”)  What they’re looking for most of all is the home run story, the killer premise, the original idea.  They’ll tell an interviewer they’re looking for “the next great writing voice,” which they are, but within a story that rocks their world. 

When a reader “doesn’t get” your story, especially a professional reader, its your fault.  It wasn’t written well enough. When you hear that feedback, it’s an opportunity.  Say thank you and go into revision mode, they may have just saved a year of your writing life.  Don’t shoot the messenger.  

Everybody is a story planner.  It’s just a question of how you plan.  Your story won’t work until you find it, hone it, reduce it to a core essence and build upon it.  Only then can you really execute it to its highest potential.  Whether you outline or pants a draft isn’t the issue — you’re still planning

This realization will empower you to recognize when you are crossing the line from planning to meaningful drafting.  The Great Fatal Error of fiction is that you mistake one for the other along the way.  It’s all “story planning” until you decide you have the story where you want it, where you need it to be.  At its optimal level of execution.  Which won’t be the first draft.  But it doesn’t have to wait until the fourth or eleventh draft, either, that’s just a function of process, which may or may not be yours.  Knowing when it reaches that level, knowing when your search is over and you’re ready to execute the final draft, is the key to success.

Please consider my book, “Story Engineering,” if you’d like to learn more about any of this, especially those 11 essential essences and core competencies.

Feeling inpetuous?  Join me next week in Portland, Oregon at the Willamette Writers Conference (along with about 2000 other writers from around the country, including more than a few from elsewhere), where I’ll be doing three workshops on, well, all of the above.  August 3 -5.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

The Moment That Makes or Breaks Your Story

I’ve been reading a lot of story outlines and summaries lately, as part of my new coaching service (more on that soon).  And I’m noticing something.  Something sad and disturbing.

Sad, because the story might otherwise be awesome.  But it isn’t working as well at it could, as it should, because the author doesn’t get it.  The author thinks they can write their novel or screenpaly any way they want, in any order, with any sequence of exposition… and you can’t. 

Not if you want to optimize its power and get it sold and read.

It’s disturbing because the solution is out there, too often ignored, just as often misunderstood. 

There is a principle you can use to optimize your story in a structural sense, and the centerpiece of it is what I’m ranting about today.  Success is a function of understanding one of the key structural milestones in your story, or maybe just the willingness to accept that its there, ready to make or break you.

Mess this one up, and it will break you. 

It’s the MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT in your story.

It’s called the FIRST PLOT POINT.  Which is something different, something more, than the better understood concept of an inciting incident. 

A review is in order.

I’m seeing writers who are students of story architecture getting this wrong.  Or at least, not fully grasping it.  You can get it sort of right, but not really nailing it. 

Which is why, if you think you get it, you should keep reading.

The First Plot Point is often a matter of clarity and degree, which means if you haven’t delivered on its full and highest mission, you’re leaving some of the raw power and potential of your story on the table.  You’ve just compromised story physics, especially in terms of dramatic tension and pace. 

That’s what the FPP does: it allows you to optimize, rather than compromise, the story physics of dramatic tension and pace.

Even if you think you have a First Plot Point in play and in the right location, if you don’t fully harness the nuances and missions of this milestone, you may just be writing an Inciting Incident in its place. 

And an Inciting Incident – which can occur anywhere in your Part 1 set-up quartile – isn’t a First Plot Point… unless it is. 

Let’s say you’re writing a love story.   

You spend the entirety of Part 1 introducing us to the characters, making us empathize with them.  Root for them.  Foreshadowing the love story to come.  And then, at your FPP, you have them meet.

Is this an effective First Plot Point? 

That depends.  What you’ve just done is change your story, you’ve moved it forward.  Everything is different from that point forward, which you’ve read (here and elsewhere) is the mission of the FPP.

But unless OTHER things are ignited here, it may simply be just that: a change.  A step forward.  A mission not yet full realized. 

It may just be an inciting incident.  Necessary, thrilling, effective.  But not the First Plot Point… unless other things suddenly manifest in the story, as well.

That’s the problem, in a nutshell, that I’m seeing.   

Writers are simply twisting and evolving their story at the FPP, with the intention of it being the FPP.  But they’re not meeting the criteria.  They’re writing an inciting incident instead.

The primary mission of the FPP is not just to change the story.   

There is so much more that an effective First Plot Point must deliver to the story. 

Sure, the FPP changes the story, but it does so in a specific way.  And that’s what’s too often missing, or at least vague and weak. 

This connects to the most basic truth about fiction: it is based on conflict.  On dramatic tension.  You need to know your core story, what the story is ultimately about in terms of dramatic tension, before you can craft an effective FPP.

In our love story example, even though the two people meeting is indeed a change for them, it may or may not introduce conflict.  The stakes of their relationship may not be in play yet. 

Both of those things need to be put in play, via the FPP.

Let’s look at a thriller concept.   You’re on vacation, and your wife disappears.  Incidint Incident.  Soon, you get a ransom note.  Inciting Incident.  Then, you get your marching orders – you need to rob the local island bank.   

That’s the First Plot Point.  Because it FULLY introduces the nature of the conflict, with stakes in place, and thus creates your hero’s goal.

If you have the wife getting kidnapped as your FPP, then your setup is too long, and it compromises pace and tension.   

The higher mission of the First Plot Point is this: to alter or launch the hero’s story-specific journey, by introducing or expanding a problem and/or a specific goal, and ALSO showing the presence of an ANTAGONISTIC force that promises obstacles that the hero will face. 

The FPP launches a problem-solving, goal-specific quest or journey.  There is a bad guy (or force) that will block that path.  And – this is CRITICAL – this all happens in the presence of STAKES and consequences. 

The goal, and the stakes, can be survival, attaining love, attaining riches, finding justice, finding answers, discovering truth, discarding old baggage, solving a crime, preventing a crime, winning, losing.

Leaving for Australia with the family is an inciting incident.  Having the plane go down on a remote island near Bora Bora is a First Plot Point. 

Meeting the prospective love interest is an inciting incident (in the romance genres this happens in the first scene or two, but it’s an inciting incident when it does, the best romances give us an FPP that presents a higher level of problem and need).  Finding out they’ve just been engaged to your brother is a First Plot Point.  Or not… maybe that’s an inciting incident, too, but then at the 20% percentile that engaged prospective lover confesses they’d rather be with you, and your brother now wants to kill you. 

That’s a First Plot Point.  Because there’s a problem.  A goal.  Stakes. 

Not writing a thriller or crime novel? 

Writing a character-based, wannabe Jonathan Franzen slice-of-life novel?  Know this: you are not immune to the need for conflict driving your story.  And the first and fullest reveal of that conflict – often in the form of the hero’s situation getting more complicated – is at the FPP. 

The FPP launches the story journey because it presents a problem and/or a goal.  It doesn’t just change the story.  There are stakes now, there is opposition now that has its own conflicting agenda, and is prepared to block your hero’s path (that path being the spine of your narrative from this point forward).  There is pressure, urgency, perhaps a ticking clock. 

In the film “500 Days of Summer,” a love story, the FPP occurs when the girl casually informs the guy she isn’t interested in a long term thing.  The whole Part 1 was showing us that he IS looking for that, and believes he’s found it with her.  Her comment launches his journey, defines the stakes, and exposes the antagonistic force… all with a simple comment. 

It doesn’t just change the story, it DEFINES the core story.

If your FPP isn’t right, then your story may be weak on dramatic tension and pace.    

The FPP shifts the context of the narrative from the Part 1 SETUP to the Part 2 RESPONSE.

Response to what?  To the First Plot Point.  To the newly defined or elevated problem or goal.  To the pressure and opposition at hand.  And in light of the stakes you’ve shown the reader (this being the source of hero empathy, which is another essential element of story physics). 

If an inciting incident does the very same things, only earlier, then you still need an even more dramatic, more urgent and shifted scenario at the FPP.

Look at your story.  Look at that point in your story… what happens?   

What changes for the hero?  Is it simply, and only, a change, or it is a change imbued with a quest and journey for the hero?  With problems to solve, foes to conquer (including the dreaded inner demons), obstacles to navigate, with stakes in play?

For story planners, the First Plot Point is the most critical thing to understand before you craft the rest of your scenes.  Not only does it have these criteria in place that will lead you toward a powerful dramatic architecture, it also informs the scenes in Part 1 (which are all leading up to the FPP) and then in Part 2 (which are all responses to the FPP), as well as the entire second half. 

For more organic writers – who are just as bound by the force of story physics as planners – the First Plot Point is what you are searching for in your drafts.  Once found, it defines the revisions of your Part 1 and the very nature of the rest of your story.

The First Plot Point is the lynchpin of your story.   

It is its mechanical heart, that beats so the soul of your story can soar. 

The dead don’t have souls, and your story might just be dead, or on the verge, without a beating dramatic heart pumping the life-blood of your fiction into every page. 

If you want more on story architecture, please consider my bestselling book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” (Writers Digest Books, 2011).  And look for my new book, “The Search for Story,” coming from Writers Digest Books in 2013.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)