Are You the One-Out-of-Ten?

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by Larry Brooks on June 24, 2013

Please don’t get too excited by those odds.

I’m not implying that one-out-of-ten writers will one day publish a novel or sell a screenplay, or will write one what will become another of those unlikely self-published success stories.

Nor am I implying that one-out-of-ten manuscripts are even salable.  No, that particular statistic is more like one out of – and I’m spit-balling here – 500 or so.

The odds suck.  This isn’t a game for the feint of heart.  But it is a game with a set of principles and models that, if you let them in and embrace the struggle, will give you a fighting chance.

Which is why I sometimes come off like a hard-ass here, hammering home the importance of the principles of storycraft, as defined and packaged by what I call the Six Core Competencies, and empowered by the various realms of what I call Story Physics.

Contrary to one early (and confused) reviewer’s take, they are not remotely the same things.

All of which, by the way, is almost exactly what other writing teachers have been harping on, with a variety of approaches and vocabularies, for dozens of years now, at every writing conference you’ve ever been to.

Process is personal and negotiable.  Story architecture and all of its nuances… isn’t.

That 1-out-of-1o statistic?

That’s from my own experience in coaching stories.  I’ve read over 400 story plans (via my three levels of story coaching) in the past 15 months, and the numbers break down like this:

Only one out of ten stories sent to me for coaching are solid in the major areas of story architecture and physics.

Which is to say… the concept is compelling, the premise arising from it is sufficiently dramatic, the First Plot Point is functional and in the right place, the hero earns that title in the right way, and the story resolves in a fashion that will make readers glad they stuck around.

Basic stuff.  And yet, nine-out-of-ten of you get it wrong.

Proof positive that, even when you’ve been at this a while, this is a really hard craft to wrap your head around.  There’s absolutely no shame in working on a story that isn’t ready yet.  Or when it is, isn’t good enough.  Everybody who isn’t named Stephen King goes through that experience.

I’m not saying that the one-out-of-ten nail it.  Simply, that they haven’t swung and missed.  That their story plan reflects a solid grasp of these principles.  That they deserve a competitive place in the slush pile.

From there the question becomes, for those one-out-of-ten writers: are you hitting a single, a double, a triple, or a home run?

Or will you simply get into the game and still go 0-for-4?

My goal as a story coach is to improve your odds on all counts.  Here’s how.

A summary of those swings and misses.

Concept problems – concepts that aren’t conceptual at all, that are really a premise (which is NOT the same thing as a concept) without a source of compelling energy driving it.  In other words, a “story idea” that isn’t yet good enough… if “good” is measured by its ability to compel, by its freshness and the perceived ability to execute and compete at a professional level.

Notice how none of that connects, not even a little, to how well the writer writes.  Your sentences don’t matter.  Not in the least.  If, that is, your story isn’t working.

I see a lot of ideas, presented as stories, that aren’t yet a dramatic premise based on a concept. In other words, an under-cooked story plan.  Or a plan-in-progress.  In essence, a project that is still in the search for story phase.

Which is fine, by the way, if the submitting writer gets this and is seeking feedback on how to finish that search.  The more troubling — and prevalent — issue is when the writer believes the story is fully realized, and it’s just not.

About seven out of ten stories I see are guilty of this one.

Lane changes – stories that start out as one thing, the offspring of the union of concept and premise… and then become something else entirely (sometimes more than once) as the story unfolds.  The premise is abandoned, the First Plot Point is rendered moot, and a core story never really emerges.

This is both a conceptual issue (the lack thereof) and a structural issue.  I’ve seen stories that offer a First Plot Point that sets the hero down a certain path, sometimes promising… which turns out to have nothing at all to do with the story in the second half of the novel or screenplay.  A fatal error, that.

Your First Plot Point is a promise.  One you need to keep.

Four out of ten fall victim to this mistake.

Also, stories that confuse hook, inciting incident and First Plot Point… without nailing any of them.  That’s a handful of story killers before you are a hundred pages in.

Mangled or weak First Plot Points are a death sentence for your story.  About six out of ten take themselves out of the running on this count alone.

Episodic stories – without a core dramatic focus on a hero with a specific quest stemming from a specific problem or need or goal.  Something with stakes, with opposition ahead.

Basically, a character doing this and that, and then that and this, without a core source of purpose or conflict.  An “adventures of…” type of story.  Almost always a fatal flaw, as well.

Half of the stories I see jump off this cliff.

Hero growth stories – wherein character arc masquerades as dramatic tension.

In every story analysis I do, I ask the writer to define what the hero needs or wants in the story.  This leads to the story’s dramatic question, and thus, the primary source of dramatic tension.

No dramatic tension, no chance of publication.  Period.

Answers that are too soft and unclear, that simply drive toward a character’s sense of being and understanding and growth, without a core external need present as the catalyst that motivates character arc… this is the sign of a story that’s already in trouble.

Character is only ONE of the six core competencies required of a story that works.

I’d say that four out of ten of the stories I see fall into this particular abyss.

The Fix Is In

All of these story killers are fixable.

(And thus we transition into the pitch portion of this post.  I hope the above content has served you well.)

Because, in context to the Questionnaire that is the basis of my story coaching programs, they are almost always easily visible.

In fact, since I’m quoting percentages here, about half of the projects take the writer a month or more to get to the point where they even submit the Questionnaire.  Why?  Precisely because it IS so visible.

In this way, the Questionnaire becomes as much a story development tool as it is a story evaluation template.  By the time I get it, the writers who aren’t among those pronounced guilty of the story crimes defined above – the one out of ten – have already identified and addressed their own issues.

At least to a great extent.  My job in the process is clarity across these benchmarks, and usually some suggestions on how to improve the specific issues that are bleeding the story dry of its potential.

One out of ten get affirmation, often with some tips on how to make it even better.

Nine out of ten get the help they need.  Even when it hurts.

New Pricing Structure

I’ve recently raised my fee for the basic “Story Coaching Adventure” level of this service (from $1oo to $150).

Why?  Because I’ve been over-delivering in terms of the time it takes and the impact of the verdict.  And frankly, based on feedback, it’s worth a heckuva lot more than the former price.   In many cases it will save your story from a nose-dive.  In others, it will create a vision and path to help you take the story to a higher level, sometimes to the point of salability.

The new fee reflects an updated and more focused Questionnaire, and the program now offers a 7-day turnaround.  (A 24-hour RUSH option is offered for an additional fifty dollars, for midnight oil.

Click HERE for more on this $150 story coaching service.

For a quicker, cheaper hit… my “Kick-Start Conceptual Analysis” remains ridiculously priced at $35, focusing on what the name promises: the nature of your concept as it relates to premise, and how you launch that in your story at the First Plot Point.  These now come with a 48-hour turnaround.

It’s like running your story through an MRI machine.  You may or may not require surgery or therapy.  Usually some therapy.  Good to know before you spend a year of your life writing it.

Click HERE for more on this $35 level.

Of course, the executed manuscript itself is the final test.  I do those evaluations, too (my fee there is $1800, also a slight increase; please please please DO compare that to other story coaching services, which don’t include the contextual Questionnaire phase).

Is your story ready?  Are you among the one-out-of-ten?

Good to know.

Either before you write it, or before you submit it.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Lawrence June 24, 2013 at 6:02 am

This got me to thinking about my current project in a very focuses way right off the bat. I’ve read (almost) everything you’ve written and there were still several “wait a minute, let me check” moments as I read the pre-pitch setup. Frankly, I admire this particular advertising, because the setup had value on its own. That’s unusual. The callback to the First Plot Point stood out in particular. I never thought of whether or not the rest of the story paid it off, just that the story logically moved forward.

Just pointing out some of the more common problems is a big help – and a compelling reason to seriously think about sending you some (more) money. Good pitch! (pun intended.)

Joel D Canfield June 24, 2013 at 6:47 am

I’ve been putting off the KCSA because I know I’m not ready.

I’ll have to start thinking of it as a tool, not just an analysis.

Jessica Flory June 24, 2013 at 7:40 am

Wow. This list is awesome. Every new writer needs to take a hard look at this and ask if they’re doing any of these mistakes. Thanks for the insight, Larry!

R. J. Kessler June 24, 2013 at 7:46 am

Thanks a lot for this, Larry. It’s so great what you’re doing for aspiring authors!

I’m currently working on a project but it’s a novella, not like a full-blown novel. Do any of your services apply to shorter-length stories (say, 30k vs. 80k words) and, if so, are there any discounts? I mean, the $35 service is cheap as it is, but the $150/$400/$1800 services seem a tad much when the story has so fewer words.

Thanks!

Andrea June 24, 2013 at 8:33 am

Yep. It is indeed very tempting to think that your character is oh-so perfect and the story settled just because you found the perfect name for him early in the story development, or a heart-touching task for him to fulfil. Like, say a husband having to save his wife out of a burning house. But that still doesn’t bring it home. Still you’ll have to show the ready WHY he wants to save her, “I love her” is not enough, you have to dig deeper and mould the story like a ball of reason, trigger and solution, so that the reader gives a relieved sigh, wiping the sweat off her forehead after reading the last page.

As for the Plot Points, as a writer you are actually doing a car desinger’s job. He has to know where the steering wheel and the trunk have to be located (among a few other things). Just like we have to know where our Plot Points have to be. Within these points the designer, just as we, is free to give free rein to creativity. But even the designer, just as the writer, has to mind physical laws to make the car usable later. Hey, if he makes the car’s roof growing into heaven, no one will ever be able to drive it into a garage! No matter how very lovable and unique his design is…

Larry Brooks June 24, 2013 at 9:06 am

@Andrea — an analogy after my own heart. Thanks for offering it for us.

I use the designer analogy with building an airplane: the design phase, the assembly phase, the test phase ,and then the actual flying… they’re all DIFFERENT professions, and different people. But with our books, before they get wings, we must be ALL of those things – designer, builder and pilot – at different and also concurrent times in the process. Good to break it down, I think. Thanks again. L.

MikeR June 24, 2013 at 10:32 am

Offhand, I’d say that these pricing adjustments are quite reasonable. A qualified professional is worthy of his hire, and so on. You seem to have selected an appropriate spread of price-points.

In my own personal journey, I hope that my profession lends me a leg-up: I also work in a much-misunderstood profession (computer programming), that “looks easy,” and which therefore attracts quite a cadre of “pantsers.” I spend a lot of my time building ex-post-facto project (i.e. “project rescue”) plans for big-companies who should have known better. I’m very-aware that I am stumbling in the darkness, and I don’t castigate myself against the notion that it could be otherwise. So, I’m simply trying to make my “find the stories” explorations as efficient as possible.

“Writing a novel” is, as I expected (at one level, at least …) a VERY hard thing to do, simply because the page in front of you is … blank. I’ve assembled a cast of characters, and made the mistake of visualizing each of them to be famous and skilled actors: Morgan Freeman, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, and so forth. And now, a very horrible ;) thing has happened:

(1) I envision a scene and throw it at them.
(2) Professionals that they are, they do it. The scene falls flat. (Most of the time.)
(3) They look at ME, “mister I’m (supposed to be) in charge here,” and freeze in place, waiting for MY next line.
(4) Sheer panic ensues. The anxiety-closet bursts open and hecklers come pouring out … “Sure, I haven’t written fifty pages to figure out that I don’t know what to do, but,” I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO, and Jude Law is just sitting there, much too professional to tell me to my face that I don’t know what the (bleep!) I’m DOING!

… AND … I have to force myself to remember that someone really-did type up many pages of randomly-chosen names to come up with: “Kirk,” “Spock,” “Enterprise,” and even “tribble.”

Fact is, being a writer is Hard. It only “looks” easy because the “right” answer always appears obvious in hindsight. (And genius-lightning never strikes twice: just compare “Gone With The Wind” with (yeech) “Scarlett.”)

Sibilant June 24, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Thanks for another great post, Larry.

It’s not very helpful to say to myself “I’m stuck,” but it IS helpful to figure out what I’m stuck on so I can fix it. “Under-cooked story plan” seems to sum it up nicely. :)

I’ve got a lot of the elements, but your posted helped me to understand my story needs a little more structure. I can see the beginning and the ending. I have a good big-picture concept. I’m just struggling to turn it into moving scenes.

Now that I finally know what my problem is, I’m gonna go fix it!

Thanks, again!

Sara Davies June 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I like knowing that there ARE criteria for making a story work.

Knowing WHAT is non-negotiable is liberating and helps me choose what to focus on in both study and practice – and in what order.

How to prioritize the effort – what to pay attention to first, second, etc. is what I mean by “process.” It’s going to be more efficient for me to first develop a concept…then develop the plot points. Then come up with a list of scenes and identify the dramatic moments in those scenes. Then rough in a bunch of messy and pathetic words. Then come back and make sense and look pretty. That’s a process – the steps, priorities, where to invest energy at what stage.

None of that is obvious without a bird’s eye view of what the goals should be.

I love the airplane or automobile analogy. First get the vehicle to run. THEN worry about painting flames on the exterior.

nancy June 24, 2013 at 7:32 pm

Larry, You told me that my topics reminded you of Vince Flynn and that I should check him out. I did. And now I’m so sad to see that he has passed away at the age of 47. Sometimes life isn’t fair.

Brenda June 25, 2013 at 8:22 am

Hi Larry, long time lurker here. Thanks for all the clear advice, I am going back and forth, creating stronger concept, conflict etc. I really feel it’s already working.

Robert Jones June 25, 2013 at 10:00 am

The questionnaire really is a tool that makes you think about your story from different angles. I went through my summery of scenes, trying to make sure I had a basic story first, trying to get myself ready before opting into Larry’s service. Once I got it, however, I realized that there was no way to prepare that wasn’t going to take possibly years of studying everything Larry teaches. Then I was sorry I waited even the couple of months I did because the questionnaire at least gave me a specific focus on how to break down Larry’s precepts and how I might fit them into my story. It gets you thinking right away.

Was six months enough to grasp it all? Hardly, but that’s how long I actually went over everything since getting the questionnaire, attempting to get my plot somewhere in the ballpark. Will I be that 1 out of 10…I don’t think so. But that’s the beauty of having the actual feedback involved. You not only have a critique coming from another set of eyes, but also from the guy who literally wrote the book (well, several books) on all of this.

I’ve heard some of the best writers say that one always seeks help…to try to improve our manuscripts. But most of us don’t have trusted writer friends. We become islands unto ourselves trying to invent (or reinvent) the wheel. Then the blank page becomes like a slab of granite we chip away at in private, hoping one day a wheel will emerge that’s working, rolls smoothly, isn’t too heavy to push over uneven terrain.

Process might be optional, but too few understand it, or can develop one that doesn’t take years of hammering away at that stone. It can be painful to one’s pride to discover what they are doing wrong. I’m a bit nervous about seeing the results myself. But I’m also excited. Because knowing where I went wrong will help me to fix my mistakes, save me years of chipping away.

By my second year in art school I was getting professional work. But I was far from being at my peak ability. It was a sink, or swim scenario. I was pretty nervous then too. It was a very small company, and I did my best. But I also took my work to a teacher I respected, a mentor who was good enough to allow my school assignments from his class to slide by and grade me on the professional work I brought in for him to critique. And after he finished with the lessons for the rest of the class, we would sit at his desk and he would point things out. “This is good here, but what the hell are you doing over there?” And he would explain his basic philosophy to me, pointing out how I might apply those precepts to my own work. And make it better.

Nothing ever helped me more.

Tony McFadden June 26, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I was fortunate enough to get Larry’s services at the old rate – and I’d pay the increased rate kin a heartbeat.

I had the concept, the character development was good, and the plot points were in the right place (structure sound, I thought), but the plot points weren’t the RIGHT plot points. I missed the core of the story, and that explained why I was having such a tough time of it.

And I consider myself a structure wonk, ready to pounce on anyone who makes eye contact on the street and wrestle them to the ground with structure talk. Little did I know.

If you’re struggling with your story, or even if you think you’ve got it nailed, I’d strongly recommend taking Larry up on his very generously priced service.

Sara Davies June 27, 2013 at 10:15 am

On the subject of lane changes…I think the tendency can be to think the core story by itself is not interesting enough – then people try to get fancy and want to add more complexity, when doing so may muddy the waters or not be necessary. (As in the case of a TV series about a detective who’s in a car accident with his family, and every day he wakes up and either his wife is still alive and his son is dead, or his son is alive and his wife is dead, and he has to negotiate two alternate realities, using information from both to solve crimes. Someone decided that wasn’t enough, so they added a parallel plot about police corruption and drugs. Why? Eventually they tied the two together, but the initial premise was interesting enough by itself. Or another show about a serial killer – someone decided solving the murders wasn’t enough, and added a parallel plot about a drug ring.) It’s gotten easier to see that less can be more. Know the core story and keep it clean and simple.

I’ve been reading Nelson DeMille’s thriller “The Lion’s Game.” I love the way he fuels the first eight chapters of the book with the question “what’s wrong with that airplane?” – and it actually works. Seamless transitions between first and third person as well, which surprises me, because I usually find POV changes disruptive. I’m also loving the way I can recognize the plot points in what I read…how the choices about what those are lead to the conclusion. Every plot point is a sign post. Like who cares, right? But I’m kind of jazzed about seeing structure that I never noticed before.

Larry June 27, 2013 at 11:09 am

@Sara — welcome to Demille, he’s far and away my favorite author.

In your first paragraph above… I think that’s an example of an author not recognizing that they are still in the “search for story” phase, possibly combined with not really knowing “it” (the best core story possible) when they land on it. Lane changing in a draft is really a flashing alarm that you are still in this state (the search for story), and that the draft you’re doing isn’t going to be the best candidate for a “final” draft. This is how “pantsers” find their story, but if they don’t go on to a next/cleaner draft from there, this is how pantsers tank their story, too. L.

Robert Jones June 27, 2013 at 11:38 am

@Sara–I think that means all your struggles haven’t been for nothing, that things are shifting and settling to a degree where greater understanding is available. Gotta love it when that happens!

What I see as subplots is beginning to change as well. I know that you’ll understand what I mean by having too many ideas getting in the way sometimes. I’ve also known people who didn’t necesarily have an over-abundance of ideas, but suffered from the “Y’know what would be cool…” syndrome.

I believe if we can trace Larry’s notion of concept to that clear-cut line you mentioned, or the main stem, trun of the tree, however you might best visualize it, them all subplots really have to be branches extending from a single source. If a character decides to take on a life of its own, making decisions that doesn’t serve the primary stem, (s)he’s suffering from the above mentioned syndrome and needs to either get back on target, or be pruned.

We might also say that once we can (and do) define what the hell ever our concept is, if said concept can be used as the engine to fuel many stories, is it then not possible that many alternate ideas WILL come to mind as the writers proceeds traveling down that road? My personal take on this is that once our concept is defined, finally set in print before us, we should constantly have it before us when planning, writing, and editing each scene, accompanied with the question: Does this scene serve my concept?

If not, that scene either doesn’t have a mission, or is attempting to serve one of its own. It then becomes a loose cannon rolling around on the deck of your plot, ready to shoot a hole and sink the entire thing into the sea of dispair and rejection.

If we can program ourselves going in, to see these type of meanderings as an enemy that is ready to weaken (or kill) the story as a whole, we may be less inclined to give our characters the ability to take charge and make stupid decisions on their own. This may be fun for pantsing, if that is one’s prefered way of searching for a story, but what happens once you’ve found it? How do you suddenly break the habit and get your characters to start behaving and serving the story you’ve busted your butt to reign into something cohesive?

Like children, your characters are only doing what they are taught. And in my estimation, most of us have been taught wrong on this score.

Robert Jones June 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm

P.S.

In reading my ramblings, I wanted to make sure that the above is taken as what many of us do with our characters in general…and not directly related to Sara’s characters in particular…as it kinda’ sounds in reading through it.

I was jotting down some common pre-conceived notions about how and why we lose control of characters, plot, etc…in my notebook and made it part of my general ramble of where most of us go wrong.

This I attribute to advice given by many popular authors because they can do this and get away with it and the rest of us can’t in the current climate of writing/publishing. I think it also indicates that individual processes for success are built under the assumption that we are all created equally, have a very similar understanding of the medium, and attempt to box a large portion of craft to fit a certain mold.

It sort of makes me wonder if much of the past, popular advice was designed to keep more out than it allowed in. Most forms of art, like academia, have their levels of snobbery, the notion that this is what “we” do because we are geniuses who understand the higher points of craft and language. So if you can’t do what we set forth, you must be wasting your time. Meantime, feel free to find your own way. In fact, I heartily recommend it.

Meanwhile, they’re snickering to themselves, thinking, “That piece of contradictory advice should keep them stumbling in the dark until they are good and lost. (chuckle-chuckle)”

Thank god we are knocking down some of those barriers today.

Sara Davies June 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm

@ Larry:

I can see why you like DeMille. I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in a long time. He keeps the focus narrow, clean, efficient. POV jumps seem to work because he keeps the story moving forward.

People do probably get lost in both the search for story and not recognizing which idea has the most juice. HOW do you know, and WHEN do you know, and what criteria do you use to make a decision? When does that become a conscious process and not one based on instinct or intuition?

When both choices are visceral, and one is more urgent, is the most urgent one always the best choice?

@ Robert:

You know that expression K.I.S.S.? Keep It Simple, Stupid…with regard to the parallel plot issue. I still have parallel plots, but the first was contrived to allow the second to happen, and I’m not as interested in the first. I honestly don’t know if both can work. To make them work, they have to be…more than just tied together. They have to be mutually dependent, unable to stand on their own. It could be two books.

I keep thinking of what I learned about design. Only put on the page what you need to get the message across. Anything purely decorative can be left out. You decide on an information hierarchy. What’s most important? What do you want someone to see first, second, third, etc. You orchestrate that in a conscious way. All choices fit around a hierarchy that is first intellectual and becomes visual. How does this relate to story structure, plot, and tension within a scene?

In the TV series about the detective who navigates alternative realities, they introduce a parallel plot about police corruption a few episodes in…but the initial premise is interesting, unexpected, and more than enough by itself. Eventually they make it so that the corrupt police are the ones who caused the accident that killed…either his wife or his son…because he was about to uncover their evil plans. Then it’s like: OK, fine. I’ll accept that. Did they need to explain the accident? No. If they didn’t need to explain it, should they have? (The show tanked at the end of the season when someone wanted to put a happy spin on it and made it so that he wakes up and both his wife and son are alive. I think the better choice would have been to make both of them dead, which would have explained the main character’s season-long struggle with reality, and would have made bouncing from one universe to another illustrative of the inner wrestling you would expect – questions about what life would have been like if one or the other had lived, or what choice he would have made if he’d had a choice, corresponding feelings and memories, etc. Maybe they were saving that for the second season, but they never got one.)

In the writing arena, I see two camps: Wordsmiths and Storytellers. These groups are psychologically cruel to each other for reasons I cannot fathom. There is snobbery on both sides, and in no instance is it ever cute. In a fight, Storytellers almost always win. But Wordsmiths give us a reason to enjoy language itself…using sound, rhythm, and shades of meaning as tools to enhance the reader’s experience. Must the war continue?

Writing books are often written by Wordsmiths, who either don’t understand story telling, don’t want to admit they do, or take for granted that everyone knows. Why be obscure on purpose? I would not automatically assume that’s the case, even if it feels that way. Why speculate? There is that mentality that there is only so much cosmic pie to go around. If someone gets a piece, that means I can’t have it. But maybe the pie is infinite.

Robert Jones June 27, 2013 at 6:06 pm

I think the pie could be a whole lot bigger. It’s partly because some people don’t want to share. Other times what might be refered to as the “old guard” don’t want new ideas, or new people messing with ways they want to preserve…for better, or worse. Other times I’ve seen the door seal up tight not only to new comers, but even to new ideas from people who have been around a while. It looks confusing, but it’s not all that hard to follow once you’ve seen the pattern. Sometimes big business plays it for profit legitimately, sometimes they balance profit with loss at tax time.

MikeR June 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm

I definitely enjoy subplots. They add a sense of complexity and “meat” to a novel that you can’t get in a screenplay, which is one of the main reasons why I read and enjoy novels. They can be used to give your “side” characters something to do, and a life to lead, over-and-above simply being “side” characters in the main-story line. Yes, those characters are intersecting with that main-story (and that, strictly speaking, is “why” they are there), but it’s enriching to give them something more than just “stage business” to do. When all heaven breaks loose for your main character in the main story, it can directly or indirectly impact the other characters, each with THEIR lives, too. Show me those lives.

Still … I really want to see those subplots falling in line with the main-story line, maybe commenting on it, maybe offering a different point-of-view. Not wandering off so badly that I’m left wondering which story the author’s actually trying to tell. (The best way to identify a “pantser” is to realize that s/he actually has no idea …) The subplots should, somehow, either augment or contrast with the main story line, or shed some different light upon it; they shouldn’t be irrelevant or indifferent to it.

Sara Davies June 28, 2013 at 11:54 am

@ Robert:

The business / territorial protection mentality is outside the scope of my experience…by choice, on purpose…. I’ve spent my life categorically avoiding that stuff. That’s why I’m broke. ;) Gatekeepers are a pain in the ass. It seems pointless and short-sighted. If I feel insecure, I might freak out and think someone will do a better job with the knowledge I share than I can – but what if they do? Doesn’t that make the world a better place? What’s the use of acquiring knowledge if it dies with me?

@ MikeR:

That’s a great point. Complexity can add depth…but the threads need to be integrated. That was done well in the novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon. The side stories appear to be unrelated, but are gradually revealed to be essential. They come together seamlessly at the end – nothing extra, no accidents, nothing wasted. Contrast with the elegance of DeMille’s thriller “The Lion’s Game” – a single idea, drawn with clarity of purpose, moving relentlessly toward an inevitable conclusion. It feels less complex than the other book, but that might be an illusion. Forward momentum is the dominant force. Whereas “YPU” has a meandering pace, places more emphasis on language texture, seems to go off on tangents (the operative word being “seems”). Very different books, but both amazingly economical – nothing in them that doesn’t serve a purpose.

Robert Jones June 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm

@MikeR–I agree. No character should come across like a cardboard cutout. There should be something to characterize those “sub-characters” in some way. Just so long as they link up with the engine of the story and have something to contribute to its workings. The wheels and tires on a car have no complicated mechanical works. In comparison to the complexity of the engine, they could certainly be considered substrata: a near characterless feature that supports attributes of the engines reality. Yet they are still driven by the engine, and do contribute to the function of it within the desig, or intention, of the auto as a whole. However, it makes them more real (distinguishable) if we know a few specifics that are unique unto themselves…the treads, spokes, plastic, or alloy.

The size of a character’s role indicates how much detail should be given, or allowed. And here, I always harken back to what an art teacher once said about rendering a crowd of people. He called things like detail and line weight “accents.” The people closer, larger, should be rendered with greater detail, larger accents. The tiny people in the distance get smaller accents. And so it translates with characters within a novel. We are painting them with words, but certain philosophies are universal in spite of the medium in which they are rendered.

@Sara–I believe the gatekeepers were originally put into place as a way of weeding out those who are ready to enter the gates from those who needed a bit more learning under their belts. Some of the rules are easy to understand on the surface. You don’t want to waste hours, or days, on piles of submissions to see who might have potential in a buisy office setting. So things like having to learn proper format for submissions is one way to seperate those who seem like they might be serious from those millions who slapped stories on Amazon in hopes of striking it rich just because they thought their “idea” was just as good, or better, than those who managed to strike gold.

The problem in the long line of gatekeepers is that personal tastes and bias work themselves into the mix. Sometimes a hearty helping of corporate decrees–which are derived by the notion of making money with no clue about the rest. But many gate keepers just want to have people working for them who enjoy the same things they do. Some are very non-scary. It can be a struggle sometimes to find one who likes what you like, hence, be inclined to publish your work. That’s why they always say to be persistent. Because if you look at it in terms of Us Vs. Them, business can seem very ugly. And sometimes you can’t always avoid that. I prefer to look at it as an equal playing field. They might be weeding through the talent pool, but the talent pool is also wading through them as well.

And how many editors have been sorry when they turned down a manuscript that became someone else’s huge best seller. Sometimes they get their chops kicked in by the rules as well, or because they were a bit too flippant, or busy, to notice. It’s a two way street. We may all be working our own side of it, but at the end of the day, everyone is looking for the next great story. Sometimes that’s easily forgotten by both sides.

Not a Tom Cruise Fan June 28, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Here are some ramblings about Larry Brooks’ Story Physics and Story Engineering books.

I am coming to the field of writing from the field of music. Music and stories are very closely related. In fact all the major temporal art forms – movies, music, and writing – are very related to the number three. Three acts, three choruses or refrains, and three turning points, respectively. In fact, if you want to sell your temporal art without the use of the magic number three, you will need to rent a storage space to both live in and to store all the bull%&*# art you will be making. If art had DNA, one strand would be the number three and
the other would be the human heart.

Both of these books are great. Maybe even the best books out there about the theoretical side of any major art form. I do not personally like the stories Larry uses as examples however.

It has been said that story is “equipment for living.” I find the equipment in these stories to be cheap.

The Help – We’ve had enough white guilt heaped upon us. Even though the story mechanics are sound, these guilt trip stories read like they have been written by race hustlers like Jesse Jackson.

The Da Vinci Code – Good story. I like Tom Hanks. However the ending is kind of dumb. Movie obviously had a built in fan base.

Top Gun – Watching a Tom Cruise movie feels similar to shoving two nails into my eyes. If I want to watch a movie with jets, I’ll watch Transformers. At least there’s a cool concept in that movie.

Mike June 29, 2013 at 6:17 am

I have to say I disagree with the idea that heroes don’t have to be likable. I think yes in fact the protagonists do have to be somewhat likable in order for the reader or viewer to really empathize with them. The best protagonists in stories are likable in my opinion, like Luke Skywalker. Another example would be Sorak from The Tribe of One Trilogy. This is a fantasy book series. He’s got multiple personalities that are both his power and his problem. He has a strong moral character.
As I think about all my favorite stories, I can only think of one story where the protagonist might be considered unlikable. As a rule I would say if you’re protagonist is a bad person or jerk in general, you are going to have problems with empathy. Think about how difficult it was to like Anakin Skywalker in the newest Star Wars movies. He’s pretty much a ruthless killer and I found it hard to empathize with him. That’s a large reason why I only saw the newer Star Wars movies a few times. I saw the original three probably 20 times each.
Likability can be difficult to define. However serial killers are clearly unlikable as protagonists. I simply cannot watch Dexter. It’s disgusting that anyone could sympathize or empathize with a killer. People with tragic pasts who become killers are still just killers. The best revenge stories have protagonists that rise above using the same violent methods as their foes. In fact a lawful character is exactly what separates the protagonist from the antagonist in many stories. Make your protagonist unlikable at your own peril.

Larry June 29, 2013 at 8:48 am

@Mike – thanks for offering your opinion, and sharing your preferences. But let’s put a fence around it (a qualifier), because you present this as a truism, a principle… which it isn’t. It’s your opinion. It’s a generalized truth, a safe approach… but in ficiton, there is wiggle room. Especially on this count. Some readers don’t like alcoholic abusive mysogonist detectives, either… and that genre is full of those guys (Dirty Harry comes to mind).

Some of the best heros out there have been unlikeable to some degree. Sherlock Holmes (an ass, if you look closely). You mention Dexter, you are in a minority there, he’s a home run character. Tony Soprano. Walter from “Breaking Bad,” the most successful fiction on television in years. These guys aren’t likeable, they do very bad things, and the authors aren’t asking you to “like” them. That’s too simple. But they are interesting and compelling, and they do have a facet that is something we respect. We are asked, for complex reasons, to “root” for them. That trumps likeability. It isn’t all-or-nothing in fiction, nor in life… because ALL of us have unlikeable facets. That’s not opinion, that’s fact.

You write about fantasy and sci-fi… you’re right, that’s a tough genre to have an anti-hero. But be clear, this is your “preference,” your taste… not something to warn other writers about in an absolute context. The risk you put out: write an unlikeable character and Mike the writer won’t like it. Fair enough.

The better warning, a revision of your last line, this this: “Make your protagonist unlikeable at your own peril… unless you’re really really GOOD at this.” Because it’s hard to pull off. And when you do, you may have a real winner on your hands. Taking risks is good, but almost always a low percentage shot, a game played by literary sharks (genius sharks) who are razor sharp at what they do. That much, I agree with.

Thanks for wriitng, and for the nudge: “How To Write an Effective Anti-hero” would make a great post here. Look for it soon. L.

MikeR June 29, 2013 at 8:54 am

@NotAFan –

I suspect that Larry picked these stories because =everybody= knows them, whether they want to admit to that or not. (“Bom bit-ty ba-ba Bom,” as Tom Cruise shoots bad Russians out of the sky with the reflections of his perl-white teeth …) So, they make okay examples even though I don’t really care for any of them as stories. (Especially Da Vinci Code, which I almost slammed-shut when I read the memorable line: “I’ve been poisoned!”) But they were like that line in the musical, Chess: “In the end, the whole world bought one .. all were gone .. by which time we mer-chan-disers had .. moved .. on.” So, they make good-nuff examples. You can’t make a point with a book no one has read.

@Robert -

I can’t think of a single best-selling story that DIDN’T get rejected numerous times. Success, in a story, needs: a good story, a good marketing plan, and a healthy dose of dumb-luck. :-)

@Mike -

Some other story-design pundits separate the notion of “protagonist,” as in “hero,” from that of “main character” or, very slightly different, “lead(ing) characters.” Plus, they identify “point-of-view characters.” I, too, prefer the person who ultimately delivers the victory, the hero, to be a person with some redeeming characteristics, just as I prefer the victory to be a good one. I don’t want to see the bad guy win. At the same time, I love a really good bad guy. I liked Hannibal Lecter’s character, especially as a totally off-screen influence in the movie, “Manhunter.” I liked Voldemort. But I wouldn’t have liked either story if either of them had been the point-of-view person (the person through whose eyes I “see” the action), nor the protagonist. I wanted to finally read the line (emphasis mine): “Riddle was D-E-A-D, killed by his own rebounding curse.” When the point-of-view character is a nasty, I tend to lose interest for two reasons: (a) I can’t really identify or self-place with him; and (b) they begin to feel like cardboard sociopaths.

Robert Jones June 29, 2013 at 9:42 am

@Mike–Interesting. I get what you’re saying. Not sure you’re getting the idea that the protagonist doesn’t have to be likable. In terms of them being a total jerk, or a serial killer and still serving as the hero of the piece can be tough, but not unheard of. With some characters (the serial killer, for example) a universal appeal isn’t always going to be possible. Personal feelings about such acts are going to turn some people off. But that can happen if your hero’s dog takes a dump on someone’s lawn if the reader feels this action is apalling. So, yes, it’s a risk trying to do something like that. But isn’t everything we do creatively sort of an experiment involving some degree of risk?

Taking a step back, away from the extreme serial killer example…I think the point of a hero not being “likable” applies to dozens of popular characters. Remember that every hero has his faults, and every villain has something he cares about, or believes in. Most might be going about it the wrong way, but there’s a spark of light in their darkness. The Anakin Skywalker type of villain you mentioned. Someone who could’ve been a force for good, but turned a corner somewhere and went down a different path.

And as long as we are talking fantasy type characters, what about Batman? He isn’t very nice. In the comics he frequently doesn’t get along well with other superheroes, his methods are extreme, but we like him. He’s a bit of an anti-hero, but we find his actions theraputic in some way. An outlet for all those bad guys the law can’t touch. And a good example of a hero that isn’t likable socially.

Or how about the Punisher? He’s killed more people than every serial killer on the planet combined. Sure, they are all bad buys the law can’t touch as well. But again, many people like this type of character. And yes, people do root for them, feel a sort of vicarious release from their actions.

I’ve sat a the table of many fine people who have clear cut views of black and white, good and evil, who see themselves as white hats who would never harm a fly. But two minutes later when discussing criminals like those serial killers, or even mass corruption in our system, will say something like, “They should ALL be rounded up and fried twice in the electric chair.” So is a spade always a spade? Light and dark clearly defined? A killer just a killer? Or do some take their shades of gray a bit more for granted than others?

It’s writers job, BTW, to see these truths, the contradictions, the blending of lights and darks. If fiction is a reflection of life, then just about everyone sees themselves wearing a white hat. And every action, no matter how cruel, is nothing personal, just business, because god told me to wipe out all the infidels. All different levels of intelligence, mass market brainwashing, belief systems gone awry. And yet if you put a reverse spin on any one of them, a hero who fights fire with fire, all the very nice people watching the news over dinner will chear. It all depends on POV.

A writer has the option to choose that POV, explore it, make the reader feel empathy–even in extreme situations. Even if the hero was duped into believing something they would eventually take a fall for, be sorry for. Because if the reader is privy to the greater good in the character’s heart, even if what they are doing is wrong, they will be saying, “Don’t do that. Can’t you see this will end badly?” Wanting something NOT to happen, is as alluring to readers as WANTING something to happen. So that’s another take on empathy to keep in mind.

It’s a broad spectrum, that array of human emotions. And one never knows when and where a new spin might be found, or an interesting story be discovered.

Larry June 29, 2013 at 10:43 am

@Robert — very well stated, thanks for chiming in. L.

Mike June 29, 2013 at 11:10 am

People watch Breaking Bad, Dexter, and The Sopranos for a fundamentally different reason. The overall tension in those series’ comes from the viewer hoping that the Anti hero will ‘change his ways.’ And while it is commercially viable to create anti-hero types, one look at the top 10 grossing movies of all time will reveal that only Star Wars episode one had a true anti hero. Also SW episode one would have never been on the list had it not been for the hype surrounding the first new SW movie in 20 years.

By far the majority of money making stories have morally good protagonists. In fact nearly every comic movie differentiates its hero, Spider-Man, Batman, Super-Man, etc., from their arch enemies by the superheroes greater moral character and you’ll find a ton of these comic movies on the highest money making lists. It isn’t necessary for a story to have a likable protagonist, and of course ‘likability’ is somewhat subjective, however history has shown that people prefer good guys to anti-heros by a large amount judging from commercial success.

Breaking Bad was admittedly a decent series. However about half way through the third season I realized that Walter was only going deeper into the world of criminals and I stopped watching.

I can see why some people watch Dexter and the Sopranos, maybe out of morbid curiosity or the attempt to understand evil. Or maybe in order to find out how NOT to live your life. Ultimately though many viewers are hoping that the anti-hero will change his ways, which cannot happen lest the story lose all its tension.

I think the main reason I am passionate about this topic is because I see our societies morals being twisted. We should not be glamourizing criminals like Tony Soprano and Dexter. Since story is so important to our lives, anti heroes should not be presented as ‘stars’ let alone role models. This does happen to some degree.

Story needs to have a higher moral sense since it has such a important impact on people. If New York is the center of financial corruption in the world, then Hollywood is the center of moral corruption. Shows like the Sopranos and Dexter are the ‘gangsta rap’ of the film industry.

Mike June 29, 2013 at 11:23 am

@Robert Jones

Yeah I get the idea. And there are exceptions to many rules. Protagonists do not have to be likable, however, people by far prefer them when they are if you are judging by commercial success. Storytellers should have a certain moral sense as well. We are part of a society, and we do not want to spew filth into the society in which we live.

Sara Davies June 29, 2013 at 1:42 pm

@ Mike:

I think that’s an interesting point, about moral decay. I look at all of the disturbing TV shows and wonder what their existence says about the emotional lives of people in this culture.

But that’s a symptom, not a cause. Rarely do we see inspiring stories about people who fight the odds to make a difference. Is that because there’s no interest in stories like that? Is it because they’re difficult to pull off without being sappy? Is it because people don’t have positive role models?

What we put into our minds does matter. Often I see movies, books, TV, etc. with themes I feel are socially irresponsible – they glorify something ugly, reinforce cultural stereotypes, etc. I don’t like to be angry, so I try to avoid that stuff. As long as we’ve got the First Amendment, people can create what they want. I don’t have to buy it. And I get to create what I believe in.

I’d prefer characters to be interesting instead of likable. Complex characters who are multi-faceted and pulled in multiple directions by competing inner forces are inherently more interesting to me.

There’s a science fiction TV series with a great concept (and lousy script) in production now where the line between the good guys and the bad guys is blurred. Both sides do the wrong things for the right reasons. Both believe they are making the moral choice. Exactly what is right remains unclear. I like the ambiguity.

We don’t have to like evil characters, but it’s interesting if a writer can show how they came to be who they are, why think the way they do, make them believable, and offer insight.

Another consideration: The way children who are traumatized “act out” the trauma through role playing and repeating a traumatic event in order to gain mastery. It’s a coping mechanism. No one needs to be taught to do this – people naturally do it, often without understanding why. Maybe some of these darker-themed stories exist for that reason and work the same way – not just for their creators, but also for their audience.

More than any other quality of a story, I look for “vicarious experience.” I want to make an emotional connection on the first page, stay connected throughout – as long as that connection remains alive, I will follow a character almost anywhere, in any genre, on any subject, rendered in any style. I want to be able to identify with the experiences of the characters so I can make that journey. If that happens, it sets up a situation where I can do some emotional calculus that changes the way I understand my own life.

Why do we need stories? We don’t just like them – we need them.

@ Robert:

I wasn’t talking about specific gatekeepers, as in the publishing industry – I was talking more about the phenomenon of gate-keeping itself – which I personally find so repellent I prefer to stay outside the gate where I don’t have to see that stuff. ;)

I’m sure there are publishers who prefer authors who like what they like, aside from basic matters of skill. It makes sense that there would be a search process involved in getting the right fit – just as there would be for a staff job with any company.

But sometimes people are wrong because their preferences or beliefs interfere. Case in point: Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was considered a disposable piece of fluff entertainment during his lifetime – but now sits alongside the “classics” of 19th century literature because of what it shows about the attitudes and values of an era, and is beautifully written. Thinking of works of fiction from 100, 500, 1000 years ago – what chain of events preserved those works? What cultural assumptions guided the continued promotion of that material? Who owned the libraries and the printing presses? What one age considers to be valuable may or may not be later on – for any one of a number of reasons, few of which can be predicted or controlled by anyone, in my opinion.

Robert Jones June 29, 2013 at 8:49 pm

@Mike–I’m a pretty moral guy, so again, I can see where you’re coming from. I believe writers do bear a certain moral obligation. I believe that we should show how a character became good, bad, do what they do. It’s through that understanding that we can explore human behavior, learn something about. Which is one of the reasons writing, and novels, have become my favorite art. Because we have room to explore such things.

On the other hand, I can’t stand violence that is sugar coated. I’m a pretty non-violent person. But my personal views is that TV shows and movies with guns blazing and no one getting hurt just makes that gunplay look cool, very fun to try. The six o’clock news showing massive violence without reason is a fear factory spreading its own brand of terrorism. And to me, that’s the wrong message.

We all take certain personal views with us into our creative endeavors. Mine will always be in terms of realism. The content will always have a moral, but like those classic theater masks of happy and sad, I will always do my utmost to show the extremes of triumph and tragedy in bold view, along with exploring the reasons behind both.

That’s my personal take, BTW, not saying you’re doing wrong by taking a stand against such things. Just sharing my take. Which is that people learn nothing in the way these things are too frequently portrayed. So my stance in exploring them is to hopefully bring a little more understanding to the reader than they might typically get from The A-Team.

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