Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Seductive Trap of the Historical Novel

Or, how to kill off your historical novel before you write a word.

I’m working with two writers on their historical novels, and both — at this stage of their development — are hobbled by a classic (common) flaw in the design of the story.

That is: they have history in play, but they have no compelling CORE DRAMATIC STORY SPINE in play.

Both stories are “about” the history itself — setting, politics, social dynamics — rather than the requisite story arc of a hero with a problem/need, mounting a quest (mission) to solve that problem or meet that need, with something/someone opposing them, with something at stake, showing us the  hero DOING SOMETHING to resolve it all.

With this missing, what remains is, ironically, the very thing that draws the writer to this tapestry in the first place: historical and social and political ambiance.  A tour of the history.  A chronicle of a character’s experience within that history… but without it meaning much of anything.

Which isn’t enough.

Go to Amazon and read the editorial description of The Great Gatsby.

Notice how this focuses and raves about the lavish parties, the backstory, the social strata, the hubris of wealth, the utter greatness of it all… all of which is merely ambiance.

But when you read the book or watch the film, look more closely. 

There is a story framed by all that… a PLOT.  One with a hero and a villain and stakes (Daisy’s love), all converging with dramatic escalation and emotional resonance.

Those last things are what these two novels — and so many historical stories written by authors who are seduced and misled by reviews just like the one on Amazon — are lacking.

As writers, we need to understand more about storytelling than readers ever will. 

Both of these writers submitted their story plans to me for analysis.  After the process, both recognized the opportunity at hand.  So this is good, they get it now.

One, however, tried to explain the plan in response to my critical analysis, and in doing so focused once again on all those issues of ambiance, rather than the absence of a plot rendered compelling because of the stakes (both of which were largely MIA in her story).

A plot is the engine of story.  Her response was like explaining that, while there is no engine, the wheels and the upholstery are really, really cool.

Which misses the entire point.

So I thought I’d share my response to her relative to this follow- up/push-back document, which I have genericized here.

There are principles here to be absorbed.  I hope they help.


To the author:

This entire storytelling proposition consists of two realms of “raw material.” One is the actual story premise itself, the other is execution. In both realms, the “outcome” is always just someone’s opinion, though on the latter (execution) it is less negotiable and more easily predictable.

It is on the first point where the room divides. One person’s great story idea is another’s yawn.

That’s all over the place, some love literary novels, other can’t read them and prefer cozy mysteries or graphic horror stories or even erotica. Which of them is “wrong?” That’s not the proper question, of course, but it seems to be such when a writer pitches a story, something they think is absolutely fascinating and rich in potential, and the responder (agent, editor, story coach, and ultimate readers) go “not my cup of tea,” or “didn’t really grab me,” or whatever.

And thus, stories are accepted or rejected, successful or forgotten. Agents and editors “accept” stories all the time that they think will be appealing, and readers will stay away in droves, because they don’t agree. We haven’t broken that code.

In my case, in my role, I try not to gauge anything at all by “how I like it.” Rather, I evaluate more like an engineer assessing a blueprint or a worksite for the raw beams of a structure, and ultimately, the viability of a finished structure.

The engineer doesn’t have to “like” a house or a building to deem it finished, or worthy in terms of viability. That’s not the job. Not my job, either. I’m here to look INSIDE the story, at the core bones of it, and assess the nature of those building blocks (this is what I do in my less expensive story evaluations). But in doing so, I can look at the specific, separate items and assess their strength, both alone and in relation to the others (when they become a sum seeking to be a whole in excess of the parts.)

Your story obviously really appeals to you.

I’m betting you’ve told others about it – “I want to tell the story of my Hero and what happened to him during the war when the Russians took over his country,” and there are some cool elements there, a sailor picked up at sea, an affair, some nasty paranoid Russians…” and your listener goes, “wow, that sounds like a great story! It’d make a great novel!”

Thing is, a great novel requires MUCH more than a pile of cool elements.

From what I remember, it’s basically a true story… which immediately can become problematic. Because you feel the need to tell it “like it happened.” But… this is a competitive issue, as well.

Yes, you certainly can write “what happened.” And what happened is interesting, to some extent. But in a competitive market, other benchmarks and criteria apply. And that’s where your story, as conceived and assembled, becomes suspect.

In my opinion, the story lacks the “physics” required to compete for a publisher. Those physics include:

– a compelling premise that becomes a story landscape for a hero’s journey;
– an escalating sense of dramatic tension arising from conflict;
– strategic pacing;
– an empathetic journey for a hero/protagonist, that will cause the reader to ROOT FOR their desired outcome (or problem solving), with an antagonist (villain or negative force) blocking their path;
– delivering a vicarious journey to the reader (something they can’t experience for themselves, which all historical novels seek to create)
– an effective narrative strategy.

In other words… in summary… you lack a compelling PLOT.

Thing is, you can do ALL of these, and still come up short. But it is the SUM of these that matters, and even though the parts may look good at first, when they combine they are not as compelling as they need to be.

It would like someone writing a novel about the childhood of someone like, say, Cher. Cher is famous. Cher’s fans will care. Nobody else will. UNLESS and UNTIL that story leverages the above list to generate a story they respond to emotionally.

In your case, your story has basic flaws, even prior to Square 1.

You lack a compelling hero. Hero isn’t heroic (and even if he is heroic in the past, that doesn’t matter, not a bit, in the foreground story). In fact, he’s by nature not someone we root for, or even like (not a necessity by any means, but it can help if called for). Because… you don’t give him a QUEST with a specific goal, something that has stakes.

He’s trying to find the guy… but why ? Toward what end?  You never tell us.

“But,” you might say, “he does have a goal, he’s trying to find McGuffin (a character who becomes “the prize” and the source of STAKES in the story; in “The Davinci Code” the McGuffin was the Holy Grail, which turned out to be… well, you already know that surprise ending)!”

Sure… but who is McGuffin? We don’t know. He’s just a guy he picks up at sea. Then he disappears.

Bottom line: nothing is RIDING ON Hero finding him.

What if he does find him, what then? Nothing. Hero isn’t going to save him, Hero isn’t going to change everything. So there are no stakes attached to Hero finding McGuffin.

Which leaves your story as simply this: a guy finds a guy, and then loses the guy… we watch all that happen, without ever really knowing or, more importantly, FEELING what this means, and thus, why we should care.

Everything depends on stakes.

Without them, a story becomes a “chronicle” or a documentary of a character’s journey within the historical framework.  It becomes a frame without a picture. Which is the case here: this story is about “the stuff that happens to Hero and Hero’s wife,” set on a tapestry of this political stage at that point in history.

But… nothing happens that compels the reader to root or care. Because they aren’t known figures from history.  They aren’t player, they have no role in that history. And frankly, they aren’t sympathetic in any way. So, if what they’re doing isn’t important, and who they are doesn’t touch our hearts… why will we care?

Part of the problem, as I said, is how the book is written, as it sits how.

Your Part 1 needs a complete redesign, because you aren’t setting up a compelling CORE STORY that launches at the First Plot Point.

You may argue with that. You may say you ARE setting up a core story, and that it is compelling. But we disagree on that point. It’s not compelling because Hero has no skin in the McGuffin game, and then when the Russians suspect he’s somehow a spy, that’s thin, hard to see or believe, and becomes a chase without a prize.

Because Hero isn’t a spy.  And the Russians suspicion that he is has no merit other than paranoia.

In your synopsis you describe an ending in which neither Hero or Hero’s wife is actively, heroically involved. Hero never solves his problem, and the problem he has is, again, without depth or real meaning. The political stage becomes scenery, it is never “about” Hero seeking save someone, or change something, or improve anything at all.

It’s like a diary come to life. But the diary isn’t dramatic enough, and has no substantive stakes, to become a novel that works.

Let me put it this way: the story of “a” guy who saves “a” guy, neither of whom made a lick of difference in the war… that’s not enough of a story. Thus, whatever happens to them (affairs, unfair pursuit, etc.) doesn’t matter… enough.

If, however, Hero is “a” guy who saves “THE” guy – someone who ends up making a meaningful difference, or plays a key role, in the OUTCOME of what happened in those days in that place, then that IS a story worth telling, from a commercial outcome.

You never position either player in the story relative to STAKES. That’s a deal killer.

Even then, though, the story is still about the hero’s quest and heroism, not about his wife’s affair and his abusive nature and his alcoholism, and his blind quest to find a guy about whom he knows nothing, with no noble intentions or vision for an outcome that will change anything, and then, doesn’t end up achieving any of it, or anything at all.

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong at the STORY PREMISE level.

There is a long list of things that are wrong at the EXECUTION level, to the extent I think you need to come at this story – a better story – from a completely new and fresh narrative strategy. Resulting a much richer, faster, compelling Part 1 that is not driven by backstory and meaningless character chit-chat and descriptions of setting and random memories and such.

All this despite your significant prose skills. You do write very well.

That said, and on the latter count, you need a lot of work and practice on scene writing.

Which begins with a clear mission for each scene that connects to a compelling core story arc. If I’m correct when I suggest that the core story arc (what your Part 1 scenes seek to set up) is, in fact, less than compelling, then the scenes are already doomed. Complicated by the fact that you over-write them – and many of them don’t serve the core story, they are side trips with the “diary” you are creating – the sum becomes something that calls for a closer look, with a view toward improving the core story (which means you need to change it), and then , a narrative strategy that better serves it, but focusing on the DRAMA instead of the backstory or the subplots, which in the current version completely smother the intended “plot” itself.

When it matters what your hero does, because there are stakes involved that touch us emotionally and intellectually, then you’ll be on point with this story.


If you’d like to experience this feedback process for yourself, click HERE for the concept/premise level, and HERE for the Full Story Plan program.



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