Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Bermuda Triangle of Storytelling

Don’t Let It Sink Your Story Before It Leaves the Harbor

“Idea” is one of the most dangerous words in storytelling. 

Every story begins with one, in some form… so what’s so dangerous about that, you ask?  Ideas are wonderful things, right?

In the most obvious conversational context, “idea” is a generic term for a creative unit of thought… certainly a good thing.  Bring on those creative units.

I want to set a story in the future, on the moon,” is an example of an idea… that isn‘t a story yet.  It requires many more units of creative thought to become an actual story.  “Make it a love story…” that’s yet another idea, but still not a story.

Let’s allow that one to sit there undisturbed in this obvious and worthless generic context. 

Because there’s another take on idea that can, if not fully grasped, kill your story.  In fact, this one explains a significant percentage of stories that don’t work or at least  don’t distinguish themselves, leading to a preponderance of rejection slips and bad word of mouth.

In this other more complex and critical context, the one serious writers need to wrap their head around, an “idea” is a loaded gun: what you do with an idea, what you understand about it as a storytelling asset, and most of all, where you point it, determines whether your story lives or dies.

By “do” with it, I’m not talking about how you write a draft.  Rather, I’m talking about what you put in the draft that exceeds the limited scope of a simple idea, or even a multi-faceted idea.

Add enough facets to your idea, and sooner or later you’ve reached the level of story treatment.  Which is closer to what you need, provided the criteria for a compelling treatment have been honored.

Seriously, there is a certain percentage of writers out there who would take that previous idea I just mentioned – set a futuristic love story on the moon — and start writing a manuscript from it.  Hoping to discover the story along the way.  And, a depressingly large percentage of those writers won’t understand what they missed along that path…

… which will be something called concept, and something called premise.

Now, before you send me a nasty note… drafting as a means of story discovery is just fine, that can certainly work.  How you evolve an idea into a story isn’t the point today.  What happens to the idea in your process, whatever your process, is.

There is a preliminary layer of story awareness that resides between the idea and a draft

Some writers dwell on it, creating notes and outlines, other skip it altogether in terms of writing it down.  But no writer can afford to ignore it, because right there in that middle space is where the story takes form.  If the idea is  the story’s conception (seed meets egg) and the draft is birthed from that essence with an added layer of premise… then this idea-incubation phase is the nine-month long process of creating a life inside of you.

This true for any draft that finally works

What happens in that incubation phase is this: you summon a concept that defines the contextual landscape of the story (something conceptual in nature), and then you develop a premise set upon that concept.

Write a love story: that’s an idea.  Set it in a nunnery: that’s a concept.  Tell the story of a nun and an up-and-coming cardinal squaring off with their emotions as he fights off an accusation of child abuse… that’s a killer premise.

Why is it killer?  Because the premise adds inherent dramatic tension and heavy themes.  The concept only defines the landscape for either of those qualities.  And the idea that started it… that was just a door opening.

An Example You’ll Recognize

In The Hunger Games, the dystopian world and the Games themselves are the CONCEPT.  Katniss’s journey relative to the Games, to Peeta and to her ultimate role as the poster girl for rebellion… her confrontation with the President… that is the PREMISE.

Big difference.

So what was the author’s idea in the first place? 

It wasn’t the concept, and it wasn’t premise.  Those were brought to the party after an idea captured the author’s fancy.  That’s how it works, even when the idea is itself more concept or premise… you need to work backwards and forwards in that case.  As for Suzanne Collins, she was watching Survivor on TV when the Big Idea hit her.  She decided to develop a story around the idea that the most dramatic trials of human beings might someday be televised to the general public, live.

That was the idea.  Which wasn’t the concept, and which wasn’t the premise.  Which, considered alone, is merely a grain of sand on Idea Beach.

This idea-to-concept-to-premise  sequence (those last two are interchangeable in terms of which begets the other) is as true for pantsers as it is for story planners.  Unless your original idea IS a concept or a premise, chances are it lacks the depth and dramatic potential of a vivid or thematic story landscape.  Whether retrofitted back into a story after a draft or two (or more), or leveraged as the opening vision for the story itself, it is the concept/premise level of story richness that makes or breaks you.

It is what turns an idea, any idea, into a story worth reading. 

But not by writing the idea.  Rather, by cooking up the concept and premise that are inspired by it, and then writing a story.

I’ve been fried for suggesting that writing a story without an outline in place is… let’s call it inefficient

So be it.  It works that way for many, I have no problem with that.

But I’ll stand firm on this one: writing a story without a solid concept and premise in play is simply a recipe for one of two things: failure, or a massive rewrite.

Building Your Story On Idea Beach

If your target is high and you seek a publisher for your book, as well as a readership for it when that happens (or if you hope for viral word-of-mouth upon self-publishing), here’s an ugly little truth: it’s almost impossible to turn a bad or even a vanilla story idea into a great story through the application of craft.

Which renders the “story idea” itself  a major metric of the story’s inherent potential, even when it is unremarkable.  Where does it lead?  Have you given it enough rope, considered enough options, to make sure where it does lead is the best possible destination?

Like Suzanne Collins did with that Survivor idea?

Or did you just bang out a draft, propelled by the idea only, in the hope that something good would happen?

It challenges the writer to know what makes an idea rich and compelling (answer: concept and premise), and then what to do with it once that verdict is in.  Of course, in the privacy of our writing space we are alone with that determination, and thus is explained why so many books from good writers don’t make the cut: we may or may not be good assessors of what others will deem to be a good story idea.

We live and die with our acumen in that regard. 

The playing field is huge, thankfully, there’s a story landscape for everybody… but even then the writer needs to understand what must be done with and to anidea before it has a shot at becoming a viable, compelling story.

I read and evaluate story plans (many of which represent drafts that have already been written) that are always executions of an idea… but too often of an idea only… without either a compelling concept or premise in play.  Or on the horizon.

This is fatal, almost always. 

I’ve written about it here at length.  Stories that are nothing more than collections of anecdotes illustrating a theme or an issue.  A tour of a history place or the observation of something that happened.  A character trying to “find herself” through a series of occurrences.  The biography of fictional lives.

These are all just ideas.  Too often there isn’t a story yet.  Because there is nothing (or too little) that is conceptual, and there is no dramatic opportunity or conflict that challenges a hero to earn the name tag (premise).

This type of thing is a story killer.  The relationship between an idea, a concept and a premise defines the Bermuda Triangle of storytelling, where well-intentioned writers too often set sail without the right navigation, sensibility or awareness to avoid being swallowed alive.

Surviving this Story Bermuda Triangle requires more than knowing how to swim (write nice sentences), or an interesting idea.  It’s knowing how to navigate the waters of a story, with a vessel that is strong and sea-worthy.

How good is your idea?  Wrong question. 

How compelling, how rich, how inherently dramatic and thematic is your concept, and the premise that springs forth from it?  That‘s the question you need to consider, to spend as much time as you need seeking answers to.

The key awareness here is to understand not only the difference between these three manifestations of storytelling intention (idea vs. concept vs. premise), but how they empower a story (or, when weak, cripple it) long before the manuscript itself is even written.

Remember, idea at its best only serves to send you toward something… either a concept or premise. 

But unlike your idea… the concept and premise need to virtually glow in the dark to get you where you want to be.  There are criteria for that, you don’t have to (or get to) make them up.

Trying to make an idea work, without considering either concept or premise… that’s a sailboat without a sail at all.

Trying to make a concept work without a premise… that’s a sailboat going in circles hoping to bump into something before you run out of fresh water and beans, or before a wave flips you upside down.

Trying to make a premise work without a concept… that’s setting out to cross an ocean without the boat being big enough.

*****

Do you have a story idea, concept and premise you’d like evaluated?  Try my $50 Kick-Start Story Analysis, perhaps the best value on the story coaching planet.  Because if your story doesn’t work at that level, you’ll discover that any draft written from it will be screaming for rescue, and when it comes it’ll be in the form of a stronger concept and premise.

As for the full Story Plan Analysis ($150), book now for a late March/April slot.  This program looks at where you’ve taken your concept and premise through the four parts and major milestones of story architecture, either as intention or in a draft.

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Two Short (but killer) Guest Posts from Art Holcomb

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Legends say that when a victorious Roman general returned to Rome, he was allowed to march his armies, his captives and his spoils through the sacred streets of the city. He would ride in a great gilded chariot in all his finery – and at his feet would sit the slave who held a small bunch of burning straws which during the procession turned to ashes.  The slave would repeat to the general a phrase meant to remind him – at that particular moment of triumph – that he was only mortal:

Sic transit gloria mundi.”

(“Thus all the glories of the world pass away.”)

– Keystone Publishing, “Court Jesters and Public Slaves”

Glory comes in all shapes and sizes.

The glory of publication – The glory of acceptance.

All glory is fleeting.  You must always move on to the next challenge if you want to keep the crown.

This is the greatest truth that a writer needs to hear.  That there is no sitting on one’s laurels.  Careers have arcs just like stories.

There may be financial successes for you and acts designed to flatter the ego.  There may be tributes and resounding reviews.

The only thing that matters is the truth and the ever increasing body of work.

Any one writer who has but one book out, even a Gone with the Wind, must be considered suspect.

I’m a story teller but within that vehicle I strive to tell the truths of my life.  To say at every turn – with every day of writing and with every finished work – that I WAS HERE.

To paraphrase Ellison:

            For a brief time I was here and for a brief time, I mattered.”

In the end for a writer, the body of work is the only sign that you were ever here.

*****

The Stephen King of Funny Cat Videos 

There are two ways into Hollywood – you are going to have to write what they’re buying or sell them your dream.” 

– Scott Meyers, screenwriter of K-9 and Lecturer on Film at UNC-Chapel Hill 

I recently came back from a conference in sunny San Diego where I ran a writer’s workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror writers with author Peter Clines (Ex-Heroes, 14, website )

We had an excellent group.  Writers of all ages and experiences.

Lots of enthusiasm.  Lots of talent.

Lots of zombie stories.

Most of the writers who attend these kinds of workshops are new, pre-published and still trying to find their voice. One can hear the resounding echoes of other writers in their works – Rowlings, Collins, King, etc., and I expect this at the beginning of many careers.

Because these writers are each in the process of developing his/her own process.

But there are a couple of dangers here. 

The first is about VOICE: 

Some authentic voices were emerging out amongst these writers, but many tried to write the way they believe writers should sound, instead of sounding like themselves. So what you end up with are very clever people trying to sound clever when they could simply unclench a bit – and just let their very clever, talented, and interesting selves shine through.

The second problem is about PERSPECTIVE:

Now, I don’t mind zombie stories – I believe whatever genre and sub-genre excited these new writer enough to actually write is a good thing . . .

 . . .In the beginning.

But – for example – did you know that, when you enter the phrase “funny cat videos” into the search engine for YouTube, you get something on the order of 3,600,000 hits . . .

3.6 million variations on the same theme. And over 1 billion entries if you so the same search on Google.

All cute, all adorable – and all pale variations on a theme.

Voice and perspective.  Hard to develop, harder still to mainstain, but vital to the soul of the writer.

Without them, you are just another guy with a video camera documenting the hilarity of something that is not quite human. And in that lies the real problem: Nothing in the known universe has ever been more human than Story.

Now . . . you could become the best at this.  The most popular, most universally loved, the absolute Stephen King of Cat Videos if you like.

But why?

The nature of drama and story is breathtaking and powerful, unique and emotional. The real estate of the page is some of the most precious in the world and your time and treasure are severely limited. Why spend it writing about something that looks like any of the 3.6 million other, similar, non-unique cat stories.

When one person’s writing becomes indistinguishable from another and these two people have never met, it is the culture speaking and not a person.

You have to know – you have the power and the spark in each of you. 

There are things that you want to say, need to say and they can come out through theme and subtext – blatant and true at the heart of your story. You have to always say what you believe needs saying.

In short, you have to sell them your dreams.

Your goal should not be to be a great craftsman of something entertaining but ubiquitous.  You’re better than that.  The popular vampire and zombie stories that fill the popular media today are the high-calorie fast food of our time – not because of their genre but because they were written as attractive products and not as works of Craft and Art.  And while some excellent writing has been done in their names, there can be but one Bram Stoker, and one Mary Shelley and one William Seabrook or George Romero.

These types of stories are akin to working with licensed properties.  The constraints can be invigorating but they don’t allow the writer to tell your story – because you are telling their story

Because, at some point, what they’re buying is no longer likely to be the same as what they’ve bought

You can’t control or predict what they’re buying. Trends change, sometimes on a dime and one would have to be clairvoyant to know where the industry and the public’s desires are going in advance.

But, in the end, here’s what everyone really wants: A good idea, excitingly told and competently written – that they can’t get anywhere else.

Give me a new perspective. Meet the story with conflict and drama. Take me out of myself. 

All these things are within your control

In the end, the only person who should be writing a classic Stephen King story is STEPHEN KING . . . and perhaps not even him.

*****

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.  His new writing book is tentatively entitled “SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!” (Release TBA.)

Larry’s add to Art’s bio: when he’s not on set doing rewrite work or chasing a deadline for a studio script assignment, he’s also a major screenwriting teacher at the University level, a story development coach and a sought-after workshop facilitator at writing conferences around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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