Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Fix Is In: The Square-One Story Killer

Not long ago I wrote about a toxic, epidemic story problem that is killing the chances of passionate, well-intended writers who aren’t aware that they’re playing with fire.  

I’m going to do it again here, from a different perspective… because it’s that pervasive and consistently deadly.

Here’s the SOLUTION – the cure, the fix, the higher ground – that works without forcing you to give up the thing that draws you to your story in the first place.

If someone asked you what your story is about, what would you say?

If your answer sounds like this – “My story is about a woman trying to find her way in the world”… or, “It’s a story about a man who must reconcile his past before he can move on…” – then further questions ensue.  Because those are statements of thematic sub-text, which is a valid answer and a worthy starting point for a story.

But it’s not a story.  Not yet.  It is an idea.  An intention. 

It is not even a concept for a story.  And an effective story is, ultimately, about its concept.

A Bestselling Example

The Help” was about racial conditions in the South on one level, no argument there.  But it’s not a STORY yet, based only on that description.  The racial angle is pure thematic – not conceptual – sub-text.  Powerful, wonderful, effective, permeating everything on every page.  But alone, not enough to propel a story into being.

From the reader’s perspective, that’s what “The Help” is about: racial prejudice.

But from a writer’s perspective – the one YOU need to adopt – it’s about a young woman who wants to write a book to launch her journalism career, and needs the help of local domestic employees to do so, but who are reluctant because it could cost them their jobs in a racially prejudiced community, or worse, put their safety at risk.

That’s what “The Help” is about… on another level… on the level that matters if the story is to work.

What’s your story about?

I’ve been seeing with this a lot lately in my new story coaching service

I’d say that half of the answers to that question – it’s the second question asked in the Big Bad Questionnaire that provides the raw grist for analysis, because it identifies your intention while providing an architectural preview – are just like that: stories that rely on theme without a cradle to grave conceptual arc anywhere on the horizon.

So then I ask another question.  “What’s your hero’s problem or goal in the story, and what opposes it?”  Something you absolutely need to know at some point in the process.

And that answer – if there is one; too often there isn’t — becomes fodder for a concept.  Slap a compelling “what if?” on it and suddenly you’re in the hunt.

Bottom line: if you don’t have a conceptual, conflict-driven answer before you write a draft of your story, then for the story to succeed you’ll have to set out on a search and discover phase — the search for a concept — as you write it.  Which is inherently risky and a low percentage strategy.  

Another approach is to pre-plan the story, nailing the concept before you write.  To know both your concept and your thematic focus is like putting jumper cables on your draft. 

Both search process can work.  Because both have identical criteria and goals for the end game. 

The Big Mistake, the Great and Deadly Pit into which your story could easily fall, is to write a “story” in which your hero wanders around looking for her/himself.  Literally.  Episodically.  Using this as exposition rather than context.  

But there’s a fix for that.  An essential realization that must be nternalized before you can turn such a story – any story – into a winner.

The Fix 

Your hero needs a problem to solve, and a goal to strive for.  There needs to be opposition in play, and stakes evident. 

There needs to be CONFLICT.

And it need to be something other than – alongside and catalytic to – the character’s arc and inner demons. The theme.  Or, in the case of my opening example, the search for self.

That’s the 411 on the 101.  You know that.  If nothing else, because I keep drilling it into you here.

But here’s the way to get to that: you need a story arc that offers EXTERNAL opposition.  External conflict.  Giving your hero something to do… an external problem to solve… an external goal to strive for.

That pursuit is where those inner demons show up to complicate things, and ultimately becomes the stage upon which your thematic intentions get their moment in the spotlight. 

External conflict should never occur episodically. 

This happens then that happens then something else happens… the only connection being that it all happens to the same character, your protagonist.  Few or none of the episodes clearly connects to the others… it just happened, further showcasing the deep cah-cah your hero is in emotionally.

Rather, your scenes should become a connected, integrated and unfolding dramatic sequence – a story thread – that adheres to the principles of story structure.

Every scene, every moment in “The Help” and in any other character-driven story that works, contributes toward a forward-moving exposition of a conflict-driven story,with an external source of dramatic tension providing the fuel.

In fact, it is that EXTERNAL dramatic exposition that defines the four parts of the story and the major milestone scenes that divide them (story structure).  Your intended internal, sub-textual exposition will then naturally align with that structure, because it manifests through what the hero DOES on that path.

The moment you understand and accept this as part of the process, one we all must embrace, is the moment your story stands a chance.  Until then… not so much.

If you’d like to see if your story cuts this tricky mustard, click HERE to learn about my new story coaching program… it costs less than two tanks of gas and can save you months or even years of misdirected work and frustration (half empty)…  and turn your storytelling into the bliss that comes from knowing you are doing it right.

Or, if you’ve already written a draft, this works like an MRI on your story, detecting potentially fatal flaws and weak spots before you hit the SEND button.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

The Seductive But Deadly Sin That Wants to Kill Your Story

See if you can diagnose the writer’s problem in the following fictional – but all too common – exchange.

I have it all too frequently as I coach writers on their stories.  At conferences.  In emails.  As part of my new story coaching program.  It goes like this:

“What’s your story about?” I ask.

“It’s about a woman who needs to find her place in the world.”

“I see,” I say.  “A coming of age story.  Excellent.  So what’s the concept?”

“A woman goes into the world in search of herself.  To find her way.”

“You realize I asked for your concept, but you gave me thematic sub-text.”

A blank stare ensues.

“So…” I press forward into this abyss, “tell me what your protagonist wants in your story, and what she does to get it.  What she is up against.  Her problem.  A goal to strive for.  What she must do or accomplish, what is at stake, and what opposes her in that quest.”

A moment of quiet pondering usually inserts itself here.

“Well,” says the writer, “she needs to find her way in the world.  That’s her problem.  She’s lost her way.  Actually, she’s never found her way.  What opposes her is herself, her lack of confidence.  My story is about that.  That’s my concept.”

Now it is me who is pondering.  Pondering a way to turn this ship around.

“Okay,” I say, “let’s try this. What’s the conflict in your story?”

“She doesn’t know who she is, who she needs to be.  The story is about her finding out.  She can’t… that’s the conflict.”

“Maybe she could,” I suggest, “if you put her into a situation in which she has to.  In order to survive.  Or simply thrive.  To find love.  To change.  To gain something.”

“Oh… you mean, like.. a plot?  This is a character-driven story.”

“Fine,” I say,” but what does she DO in the story?  And what DRIVES her to do it?”

“What does she do?  She tries to find herself.  She lives her life and learns her lessons.”

 Stares are once again traded.  One blank, the other patient.  For now.

“How?” I finally ask.

“Well,” I often hear at this point, “she has these experiences and adventures, and eventually, because nothing is going well for her, she finally discovers who she is.”

“Who or what is the antagonist?” I ask.  “You know, the bad guy.”

“Oh that?  There is no bad guy.  It’s just her.  Her lack of self-confidence.  She has no dream, no direction.  Like millions of people out there.”

I want to say she has no plot, either, but I press on.  “How far into it are you?”

“I’ve finished a first pass at it.”

“Great.  How does it end?  Does she find herself?”

“Yes she does. That’s how it ends.”

How does she find herself?” I ask, trying to sound as redundant as possible.

A slightly confused expression almost always manifests before I hear, “She just realizes she’s had enough of her old self, and decides to be different.  She wakes up one day and it’s suddenly clear.”

“That’s how it ends?”  Ah, the old wake up and smell the coffee ending.

“Yes.  She had to find herself, and she finally does.  Life happens, we live and learn.”

“But you can’t tell me how.  Process wise.  What on-going, connected, dramatic path led her to it.”

“Life doesn’t work that way,” I am told.  “One day we just realize who we are, we live and we learn, and then it happens.  My story about that.”

“With no bad guy.  No problem to solve.  No drama.  No stakes.  Just her and her inner demons.  Walking through life together.  Another day, another thing.  The story of her life.”

“Yes.  The story of her life.  What’s your point here, Mr. Storyfixer dude?”

I get this a lot. 

With thrillers or dramas, this isn’t usually the problem.  They are about dramatic tension… which is a good thing.  If anything, those stories are challenged by heroes without an inner landscape, but that’s another post. 

But with “softer” stories, so-called character-driven stories, especially inspired-by-the-author’s-life-experience stories, the focus on character arc can be fatal, if it consumes the writer’s focus to the point they forget to give us a reasonable, compelling plot

One plot.  A strong, single dramatic arc that leads the protagonist through the discovery and growth process by having them square off with external conflict and tension.

It’s a death sentence when that doesn’t happen.

Because the story won’t work.  Or at least it won’t work well enough.  It doesn’t stand a chance.  Here’s why.

There is no EXTERNAL CONFLICT in play. 

And there needs to be.  Always.  External conflict provides dramatic tension, which is one of the most power essences of story physics available to us.

Even love stories, including romances, have external conflict-driven storylines in play. 

But in these problematic “personal growth” stories, what little dramatic tension there is takes place sporadically, episodically – just snippets and moments from real life, showcasing the hero’s flawed inner self – without ever developing into an actual story at all.  Without a connected arc. These episodes unfold much like a series of short stories, each isolated from the others, each about how she feels rather than what she does. 

There is no external conflict.  There is nothing for the hero to do.

Allow me to repeat myself.  This is something you should staple to your forehead, written backwards, so you see it every time you look in a mirror.

An effective story isn’t about something.  It is about something happening.

It’s great to write a story in which your hero needs to find herself.  Or come of age.  But there’s a way to do it right, and there’s a way that will get you rejected almost every time.

The way you do it right is to give your hero a problem, and/or a goal. 

Give her (or him) something or someone standing in the way of what she needs and/or wants.   Give her obstacles to conquer on that path.  Give her something to DO in facing those obstackes. Make sure there are consequences hanging in the balance (stakes).  And have her DISCOVER WHO SHE IS – allow her to summon her inner hero self – along the way to becoming the primary factor in the conquering of those obstacles and the resolution of her problem, need or goal.

It boils down to this: her old, insecure, directionless self couldn’t solve the problem.  So she is forced to grow, to change, in order to succeed in resolving the problem or reaching the goal.

That’s how she’ll find out who she is.  Not through real life, not through a bunch of episodes and short stories masquerading as a novel or screenplay.  Give your story a spine, a drama.  Make it an EXTERNAL spine or drama.

You’ll find almost no exceptions… at least on bookshelves and on movie screens. 

Chances are you have been enchanted by stories of personal discovery. 

The hero comes of age.  That’s the thing that moved you.  Perhaps moved you so much, in fact, that you failed to notice that these protagonists were given SOMETHING TO DO in the story, a task, a problem, a goal, that put them in growth’s way.  A quest that forces the hero to face herself and make changes, to do something differently.

Success in storytelling can be summed up in two words: EXTERNAL CONFLICT. 

Designed to test and prod and lead and tempt and pull and seduce and affirm your hero… the one with the self-image and personal vision problems.  The external drama becomes the catalyst, the STAGE upon which the inner demons of your hero are slain, upon which the hero redeems and discovers and validates herself.

I see so many story plans, in the form of summaries and synopses and outlines, in which this critical – this NECESSARY – element is completely missing, or under-valued.

Don’t let it be you.  If you find yourself describing your story strictly in terms of your hero’s inner journey, make sure you have a killer external drama to thrust upon them.

Redemption may be organic in real life, the sum of experiences seasoned over time… but it usually makes for one boring read.  We (readers) don’t want reality, we want a provocative ride that we can translate into our reality, on our terms.  Without external dramatic tension in play, we’re pretty much left with a fictional diary… and unless your name is Anne Frank, diaries don’t get published.

Then again, poor Anne had quite an external drama to live through… just sayin’.

A great story isn’t “about” a theme.  Theme is the result of a successful story  Theme is sub-text. No, a great story is about something HAPPENING.  Theme emerges from a dramatic landscape… it rarely IS the dramatic landscape.

See my earlier post, “When Your Passion Kills Your Plot,” for more on this deadly little story development trap.

Want to see if your story cuts the mustard?  Check out my new “Amazing $100 Story Coaching and Empowerment Adventure,” (click HERE, or see the sidebar)… just possibly the most exciting and affordable story development opportunity… ever. 

The Big Bad Questionnaire I’ll send you is, alone, worth twice the money… but you get so much more in the form of actual feedback you can trust and apply immediately, no matter where you are in the process. 


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)