As a writing coach and author of writing books and articles, I deal in numbers. Volume. Significant databases of writers and stories. Manuscripts, story plans, synopses, samples, story analysis and the hands-on witnessing of stories under development. And I’m here to tell you…
… there’s trouble in River City. I see it, I read it, every single day.
Too many of today’s writers don’t really understand what a “story” is.
I know, that’s a heretical thing to say. String me up and throw books at me, the ones that don’t tell you everything you need to know, or how it is in the real world.
But based on what I see, the stories I’m paid to read and evaluate, this story-thinness is too often the case. Often enough, in fact, to sense a trend, the presence of a career-killing writing virus that is the single most significant factor in why people can’t get their novel published.
The “story” just isn’t strong enough. In many cases, it’s not even a story at all. Even if the original idea has merit, the ensuring premise and the story built from it may not.
I’m on an airplane as I write this, heading to a Big Time writing conference, where I’m slated to present three workshops and — more germane to this post — sit down with 13 writers to go over their manuscript samples.
Add that to my coaching work, for which I’ve read over 500 story plans and dozens of full manuscripts in the past two years. All of it sort of mushes together in my head, leading me to a depressing conclusion.
Which is… somebody out there is leading our aspiring writers right into the dumpster. Where they got the idea that the stories I’m seeing – a much too large a percentage of them – are actually “stories” in the truest, most literary and commercial sense of the word, is beyond me.
It makes me sad, actually. These stories represent dreams and aspirations. Somebody has to say it: you need a better handle on what a good story IS… and what it ISN’T.
There are some terrific prose stylists out there pounding away, for sure. But eloquence and tricked out narrative won’t get you published. Not even close. In today’s market story trumps… everything…including your sentences, and — here’s the rub — including your characters.
Which is why we need to know what a story is… and what it isn’t.
Just showing us a character, from all sides and angles, does not a story make.
It’s as if these folks had all just emerged from a summer camp on “writing a literary novel” (perhaps with “M.F.A.” somewhere in the header) under the assumption that the ONLY thing that counts is “writing about a character.” Never mind giving that character something to DO, something that matters, or providing the reader with something to root for, via the unfolding of a dramatic plot.
Writing art… a noble pursuit. But writing for readers commercially… that’s a completely different ballgame. Thing is, too many aspiring to the latter are adopting the mindset of the former.
Somebody slept in on the day when the teacher told the class about CONFLICT being the most important element of fiction. Even in literary fiction, where the hero needs to be doing something — besides living their life — that the reader can relate to and empathize with.
Not a whole bunch of different episodic glimpses of conflict, the only connection between which is the fact that they feature the same protagonist… that’s a diary, a biography, not a story.
“All the stuff that happened to Bob that made him the man he is today…” is not a story, either. Not in a commercial sense.
Where do we get our notion of what a story is, and what it isn’t? Books, workshops, writing groups, something your freshman lit teacher said, blind naivete… I’m not sure. But it’s out there, and it’s killing dreams right and left.
Maybe those of us standing in front of the room aren’t doing enough talking about the right things. The things that make a story work at its most basic, fundamental level.
Most of us cover it, though, leaving me dumbfounded as to the source of this virus. Even writing teachers who aren’t big fans of structure — and there are plenty of ’em – usually emphasize that dramatic tension and escalating exposition (versus episodic exposition) is what makes a story tick.
It’s what makes a story a story.
Today’s aspiring novelist, it seems, wants to “write about the life of a character.” Period. It just sounds so… literary. Very impressive in the foyer as we trade pitches over shrimp and cocktails.
And thus, we keep getting pitched the life story of a fictional character.
Which — somebody forgot to tell them along the way — almost never works. Because we (the readers) have no reason to care, there’s nothing to root for, very little with which to engage on an emotional level.
For all of that to happen there needs to be a PLOT.
There, I said it. A good story needs to have a PLOT. In one form or another. A bunch of smaller plots, told in sequence… isn’t a novel. It’s a biography of a fictional character. It’s a collection of short stories featuring the same protagonist.
Not a novel.
Unless you’re writing something to pass a class taught by a “literary author,” this is a true statement. If you want to publish your work in today’s market, you must have dramatic tension in play across the full arc of the story.
My conclusion — and it’s the most drastic, dramatic thing to say out loud in this business, to a room full of aspiring writers — is that too many aspiring writers today don’t really understand what a STORY is, at its most fundamental level. A real story, not just a character profile that spans the decades of a protagonist’s life.
That while you can certainly sit down and write about anything you want, you can’t expect anything and everything to be the raw material for a compelling novel with commercial plausibility.
Nobody seems to have the balls to tell these writers that they don’t have a STORY there. Which, if this is the case, is the most loving, timely and helpful thing they absolutely need to hear. Tell them that their story is thin on at least three of the six essential core competencies of fiction (you need ALL SIX of them for the story to work), and almost all of the six realms of story physics, which is the raw energy that makes any story work..
The life story of a fictional character is the most common case in point.
It’s all there, in the premise.
But there are other story killers that reside at the premise level, and until the premise changes there’s really no chance at making it come alive on the page. Such as: a killer concept leading to a lame premise. A vanilla premise with nothing conceptual about it at all. Or a complete mangling of the story’s structure in the name of “there are no rules.”
There aren’t. But there ARE principles, and they’ll sink you if you play too loose with them.
My favorite example of what a real story looks like, despite being well written, character-driven and thematically rich (the intoxicants of the literary-minded, and thus, the seductive alternative to plot), is the bestseller The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.
I get push-back that actually claims this novel is an example of “just a story about some characters living their lives, that it really has no plot, and look what happened. It’s all about the characters.”
Look again. Somebody isn’t reading the damn thing closely enough.
Because there is a significant PLOT at work in The Help, propping up and driving the thematic weight of the story as it fuels the entire thing… from providing a framework for all that stellar characterization and arc, to giving the hero (Skeeter, as the primary protagonist, and Aibeleen as a major enough player to claim co-protagonist props) something to DO in the story, a purpose, a mission, a quest, a problem to solve… something the reader will ROOT FOR because it is emotionally resonant, which the life story of a fictional character isn’t), all of it with massive stakes and significant opposition always in play.
Notice that this novel ISN’T “the life story of a colored maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.” It’s a concentrated drama unfolding over a concise period of time.
Harry Potter? Totally plot-driven. With a great hero.
Jonathan Franzen’s books? Read them again… there’s a plot in every one of them.
Many well-intended “life stories of fictional characters” claim to have drama, but when you look closely it is delivered in chronologically-segregated chunks, as a series of vignettes that are, in essence, nothing other than short stories from the protagonist’s life, many of which are never resolved and have absolutely no drama. They just happen.
If you believe a “story” is simply a collection of words and scenes that feature a character, that give us a documentary and/or a chronology of something that happened as an isolated diary-entry from a fictional life… then go ahead, call it a “story” if you like.
Just don’t say it to an agent or an editor.
This is the type of assignment you received back in your creative writing class — write about something that happened to you, or happens to a character.
Fine. Learn to write scenes, that’s a good thing. But a scene is not a novel, and a series of scenes that aren’t parts of a connected plot spine aren’t a novel, either.
Character arc is not plot.
But somewhere along the line writers have come to believe they can just string these episodic chapters together and call it a novel… without a central dramatic arc… without a front-to-back contextual need or problem or mission driving the character… without giving the reader something to root for.
All this, under the assumption that the reader will be content to look in at it, as if peering through aquarium glass with voyeuristic pleasure. Or worse, to marvel at the symmetry and beauty of your prose.
If Skeeter didn’t need to write that book about the maids in Jackson, you have no novel. Perhaps more certainly, you have no mega-bestselling novel.
If the goal is to pass a writing class, to score a good grade and a comment from the teacher that “you write really well,” then sure, go for it. It’s good practice for writing scenes.
But that isn’t the game you’re in now.
Even if you aspire to publish a “literary” novel, which really isn’t a free pass from the fundamentals of what makes fiction work, the greatest of which is rooting for a character who has embarked upon a worthwhile path toward DOING something, encountering conflict, seeking to achieve something, solve something, obtain something, stop something, or otherwise resolve something…
… versus simply living from episode to episode over a period of time, or even a lifetime.
I call it “the adventures of (add hero’s name here)…” story.
And it doesn’t work.
I’m not saying it has never worked, but I am saying it’s not a mainstream gateway into becoming a published author. And even when it does work (a perception, that), much more is going on that a diary of a protagonist’s life experiences, the things that made them who they are.
It just won’t work unless you write like Cheever or Franzen or our favorite literary obscurity. And even then — long odds, that — if you look close enough, you’ll see a PLOT in there somewhere, giving the hero something that much be done, driving things forward.
If you miss that, you’re missing the whole point.