Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Irrefutable Algebra of Story

Don’t be scared off by the implication of forthcoming mathematics.  

I know, writers aren’t known for their affection for numbers, but I promise you this particular story problem will be right up your alley.

This post is inspired by a recent story coaching client who answered this question — What is the core dramatic arc of your story? — with this response: My story is about a woman seeking to discover her roots to find out who she really is.

This answer, almost to a word, is very common. It is also, as a story development metric, almost completely worthless.

That said… it may be fine (too often it isn’t) if the context is a cocktail party or passing an acquaintance on the street, or as the first line of a premise that goes on to offer more.  And it’ll look great on the back cover of a trade paperback.  But as a window into the story itself, its source of drama and action and character arc… as a test of the writer’s awareness of what a story actually requires… as something that really answers the question about dramatic arc… this all-too-familiar answer falls far short.

It is missing the dramatic heart and soul of the story itself.

But as a pitch — this being germane because an agent will almost certainly ask you this question in some form or another — this answer is a disaster, with a one hundred percent certainty that the agent or editor sitting across for you (or on the receiving end of your email) will ask you what the hell that even means… by asking you to describe what happens in the story.

Which you haven’t accomplished with the answer you’ve given.  Dramatic arc is what happens… which means you’ve just outed yourself as being new and uninformed.

Actually, that’s not accurate… make that less then 100 percent, because some agents will trash your pitch based on such an answer alone.

Because, you see, “finding out who she is” is an outcome.  

It is a goal, something the hero pursues.  It is a dependent consequence of what the hero actually does to reach that goal, but without telling us what that might be.  Drama doesn’t reside in the outcome, it is found on the path that leads to an outcome.

Such an answer is more an idea, an intention, than a workable story.  It’s like saying you want to be rich… worthless without a plan.  It is the kind of thing that occurs to a writer in the first minute of awareness of the story idea, rather than an outcome of weeks and months of cultivating what you might do with such an idea.

Too often it indicates that you don’t really know what to do with your idea.

When that agent asks for more detail, you better have a meaningful answer at the ready.  Which, if your original answer is any clue, you probably don’t.

Let’s look at this in algebraic terms.

This isn’t an equation, nor is it a formula.  Rather, is is a universal calculation and construct of fiction, a postulation that applies to and empowers any story in any genre.

Let’s call your hero X.  Then let’s call your story resolution, that outcome you are in love with, Z.   Which too often leads only to this: “In my story, X pursues Z.”

Again, that answer is a terrible, fatal way to pitch your story.  Because…

Do you notice something missing?

Let’s hope you do.  It’s not math, in this context, this is first grade English — we’re missing a Y component, because the fuller, better, more professional sequence is X, Y and then Z.

X deals with, encounters and confronts Y… to reach Z.   The math is that simple.

Let me say, before I go any further, that this broken hypothesis — X pursues Z — has caused more rejections than you can imagine, because when the attention turns from pitch to manuscript too often an author who would indeed pitch it without the Y element would also write it without a full and properly formed Y element.

Which is a deal killer each and every time.  X and Z are easy… it’s Y that separates the dreamers from the doers.

Because Y is what the story is all about.  

Y is the dramatic arc of a story.

Let me repeat that.  It’s not X, the hero… not Z, the outcome… the dramatic arc of the story is Y.

Y is the narrative itself.  Y is where the scenes are.  Y is where conflict comes in.  Y is action and decision leading to further action and decision.  Y is the stuff of story sequence and structure.  Y is the catalyst for character arc.  Y is the vessel for the conceptual essence of the story. Y is what the reader engages with, roots for, empathizes with and relates to.

Y is the path that leads to Z.

And yet, too many new writers leave it out completely when pitching their story.  

Which is a sure bet they don’t understand the value of the Y component in their story.  It’s like pitching The Hunger Games like this: My story is about a girl who must overcome a dystopian society ruled by a cruel President.

Tell me that doesn’t completely leave out the entire heart and soul of that story.  It’s not wrong, per se, merely incomplete in a way th at renders it ineffective.  But what is does do is demonstrate the lack of a nuanced understanding on the part of the author, who hasn’t demonstrated that they know what makes a story tick.

Agents and editors have an ear for that, just as much as they are listening for the story itself.

Here’s the real algebra of a story that works:  

The hero (X)… must engage with, confront, battle, navigate, outwit, outplay, overcome or defeat an antagonist (all this comprising Y)… in order for a specified outcome (Z), which is the hero’s goal, to manifest within the story.

It boils down to this.  Feel free to print this out and tape it to your monitor:

A story is not just about something.  Not just, or primarily, about a character, a setting, a theme, an issue, a piece of history, or an ending.

Rather, a story is about WHAT HAPPENS to reach whatever conclusion serves the natural outcome of scenes that depict conflict stemming from a hero with a goal and an antagonist that opposes that goal.

Some writers read those two sentences and can’t see the difference.  Those writers are in for a long haul, because the second sentence is where the gold is.  It is what professionals know and they don’t.

That second sentence is the key to everything.

Wrap your head around this at both the contextual and narrative level, and you will have, merely by doing so, risen into the top quartile of unpublished writers striving to lose that tag.

Our friend Art Holcomb (check out his blog) has supplied us with an illuminating video and short article on “The Power of Storytelling,” where this math will be obvious.


If you’re interested in seeing how you’d do – which means, seeing where you are on the story learning curve – with one of those Coaching Questionnaires, see the menu to the left, or click HERE for more information.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

Fiction Writing 101: Learning to Skate

Writers like to debate things that have absolutely no interest to the rest of the world. Like the difference between an analogy and a metaphor.

Looking it up can be as confusing as trying to convince your know-it-all English teacher – or a writer – one way or the other.  Because an analogy is defined as “A resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike.”  While – on the same page – a metaphor is defined as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”

My simple take-away from that: a metaphor suggests an analogy.

This is yet another reason why so many writers drink to excess.

I mention this because, as a blogger and writer of books on the craft of fiction, I am guilty of two things: an affection for metaphors and analogies, and a default to repeating them within the same set of categories, one of which is the beloved (or dreaded, depending on which camp you belong to) sports analogy.

So fair warning, here comes another one, right at you.

And I hope you pay attention, because like so many metaphor/analogies aimed at writers, this one is immensely clarifying.

Maybe a little frightening, too.  But in a good way, it if delivers a wake-up call.

Part of what I do is coach writers – specifically, I coach a given project from a writer – through the use of an unflinching questionnaire that absolutely cannot be hidden from.  You either know your own story or you don’t (in terms of knowing it well enough to write it well enough to sell), … or you don’t even know what that means.

It is the sad preponderance of the latter that informs my post today.

This weekend I was working on a response to the longer version of one of my coaching Questionnaires, from a writer with an immense amount of passion for his story.  This, too, is common, but too often that passion becomes moot when the questions themselves ask the writer to define the parts and parcels of the story itself, in context to the function of those parts and parcels.

Passion, in fact, can be the very thing that derails your intentions. Because passion isn’t enough.  Passion without craft – much like dancing on the wing of an airplane or wrestling an alligator – can get you killed.

That’s the catch, you see.  You can’t just toss a bunch of scenes into a manuscript and hope to sell it under the guise of a novel.  Thinking that if you love it enough, that if you explore it every which way, that it will work.

Without craft this doesn’t work, any more than you can dump the contents of your closet into a garbage bag, take it to the flea market and call it a department store.

There I go, metaphors ablaze once again.

After nearly five hours with this project I emerged from my office weakened, exhausted, angry, frustrated and thoroughly convinced that the entire prospect of coaching writers is like preaching to a political constituency that there are two sides to every story.

See? I absolutely cannot help myself.

My wife asked why I was trembling, and why I was rooting through the bottom shelf of our panty looking for what was left of a fifth of scotch left over from our last Christmas party, when in fact I don’t even drink alcohol.

I just wish I drank alcohol after encountering projects like the one I’d just finished.

My search for an answer was getting me nowhere.

“Deep breath,” she said.  “I’m here for you.  Start from the beginning.”

“Okay,” I said,” closing my eyes to pretend I was in my happy place, which looks a lot like a beach with a buffet in a world in which Donald Trump is bald and gagged.

“This is driving me crazy,” I finally got out.  There was a less than colorful adjective in there somewhere, but it behooves neither of us here.

“Obviously,” she replied.

“I mean, this writer… God bless him… couldn’t answer a single question.  He doesn’t even know the difference between a concept and a premise, and when he got going, what he said was his premise totally disappeared into something else.”

“Nobody knows the difference between a concept and a premise,” she offered, thus defining my contribution to the entire writing world… because there is an immense and critical difference between those two story essences.

“Did I mention he couldn’t answer a single question? Not one, in the entire questionnaire. And yet he treated it all as if this was the next Mockingbird.”

“Too late,” she said.  “That one releases this weekend.”

“He answered them all, but he understood none of them.”

“That, too,” she offered, “is less than surprising.  Not everyone isn’t new at this.”

I nodded until the double negative sunk in, then plowed forward into what is, for us, familiar territory.

“This is the only profession in the world in which people can declare themselves a professional, by virtue of actually creating the product they intend to sell, without having any real sense of the baseline, 101, fundamental principles, architectures, elements and essences that define the very thing they are attempting to engage with.”

She smiled, holding up a hand to stop me from launching down the long list of analogies that clarify this point… doctors… lawyers… pilots… pro golfers… dancers… bridge builders…

… okay, you’re not her, so allow me an analogous expansion of my point…

… imagine someone trying to create a functional piece of software – a pursuit that, like writing a novel, has literally hundreds of variables, variances, elements, gradations of application, it is defined by expectations, precedent, professional standards – without having ever done it before, or worse, without having engaged with the academics and apprenticeship that separates the cans and can’ts without mercy, who haven only rubbed keystrokes with software in their job or on Facebook… in a craft and avocation that doesn’t hold workshops with a Kumbaya vibe in which everyone will succeed if they really really try hard and be good and just stick with it, a place where there are no bad ideas (pitch a bad idea in a meeting at Oracle and watch the wrath of Larry Ellison befall you), and where the results of failure aren’t death or destruction or bankruptcy – using only their experience as a consumer of doctoring and lawyering and flying in airplanes and sitting in the grandstands and auditoriums…

… as a reader of books who dreams one day of writing one…

… and thinking that, with only the leverage of that consumer experience, even if it is avid and frequent, they believe they can actually sit down and do what that legion of trained, tested, accomplished and knowledgeable professionals can do after their 10,000 hours of apprenticeship, even on their first day on the job?

My wife knew this entire list well. 

Because I had been in this verklempt place before after emerging from my office.

My books, my workshops, and the books and workshops of hundreds of others who do what I do, do it better than I do it, as well as the schools and organizations who exist for the sole purpose of preparing writers for this work… it’s all for the delivery of that contextual preparation that is inescapably required before the actual work can stand a chance.

This is why “just write” is perhaps the worst, most uninformed morsel of writing advice… ever.

Here’s what you need to know before your novel will work. 

You need to know what a concept is, what a premise is, and what the difference between them is.  You need to know, or at least subconsciously understand, how to leverage that difference.  You need to recognize both in the ocean of published books that are out there, and how and why they are essential.  Do that well enough and you will come to understand why some books are bestsellers and well-reviewed, and why some aren’t.

You need to understand the hero’s quest, the journey of your protagonist, the hero’s arc as it surfs the dramatic arc, how that differs from a memoir,  a diary-like narrative, or an episodic wandering through a series of adventures and experiences that you think is a novel, but isn’t.  You need to know how and why these experiential musings almost never work in a novel.

You need to understand dramatic theory, the role of conflict and tension in a story, the role of antagonism and a collision of agendas.  How and why this is the most powerful essence in all of fiction.

You need to know why practically every MFA graduate I’ve ever met has asked me why they didn’t teach any of this stuff in their school, and why their work remains anonymous when their true heart’s desire is to reach a wider audience that, like them, never really “got” Moby Dick at all.

You need to understand the physics of story structure, how it matters in every story even if it doesn’t matter what the labels are, how it is story, and how that well-intended guy who says “story trumps structure” has created the most misleading, untrue and confusing platitude in the entire history of fiction mentoring, an opinion echoed by every single last writing professional I’ve ever asked about it.

Thank God my book is outselling his.

You need to be able to describe the source and agenda of dramatic tension in your story, the dramatic question posed by your story, the difference between the hero’s goal relative to action and the desired outcome relative to the efficacy of those actions.

You need to know how your story will end before you can write the draft that finally, fully, functionally, works as best it can, and how to get to that ending regardless of your process.

You need to know that the debate between story planning and story pantsing is a moot and ridiculous waste of time, that process by any name heads toward the exact same destination, and is measured by the exact same criteria and benchmarks.

You need to see through the “wisdom” of famous authors who tell you to do it one way, because it is their way, and… well, see the previous paragraph, then look up the word hubris as context.  The only reason to write 22 drafts of a novel is because you are incapable of nailing it in one or two (and have the wisdom to know this is true), or less than 22, like so many other famous, thoroughly competent and equally famous writers can.

You need to be able to answer the questions.

Which can only happen after you fully understand the questions.

And right there, in that one italicized word, is the difference between every newbie and unschooled and long-suffering failed writer, compared to any writer who still maintains a hope of success, no matter how new they are, because they are still chasing that understanding.

All of that, the entire rambling, slightly crazy, imprecise and irrefutable whole of it, transpired silently between my wife and me over the span of about three seconds of silence.

Because we have been in it together so many times, many of them after I’d emerged from my office with obvious high blood pressure and the urge to throw something heavy through the screen of my computer monitor.

And then, I finally said it.

The best and most concise encapsulation of all of this that had ever escaped my drooling lips… and to my delight, it emerged into the world as a sports metaphor.

“It’s like,” I said softly, reverently, on the cusp of an Epiphany, “like someone who intends to play hockey, who believes they are playing hockey, and doing it at a professional level… before they know how to skate.”

She was already smiling at me.

Nailed it.

They were playing the game, in their own minds, before they had learned to skate.

This, in an avocation in which you must know how to skate at an unthinkably astute and advanced level.  You can’t fake knowing how to skate.

I was mentoring too many writers who had skipped or undervalued or not yet wrapped their heads around Craft 1o1 for the trappings of the casual conversation about writing a novel.

Writers who clung to “just write” as the key to the writing kingdom.

You can attend a thousand hockey games, you can memorize the vast canon of hockey history, but if you can’t skate – skate like a maniac on the verge of control, like the professionals can – then your dream of actually playing the game at that level is…

… well, it’s sadly deluded.

And so the simple question floats between us. 

Dare I ask it of you?

Of course I do.

As we leap from this analogy to the dream of writing novels and selling them for money… I ask you…

can you skate?

Before you pick up a stick or put on a helmet… before you strap on the pads and pronounce words like about and process as if you’ve never set foot outside of Ottawa…

… if you can’t completely and with full assurance define and apply all of those terms and concepts and elements and essences of writing fiction as quoted earlier in that unspoken three second rant to my wife…

… if even a piece of that isn’t yet second nature to you…

… how, then, do you expect to stay upright next to the player who can skate… skate to the extent they completely forget about the ice in deference to the nuance and the bliss of the game itself?

There’s nothing wrong with being new at this, we all were at one point.

There’s nothing wrong with having a list of things you still need to learn… we’re all in that boat, as well, and always.

But sanity, and well as hope, resides in knowing with certainly where you are on that learning curve.  Because such an awareness defines the nature and scope of the work before you.

For the love of Stephen King (a metaphor for God?), at least learn the basics.  And at least use those first manuscripts as a vehicle toward that learning, rather than pounding out 400 pages of utter naive cluelessness that is destined to break your heart – because someone you’ve paid to tell you the truth will tell you the truth, even if it makes him crazy – because you really don’t know what a dramatic premise must say and do, you really don’t understand the role of confrontation and conflict in the beautiful arc of your characters, and you haven’t accepted the principles and criteria and essences that will define and measure all of it, for all of us, one way or another, once we stamp the word FINAL on the draft that we intend to submit.

With this, I will offer one last analogy…

… and it is as irrefutable as, well, as it’s own name, even for those who are offended by or sick of, or seeking to diminish, what is true for just those thin reasons.

Those principles, the ones you may discard or not yet know, are like gravity.

And nobody with a brain can deny, defy or mess with gravity.

Harness it, maybe.  But only if you understand it first.

And like gravity, the principles of writing effective fiction don’t care what you call them, or even if you believe in them. But they will kill or cripple you if you proceed without honoring them – just like gravity – just as they will elevate you to unfathomable heights, like a beautiful bird, once you understand how to harness their power.

Gravity and hockey.  That’s all you really need to understand.

Learn to skate.  Do that, and gravity will serve you as you begin to understand the game.


If you still dare, consider tackling one my coaching Questionnaires (there are several levels and focuses available), as described in the column to the left of this post, and the Coaching page that explains them further. 

If there’s a weakness in your story it will be exposed, and if there’s an opportunity to take it to a higher level there’s a strategy for that, as well.

My objective is not to kill your writing dream.  Rather, it is to give it wings.

Or, if you prefer… skates.


Filed under getting published