“Bait and Switch” (deconstruction): A “Criteria-Driven” Story from Square One

First… my apologies for being slow in getting this deconstruction up to full speed.  I hope to pick up the pace next week.

I’ve been thinking about it — a lot — and one thing keeps bubbling to the surface as I juggle parts and plot point and protagonistic proclivities.  And that one thing, I’ve come to realize, is what was behind it all.

When a message keeps knocking, I try to pay attention. 

If you’ve swan-dived into the Six Core Competencies playbook, you’ll know that I like to say that our stories are born — that very first spark of “idea,” whatever its form — in one of the four elemental core competencies of concept, character, theme, and structure.  (That last one, when it happens first, is usually a true story — “this or that really happened, and I’d like to tell that story…” much like the movie “Miracle,” about the 1980 US Hockey team — while the first three are perhaps equally responsible for most of what we see in bookstores and theaters.)

I can look back at everything I’ve written (including the unpublished stuff) in the way of fiction and assign that first moment of “idea” to one of those core competencies.  In fact, I’ve written books from three of those most likely four.

Some like to argue this point (read the reviews of my book, there are folks out there eager to argue with anything in this discussion), but I believe that when a writer isn’t sure where their story started, it’s because that very first spark was so powerful it quickly ignited a fire that engulfed one or more of the other core competencies, making them seem to be inseparable or simultaneous. 

A great concept can lead you to a great hero so fast you can’t tell which is which.  In fact, the same may be true with any combination of first spark sources… and it doesn’t really matter.  This is good, when the universe seems to have gifted you with two or even three of the six core competencies you’ll need, it’s a wonderful moment.

Even if it was, in that blink the eye, only one to begin with.  Doesn’t matter.

Unless it does matter.  Please allow me to explain.

It matters if you don’t understand that you need all six Core Competencies to be developed and executed and clicking on all cylinders before a story will work.

Stories are like people.  They’re complex and, when they function, they have multiple and essential parts.  That’s why it takes nine months to hatch one.

All that said… again… important as this is, it isn’t my primary point today.  It’s context and set-up for my point today.

What is my point is that residing beneath — or if you prefer, enveloping — your first spark of an idea and the ensuing other seeds for the remaining Core Competencies, there is the availability of a certain dash of magic that can infuse the outcome of your search for story — your creative choices — with power and poignancy and a significantly better chance at success.

In other words, there may be more to it than those Six Core Competencies.

Yes, ideas and the fallout from them are, when they succeed, highly qualitative.  Not all ideas are good.  Not all concepts are compelling.  Not all protagonists are heroic and empathetic, and not all journeys are deliciously vicarious.

They should be, but they’re not.

And that’s how Bait and Switch was born in my mind.

Not from one of the Six Core Competencies, but from an intention.

The first spark of creativity was actually the desire to manifest a story that knocked certain reading criteria out of the ballpark.  It was in the search for ideas that were good enough that I landed on the specific core competencies that would become the story itself.

This is subtle.  It may even sound like blithering esoteria to some.  But that’s how it went down in this writer’s mind.  It wasn’t as much about writing a bestseller as it was about writing a story I’d want to read.

Oh, how obvious this is.  And oh, how often this doesn’t occur to writers who are eager to succeed.

I was looking to deliver a certain kind of reading experience.  A certain brand of journey.  A certain flavor of hero.  A certain visceral, vicarious ride. 

This is the second time I’ve developed a story from this initial ambition.

Sometimes the story arrives on the back of that spark, and when it does you have to add the juice to it.  In the case of “Bait and Switch,” I began with the juice — the bar I wanted to reach, the flavor of story I wanted to write — and then went into search mode for an igniting spark that would belly up to that bar.

I’d been there before.  In 1990, while on the set of a video shoot, a bachelor for the night, I realized I wanted to go to a movie that evening.  I knew what was playing, and nothing on the local screens was the kind of film experience that would rock my world.

So I began thinking of the kind of movie that would, in fact, do that. 

That would send me straight from work to the Cineplex.  I began to churn on this.  I wanted something dark and noir.  With a devastating female villain.  With a hero who gets sucked into her web and has to beat her at her own game to survive.  A fantasy that collides with reality.

We can debate the psychology of this all day if you like, but that’s not the point.  The passion for this criteria — the itch it scratched — is, however, the point. 

The result was a movie script called “In Darkness Bound.”  I wrote it quickly, and the requisite creative decisions that would become my core competencies were completely driven by the criteria for the type of story I wanted to see on a screen.

A few months later that script landed me an agent.  Over a few years (and more than a few drafts) it received seven Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship placements, including a finalist spot (top ten out of 6044 submissions) in 2002, after it had already been rewritten as a novel and published in the fall of 1999.

That novel, by the way, was a USA Today bestseller that made me a boat load of cash. 

All of this was as much because of the criteria that drove the storytelling as it was the elements of the story itself.

Hear this.  It can work for you, too. 

It did for me, again when it came time to write “Bait and Switch” in late 2002 into 2003.

I had a book contract but no story to deliver.  I needed one… desperately.  This is a risky position to put yourself in (though the reasons one finds oneself in that position is a good thing, I suppose), because it can lead you to settle.

In retrospect, I believe I had already settled.  Twice, in fact.  These were books #2 and #3, after “Darkness Bound” and before “Bait.”  They were fine, I hope (well reviewed), but they weren’t driven by that passionate criteria-driven search for story that books #1 and, ultimately #4 would be.

With “Bait,” I wanted a story that was vicarious

That was the driving thing for me.  A story that would take the reader out of the mundane and plop them into the sublime.  A story that would be theme-rich.  That would seduce them.  Put them in danger and force them to face demons.  Allow them to fly around in private jets, anticipate a payday measured in the millions, gain entre to an exclusive world populated by billionaires, geniuses and supermodels.

And yet, I wanted it, by the very nature of its vicariousness, to become catalytic.  To ask the reader to assess their values and moral compass as they assumed the persona of the hero along this path.  What would you do?  I wanted that question to remain at the forefront.

In fact, I wanted any assumptions attached to that answer to suck the reader into an ending that would validate and reward their immersion in the story.  According to the critics, it did just that.

All this before I had a clue as to what the story would be.

A decade earlier with “Darkness Bound” (in its initial pre-novel incarnation as a script), that initial passion-driven spark was a character.  The antagonist, in that case.

With “Bait,” the initial spark was a concept.  Which I quickly retooled into a compelling (for me) what if? question: What if a rich guy needed to negate a foolish pre-nuptial agreement by hiring somebody to seduce his wife?”

Imagine the lives, the personas, that would populate such a notion.

From there — and this is what happens when your “what if?” scenario is burning a hole in your head — other “what ifs? began to make themselves known, each auditioning for a role in the story itself. 

What is the pre-nup and seduction gambit had much bigger stakes than the billionaire’s position on the Forbes 400? What if there was a hidden, deadlier agenda?  What if my hero’s (the hunky seducer-for-hire) connection to this job offer was something other than coincidental?  What if his personal stakes became his motivation, over and above the millions already on the table?

The billionaire was loosely based on Larry Ellison, from a great distance.  Wolf was loosely based, on… well, me.  Can’t get more vicarious than that.

If you’ve read the book, you should recognize these elements. 

Some are conceptual, some are thematic, most are character-altering.  Just know that they were conceived in context to certain criteria, rather than simply being a cool idea.

I hope the power of this realization strikes you as it did me. 

It might even be an Epiphany in your career: the heat of the criteria that drives our creative storytelling choices are every bit as important, and indeed, destined, as what we put into the story itself.

“Bait and Switch” was my most critically-successful novel.  Not because of any genius of the story elements themselves, or their execution, but rather, because of the passion that summoned them and the high bar that drove them into being.

I believe this is an important – if not subtle – concept and therefore a milestone post for Storyfix.  If you agree, please share this link with other writers, either through your own blog or within your personal network.

Read the Publishers Weekly review (and others) of “Bait and Switch” HERE.

See the links in the middle column to order a copy of “Bait and Switch” so you can benefit from this deconstruction. 

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11 Comments

Filed under B&S Deconstruction

11 Responses to “Bait and Switch” (deconstruction): A “Criteria-Driven” Story from Square One

  1. Curtis

    “With “Bait,” the initial spark was a concept. Which I quickly retooled into a compelling (for me) what if? question: What if a rich guy needed to negate a foolish pre-nuptial agreement by hiring somebody to seduce his wife?”

    “Imagine the lives, the personas, that would populate such a notion.”

    Exactly! That is neither esoteric or subtle. When seen and experienced, experienced is the operative word here, it becomes as clear a process as the ringing of the proverbial bell.

    I played the ” what if” game. A cast of characters plus a few scenes showed up to play which yielded setting and sequence. It grows exponentially.

    Indeed! “Imagine the lives, the personas, that would populate such a notion.” Imagination is powerful. Allow it to imagine more than one element at once.

    A person could sit around and doodle these out on the back of a napkin. Then pick the strongest story from the bunch.

    Yep, this was a “milestone” post.

  2. “The heat of the criteria that drives our creative storytelling choices are every bit as important, and indeed, destined, as what we put into the story itself.”

    Indeed. The start always is with creativity. It doesn’t start with opening your word processor and typing, “It wasn’t a dark and stormy night.” It is an idea, probably from one of the CC elements.

    Getting the hot criteria, as Larry says, is the start of your job as storyteller. One spark should immediately show (to your creativity) a bit of fire in the other elements. If it doesn’t, it isn’t hot enough. Tweak it up and try some more until it either burns brightly or fades out to a dim coal.

    Keep it written down, though; maybe that spark will work itself into a raging fire for another novel.

    The concepts, what-ifs, and premises have to be hot enough to ignite your creativity across the elements. A character idea might be, “a bum.” Okay, but we usually despise panhandlers and don’t like their smell. “A bum in Beverly Hills” is a bit hotter — even sounds like a movie I saw. That should immediately turn your imagination to application: why was he a bum? (character), he’s shadowing a crime family member (concept), crime sometimes does pay (theme), he/she gets taken in by an affluent BH family (structure).

    The artistic part is always senior to the mechanics of the Six Core Competencies. Get it hot enough, learn your SCCs well enough, and you might just write something great. Now go do it.

  3. @Bruce — well stated, as usual. Thanks for the value-add here. L.

  4. Just got back from vacation and am excited for this deconstruction.

    I believe you could write a book with nothing but “idea sparks” and “what if” examples carried out to final story submissions. I believe this is the most difficult part holding people back.

  5. spinx

    @ Shane Arthur- don´t tempt him……….he might actually do it!
    ———–

    @ Larry,

    I am getting better at the “What if?” game, though I must admit that my problem right now is not so much posing the question itself, but rather chosing which idea, which spark is actually worth it enough to start asking.

    I´m a sucker for keeping things I guess……….can´t even bring myself to throw away some ugly, stinky pullover my aunt once bought me.

    BUT- I will work on that, I just have to! It´s driving me crazy.

    Peace out ;t

  6. Link posted to LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers Guild’s thread on “Given a choice between a brilliant story written lamely and a lame story written beautifully, publishers will always choose the…”

    Thanks, Larry! Much to contemplate….

  7. “… brilliant story written lamely.” ~Daniel Quinn.

  8. The “what-if” game is powerful; new ideas and directions for my protagonist popped into my head even as I was still reading the above. The perspective of living vicariously is really helping me, too. Churning up the creative juices. I’m adding them to the process, right along with WCBW – what could be worse – when developing conflict. Thanks much.

    Btw – came here from http://www.lisawmiller.com; I’m one of her Story Structure Safari students. Thanks much for the info you’ve shared with us there as well. Glad to have connected via Lisa.

  9. I have no idea what the Six Core Competencies are – (but I will) most likely because I have always been ‘all spark no order’ – and because of that it takes way longer than nine months to hatch one.

    I love what you said…..”To ask the reader to assess their values and moral compass as they assumed the persona of the hero along this path. What would you do? “. If our readers ask themselves that question…we have success. If they dwell on it even longer, we have surely won.

    Thanks for sharing

  10. Colleen Shine Phillips

    The concept of writing what you want to read is important. Even more than that, I have discovered a helpful tip from a friend who actually corroborates with your precept that you write to answer an important question. But in my case, I want to write to answer an important question I actually don’t have the total answer for yet and am hoping, even praying that the process will answer it for me and for anyone else with a question mark hanging over their heads. As always, your post is enlightening. I have been a fan of yours for a long time, but am also part of Lisa Miller’s class and enjoying the interviews you are sharing via Story Structure Safari.