A Deeper, Richer Understanding of Craft

I used to think that the title of this post describes what we are all out to achieve as writers.  That this is, in fact, a description of the writing journey as well as the destination.

 Not so sure anymore.  I’m certain that it can be – and I suspect that it should be – but I’m more convinced than ever that it doesn’t have to be, nor is it always so. 

 Like the song says, some girls just wanna have fun. 

 Some even get rich and famous in the process.

The more I study this stuff, though, the more convinced I am that, whichever side of this fence you are on, a richer level of understanding opens deeper access to a set of empowering tools and principles that might otherwise prove elusive.  A set of criteria, checks and balances that allow us to optimize our stories both before, during and after we’ve written them.

Imagine if you could look at the story you are about to write, and/or the story you’ve just finished, and assess it in context to something that is universally true and essential – a set of forces and principles and criteria that exists whether you acknowledge them or not – wouldn’t that be a good thing?  I think it would be.

Without such an understanding… well, you’re stuck with your instincts and the mathematical probably that you’ve hit the target as close to dead center as you possibly can.  That there are no better creative decisions left on the table that trump those you’ve already made.

In other words, a crap shoot.  And in a game that offers you a path to bettering your odds.

Some writers get to the promised land placing these kind of bets.  Others spend decades waiting for their horse to come in.

I say, learn how to build a better horse and watch what happens. 

You can wait for the game to come to you, or you can go after it. 

As it is with sports and music and other forms of art – even in relationships and business and our health – it certainly is possible to dive in, experiment, learn, grow your instincts, get better and advance along the storytelling path – perhaps even to a professional level – without aspiring to truly understand what you’re up against and what, as a result, you are up to.

Or, put another way, to break it all down into its component parts. 

We know we need to cut down on calories to lose weight… but do we always know why?  The science behind it?  The real analogous question here is, would we be better at it if we knew why?  

Would our options increase and our risks be mitigated if we knew?

I think so.  Doesn’t mean you can’t lose weight simply by skipping lunch and not sweating the details.  It also doesn’t mean you’ll end up reaching your goal, or possibly paying the wrong price to get there.

Unless you seek to become a professional nutritionist.  Then it matters that you know.

Sometimes a result is a natural outcome of an organic experience over time (like skipping lunch).  Sometimes it’s just too much fun and too rewarding to allow a story to just flow out of you, instead of sweating the underlying principles that make it work.

I’m not talking about planning

No, this mindset is as effective if you plan as it is if plod (pants) your stories.

I’m talking about the application of criteria, principles and even instinct that is based on something bigger than yourself, outside of yourself.  Something that is true for everyone, before and after your time on the writing stage.

As important to writing as, say, gravity is to playing golf or flying airplanes.

We can’t alter the physics that make a ball curve in mid-air when thrown properly (or a golf ball curve in mid-air when struck improperly)… make a song pierce the heart like a whispered truth from God… or make a painting into an unforgettable frozen frame that captures the essence of the soul itself.

We can ignore them and hope for the best, betting that our instincts make up for our ignorance or rejection of what is true. 

Fact is, a set of underlying physics are at work in these outcomes whether the athlete or artist acknowledges or leverages them or not.

For those who seek to understand what storytelling craft is all about at a deeper level – an understanding that can lead to a steeper learning curve and a hastened outcome as well as jacking the fun factor through the roof – I offer the following.

There are three realms inherent to the storytelling experience.

These aren’t issues of process as much as they are issues of essence.

A cynic could easily mush them together into a single breath of creative exhilaration and call it good, labeling them as different takes on the same thing.

But storytelling absolutely can be broken down… into three different realms or essences.  Those who see them as separate essences are uniquely equipped to optimize their stories, and in a way that those who don’t or won’t cannot.

If you are building a structure – a bridge, a house, a strip mall – or writing a novel, there are three essences in play.  Three levels.  Three focuses.  Three forces.  Three stages.  Three contextual lenses through which to view your project.

And they are paradoxical, because they play out in sequence, and then at a certain point they combine to play out in simultaneous three-part harmony (intentional mixed metaphor).  You can look at them backwards, retroactively, sequentially or melded and gain great value… or you can harness them out of the starting blocks and also gain value.

Or you can ignore them and hope that your instinct, rather than your proactive hands-on working knowledge of them, will have imbued your story with what they provide.

They are:

         the physics that allow a structure to bear weight and hold together in a stiff wind…


         the blueprint that shows how the structure will hang together, a plan that comes together as the result of the discovery of what the end should look like…


         and then the final coat of paint and polish and artful touch that makes the structure an aesthetic, qualitatively judged piece of real estate.  

There exists only one set of underlying physics.  

Those physics comprise the first realm, or essence, of storytelling.  Or of any craft.  They don’t care whether you recognize them or not, because they will rule your outcome in spite of you.

But you should care.  Because to not recognize, say, the physics of story pacing in your novel is to leave that essential quality up for grabs. 

Name your field of endeavor, you’ll find that these three realms or essences apply in some form in evidence: the physics that govern it all… the search for effective application… refinement .  That the last one is what separates the successful from the masses who apply the same set of physics and tools.

Notice, however, that the reverse isn’t true. 

Form over function may work in interior design, but its a deal killer in storytelling.

It is literary physics… discovered and pro-actively applied with a set of tools used in the search for story… that provide function for the layer of paint that is the sum of your words.

Stay tuned… I’ll go over the three realms of the storytelling experience in my next post.

A mindset is a beautiful, powerful thing once ridded of limiting beliefs. 



Filed under turning pro

17 Responses to A Deeper, Richer Understanding of Craft

  1. Can’t wait for your next post LB. Drinking it up as always!

  2. Maybe it’s because it’s 6:30 in the morning, but I have to say I got a little lost in this one. I’m all about furthering knowledge of craft, but part of me is thinking: is Ichiro getting a degree in physics so he can hit more home runs? Training, without question. Studying his form, his competitors, the various elements that contribute to his outcome, absolutely. But it feels like there’s a line between study and practice… and it’s possible to overcompensate with study, at the expense of just getting in there and writing.

    I’m going to have a cup of coffee and take another swing at this — I know you’re going to bring it home, I’m just not quite absorbing it right now.

  3. @ Cathy — fair enough. It was hard to write, so I can see why it might be hard to absorb, especially without the Part 2. Which would have made the post too long.

    Allow me to toss in an example that will help. I hope.

    About 20 years ago a PR executive in my home town wrote and published a novel. It was about the lives of amoeba, single-cell creatures that interact with each other and therefore have a “culture.” No humans in the story, we were being asked to root for an amoeba. The story didn’t work, it bombed in the market. The reason has everything to do with the point of today’s post — the writer applied the tools (6 core competencies, though they weren’t applied well because, when they are, they help you avoid the problems this story demonstrates), and polished his prose to a fine sheen. But… he didn’t apply the power of the underlying physics to drive the story. He tried to make an airplane with flawed wings soar. He didn’t look at his initial vision for the story, or the end product — both apply here — and ask himself certain questions about that connect to and optimize those physics. He didn’t apply core physics to his story as a checklist or analytical tool, which was a huge missed opportunity. Or he did and the answers didn’t translate to common opinion (a common error, it’s why we don’t all write bestsellers every time out).

    What questions? Well, there are four primary elements of those physics: dramatic tension, empathy for the hero’s journey, pacing, and inherent conceptual appeal. The 6CCs “optimize” these four things… that’s why they work. His story dwelled on the “state” of amoeba, there was no dramatic tension, nothing at stake, and no forward motion (pace). Do we empathize with an ameoba with a problem? No. Therefore, as the story creeps along at an ameoba’s pace, are we rivited? No. Is the idea of an amoeba soap opera inherently appealing? No. The market and the critics proved it.

    If your creative calls (judgment) resides outside of, or in conflict with, the way “story” works — these four arenas of literary physics — you’re bucking the odds. The better approach, the enlightened one, is to develop a story that optimizes those four essences, not fly in the face of them.

    Which brings us back to three levels (realms or essences) that ensure this core strength and balance.

    THAT’s what this is about (I know, my response here is clearer than the post itself, right?). Sort of stole the thunder of the forthcoming pay off (maybe I’ll just paste this in), but you asked, and legitimately so (thank you for opening this door), so I hope this helps. L.

  4. We all start out on almost any endeavor well below even the beginner rank without even the faintest idea we would be interested in any way, shape, or form in doing it.

    I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in a household without a television. That was one of the smartest things my parents ever did, because my brother’s and my main hobby turned out to be reading. A 2-mile round-trip to the library a couple times a week was never an issue.

    Usually, we start out by doing at least some investigation of the field. In my case, fiction writing became of interest in 2005. I knew the general genre I liked, so I dove in; that, unfortunately, was the extent of my investigation for quite a while.

    Getting “thrown into the deep end of the pool” to “sink or swim” does sometimes work, but usually turns out pretty bad if you’re doing something voluntarily. Taking an automobile engine apart might be fun, but if you haven’t any idea what the various parts are supposed to do, you end up with an oily, greasy mess.

    As fledgling fiction writers, we all probably pantsed it even if it was just to see if we liked it. Apparently most of us did like it or we wouldn’t be looking at this blog.

    Some of us never rise above the status of “below rank amateur”. In my case, it was almost 2 years of writing before I even discovered there might be some sort of Craft involved. My grammar, etc., was fine because I’d studied (and really liked) English class all during my school years.

    Practice (as repetition) alone doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere. What gets us a rise in ability is properly practicing the proper things. There are extremely few violin virtuosos who’ve never had a lesson and rarely practiced any scales.

    As fiction writers nowadays, we have the rare fortune of having a very workable Craft available to us. Now, even a beginner who is interested in improving himself can practice the proper things that makes him a better writer.

    So, even a beginner can be a professional. He can wear the professional hat, do (practice) the proper Craft, and end up having a tremendously-better shot at producing a viable product — a story which gives readers powerful emotional experience(s).

    Yes, Story Engineering can be complex. The downloadable checklists alone cover many pages. However, even just starting with the knowledge of what a proper story structure is makes us better writers. Now start adding in more and more of the Craft as we practice what Larry (and many others here) preaches.

    We don’t have to do everything exactly right the first time (first draft); that’s just not going to happen. But, learning more a step at a time about each of the Six Core Competencies will keep us going in the right direction.

    Some of the simplest things might just create dramatic increases in the quality of our final product. That’s what I am looking forward to in Larry’s current series.

    Enough of my blather; go write something great.

  5. Larry,
    This post, and your response to Cathy above, aren’t clear to me at all. I loved “Story Engineering”, just to give you some context. However, it’s all starting to sound like Buddhism, what with Six Core Competencies, Four Underlying Elements, and Three Realms.
    I know you’re just trying to be thorough, but what was once a practical way to explain storytelling principles is morphing into a complex web of concepts. Like I said, I have the utmost respect for what you’re trying to do.
    I look forward to following you as you advance your argument.

  6. David Carnahan

    Hi Larry, and friends,

    This post, as well as your book, really resonates. About a month ago, I was reading Randy Ingersoll’s book about fiction writing (for dummies? I believe), and he mentioned your book on Story Engineering. The title really appealed to my scientist side (I’m an Internist with a statistical background), and so I bought it on the spot.

    At the same time, I was listening to an audio book on my commutes, Talent is Overrated, and was impressed with the case the author made for a process that allowed some dedicated individuals to become great (Jerry Rice, Mozart, etc.). It is a great book, which I highly recommend. I completely buy in to the authors premise: The key to greatness is TEN YEARS OF DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

    So, I began asking myself, what makes a great writer? What does it take to write a great story? [Just as Jerry Rice had asked what it takes to make a great reciever. Jerry then went on to break the different tasks of a receiver into drills which he practiced incessantly].

    Then the tipping point, I read your book, Story Engineering. The sky seemed to open, as a gaggle of angels blasted the Hallelujah chorus all around me. For the first time after reading a craft book (and I’ve read a lot of them), I felt I knew what deliberate practice looked like. I can practice deliberately every time I see a movie or read a book. I now know how to read a book.

    Plenty of people work hard, and even write every day, but are they breaking down the different skills that are required, or knowledge that is necessary, to become a great writer? If not, they may be wasting their time, UNLESS, they win the lottery.

    I feel comfortable putting the sweat equity in, knowing I’m on the path of deliberate practice — the surest way to push myself to the next level.


  7. David Carnahan

    I would also add that the wild success of the Harry Potter’s series really validates this whole planning process. Most people may not realize that Ms. Rowling spent ‘five years’ planning her series before she penned a single sentence. Is it mind-boggling that such a tremendously successful series (both literary and commercially) had such a calculated beginning? I don’t think so. Also, the planning did not seem to impact the creativity of the story (stories).


  8. Curtis

    Larry, I agree there is more to story than meets the eye because there is more to life than meets the eye.

    A person who studies AND reflects AND has the capacity for metaphor will in time plumb the depths of ” essence.”

    Studying story as intently as you do becomes as much like a Rorschach test as it does the search for the Architecture, Engineering or “build out” of story. Deep calls unto deep.

    You know better than I do that the man who can hum a 90+ mph fast ball does that with more than the core competencies of mechanics, practice and physiology. Know what I mean? You ain’t out there to serve up milk and cookies. A slider that drives a batter crazy is art.

    I know where your going with this. Keep going.

  9. Betty Booher

    Larry – your post made a huge amount of sense to me, and ties in to my own back-to-basics efforts over the past year.

    I’ve read a bunch of craft books, attended countless workshops, revised and submitted a few manuscripts, and piled up ‘nice’ rejections, as we like to call them – “good writing, just not quite there”.

    Then last spring I attended a weekend workshop with Margie Lawson on specific techniques to empower characters’ and readers’ emotions through body language, visceral responses, using rhetorical devices and more.

    About an hour into Saturday morning, I searched through my most recently rejected first chapter and found…nothing of the sort. No body language, no visceral responses — nothing to yank the reader into the heart of my protagonist. I realized if I wanted to take my writing performance to a new level – a level someone would pay to read – I needed to learn new craft techniques, and then had to put them into practice.

    About the same time, I’d started a new story. I figured I’d read enough structure books to build a vague outline and pitch right into the book. Scene lists are for wimps!

    Alrighty then. Ahem. To the craft shelf once again.

    I was struggling through that scene list when an author friend, Jessa Slade, tossed me Story Engineering and suggested I might find it handy. Back to the practice room!

    My point in this long ramble? About the time you think you’ve taken all the classes and read all the books you need, a great coach can still bump your performance to a new level.

    But you gotta spend the hours in the practice room.

  10. @David Carnahan – as with ‘Talent is Overrated’, you might like Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’. He talks about why some people succeed where others don’t. The essence of it is those who dedicate 10,000 hours of focused practice (about 10 years) on their craft – will succeed.

  11. Mike

    Larry, thanks for following up with Cathy in the comments by elaborating on what you meant by physics, but I’m still confused (due in large part to my poor comprehension).

    I understand that without respecting physics in any craft (metaphorical or real) I would fail, and you helped explain what you meant with 4 rules in physics, but then are there additional rules in “Blueprint” and “Final Polish”? Or do those apply across these other 2 realms? Or 6CCs? Or Story Structure?

    I’ve never been quick on picking up new concepts. I was hoping you could clarify that before my head explodes.

    Thanks again. I’ve been a fan since you started your blog!

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  14. Pingback: Part 2: A Deeper Understanding of Craft

  15. I opened part two of this article first, and decided I had to come back to this to get the whole picture. Sounds like you have a clear purpose for pointing out what may or may not be something we’ve learned as writers. Glad this type of discussion is going on, and at some point we need to keep taking the leaps of faith that keep us going.

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