A guest post by Curt Fouts
Before you hop in the car for that cool literary road trip you have planned, check your route and your reason for going. I-70 through Kansas? Not exciting, even if you plan on hitting all the tourist traps offering two-headed cows and 500 pound chicken eggs.
Larry’s recent posts that delve into concept and premise came at the right time for me. Is your Story Worth Saving? was a gut check, coming as it did along with the case studies. I pored over what Larry wrote and scrutinized my own story I had spend years writing, editing, and polishing.
What was wrong? I obeyed the laws of Story Physics. I had engineered a good story. My characters were well-drawn, my hero empathetic. I weaved the themes in ever so delicately, with solid structure and crisp scenes, every dialog a controlled conflict, tension, powerful emotional experience for the reader, pacing…
The first sign of trouble came when I attempted to write the query letter. Writing the synopsis was easy compared to that, and anyone who has done both can see where this is heading.
I suffered through writing more than thirty iterations of the ‘hook,’ the sizzle part of the query letter that captures the essence of your story, but it wasn’t sizzling. It read like a scientific report. It screamed, “So what?” And that’s a very bad sign.
Larry’s posts on concept and premise came along while I was struggling with this. As I studied his words and dived back into my scribbled-over copies of Story Physics and Story Engineering, the sickening realization came over me like a creeping stomach flu:
My premise is not compelling.
I squirmed inside myself, my brain twisted around trying to justify what I had done, attempting to make my work fit the criteria, but ultimately I had to face facts. You can write a well-structured story with all the dramatic elements about a platoon of ants struggling to get the remnants of a nut log back to their anthill, but who would want to read it?
I have read a tower of books on writing and storytelling, and Larry’s works accord with other gurus I admire and listen to like Randy Ingermanson and John Truby, among many others. Why is there so much overlap among so many different gurus, with the rare differences coming mostly in emphasis of one thing over another, or perhaps terminology? Because, as Larry reminds us, these are fundamental principles that go back to the foundations of time, when primitive man sat around fires telling stories to pass on wisdom and to make sense of the world around them.
Most story gurus will recommend you first develop your concept and premise and explore them. Deeply. Probe them, ask what-if questions, flesh them out, even to the point of identifying your story milestones and writing a synopsis.
I would add one more step that many gurus add as well: Use your premise to write the hook to your story, that blurb you see on the back of a book or DVD case, the tantalizing bit of what’s-it-all-about that makes you want to rent this DVD, or take that book home and curl up in bed with it.
Does your hook sizzle? Does it engage your emotions, tease your intellect, pique your curiosity? Titillate you? Does it make you want to dive into the story?
Test your hook out on others. Blake Snyder of Save the Cat fame, may he rest in peace, said he would test out his hooks on people while standing in line at Starbucks, the grocery store, wherever. He would know whether or not he had a good premise based upon the reactions of others. That is powerful advice.
So, I stand by the road, rain pouring down my back, my storyteller umbrella blown inside-out and tattered by the harsh winds of story physics. I cry over my beautiful, shiny literary machine, crafted with so much love over so many years, the dreams I indulged in, my hair flying in the breeze as we raced to Bestsellerville. But now, she’s out of story gas, off in the ditch, perhaps destined for the junkyard. All I can do right now is light an emergency flare, wave my arms and warn you off the route I have taken.
The literary trip you embark upon must follow the laws of Story Physics, and you must plan it using the principle of Story Engineering. But if you proceed from a premise that is not “compelling, interesting, and rewarding,”* your trip to Bestsellersville will end with your beautiful machine broken down in the parking lot of Heartbreak Hotel.
* – Story Physics, p. 34