An Essential Post of Monstrous, Manifesto Proportions
I’m on fire about this topic. I’ve written various iterations of it, sometimes using the words “The Lie” within the title. I even have a little ebook by that title. It’s an attention grabber, one that some writers take as a challenge to disprove, because hey, that’s the way they do it. And if they do it, how can it possibly be a lie?
This site is about both process and product. But you’ll always be clear on which side of this dichotomy you are dealing with, and you’ll get the clearest, most succinct and actionable accounting of the parts and parcel and structure of a novel available anywhere, from anyone.
Beginning in November, Art Holcomb will be joining Storyfix as a regular contributor (he already has over two dozen posts here on Storyfix; use the Search function to the right to check them out). Art is perhaps the best teacher of process I’ve met, and his stuff works because it is based on a keen understanding of what a story needs to do, in what order, using specific techniques, standards and benchmarks to elicit specific reader experiences and engagement.
Meanwhile, I’ll be here writing about the cogs in the story machine (as will Art; likewise, I’ll weigh in on process, as well, beginning with the post you’re reading now), the nuts and bolts and rivets and cylinders and belts and nuances that put drama and character into motion within our stories.
Together, our goal is to leave no stone unturned for writers who want to learn this craft from the inside out, instead of just waiting for lightning to strike from a good idea.
Today’s post (see below) first ran on WriterUnboxed.com a few months ago.
Read it here, then go to that site and check out the interesting comment thread. Including the guy who claims anything he’s ever heard about writing that’s useful could fit on a 3 by 5 card.
That’s what I’m talking about. That guy. Propagating The Lie.
The Well-Intentioned, Feel Good Untruth About Writing Compelling Fiction
Welcome to The Big Lie
By Larry Brooks
There’s a quiet rumor circulating among newer writers that professional authors know something they don’t. And that those famous A-listers (B-listers, too) aren’t giving it up.
This may very well be the case. Not so much as a conspiracy, but from a lack of an ability to convey—or a willingness to admit—that what they do can actually be explained, or that it can be taught and learned.
Too often they say this instead:
“I just sit down and write, each and every day, following my gut, listening to my characters, and eventually the magic happens.”
And so, hungry writers who hear this may lean into the belief that the craft of writing a good novel is inexplicable. That it’s something we are born with, or not. It is purely an issue of instinct. Maybe even that your characters actually talk to you.
The nights can get pretty long if you’re waiting to hear voices.
The real dream killer takes wing when writers conclude that there really isn’t anything to know at all. Rather, that you get to make it all up as you go.
And thus the Big Lie is born.
There actually is an enormous wealth of principle-based learning to be discovered and assimilated about how to write a novel that works. And there are folks out there teaching it, albeit with different models and terminology… all of which tends to coalesce into a singular set of interdependent truths.
Maybe it’s not a lie when someone repeats what they believe to be true. But belief, especially about the underpinnings of writing fiction, doesn’t make something true.
It may indeed be true for them. But not necessarily true for you.
Clarity requires understanding the differences.
There is no default best way to write a story, nor is there a prescribed path. Anyone who tells you that organic story development is superior to structured, principle-driven story development, including outlining, is wrong, regardless of their belief in that position.
And vice versa. Both are issues of process, and only that. They are choices, rather than an elevated version of conventional wisdom.
But with finished stories, any division between process and product vanishes. At that point, when you deem a draft to be final, what is true for one writer is suddenly true for all.
Clarity awaits in understanding the difference not only between process and product, but between rules and principles, as well. Rules apply to neither, while principles empower both.
Whether by intention, as a product of instinct or pure blind-ass luck, the efficacy of fiction is always driven by a set of core principles. They are not something you get to make up as you go. Rather, they are discovered as you progress along the learning curve.
Not all authors recognize the inherent opportunity in that moment of discovery. Sometimes they need to see the principles at work within someone else’s story… which is the most validating teachable moment of all.
The Author Who Can’t Tell Us Anything
In a recent author profile appearing in Writers Digest Magazine, an 11-million-copy bestselling author confessed she has no idea how she does it. Clearly, after two movie adaptations on top of her book sales, the numbers prove her wrong.
But not knowing how she got there isn’t saying she doesn’t know what it needs to look like when she does. The numbers prove that, as well.
So what is she hiding? Is she lying, is she confused, or is she truly without a clue?
Probably none of the above. Rather, her contention is simply proof that, as it is in many forms of art and athletics and academics, doing and teaching exist as different core competencies, only rarely shared within one practitioner.
One might also cynically suggest that this actually proves one doesn’t require any core knowledge to knock a story out of the park. You just need to put in the time, and eventually your instincts will kick in.
Maybe. It happens. But usually it is more complicated than that.
Whether they know it or not, teachers who never circle around to the core principles of fiction as a part of the creative process are peddling the Big Lie.
They will defend their seat-of-the-pants blind process vigorously from behind a keynote podium, yet they have no explanation beyond the principles—which they aren’t talking about—that led to their own writing success.
It’s like your kid designing a paper airplane. It flies, even though Junior knows nothing about aerodynamics. And while you might think this proves the other side’s point, it doesn’t. Because the complexities of a novel that works are more like a Boeing airliner than a paper airplane from kindergarten.
As writers, we don’t know what we don’t know.
When I started writing about writing, I ran into a guy on an online forum who proclaimed this: “I never outline. It robs the process of creativity and the possibility of discovery. It takes the fun out of it.”
So says… that guy. Who is in it for fun.
This may be true… for him. This absolutely is not—it never has been—a universal truth you should apply to your own experience… at least until you should.
The things we don’t know become the learning we need to seek out and discover and understand before we can begin to truly wrap our heads around fiction as a profession. Writing itself is certainly a viable part of that journey, but it is not what unlocks the secret of that journey, in and of itself.
That forum guy was talking about his process, irresponsibly framing it as conventional wisdom. But there are no universal truths when it comes to process, other than it needs to take you somewhere, and that yours might indeed be what is holding you back.
Story doesn’t trump structure. Just as structure doesn’t trump story. Because they are the same things. Both are extreme ends of a process continuum that, if and when it works, takes you to the exact same outcome. Anyone telling you differently is actually talking about their own preferred process, and if they don’t clarify that context then they are propagating the Big Lie.
And thus a paradox has been hatched.
So if not everyone agrees, how then do we pursue the core craft we need to write a novel that works, whatever our process? Even if the folks we admire and look to for answers claim they don’t?
Take the common advice to just write.
Depending on the degree to which the writer commands the core principles, it may be like telling a medical student to just cut. “Just write” is half of the answer, for half of the problem, applying to half of the writers who hear it, sometimes long before they should even consider it. Any more than a first year medical student should consider removing a spleen from anything other than a cadaver.
Because just write is advice about process, not product. Yet when Stephen King advises us to do it, who dares question him… even when they should?
Such advice, framed as truth, becomes yet another part of the Big Lie.
Welcome to the writing conversation.
This seems to be how the entire writing conversation—blogs, books, how-to articles, workshops, conferences, keynote addresses, famous writer profiles, writing groups, critique groups, and (God-help us) writing forums—is framed. And yet, collectively, combined with practice and a seat-of-the-pants ability to assimilate skill and truth as it collides with what we would rather deem to be mystical and elusive, there are things that actually do define the journey of learning to write a professional-caliber novel.
Look in the right places and you will indeed encounter specific principles, propositions, processes, expectations, categories, models, trends and risks that the more experienced writer understands and weighs—perhaps only at an instinctual level, but they exist nonetheless—and that over time the effective writer builds their work upon. Most of them being issues with which the newer writer struggles.
Knowing where you stand relative to these core truths can save you years of exploration and untold buckets of blood seeping from your forehead. Some writers toil for decades without ever truly hearing these truths, or assimilating it if they do.
This is because The Lie is loud, downing what it is you truly need to hear and understand. Because even within The Lie, those truths are at work behind a curtain of hubris or ignorance, sometimes both.
Here is a framework for your learning curve, in a nutshell.
These six things rationalize the consideration of craft itself.
- Not all story ideas are good story ideas. Not all of them work. You can’t sit down and write anything you want and expect it to be saved by your brilliant prose. A worthy story idea needs to seed the landscape for the things that do, indeed, cause a fully formed story to work. There are principle-driven criteria in this regard that will inform your story selection instincts, which in turn will help you sort out which is which.
While I have no data for this other than a collective consensus among agents, editors and those who do what I do… consider that half of all rejection can be explained with a recognition that the story idea, at its most basic conceptual level, may be inherently weak. Regardless of how well the story is written or how talented the writer.
- A manuscript that seeks to discover the story enroute is at best a draft, and almost never a fully-formed, publishable novel. To label such a draft final, without rewriting it from the context of a fully-discovered story, is to condemn it to compromise.
There’s nothing wrong with using drafts as a search and discovery process. It’s called “pantsing,” and it works for many. It also sends many others to an early writing grave, because they don’t recognize it for what it is: a story search process, one of many that are available.
When the story is finished, and when it works, process ceases to count for anything. The exact same criteria for excellence apply to the end product, regardless of the process. You need to write with an ending in mind if you want the journey toward that ending to work.
- Genre fiction is not “all about the characters.” Some gurus say this… they are wrong, or at best only partially right. Genre stories are about how a character responds to a calling, to the solving of a problem, via actions taken and opposition encountered, thus creating dramatic tension that shows us the truest nature of who they are.
In other words, genre stories are driven by plot. And a plot doesn’t work without a hero to root for and an antagonistic force to fear. In any genre, conflict resides at the heart of the fiction writing proposition.
- It isn’t a story until something goes wrong. Carve this into the hard plastic that surrounds your computer monitor.
- A story isn’t just about something. Rather, it is about something happening. Theme and setting and history and character need to be framed within the unspooling forward motion of the narrative along a dramatic spine, driven by things that happen, rather than a static snapshot of what is.
- Structure is omnipresent in a story that works. Structure is, for the most part, a given form, not a unique invention to fit the story you are telling. This is the most often challenged tenant of fiction, and the most enduring and provable. Exceptions are as rare as true geniuses.
Structure is not remotely synonymous with formula. But the lack of structure is almost perfectly synonymous with finger painting.
The sooner you get these six truths into your head (among others, including the drilled-down subsets of each principle), the sooner you can truly begin to grow as a storyteller. And when you do, you may find yourself saying this: “Dang, I wish I’d have understood this stuff earlier in my writing journey, instead of all these years of sniffing around the edges of it, believing the wrong things from the wrong people.”
The truth is out there.
But not everyone is talking about it. Because the truth is less mysterious and glamorous and self-aggrandizing than the notion that successful writing is a product of suffering for one’s art.
Hiding beneath the under-informed meme of “there are no rules,” some writers, in the pursuit of that suffering, settle on accepting that few or none of those truths exist. That truly, good storytelling is simply the product of possessing a sense of things. That there are no criteria or expectations.
The only part of this that is true is when a sense of things refers to the degree to which the writer has internalized those six principles and all of the subterranean layers of them that exist.
Let me just say it outright: before you sit down to write a novel the way that Stephen King or James Patterson or the author giving the keynote address writes one, make sure you actually can do what they do and know what they know.
Intention is not the primary catalyst of success.
Some of the best novels, and novelists, are outcomes of a process that makes too little sense, and/or takes decades of blood, sweat and tears, and even stretches the boundaries of the principles themselves.
Rather, it is in the application and nuanced manipulation of what is known to render a novel compelling. Talent is nothing other than an ability to see it when you finally land on it, and to pursue it with awareness. Within genre fiction especially, this set of story forces is established and easily visible. It explains why James Patterson and Nora Roberts and a long list of other novelists can bang out six or more novels in a year, even without a co-author… because they know.
Principles can be taught, and they can be learned.
And certainly, there are gradations in the application of them, in the midst of contradictory opinions about all of it colliding loudly within in the writing conversation itself.
Those gradations and shadings are the art of writing a story. The raw grist of what makes a story tick, however, comprises the craft of writing one.
Know the difference, and you’ll begin to see through The Big Lie.