A Sample Coaching Document (Story/Outline Analysis)

TO:                 (author name withheld)

FROM:           Larry Brooks, . www.storyfix.com

RE:                  Analysis of “The Vanishers” (outline)

DATE:            08-24-10

It was a pleasure to read your outline for this story.  I’m happy to tell you that I found it engaging, and feel that it holds a lot of potential.  And, that you’re a terrific writer.  It reflects a keen understanding of story flow and dramatic tension on your part.  Don’t take this for granted, it’s huge; it means you’re solidly in the game.  So many writers, especially at the outline stage, expose their lack of understanding of the basic tenets of storytelling, not to mention a weak narrative sensibility.

So congrats on that.  There’s so much more involved than “this happens then this happens then this happens… .”   I’m sure you were already aware and confident about your abilities in those issues, but still, it’s a pleasure to find a writer that gets it.

That said, I’ve marked up the outline significantly, mostly with questions and cautions.  I can send it back to you – please provide a fax number (best) or an address… I’ll do that when I return to my office this weekend.  For now, though, I’ll review my thoughts and ideas so you can move forward immediately without needing to see the manuscript itself.

The goal here is to motivate you to consider how to make this story stronger.  It’s not “broken,” per se, but I did find opportunities for potential improvement.  Stories are like people… we can always improve, get stronger, get healthier, and offer more.  Even if we’re already pretty cool.

I say “potential” because I understand this is only an outline.  Been there many times myself, having someone question something that I knew worked but hadn’t expressed thoroughly in the outline.  Often a writer completely understands the mechanics of how the narrative will move from Point A to Point B in the actual story, but at the outline stage that particular critical detail of exposition is passed over or over-simplified.  (It’s that old Steve Martin joke – “how do you avoid paying taxes on a million dollars?  Well, first, you go out and earn a million dollars.  Then…”

Insert grin here.

There are several such moments in your outline – I’m hoping you have these details planned out, because too often simple narrative transitions that are executed poorly (thinly) can derail a book.  I call them “eye rollers.”  I’m simply flagging them for you – if you’ve got it nailed, that’s good, if not, here’s your chance to tighten things up and add something of even greater impact and value.

When I do an analysis of an outline, I look at all Six Core Competencies closely to sense their presence, strength and how they combine to become a sum in excess of their parts.  Again, you have all six in play (rare). 

Everything from this point forward is about how to potentially improve this story.  In doing so, I will flag areas of potential softness, as well as places to take things to a new level.

THE SIX  CORE COMPETENCIES

Your WRITING VOICE is solid.  Very good, in fact.  You have every reason to expect that you can write this story at a publishable level.

Can’t tell much about SCENE EXECUTION in an outline, other than to notice that the story is indeed revealed through a series of scenes, each with an apparent mission, rather than a sweeping, essay-like narrative overview that, at the full manuscript stage, still reads like an outline (you’d be shocked at how often that happens).  In your case, this is very well done.  Like I said, you are a natural storyteller who is already solidly in that mode.

Your STORY STRUCTURE is excellent.  I found the major plot points in the right spots, doing the right things.  Huge congrats on that, this is again quite rate at this stage.  This is my interpretation of how the narrative unfolds, so maybe you have different ideas for the specifics.  But from all appearances you have plenty of juicy twists and “moments” that would make ideal major milestones.  Just make sure you put them in the right place in the sequence and length.

Your THEMES are strong, yet not overly done.  In a thriller such as this, themes emerge from deep within the dramatic experience, tied to character backstory and arc, rather than an overt thematic focus.  You seem to have a strong balance here – your characters are living life at a different level, and yet despite the excess and the adventure and the passion, they yearn for a deeper experience and a solid grounding in personal relationships, peace and grace (aren’t we all?)  I really like this about your story, it has wonderful thematic potential.

I like and appreciate your CHARACTERS, too.  It’s so easy to create cartoonish, stereotypical characters in a story like this, especially bad guys.  And yet, you also have to adhere to reader expectations and a realistic match between character and world view (their chosen path… we shouldn’t seen an overly wimpy, timid dude trying to be a master spy).  You almost pull this off – these characters seem to be precisely what they should be, yet open to an interesting upside.  And yet, as you’ll see, you can do more with this.

And finally, your CONCEPT is rich and compelling at a high level.  I wanted to know what what going to happen, and mostly, how it was going to happen.

It is the how that makes a story like this – with familiar plotting and ground rules – interesting.  And, becomes your opportunity to make this really special.

THE UPSIDE OPPPORTUNITY

So, with all six Core Competencies fairly solid, or least living in the outline as presented, how can you make this thing even better?

Let me say here, I think you need to make it better.  As is, it’s fairly predictable and commodity-like.  We’ve seen this story before.  Many times.  Right now, in fact, there is a movie (the A-Team) and a television program (Leverage) that has an almost identical set of rogue agent/thieves who seek to become good guys and who must battle rich and powerful forces seeking to manipulate them.  Go see that movie and watch that TV program (TNT) as soon as you can… notice how similar they are to what you’re doing here. 

You need to find a way to make your story bigger and better.  More unique.  More significant.  More literary, even within its genre.

Notice how the two comparative examples I’ve offered here come from movies and television.  Not from a novel.  Most of the time, when a story like this comes from a book, it’s from a series by a known author, with an on-going hero.

There’s the potential that an editor might not see enough depth or originality in this story, enough upside, to warrant it becoming a book.  A piece of literature.  As is, it can be accurately described more as a “piece of entertainment,” when a book, a novel, should transcend that and become more.

This can be done thorugh narrative technique (see below) as much as it can be plot or character-specific.  Ala Chuck Palahnuik.  Or even Nelson Demille (one of my favorite authors in this genre).   But I do think you need to bring something highly original and fresh and compelling to this for it to have a shot at publication (they have plenty of “good” stories, which your story certainly is, from known authors… to break in, you have to be better and fresher than the people they’re already working with).

A NARRATIVE POINT OF VIEW IDEA

I don’t know if you’ve written this yet, or not.  I’m hoping not, because what I’m about to suggest would require a complete rewrite.  One I hope you’ll consider.

I think you should adopt a narrative point of view from two voices.  Initially, a third person omniscient narrative that tells the story as it comes from the being the curtain of Pierce’s awareness.  Everything that Pierce doesn’t know is happening.  Let the reader in on it, but also let the reader have superior position over Pierce so we can worry about him and root for him.

Then, have everything that involved Pierce and the gang told in FIRST PERSON, from his POV as the protagonist.  That way he can become unique, an individual, a voice with a soul, with doubts and depth, and with humor.  We can get inside his head in a more intimate way as this story unfolds.

Read Nelson DeMille’s “The Lions Game,” or even my own “Bait and Switch” (I can send you a copy if you’d like) to see how this works.  It’s a killer, fresh narrative approach that gives you the tools to separate this story from the crowd.

That’s the best idea I have for you. 

You need to do something unexpected, fresh, something that opens the door to more depth and gives this story a reason to be a book instead of an episode of cable television (sorry if that sounds harsh, but at the most critical level and view, your story could be categorized this way).

A thought – how about a Prologue that shows the team in action and foreshadows the dynamics (romantic, antagonistic, etc.) between them.  Shows them as intimidating and competent, yet human and worthy of our attention and support.  Make us care about them right off.

Another idea – instead of having the bad guys kidnap brother Paul (we have no investment in Paul, he’s not otherwise part of the story), how about having them kidnap Sheila herself? That allows you to strengthen the love story angle and motivate your characters at a deeper level.  As the story opens, Pierce and Sheila are already deeply in love.  Perhaps one of them almost died in their last caper (could be the Prologue), and they realize they have to get out of this racket so they can be together.  And then, Sheila is taken and held hostage… that gives Pierce ample motivation – passionate, urgent motivation – to strike back.

To complicate things, maybe the other three guys on the team don’t like this.  They don’t want to quit.  They like the money, the women, the adrenalin.   They’re jealous of Pierce, his power, his relationship with Shiela.  This deepens the possibility that one of them is behind this, creating interesting sub-text and dynamics.

When you combine this idea with the above first person “shared” narrative approach, now you have something very unique and rich with opportunity.  Worthy of a novel and of your talent.

SPECIFIC THOUGHTS AND FEEDBACK

On the first page I found myself wondering about Valera and his role with Interpol.  Why would Interpol – an independent organization with its own professional espionage pros – hire an Italian cop to lead one of their missions?  Why wouldn’t they have one of their own career agents do it? 

How about making Valera an ex-cop, now working with Interpol?  Maybe he’s new, he has to prove himself, this is his first case as the lead investigator.  Or maybe he’s on the cusp of failing (something happened that’s not his fault, but still his career is in jeopardy, they’re watching him closely, he needs to nail this one, maybe he’s too aggressive this time…) .

Also, you have him keeping something he’s found a secret.  Not telling his team or his superiors.  Why?  This needs to be clearer, and credible.  At a glance, it’s not.  Go deeper here… or change that detail. 

On the third page, you offer a transition that needs expansion, and most of all, needs  clarity.  And/or, it’s a potential source of juicy exposition that you should take advantage of.  You say, “Meanwhile, Inspector Valera learns that there may be a mole within his organization…”

How?  You can’t treat this lightly, this is a big deal.  Perhaps even the first plot point itself. 

This quick passing over of an important detail of plot exposition happens several times in the outline. 

Your villain is a little comic bookish.  Doing this “for his own amusement.”  Would like to see a more complex motivation, even something that the guy perceives as worthy, that losses and moral ambiguity are necessary collateral damage in quest of a higher good.  Not just pure shallow evil.

Your set-up (rich guy bankrolls tough-guy specialists, then houses them) has been done before, and many times (Magnum PI on television, Batman, etc.).  It’s too derivative… you can do better.  Think out of the box on that issue.

How can the bad guy suddenly be “delighted” that Pierce discovered his identity (how does he do that, by the way?), when at the beginning his secrecy was his condition of employment, the highest priority of all?  Seems like a sudden, less-than-credible shift.  Too convenient.

The story gets a little crowded, take care to keep the reader guessing but without overdoing it or confusing the issue.  For example, on Page 5 there’s suddenly a “mysterious killer.”  You’re treading on critical ground here, don’t let it get muddy.  Dramatic tension is the key, rather than convenience or contrivance.

Bottom of 5 – “Valera is closing in on them…”  — how?  This is one of those details you can’t take lightly (as you do in this outline).  No eye-rollers allowed, keep it clear and credible, yet original and dramatic.  No coincidences, no deus ex machina, allowed.

Again on 6 — “Valera has discovered something else…”  how?  By what means?

Following “his gut” is risky.  You need a credible path of clues and conclusions, perhaps something more solid than “gut.”

It’s very important to understand  the motivations of all the bad guys – money?  Politics?  Fear? – and not allow cliché or shallowness into that side of the game.  No moustache twirling.  (See “The Island” by Michael Bay for an example of a great villain with noble intentions gone wrong.)

On page 7 – Pierce reaches out to his “mortal enemy,” Valera.   I’d like to see more of their backstory, make it juicier and compelling.  Valera is an Italian cop, Pierce is an American special forces stud with a global life experience… how and why would they be “mortal enemies.”  Unlikely.

Page 8 is getting a little thick and complicated.  This is only an outline, so you may be able to make all this clear and credible in the manuscript… but here it’s a bit tough to follow.  A bit too convenient in parts.

Page 9, another whopper of an assumptive clue – “Pierce finds out the killer is after the chalice himself…”   how?  Maybe the killer is a woman?  You can’t treat an important plot detail like this lightly.   It’s a major piece of exposition.

How you set-up (a requirement) and execute these plot expositions and turns is critical and the stuff of juicy storytelling.  It can’t come close to “convenient,” lucky or otherwise taken for granted. 

You need to bring in D’Addario sooner.  You shouldn’t introduce what turns out to be a major character this late in the story (never after the second plot point).  He needs foreshadowing (it doesn’t have to be on the nose) so that his appearance isn’t off the wall when it happens.

How does Valera solve the riddle (bottom of page 9)?  How does he know who killed his protégé and kidnapped Paul?  Comes out of the blue, as written.

Huge issue here – who is your protagonist, your hero, in this story? 

You need ONE hero, you really can’t (and shouldn’t, at least) have two.  Don’t try for this.  Make Pierce your hero, or Valera.  Not both.  My narrative suggestion (first person for Pierce) solves this problem for you.

Marcel’s role and complicity comes out of the blue at the end.  You need to have solid foundation, motivation and foreshadowing for this, and it needs to make perfect sense.  It can’t be a surprise for surprise’s sake (that’s how it comes off).  Once revealed, the reader needs to be able to look back and say, oh, I get it now, I can see how it was him, can’t believe I didn’t see it all along, but I didn’t…

Valera not arresting Pierce out of respect… this doesn’t work.  Huge mistake, in my opinion.  It’s too contrived, and an eye-roller.  You need a better exit from the story.  Maybe he gets him a reduced sentence in return for his help in solving the crime.  As is, it compromises Valera’s moral compass.  It messes with the thematic integrity of the story.  Please rethink this.

IN CLOSING

These are my thoughts.  All pointing toward an upside improvement.  I think you need that upside to put this over the top… if you can, you can sell this.  As is… I fear that no matter how well written or executed, it’s just too familiar and somewhat trite and convenient.

You need to make the reader care about these characters as much as they do the plot.  You need to deliver a vicarious experience (you’re very solid on that one already, this is a very compelling world you’ve introduced to us), and then, most importantly, deliver a jolting ending that is satisfying, logical and not remotely an eye-roller.  And most of all, calls upon Pierce to be courageous and heroic.

Hope you feel you’ve received value here.  Thanks for trusting me with you work.

Anxious to hear your thoughts.

Larry

6 Responses to A Sample Coaching Document (Story/Outline Analysis)

  1. Larry —

    Just a great, great document. Clear, specific, and objective without being controlling. (It seems that all too often, consultants want you to write the book they want, rather than working with you to improve the book you want to write.) The criticism is honest but not brutal, and never feels like advice for its own sake; the recommendations feel steeped in a genuine concern for making the work better. Would that all consultants — novel or screenplay — approach the job with this kind of care.

    Doug

  2. nancy

    You were given permission to publish this document because the way you framed your questions inspired the author. You went over the story with your core competencies metal detector, and every time it beeped you said–dig here. We (new writers) all need fresh eyes to help us see where the gold might be buried.

  3. Lois Hudson

    Larry, you are so generous in sharing your advice and recommendations with all of us. In evaluating all your posts and comments, we all are learning. Thank you for this excellent coaching document.

  4. Jim Devitt

    Larry,

    This stuff is fantastic. You definitely gave me some ideas of what to go back and fix in my own work. Keep up the great work, you are helping more people than you could ever imagine.

  5. Aric Keith

    I am 100% in line with what Mr. Devitt said before me. You are an inspiration. I’m sure you hear that from many people, but in my preparations for Nanowrimo this year, I am slowly changing myself from a total pantser to a planner. It is, as you may well guess, a life-altering experience.

    But, I would be writing my next story with total abandon yet again if someone had not kicked me in the “pants.”

    Thanks!

    -Aric

  6. Pingback: Post Apocalyptic Recovery and Stuff Around the Web « Steven K. Griffin

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