The first in a 5-part series.
I discovered the power of a deftly wielded analogy back in the dark ages when I was a minor league baseball player. A pitcher, to be more precise.
How dark? Let’s just say I was on a mound in a crumbling old wooden stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia (the Class-A Northwest League) when the PA announcer interrupted the game to inform all 612 folks in attendance that Richard Nixon had resigned as President of the United States.
Not that I cared at the time, I had a two-run lead to protect.
Having discovered first-hand that a 96 mph fastball wasn’t going to be enough to make it at the professional level – many of mine left the ballpark before I could crank my head to watch – I set out to learn the fine art of throwing a killer breaking ball.
To be specific, a slider. The pitch dubbed by the great Tom Seaver – who named his dog after it – as the great equalizer.
This nasty little gem of a pitch is a cross between a fastball and a curveball, but with a completely unique spin and an elbow-abusing requisite motion. Having already learned the art of throwing a very mediocre curveball, I initially and naively believed that a slider was simply the same pitch, only thrown harder.
Many of those hastily left the ballpark, too.
(It should be noted here that the reason a ball actually curves, or slides, has to do with aerodynamic law. Physics. Remember that as we move forward.)
It wasn’t until a coach used an analogy to clarify and visualize the intended spin that I finally got it. The spin on a fastball, from the hitter’s perspective, is south to north. The spin on a properly thrown curveball is north to south. And the spin on a slider is…
… just like a perfectly thrown football. It spirals.
When thrown well, and hard, both the batter and the catcher see a tiny dot in the middle of the approaching baseball, which is the axis of the rotation.
A football. Now it was clear. And now I had a strikeout pitch that rendered my fastball orders of magnitude more effective and – soon – the tendons in my elbow to the consistency of overcooked pasta.
My curve still sucked, but that’s another story. As is the story of my pro career, which in a flicker of literary irony ended because of the damage the slider imparted to my arm.
Such is the price we pay in pursuit of our dreams.
I remain a fan of analogies as a teaching tool to this day.
Here’s one now.
Your Story is a Vehicle
Think of your story as a means of transporting your reader to another place and time. Into another life. Perhaps another world.
Great stories are vicarious, but they are also studies in motion. You can only sit in a cool car stalled in a parking lot for so long before you understand that you are going nowhere.
Vehicles, as we understand them, have a few major and essential parts in addition to a long list of options and accessories. As do our stories. When we, as designers of our story-vehicles, focus on those accessories to the detriment of the essentials, bad things happen.
The worst of which is that nobody will buy your vehicle, must less ride in it.
Vehicles come in all sizes and shapes, with a wide breadth of power and options. Some have two wheels, some four, some eighteen. Some required tracks. The coolest vehicles even fly.
But what makes a vehicle an effective means of transportation is non-negotiable.
It must have an engine.
Something that generates power to create momentum.
It must have wheels or wings. An engine without wheels or wings is something that sits on blocks in a parts warehouse. Or, in a junkyard.
It must have a cabin of some sort, a place for passengers to buckle in for the ride. The passenger experience is critical to the success of the vehicle in the commercial marketplace.
And, it must have operating controls, a means of driving or piloting the thing. The vehicle must have a predictable response to prompts from an operator, rather than running at random and chaotic speeds. (The exception here is found on the freeways of Phoenix, by the way.)
The loss of any one of these essential parts dooms the vehicle to either a repair shop or a crash.
And at the design stage, to nothing beyond the drawing board.
Too many writers don’t understand that specific parts are essential to their stories.
They’re all about the paint and the chrome.
A great story may have a lot of style, but it is never a victory of style over substance. And substance always comes from what’s under the hood, no matter how cool the paint and how shiny the chrome.
These frustrated writers focus on one part – even if it’s an essential one — to the exclusion or detriment of another. Which also results in a crash, or the need for a massive repair.
Make no mistake, the engine of your story is the plot.
And like an engine, you can’t just toss one together however you please. There are principles of physics and mechanics in play, and if you mess with them the thing will stall when you need it most.
Not a good thing when it happens at 30,000 feet. Or on that freeway in Phoenix.
An engine requires fuel. In the case of your story, that fuel is the compelling nature of the concept upon which the dramatic sequence is built.
No fuel, no forward momentum. Even if the engine is otherwise structurally perfect.
The wheels – or wings – of your story are your characters.
In an effective story we experience plot through character, and we experience characters through plot. When the two are separated, you have nothing more than a junkyard littered with perfectly fine auto parts that are going nowhere until they are once again fused in the hands of a trained mechanic.
Too much character without a compelling story… that’s boring. Something that moves really, really slow.
That mechanic – the story engineer – is you, by the way.
You are both the designer, mechanic and operator of the story you are creating.
You are also the driver or pilot of your story. The parts are worthless without you, without your deft touch and judgment. A bad driver can crash a perfect engine without ever knowing what went wrong.
Your reader isn’t making decisions, they are simply along for the ride. Within this analogy, you are in complete control of the speed of the ride. The comfort or thrill of the ride. The temperature of the cabin.
Even the music. Your writing voice is the music that gives the ride its personality and tonality.
If the stereo sounds like cats in a slaughter house, nobody will buy the otherwise perfect car.
This isn’t an auto show or a drag race, it’s a new car dealership.
Sometimes, in our desire to achieve unprecedented creativity and originality, we can push the limits of commercial viability too far.
You don’t see dragsters in the street, nor do you see aerobatic bi-planes waiting at the gate at the airport.
This isn’t experimental writing, this is commercial fiction. You are writing for money, to obtain an audience.
Design your vehicle accordingly.
And try for that great equalizer while you’re at it, something that will be a cross between a fastball and a curveball that leaves the hitter frozen and the fans delirious. (A mixed metaphor, I know, but sometimes more is better.)
Something that takes the physics of dramatic theory and gives them a fresh new spin.
There’s something to be said for restoring a classic Ford in your garage using parts taken from old lawnmowers and smoothie blenders. Making up your own physics as you go along.
Just don’t expect to sell the darn thing. The only people who will hop in and go for a ride with you will be family and friends, who are simply being nice.
If you want to break into the commercial market, you need to understand that the whole of your story must be a sum in excess of its parts, both essential and optional, artfully assembled.
Only when that aspect of your design works does the paint and trim count for anything at all.
Larry’s new book, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” is available now at bookstores and online venues. At this writing it is the #1 bestselling writing book out there.
Up next: four more writing analogies to help keep your head straight.
Meanwhile, feel free to share any writing analogies that help keep you focused and sane.