Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept

“I see this a lot.”

I’m a little wary of opening with that, but I have to confess, it’s the first thing that keeps popping into my head when I want to address – again – the recurring and story-killing issue of writers using an undercooked “concept” as their opening point of reference for their story.

Story ideas that aren’t really concepts at all.

I write about this issue… a lot.

Because I do see this… a lot.

In fact, I’ve analyzed six story plans in the last 24 hours, and four of them suffer from this conceptual short-selling.  To an extent that the story itself won’t be publishable until the writer understands how they’ve tanked the story before it even gets underway, simply by virtue of trying to write it without a compelling concept.

The Questionnaire I use in my story coaching work asks the writer to define their “concept” in two different ways, and then again, in several more that reference the concept to see how it will actually show up and play out in the story.

Get this wrong, and the story tanks.  Or at best, the drafting process becomes a search for a stronger concept, which, without a vision for an outcome, is a tough way to proceed.  Especially when the writer isn’t even aware that they’ve created this labyrinth of dramatic options, most paths leading nowhere.

Without a strong concept a story becomes episodic. 

An examination of a life through a character.  A look at theme by simply seeing it in various forms.  A shifting focus from one source of dramatic tension to something else entirely, episode by episode, without a baseline core story driven by a conceptual proposition driving it all.

You rarely see these in bookstores.  Almost every published story has a core, conceptually-driven dramatic narrative.  A specific hero’s quest.  And yet, among the unpublished this remains an unspoken benchmark, smothered in reviews that focus on other things and writing teachers who take this for granted in introducing authors to the craft.

It’s so much more fun to talk about writing novels that transport us to other places, explore important issues, live another vivid life.  But that is only one of the six realms of story physics – vicarious experience – leaving five others un-addressed and seamlessly integrated, like the heart beating inside a lovable puppy, to the untrained student eye.

Weekly television shows get away with it.

It’s why they’re called episodes.

Perhaps that’s the seductive problem… we think we can package “The Good Wife” or “Girls” into novel.  A story “about” a woman working in a law firm.  A story of three girls trying to make it in New York.  The “adventures of Carrie in “Sex in the City.”  But you can’t leave it at that.  On TV these character-driven “soft” stories deliver on and pay off on a concept every single week.  If/when they become a full length feature (or a novel), there will be a singular dramatic question driving it.

Rent the “Sex in the City” DVD, you’ll see that Carrie and the girls have a specific mission and quest, a hero’s path, with a specific goal.  A concept.  (Big dumps Carrie as a result of the advice of pals – that’s a specific problem… this isn’t “the adventures of Carrie in New York,” this is a concept, driven by a dramatic question: will Carrie win back the affection of Big before he moves on?)

Episodic storytelling in a novel – the outcome of conceptually under-cooked story ideas – is almost always a deal killer in print.

A Baseline Awareness

I’m blown away at how many writers – beginners and advanced, even published – don’t get what a concept is, and what it means to a story.

Everybody seems to think they have an answer to the question: “What is your story’s concept?”… and yet, what I see are actually more like ideas that have yet to evolve into a concept… themes that are mistaken for a concept… character snapshots that are mistaken for concept.

Too often they are under-cooked.  Writers are describing the stage, without opening a conceptual door to a drama that will unfold upon it.

So let me be clear. 

An “idea” is not inherently a concept.  Not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension.

Too often the writer answers this instead: “What is your story about?”  That’s not necessarily a concept, either.  Let’s look at a bestseller to help (no pun) illustrate.

What is “The Help” about?

Three African-American maids in the south.  Yes, it is about that.  But is that a concept?  No.  It’s an idea.  A starting point.  Could go anywhere.  And that’s the problem… when a writer begins with something this vague, it often does go anywhere, several places, either at once or in sequence… and the story ends up being about some combination of nothing and everything.  Such stories become an episodic “The Adventures of So-And-So,” which, like any other story, isn’t an effective novel until that becomes much more conceptual.

Racial prejudice in the South.  Yes, it is.  But is that a concept?  No.  Not yet.  This is more theme than concept.   Could be anything, most likely a series of rather unconnected stuff happening to the characters.

A book project between a young and wealthy writer that requires  the participation of the black maids being oppressed by their white employers in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.  Now this is a concept.  Because it describes more than what the story is about, it opens the door to a dramatic question.


Notice that the first two answers – an idea, and a theme – do not pose a dramatic question.  And that the much stronger answer, the one that really is a concept, does.  “Will Skeeter enlist the help of the maids to finish her book, or will they accept the status quo, thus derailing Skeeters dream and keeping themselves in bondage?”

It’s about, at a conceptual level, Skeeter’s book, her quest… not the theme or the setting.  The themes emerge from that concept.  They almost always do.

And thus, we discover the bar you’re reaching for: what is the dramatic question that naturally and compellingly springs forth from your conceptual starting place?

As an exercise, answer the question right now: what is the concept for your story?

This becomes a powerful acid test for your story concept.  Remember, concept arises from the potential range of the idea… and a dramatic question emerges from that concept.

From there, the dramatic question leads to the definition of a hero’s goal and quest… and in turn to the identification of an obstacle to that quest… and then the stakes of that quest… and then, the sequence of that quest.

No dramatic question, no story.   No conflict arising from it, no stakes… no story.

No conflict-driven hero’s quest, a singular problem to solve and/or goal to strive fore… no story.  It really boils down to that.

Or, if you have a whole list of dramatic questions without priority or hierarchy – the determination of a core story – then you risk an episodic “adventures of…” story model.

And you better be Jonathan Franzen to pull that off.

If you do know the dramatic question and the core story it leads to, because the concept has already put it out there, then you are in conceptual territory.

But if you don’t know… if there are a whole bunch of potential dramatic questions at hand (which puts you at risk of exploring them all, which will almost certainly kill your story through episodic storytelling)… then chances are you are still at Square One, staring at what is really an idea or a theme that is not yet imbued with concept.

And, you’ll either realize now or later, you’re not ready to write the story yet.

Another Acid Test

Ask, in context to your concept: what is my hero’s core story goal… what opposes it… why… and what is at stake?

Don’t be confused, your novel or screenplay can and even should be about multiple facets of the hero’s experience.  But don’t confuse any of it with the core story.  In successful novels there is always a core hero’s quest, something to achieve and/or survive, in the form of a problem to solve, a goal to reach, or some combination of both… with an antagonist (bad guy, or opposing force) blocking that path.

Keep asking the right questions about your concept. 

What dramatic question does it pose?  What hero’s quest emerges from it?  What opposes the hero on that path?  What are the stakes?

A great idea can take you to these.  For some, the writing of drafts is a path toward discovering these answers.  Whatever works for you.

The most important thing is your awareness of these questions, and the ultimate need for answers.

The sooner you know what the concept of your story is, an answer that resides well above and beyond your idea, arena or theme, the closer you’ll be to actually bringing it alive on the page.


Sometimes another set of eyes – schooled eyes – can be just the ticket to help put you over the top on this, perhaps the most important storytelling variable of all.

Click HERE to see if your story concept is at this level yet… or not.

Click HERE to see if the plan for your story’s narrative results in a compelling core story, well told… or not.


Click HERE to see an excerpt from the film “Adaptation” (2002), on this very subject. (WARNING: do NOT click if f-word language offends you.) 








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60 Responses to Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept

  1. Chihuahua Zero

    A responsibility-obsessed high schooler defends a psychic exchange student who fights spirits.

    Will the high schooler be able to keep the exchange student safe until the end of his stay while maintaining the status quo?

    (Thinking about it, each turning point in the narrative is another “no” toward the dramatic question..until the entire question gets a deadline extension.)

    (Note: Explore aspects of protagonist’s personality in writing exercises.)

  2. @Chihuahua — nice. Suggestion: take a look at the stakes for the hero, too. The dramatic question becomes stronger if there’s something dramatic — as opposed to just “doing the right thing” in it for him, too. Maybe he needs to right a wrong… impress a girl… even save a life. Glad you “get” this. L.

  3. I’m working on a new concept right now, and my story being a romance is not enough. Hero and heroine both need goals in conflict with the other that can be resolved in addition to that pesky relationship happily ever after requirement.

    Thanks for The Help today and the reminder that Skeeter lost her guy when she gained her goal.

  4. Sara Davies

    A research scientist forced to sell her ova in adolescence later learns they were used to create genetically modified slaves in another country. Does she really want to find her lost children, and if so, what is she willing to do to help them? She is opposed by her employer for whom she is required to provide services for the foreign government, the foreign government itself, and the manufacturer/producer of the slaves.

    Is that a concept? If I get as far as a complete story plan, I would be willing to pay for that level of analysis.

  5. @Sara — gets my vote as a pretty darn good concept, yes. You might strengthen it my clarifying what’s at stake for her… exploring the nature of “donated” ovaries vs. a carried fetus… what’s worth this risk for her? Once she gets involved, maybe the stakes go up when she realizes she’s i a position to thwart/stop these evil slave-mongers, which has huge heroic stakes attached. Good stuff! L.

  6. @EricStoffle tweeted this page and I’m glad I came. What you wrote left my mind racing to fix several projects. Nice inspiration. Thanks!

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  8. Loved the video! Great way to bring it home!

  9. Larry, you gave a great example of this, plus more, in your blog: From Idea to Fully Viable Story Plan… in One Blog Post. I think that post is a classic. I go back to it once in a while and study it. Today’s post illustrates how a developed concept is the keystone to any story, and you describe it perfectly.

    I had to laugh at the video. It let you F-bomb all of us without getting personally involved. ;O But it speaks the truth. Thanks for picking us up by the scruff of our necks and shaking us once in a while. I love the passion for writing that you share with us.

  10. Cheryl OD

    Larry: this is an excellent post. Just excellent. I encounter this a lot, not only with my friends’ work, but my own. The episodic nature you described — dead-on. I once heard a screenwriter describe a script as a “bunch of pearls,” and that the story represented the strand, the thing that holds the pearls together. Great storytellers focus on the strand, where it starts (one pearl) and the end (that pearl will look different than the first one on the strand). Like you say, when there isn’t cohesion or something to be gained or lost, the story becomes a series of vignettes, and there isn’t any sense of GMC (goal – motivation – conflict). Even when the writing and craftmanship are superb, if there isn’t a sense of story, you (as the reader) can lose interest, put the book down. Some of my friends are leery of conflict, thinking that conflict represents bickering between characters, (especially in the romance genre, this is very common) — (OR) they don’t want to show their lead characters in a bad light, so there isn’t a healthy character arc.

    Your posts are the best! Thanks again for the insights and examples.

  11. Larry, this is a very timely post as I start to rework my NaNo project from a couple of years ago. It gets derailed, and you’ve given me a great series of questions to ask myself for how to make it a proper storyline, and not just a high concept. Thanks.

  12. Many thanks indeed for this Larry. I’ve bookmarked this as this will be extremely useful to me to ponder .. will also tweet and sign up for yr posts thanks.

  13. Debbie Burke

    So…about that excerpt from “Mitchell” that immediately and automatically followed “The Adaptation” ??? Was Martin Balsam’s chauffeur a certain young Storyfixer in his Hollywood days?

  14. This is EXACTLY what I blogged about yesterday. Thank you for the insight which also helps with deciding the right time to acquire your business.

  15. Great post. I love the clarity you bring to these questions that are so often smothered by vague words that confuse more than help new writers.

    Concept of my YA fantasy novel: Connor is a young man cursed with terrible power, forced to choose between conflicting loyalties to family, to country, and to a girl who might just love him against all odds.
    In a time of escalating warfare, he may hold the key to military victory, but at the potential cost of the lives of everyone he loves. Attempting to save his family will condemn him to death and might grant victory to the nation’s enemies.

  16. Sara Davies

    @Larry: Good questions. I have what are emotionally convincing answers but am not sure how to make them logical in the world of the story. Anyone could have compassion for her choices, but those choices also need to make sense. Later on that. Thanks for the feedback.

  17. Matthew Brook

    Larry, is it okay to include a hint of the Inciting Incident in the concept, especially if the hero causes it and repercussions from it exacerbate the core story after the first plot point?

  18. @Matthew — interesting question. It can certainly work, if it fits. Let’s say a hero accidentally kills a pedestrian. Inciting incident. But it turns out later (at the FPP) that the guy he hit was a mafia kingpin, and his asshole son has declared a death vendetta against our hero, because the accident was his fault. The concept would be: “What if someone kills a mafia kingpin by accident, and the family comes after him as revenge?” See how the death scene IS an inciting incident — the FPP is when the son declares the death bounty — and also inherent to the concept? Pretty cool. Thanks — L.

  19. Kerry Boytzun

    Was it me, or did anyone really get what that movie video link (Adaptation) was really saying?

    The professor told Cage (in the movie clip) DON’T WRITE A PUFF PIECE!!

    The professor was full of vitriol and passion for the tragedy of life that goes on every day–he was quite explicit in detail about it. Sure he said F—. Big deal. Who cares what swear words he used–really. You gotta be kidding me, if you even give a rip about the F-word.

    You should be offended that people in society look the other way while others are being raped, beaten, oppressed and taken advantage of–every day in your city.

    Yes that’s everyday in America. Oops. But now I’m ranting and not talking about writing. If you feel that way then you really missed the message that Professor in the movie clip gave.

    No PUFF CRAP. Give the professor something he can CARE ABOUT, get riled up about, and DO SOMETHING about it in your story!!! (That’s called being HEROIC by the way. The professor said don’t waste 2 hours of his life–with Puff crap.

    Yeah I’m one of those people that still gets riled up. Sad but most people just don’t and are WAY too compliant. Big Brother likes you compliant. Easier to manage.

    But don’t you wanna be a WRITER? That’s writer, not Puffer.

    Do we really need another Sex in the City pile of crap to puff on? Are you that narcissistic about who has more money, more clothes, more more more?

    Hope I have your all’s attention now.

    Having great story structure will NOT make a great story. It helps, but you better be writing about something YOU really care about and will defend. Heck you’ll even use the F— word to defend it.

    You think I’m making this stuff up? Look over the history of important movies, books (stories) and I assure you there won’t be a Sex in the City POS in there. Hats off to Larry to even break down the structure on the Sex in the City “movie” vs. the series.

    As for the well received book, and movie, The Help–the interesting thing to me is that I didn’t care about the core story. The Help, all structure aside–is really interesting about how the oppressed black workers dealt with their oppressive rich white “employers”. Chocolate Pie anyone? Why do people remember THAT scene and not what whats-her-name was trying to do with her book? Because it just wasn’t that interesting. Yes the structure was there. But it was dull. It was overshadowed by the oppression of the black workers. Don’t make that mistake. (Yes it sold lots of books and made money–but not because the girl wanted to write about the oppression. That part is glorified narration of which people wanted to get to the “good stuff”).

    The point here is that you can have the most interesting part of your BOOK–NOT be the core story of your book-screenplay.

    I’ve seen that a LOT. I’m reading a science fiction novel right now, new release, and am just BORED with what the author is trying to make me interested in.

    Put it another way: how many times have you watched a movie or read a novel which (was published clearly) had a BIG part of it just getting in the way of the good stuff? Imagine if your story WAS about the good stuff, and not just about what YOU wanted to write. What you want to write about and what is really compelling–may not be the same thing. You need to identify when Chocolate Pie is hot–and whatever else is going on outside of that–is not.

    Hey…sorry if I hit you upside the head with a two-by-four, but I’m just not a gentle guy anymore. People are starving to death in the real world but those who have theirs (money, wealth–a good paying job)–don’t want to hear about anything that may make them feel a twinge of guilt. They like Sex in the City.

    Real American people are going broke, losing their homes, their families, their kids getting beaten, raped, hooked on drugs, etc.—these guys just MIGHT like it if someone wrote about SOLUTIONS to these issues in the world. In a story.

    Why not make it a story? Instead of another PUFF piece?

    This is what the professor was talking about in the movie clip Larry put at the end of the article with the warning about the F-word. Larry has to put warnings like that. Too many trolls have attacked him on the Internet for…well…having an opinion that Story Structure is good…even important, and being passionate about it. I dealt with one of those trolls myself on Amazon. Funny how he ran away when I pressed him for details on his trolling attack on Larry.

    This world will NOT get any better with puff pieces. I firmly believe that people are afraid to write about what they REALLY want to write about (what they dream would happen in the real world) because they’re too used to being a compliant, quiet, don’t say PEEP…citizen.

    Become a WRITER! Find something out there in life that gets you juiced! That juice will keep you going when the going gets tough and writing the book gets mundane.

    Keep up the great work, Larry!

  20. Pingback: Ideas, Concepts and Dramatic Questions « Diary of a Novel

  21. Hi Larry, thanks for the post. It was perfect timing for me to stumble upon it and made me pause for thought. I am starting a story about a teenage boy who wakes from a cryogenic sleep in a post-apocalyptic world. He has amnesia. This was my initial idea, and as you state in your post, it is only a starting point. My protagonist then sets out on a quest across the dangerous landscape to find his home and his pre-amnesia identity. I’m thinking at some point he will question whether the person he is now is more important than the person he was. Is this enough for a concept and a dramatic question? How would I frame these?

  22. Kerry Boytzun

    Hi Suzanne

    Why have amnesia for your hero? It seems more interesting to me that he would have memories from his past to compare to this new future he finds himself in. How can he question his importance now if he doesn’t remember who he was in the past? How far in the future is this? Suppose his sister is now dead but her daughter is now 55 and can tell your hero what he has missed since he’s been in cyro.

    If he has his memories, he can use them to go back to whereever they were but only to find different people are now living there and perhaps clues will exist to where they went.

    Unless he’s in cyro for only 15 years.

    I have a similar character who will have to face that no one will recognized him anymore…for better and worse. Relationships will end that he wanted to keep. Enemies won’t be able to recognized him. Fun stuff.

    best of luck to you.

  23. Sara Davies


    Personally I go for the gritty, dark, intense, brooding, heavy, oppressive stuff, frequently with a commentary about the pressing social issues of the day, but above all, emotional honesty. (I am on my fourth viewing of the film “The Messenger” for the excellent dialogue, laden as it is with back story and foreshadowing in just the first few scenes.) That said, there is more than enough room in the world for fluffery, because sometimes I want to watch or read something I know will deliver a safe and happy outcome in a clean and sparkly world. I want to visit an alternate reality that gives me hope. I personally do not have unicorns and rainbows in my heart to share with the world, hence will probably never write a story like that, but I’m very grateful that some people do, and I respect their ability to do it. Thank God for them. Puffery and/or fluff provide relief and shelter. Those who’ve got a zombie apocalypse raging in their souls may as well make creative use of it, but those who don’t? Let them fluff onward, and more power to them. It’s not necessarily promoting denial or superficiality, but survival and comfort. Did you ever think of that?

    @Suzanne: I like it, not that you’re asking me. Why amnesia is a good question.

    What I want to know is: is it OK to put a hook and an inciting incident on the first page?

  24. RS

    Thanks for the fantastic post! I must say, it really helps to be repeatedly hit over the head with these great examples, as my (and it appears many others as well) instinct seems to lean towards the episodic. Keep the examples of dramatic concept done will (in both film and literature) coming!

  25. Kerry Boytzun

    @Sara Davies

    I hear you on stories that give hope, are uplifting, and a break from the daily grind.

    A fluff piece to me is something that contributes to the decaying minds of people in society. I’m 50…been around and done a lot. Most people I meet are unable to recognize when they’re being lied to and conned into making bad decisions. Even more worrisome is the apathy towards anything that might wake them up.

    But these same people sing a different tune when they become unemployed, can’t pay the bills and are heading out to live on the street. THEN they start to access their flames of will-power that maybe…just maybe something isn’t right with the picture MSM (main stream media) has been giving them all their lives.

    I have hope when I see someone stand up to the bully. Matt Damon has made a movie, Promised Land, on the very very dangerous scheme of Fracking. Fracking will permanently destroy the drinking water of the land. Fracking is funded by the likes of Wall Street.

    We need more WRITERS who create real stories with real hope to divert the direction this world, society–is going.

    I get hope when I see the Matt Damons, Erin Brokovichs, and the like doing their thing. I am trying to do mine.

    My intent for my post was to inspire those that are thinking about writing something “controversial” (which means truthful nowadays) instead of just a story that really has no bearing on our future. There’s tons of fluff pieces out there. I long for meaningful content. Michael Crichton was great. But he’s not with us anymore.

    Best of luck to you all.


  26. Robert Jones

    Wow, has this post suddenly gotten interesting in terms of commentary, or what? I mean, Larry started with a great post, and as always, comes across with passion in his heart. But seldom do I see passion in the form of the responses. And maybe what Kerry is talking about should rile some folks up. As writers–as artists and observers–we need to see things from a different angle than the average Joe, or Jane. From all angles, or as much as humanly possible. I’m from a commercial art background. And what I’ve learned there is to observe. When the World Trade Center went down, the artists I knew at the time (at least some of them who were brave nough to admit it), though they were just as horrified as the next person, were looking at every ugly detail, catalogueing it, sketching it for future use. They knew, as tragic as what was happening was, that like a good reporter, they would need to portray this event to others in some form–real, or fictional. And they wanted to get those details right. In other words, they didn’t turn away, or put blinders on. I, myself, have spoken with firement who were there. Listened to what they saw, what effected them most emotionally. And the things I was told was not part of any news report. Maybe because the average person couldn’t have handled it. I can only imagine how those rescue workers will be haunted from seeing the things they’ve seen. And yet, they found the strength to deal with it, to do what had to be done. Heroism at it’s finest, in the face of reality gone suddenly to hell.

    I’ve often compared those words from other professionals (both artistic and emergency officials) to people I’ve shown my writing to, to people who I’ve watched movies with, who were offended by the partial nudity of a love scene (take a life drawing class for crying out loud), or because someone said a rotten tenament apartment smelled like rotten human feces.

    As writers, there is a place for uplifting stories, for the triumph of human achievment. But can we afford to turn our noses up at those things we find less than pleasant–and call ourselves the kind of writers who truly speak objectively from life? Or do we simply want to see what we want to see, say “Thank you Larry, for another great post,” but never really care to look at it from a very broad view, or understand why so many of us fall short when it comes to discribing the stories we want to share with the world accurately.

    It takes time. It takes research. It takes being willing to see what others cannot–or won’t.

    Thank you, Kerry, for rubbing our noses in this one. I am 49, lost my career due to a car accident. I fell victim to the system, where vampires really do exist. Only the blood and pointy teeth are symbolic, they just want to make money off the pain of others by prolonging their agony as much as possible. It took time for life to settle, to crawl out, to move on in a new direction. And the kind folks and friends I knew, the same ones who were offended by fictional accounts of what they saw, the same people who saw but didn’t observe what was on the six o’clock news each night, fled and left me feeling rather hopeless. Life can get ugly very quickly.

    It’s only when you see both sides of the equation, that the array of potential disasters present themselves. And the smoke-screen most live by becomes lifted. Looking behind that mask, you’ll see it’s really more of a blindfold for the masses.

    Very useful information for a writer, however. I think this may be in line of what Kerry is trying to say. The only acceptible fluff for a writer, are those stories when a character can triumph by turning a bad situation into a better one. All stories are about one thing: human nature. If life was good all the time, we would be living like children–the Eloi, straight out of “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells. Unpleasant, and unpredictible circumstances happen. In fiction, we, as writers, may never save the world, but if your character isn’t suffering (undertaking) something of a journey through a dark portion of their life, we, as an audience, won’t take the journey with them. Because deep down, the blind masses know fear, possibly even understand, that such things can happen, might even happen to them. It’s quite possible that is even why they are hiding, or not looking at life too closely. We, as creators, give them a ride, a vicarious glimpse, of a world they can look into and still feel safe in the comfort of their easy chair, or bed. If our words are strong enough, some might even take away the notion that “through our lies” we really are “exposing a greater truth.” Not sure if that’s the exact quote, but you get the idea.

    @ Suzanne–thinking in terms of all this, might it not make your story a greater truth if your main character woke up to a future where everyone else had amnesia, and the hero was the only one who remembered the truth? Isn’t that what you read between the lines of every newscast? That everything is a lie, but the truth doesn’t exist any longer, so you must accept what we are offering. Then they give you a list of potential truths, and you’re free to choose whichever one suits you, but none are the real explanation.

    A character trying to prove what he knows is true is much more interesting, and unigue, in a world where lies have become the norm. If you can pull that type of controversy out of your story, what might be termed (at least in the United States) as a “Washington subject,” the more likely it is that people will eat it up. Because that is what most are used to being fed.

  27. @Susanne — Kerry is right (I find Kerry is almost always right…) – why the amensia? If you can, with some scientific validity (or fake that validity convincingly), link a cryogenic state to the likelihood of amnesia, then this could work. Otherwise, seems like some combination of coincidence and contrivance. Like, guy eats too much, then gives birth to an alien… what’s the connection? Just go deeper into that idea, and like Kerry says, see how it becomes a platform for something that is as provocative in our time as it is in your future time. Hope this helps – L.

  28. Kerry Boytzun

    Great revealing post. Kind of thoughts a character would want to have.

    Robert said something at the beginning of his post that we all want to have happen to our readers: “Wow, has this (story) suddenly gotten interesting…?”. We all want our readers to become hooked and continue to develop interest in OUR story, whatever that may be.

    This made me think about what specifically got this post more “interesting” than normal (normal being “great post Larry…keep ‘m coming…”).

    I’m not sure here, but I think it’s because this post, or thread–“got legs”. A life of its own. “Animated”. I believe the answer could be CONFLICT.

    Larry’s post started to wake my Muse out of its month (or longer) hibernation. Christmas always chases it away…anyhoo, Larry’s post started to agitate things when Sex in the City reared its pretty head. I was about to close the email when the link to the movie Adaptation revealed itself and dared me to click on it. So I did.

    I watched Cage’s character get a beating for stating that nothing happens in real life. The character was lucky he didn’t get shot to prove him wrong.

    The passion of the Professor was getting my Muse going. Interested. Interested like the Dragon hearing Bilbo Baggins knocking around treasure, and making clanging noises.

    I got HOOKED (okay emotionally angry and now motivated–BTW that’s the purpose of anger–to enlist action or change–which is why society is requested to be “not negative”–so nothing will change) and then I hit the keyboard and did my bit.

    I recall Tony Robbins saying Emotion creates Motion. Well not all emotion does, but if there isn’t any emotion–it’s (your Story) dead in the water.

    How can we write our scenes to derive emotion?

    Conflict. But you need the Story Structure Larry talks about–in order to have the conflict “go in the direction you want”. Otherwise, your emotions may have you go running down the wrong path and off a cliff–ending your momentum and your interest–in your story. Story Structure is like the plumbing that contains the water in your house. No pipes and the water will leak everywhere and not be guided to your toilet to deal with your s—-.

    Conflict seems to be the rawest, simplest form when its between two sentient beings that want it (the subject, prize, target) for themselves. No sharing. And they’re willing to do anything to win including destroy the other guy.

    But conflict needs a Reason to get us interested. The answer to “why are they fighting and why would I care”? How about “They’re fighting over who gets to move into YOUR house–and throw your butt out on the street!” Interested yet? “And they’re going to keep your daughter…and your cat…and your money…” Interested yet? Enough to fight back? (your reader has to want to fight the bad guys…if they’re going to keep reading with gusto).

    Hah! I’ve gotten off track me thinks (no structure).

    The point I’m trying to make is that Conflict is made up of emotions derived from meaning. And that meaning is usually tied to something that affects YOU.

    I think this post-thread has some interesting conflict. Hopefully those of you on the sidelines are thinking about your own story, and maybe other stories out there that need to be told.



  29. Sara Davies

    @ Robert: I have a fine arts background and also studied graphic design. I’m 49, closing in on 50. Sorry about the medical problems. The medical system is designed to be able to say it did its due diligence so as not to get sued, meanwhile offering as few services as it can get away with. I have a step-sister with cancer who has to ask friends and relatives to help pay for her care. It’s so wrong.

    @Kerry: Between the ages of 16-21, I ended up in a new-age cult of sorts, where I witnessed the dynamics of mass hysteria. You really can make people believe anything, no matter how outrageous, if it is repeated often enough, if critical thinking is discouraged, and other information prohibited. One of my relatives was a member of the Weather Underground. Two family members were physicists who worked for the Defense Dept., both chronically secretive and reactionary about communism. My father suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. My mother moved to Mexico to be a human rights observer in Chiapas, and has since written extensively on the political situation and impact of drug trafficking.

    Hence, when I think about the social responsibilities of a writer who is not a journalist, I think about addressing social, political, environmental, and/or spiritual issues in terms of the themes I want to investigate. Even fluff stories can have powerful themes, right? Yes?

    I have reached my saturation point with the mainstream media, but also with the alternative press and international news. I listen, I want to jump off a bridge, I give up. It’s all so horrible, it doesn’t stop, and I really don’t think it ever will. We’ve been doing the same self-serving behaviors for as long as we’ve existed as a species, only now we have the technology to literally destroy life on this planet. We don’t have a democracy, and we’re not going to get one. So you pick your battles. You pick your small corner of the world where you can maybe do something positive. It’s tiny, it’s incremental. There’s always been a handful of people who would at least try. And that’s a good thing. I just think the overwhelming trend is toward…probably something not very good. Individuals are too small to overcome the trends that are built into a system that has taken on a life of its own, and don’t see they are trapped, that no matter what they do, their actions remain part of the system.

    When people get together in groups they almost always gravitate toward constructing hierarchies and jockeying for position within those hierarchies. It would be nice if people could place a shared vision of a desirable outcome above their egos.

    I get frustrated when I hear activists talking about issues for what appears to me to be a search for praise. The more fervent they are, the more they seem to need someone to tell them they’re great people for caring. If people really care about what’s going on, they’ll shut up and do something about it, not pontificate. Or, if they are going to write about or make movies about it, they will do so not to remind everyone how awful everything is, which thank you we already know, but with the intention of teaching people what specific actions they can take to improve things, or at least the hint of how we might liberate ourselves. And they’ll inspire action.

    Too often, once we’ve shown we’re concerned and nodded at the appropriate intervals, we can pat ourselves on the back and return to business as usual. It’s just bragging, and generates its own cult of personality which I find unattractive and beside the point. The news media is about gossip and tragedy as entertainment. People get numbed out, apathetic. It’s too much work just to get through the day. I guess an argument could be made that that’s intentional, and in my case I guess it’s working.

    What I notice, since I have been working on a book about ethics, is that no one really wants to hear that stuff. No one wants to hear that their religion is asking them to be honest, kind, responsible, loving, to be good stewards of the planet, to respect other living things, to not flip people off in traffic, to honor their commitments, to apologize when they screw up, etc. No one wants to hear it. No one wants to hear that what is unethical cannot be spiritual. Dare to talk about peace and someone will tell you where to shove a pipe bomb.

    If I believed I could make a difference, and if I knew how, I might try. Sounds like a cop-out, right? To want to believe success is possible – that’s probably petty and shouldn’t even enter into the effort equation. What to do? How to do it? Where to put the energy and focus? Where to put the skills that I have to their best possible use? What exactly is a worthy goal? Because without knowing where you want to end up, how can you get there?

    A story could conceivably bypass all the cultural baggage by putting the issues in a context that is not so threatening. I think about how I could sneak in a message that people wouldn’t know they were getting until it was too late. People hate visual artists, I believe, because you look once at an image, you get the message. It’s there, in your head, whether you wanted it or not. You don’t have a chance to reject it the way you can put down a book. But stories are more seductive.

    If I sound like I have no idea what I’m talking about…I am willing to admit that I maybe don’t, and it wouldn’t be the first time. I don’t know how to fix anything, but I still believe people are worth saving. If you can figure out how to communicate in a way that will be heard, I think that’s great.

  30. With all the questions about amnesia I realise I didn’t explain my story concept nearly well enough. Before being cryogenically frozen, the boy was involved in a car crash and pronounced dead. His distraught parents have him frozen, but he is one of those rare cases where the person pronounced dead is not actually dead. He has amnesia as a result of a head injury from the accident. The reason I chose amnesia, is because I want my protagonist to develop his own view of his character as he is tested in a post-apocolyptic setting (post super-flares, radiation, very few people), a new identity unhindered by past events or recollections. When he subsequently finds his old home, he is confronted by finding information of himself that contrasts to how he is now.

  31. Robert Jones

    @Sara-I think what you’ve just discribed is an outline for a pretty conflicted character. Now, in fiction, your character can take a few more liberties than you can, greater risks at accomplishing that goal of making people aware. What might those risks be? What sort of opposition would they face along the way? Putting into Larry’s parlence–what are the stakes involved?

    I believe there are more people that feel the same way you do than the media would have us believe. Much like the people in charge of what we see on television, the 2% that pay most of the taxes, the people who want to rule the world through greed and control are very small in comparison. Technology has changed, yes, but we’ve had the ability to destroy the entire planet for a good while now. What has really changed is the platform, the vastness of coverage, that the media has abalable to constantly hit people over the head with their doom and gloom views. But what is the media but writers who want fame and fortune through ratings? Sure, we could argue that they spew the same controling views of every dictator who has ever lived throughout history, but they also hit everything with the same type of punch all writers are supposed to deliver: Stakes, conflict, and choosing their words in a way that make anyone tuning in interested enough to stay tuned until they’ve gotten to the end. And then they make you want to come back for the next chapter. And when people have become dependant on that, it almost becomes a religion some can’t live without.

    I’m sure as someone who thinks about these things from a religious POV, you’ve probably noticed that anything you can make people believe in can become a religion…and as L. Ron Hubbard pointed out, the only way to make real money in this life is to start your own religion. Whether it’s scientology, or world politics, the demons (as well as their MO) become quite apparent.

    And so, I believe your views would make for an interesting story–possibly even a great one. You just need to start asking yourself those “what ifs.”

    @ Suzanne-While I agree what you’ve said sounds interesting, I’m back to hearing Larry in my head saying, “Stakes, where are the stakes?” Is there a danger in your character discovering those things from his past? Will they turn his post apocalyptic world view on its ear? How will it change the way his newfound friends see him? Or does he even know? What may appear to be an insignificant piece of information to amnesia-boy might just unravel a belief system thise new society was built on. Or conversly, might undo the character’s hopes of ever fitting into his new world. And what might the gatekeepers of this new world do to protect what they’ve built? Possibly his amnesia is the only reason he was alowed in. His only protection being his ignorance.

    These are all pretty off the cuff without knowing your plans. But I’m attempting to throw out a few things that might add to the importance of the amnesia factor, and those darn juicy steaks. BTW, I hear Larry has a filet mignon stuffed and carefully preserved–via ancient Egyptian burrial techniques–hanging over his writing desk. Just so he has something to hit his clients over the head with from time to time 🙂

  32. Robert Jones

    Sorry, my warped humor always flashes between staking vampires and eating steaks for dinner every time I read, “Where are the stakes?”

  33. Sara Davies

    @ Suzanne: I actually think the amnesia idea sounds intriguing. Not to make trouble by going against the prevailing wisdom of folks who undoubtedly know better than I do, but maybe it depends how you handle it.

    @ Robert: You know how they say, “No matter where you go, there you are”? That’s how any creative project ends up – as a reflection or expression of where I am. Thanks. You made my day.

  34. Robert Jones

    You’re quite welcome, Sara.

    I too think that Suzanne’s idea is very intriguing. I certainly don’t want to come across as a downer on that score. I was merely harkening back to the topic Larry wrote about above. Add that healthy dose of danger, the “conflict” that will oppose the character, and his amnesia will suddenly make him vulnerable–suddenly we will begin to empathize. Take that danger to the level where we worry, even FEAR for the character, then it becomes like those media newscasts. And as an audience, we can’t bring ourselves to walk away until the end. We don’t just need to know how it turns out, we HAVE to know. In which case, we’ve done our ultimate job as writers.

    For me, that’s the ultimate picker-upper in terms of what we are all aiming for. I am striving to achieve this stuff as well. It’s a big boat, and we’re all on board and sailing for the same shore.

  35. No downers taken! I’m happy to be challenged and appreciate those who take the time to read and comment. My story is in very early formative stages so it helps to be asked questions that force me to think deeper. I had some great ideas today after thinking further, so thanks!

  36. Sara Davies

    The story I tried to write has four or five different stories in it. One is about a woman who has her eggs harvested and finds out they’ve been used to breed a race of slaves. One is about a slave who escapes and tries to murder the scientist who created him, and launches a rebellion that shuts down the city. One is about a doctor who tries to bring a cure for a pandemic into his country but is opposed by his government. One is about a federal security agent whose father, an adviser to the president, gets murdered, and as he tries to solve the murder, learns that the president and the aforementioned evil scientist colluded to release a virus that is decimating the population. And one of them was about a senator who was helping a foreign government bring weapons into the country to take over. Their stories overlapped. But then, after reading Larry’s book, I decided it’s too complicated, that it needs to be about one person dealing with one issue, that I can’t have a whole plague of issues in one story, need to pick one and go with it.

    Whose story is it?

  37. Robert Jones


    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that might be less than conventional. I’ve seem movies and read books where what appears to be a series of separate stories is really about one thing, one event that eclipses a single character, and yet shows everything to be separate pieces of a greater whole. I believe this is what you are aiming for here.

    I like all these concepts. Any one of them could be developed into an interesting novel on their own. On the other hand, if each story were to foreshadow that greater event, build toward it so that each of the characters might have a different role to play in the final act when it arrives, this might be one way to bring what might appear as a book of short stories into something larger than the stories that comprise it–and you seem to be well on your way towards something like this.

    Another thought might be to pull it together through a single set of eyes, a narrator, or character we do not see as being important until the end. The senator that helping a foreign government for example, is just seen as a man who frees the slave in the beginning, helps fund the doctor who is looking for the cure, gives the agent a point in the right direction to solving his father’s murder, etc…. By the end, he’s the man putting weapons into the other character–or something like that. I don’t know if you plan to end everything on the note of revolution. Other characters may also pass one another in some way during the course of your stories without really knowing, or understanding the circumstances they see one another in, or maybe feeling sympathy but not wanting to get involved because they have their own filet mignon to broil. Some folks think that sort of planning is quite ingenious.

    The point is, it can, and has worked. The danger, or rule of thumb here, is that most novice writers have a hard enough time fleshing out one good character. And you’ll have to introduce a new main character for each story that comes across strong, and we feel something for. Again, I’m not saying this is an insurmountable obstacle…merely a more difficult one.

    From my POV, the two things you have going for you is that you already planned this as far as having a different working concept for each piece of your puzzle. Secondly, by breaking it up into separate short stories that are interconnected, you have a built in contract with the reader that with each new story, they know right off they will be meeting a new character they need to invest in. I’ve seen stories like this where each new chapter introduced a new character, then switched back and forth between their circumstances until they either met, or the reality of the whole became apparent. Stephen King got away with this sort of switching back and forth in “The Stand,” but I’ve read some god-awful books that attempted to do the same and failed badly.

    I would like to hear Larry’s POV on this, structure-wise, and from the standpoint of how it may effect sales–or not. Offhand, I would say that each story, needing it’s own structure, is also going to be a lot of work. But if you love what you’re doing, and have the patience and love to undertake it, that might not matter to you.

  38. Robert Jones

    *putting weapons into other character’s hands…is what I meant to say.

  39. Sara Davies


    Thanks for the feedback. I really appreciate it, in fact, because I’ve been banging my head against the wall for so long on this project I feel like giving up.

    It occurred to me this morning that the slave’s story is the one I hit most of the major plot points for, before knowing what plot points were – it’s buried in with the rest, but it’s in there. It’s the easiest story to plan with the most obvious trajectory. Maybe the other characters should take a back seat and enter only where they serve that plot.

    Dramatic structure appears not to lend itself well to a cast of thousands. I have seen that work, too, but I think it’s hard to pull off. Or it has to be done as you say, with a theme in the driver’s seat. Something so complex may not be a good choice for a rookie such as myself.

    Originally I wanted it to end with the city in an uproar – explosions, the arrival of the invading army. It takes place following the melting of the polar ice caps, about 150 years in the future.

    If I structure it to be the slave’s story, the typical life of the slaves becomes the backdrop and point of departure. The inciting incident occurs when the guards attack a smaller and weaker slave, another rises to defend him and is killed. This ignites a rebellion, followed by a break out. A small group escapes to try to murder the scientist who created them and blow up his lab, but they are caught in the attempt, imprisoned there, and are used as test subjects. The hero of the group finds a way to get them out. They infiltrate homes and an underground tunnel system, and gain control of communications and power resources. Rebellion spreads, but the police counter-attack and many slaves are recaptured or killed. The hero sacrifices himself so his friends can escape. At the end of that story line, somebody gets out to establish a refugee camp outside the country, maybe the little one.

    My kids (teenagers) like that thread. It’s more action-oriented, less like a soap opera. It seems doable.

  40. Robert Jones


    That all sounds good. The fact that you have so much of this world figured out already should make it much easier, and richer, blowing that slave story out and expanding on it. And if it goes well, think of the other plots and characters as potential sequels. You really do have a universe geared for potential conflict that could add up to an ever expansive series.

    Living with an idea for a long time, or going over it again and again, can result in burnout. We all hit those arid planes when the excitement plateaus. In which case you might need to come at it from a slightly different angle. If you’ve been focusing on character and plot for too long, dig deeper into the conflict, or theme. Find that emotional core that (in Kerry’s words) gets you “worked up.” Then dive in and see if you can find a way to highten that passion in your scenes.

    Sometimes being creative is that awe-inspiring, inner soul, higher-thinking, blast of pure light that thrills like nothing else can. Other times it’s just a job that takes determination and will-power to plod on through a patch of desert until will hit upon the next oasis.

    Best of luck. And feel free to shout out if you need a compass bearing to help find your direction.

  41. Sara Davies


    Since you ask and if you happen to return to read this….

    I don’t worry about a lack of ability to get “worked up” about ideas (I wish). I’m not that worried about an inability to come up with resonant messages about the meaning of life, or suspenseful or compelling scenes. I can write a clean sentence. I can probably learn how to write decent dialogue. I can do imagery and metaphor and foreshadowing. Not that I’m great at any of that stuff, but I’m reasonably confident that I’m capable of learning and improving. That’s not the part that intimidates me.

    What phases me is how to organize what I’ve written. Which is why I read Larry’s book. Why I read “Save the Cat.” Why I’m reading another book on story structure. I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around how to shape the story, make it do what it needs to do at the right time. I’ve tried putting scene summaries on flash cards, arranging, rearranging, changing point of view, merging multiple characters (any one of them could serve the theme). It’s so exhausting to me, and I’m freaked out. If I can’t learn how this works, I will never be able to finish. I will be doomed to spend the rest of my life writing essays. I have a beginning that promises to go somewhere, but doesn’t. I can write exactly half of a story. Once I hit the middle, I’m stranded.

    Some of the characters come into the story late and leave early. If you have ever read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, you will know he found a way to write from multiple POVs that works.

    If there are four parts to a story, does every character have to be in the same stage in their character arc at the same time? Or is it that the main character drives the high-level story structure while the others are just along for the ride? Sounds like secondary characters only have a character arc but don’t participate in the structure. I’m confused.

    In a multi-layered story, it feels like there still has to be a hierarchy. If you were designing an ad layout with 50 words of copy, some of those words need to be the headline, bigger than everything else – because if everything has the same weight, there’s no impact or movement. If the story is a birthday party, whose name goes on the cake? If more than one name, will there be enough cake for everyone?

    So…yeah. I need help with this. I know structural problems are holding me back. I will have to make a relentless full-time study of it before I can fix what’s wrong. Until I have planned every scene of the story in the correct order, there is no point in touching what I’ve written.

    If Larry is still speaking to me, I’ll enlist his help. If you’ve got other ideas about resources for learning how to shape a story, I would love to hear them.

  42. @Sara — I’ve been enjoying this thread, and love the advice and encouragement that Robert and Kerry have offered. Good stuff. I wanted to comment on one thing — multiple storylines can be fascinating. But usually, when they work, two contextual things are present: a primary storyline that resides, heirarchically, at a higher level than the others (like Harry Potter looking for who killed his parents), and among co-existing storylines, an eventual linkage and convergence. Simply having, say, four storylines unfolding at the same time in the same town, without ever converging… that’s a tough sell, it becomes a sort of anthology, without ever coalescing into a true novel. Your description of your various storylines tended to lean into that risk, I felt. So I’m glad you’re focusing on one of them, with perhaps some sub-plots that – same criteria – later converge and meld into the overall narrative. Lots to think about, and it looks like you’re not alone with that process. Wishing you great success… and thanks for being here! Larry

  43. Robert Jones


    I’m right there with you on that learning curve toward structure at this level. I’ve mapped out a whopping story that was to be a trilogy. Now it turns out I’ve got enough material to write five or six novels. In my attempt to pare down all the things that need to go into my first one–and keep it all self-contained–I’ve been through every stage you’ve mentioned above.

    I am definitely a planner, always have been, probably always will be. But I haven’t quite planned on the level Larry teaches. I know enough about structure to know his methods to be sound, he just takes them to a whole different level. It’s a level I both like and appreciate. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. However, there are several human variables that go with learning anything new and depthy.

    One is that learning curve I mentioned above. What you describe happens to me in almost everything new I’ve learned. My mind just blows it out into one huge fiery ball and attempts to swallow it, digesting it all in one bite. Or I’ll drive myself crazy over it to the point where I’ll become exhausted and feel like giving up.

    I think this is most of us when we attempt to kick ourselves in the butt and climb to the next level. Part of it is probably based in our artistic nature, that wanting to strive for some point of perfection. Another part of it is that each new level points out something we missed before, and we kick ourselves for that too. We tell ourselves we are stupid for not seeing this before. We look at all our work that came before and tell ourselves it’s crap. And if all we can produce is crap, and we’re not smart enough to see these things (noted now as flaws), why should we bother in the first place?

    Sound familiar?

    Then something begins to happen. It’s a lesson well learned by any artist, but we seem to forget it with each new step, or phase, in our development. And we realize we are pushing ourselves too hard. Pushing always causes resistance…that equal and opposing action to our reaction.

    What I’m currently doing with my own plot:

    I took all my scenes on index card and transferred them (in short bullet form, using just a line or two) to my computer. There I listed the four primary headings for structure Larry teaches–set up, response, attack, conclusion. While sifting through my scenes, it didn’t matter where I had previously placed it in the context of my story, if the character was responding to something, I placed it under that heading. If it qualified as something that was needed to get the ball rolling, it went under set up…and so forth down the line.

    What I ended up with was long in some categories, short in others, but it did help me to see some things differently once I printed this list out in a different form than I had been previously looking at it. Sometimes things that one scene established might be repeated in another scene. Sometimes things just weren’t there. My skeleton had no real backbone in places because chunks of it were missing.

    However, looking at this as my rough sketch, and drawing certain parallels from my art background, I put this aside. I then went to my hero and villain, taking a look at their back-story, everything that got them to this point. I realized then that I had done a pretty thorough job on the hero, but the villain was really lacking. I couldn’t account for his actions, his history, in the same way. So I had to grab my notebook and start creating new scenes that built up my villain.

    The really asinine thing here, the part I wanted to kick myself for and call myself an idiot over, is that I came up with quite a number of scenes for this character’s history, but tossed those cards into a pile for one of the sequels. And since this first book is where that character takes center stage, what the heck was I thinking? That pesky learning curve, or the fact that I was trying to swallow too much at once, became quite apparent.

    Once I fleshed out the backgrounds of both hero and villain in a way that gave both sides convincing arguments, I saw more clearly where those gaps in the spine of my story needed to be filled, and had a few ideas on what to fill them with. Then it became more of an interesting contest between my characters. Plus I could see certain scenes that distracted from that contest and cut them immediately if they slowed the pace, or side-tracked my story.

    I’m in the process of stitching everything back together at this point. I still have a large story though. So I’m ending a bit on the opposite side of the fence than you on that score. My sketch needs to be cleaned up once I fit all the pieces into their proper place–which is what I’m doing this week.

    When I come back to my sketch next week, my eye is going to be looking for those lines that have the most energy and emotion. Once I erase all the unnecessary lines, I’m hoping I’ll have something solid enough to answer Larry’s questionnaire. His objective view will really be appreciated by that time. Hopefully he can point out some more things that will make me say, “Duh! Why didn’t I see that?”

    One final thing that I feel is important here. All the planning stages can be a great time saver in terms of eliminating multiple drafts. They can also be great to work out all those little genius touches that make a story have its hidden layers. What they can’t do is transport your mind to that higher level of creation where magic seems to happen. This only occurs while in the act of creating. This is the drug pantsers cling to, because nothing else does it for them in quite the same way. Most do not have a background in other forms of art and therefore can’t explain why the process works best for them, they just know there’s a certain magic in that type of spontaneous discovery.

    So you might want to work on a drawing, paint, or even start writing a totally different story. One project often fuels another in this way. I’ve been guilty myself of getting too wrapped up in planning at times and forgetting that in order to tap into that creative sub-conscious part of the brain (where this magic seems to happen), we have to get out of our own way.

    Many novice writers who aren’t artistic could benefit from this. You don’t necessarily have to know how to draw, paint, or play a musical instrument. What you do have to do is distract the physical, or conscious mind. Larry mentioned long walks in nature while planning a story. Driving, cleaning house, working on your car, or garden–any physical activity helps clear a path to ideas and inspiration. The trick is, it should be something that comes easily to you. Something that you can do without calling all your focus into that area. Then, once you hit your stride and feel relaxed, it becomes like driving your car at night. Your body is doing something physical and while the physical body is occupied, the mind is free to wonder with less inhibition. Thus it will float to that magical realm much easier.

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  46. Sara Davies


    If it’s not on your list, you might ask what your Bad Guy is afraid of. Fear drives destructive behavior. If you know the behavior, you may be able to reverse-engineer the fears.

    Things don’t generally have meaning for us because of their intrinsic nature, but because of the impressions and associations that come from our life experiences, which may surface in dreams, memory fragments, aesthetics, preferences and choices. Everything reminds me of something else, which in turn reminds me of something else. New information and experiences get filed as evocative of the past, or in relation to knowledge I already possess. Part of the learning curve involves reducing the power of existing associations in order to receive more clearly – what little kids do all the time. But the mental dynamic is one that can be used to make art – that was how I came up with ideas for my paintings – metaphor, associations with certain objects, etc. Hence I don’t worry about being “artistic” or getting into a state of flow. I worry about not making sense – the internal logic of the story, and the logistics of events I have only vague notions about. Despite a boatload of research, I struggle with how to work around major gaps in knowledge: never studied science, never used a weapon, never operated a power plant, etc. I might be better off writing about bird houses and their allegorical significance than trying to construct a science fiction action thriller, because I can’t describe things if I don’t know what they do or how they work. How am I going to engineer a city-wide revolution? I haven’t a clue, but I can tell you what it feels like.

    Sounds like you are well on your way, even if the frustration gets overwhelming (the greater the vexation, the better the result, in my experience – I don’t know why.) I’ve tried organizing my scenes into those Parts 1-4 also. Right there with you. The way you describe your process sounds familiar. I’ve got dozens of crazy tangents that need to be eliminated, or recycled elsewhere. One thing I noticed in my first draft is that the more interesting characters were the most evil or tormented. We’re hard-wired for “if it bleeds, it leads,” for the sake of survival. People are predictable in that way, but you can use it to your advantage.

    @Larry: Thanks for bearing with me. I will email you about the questionnaire thingy. Two main characters whose story lines converge makes sense.

  47. spinx

    I am very late to join this discussion – but damn – there´s some really heavy stuff going on here right now!

    Concept….plot…theme…character…… all looks so easy on paper. So easily spottet on a good story – but the hard part is to do it first.
    I don´t like this approach.
    The “start out with plot”, and character and theme will follow approach.

    I read “The hunger games”. And yes, the pacing was superb, the suspense there too, a PP, a beginning, and an end. All well done – and I read it in two days—————–but—————- a week later, it feels as though it never even happened.

    Reading Harry Potter at the age of 18 left me thinking about the characters, about what was to come next, about the little details, the secondary characters.
    Hogwarts felt like a home. A cozy place I liked to return to.

    But this? Naaahh….like a sour chewing gum – spit out when the taste has left my mouth.

    To write with our heart. Isn´t that what we are told? To write about something that matters, to you, personally, emotionally.
    Whenever I start out with a plot, my heart goes missing. I need to have the characters first, or else, everything else feels fabricated. Nothing drains me more than having to CREATE the characters to FIT the plot. I hate it – I can´t do it.

    It´s simply no fun. And my heart is cut off the second I try to do it.

    And yet, Larry is the published one, not us (at least, not me – yet). He has the name on the cover to proove it – not us.

    But I simply can´t do it. Not like this. Not with the plot first. I need to take the hard route. I need to start with my characters first, and build the plot ARROUND them, to produce it out of them.
    See, I do like a good plot, but for me, ultimately, it is the character who creates it, with me simply following along.

    And I will do just that this year. As cheesy as that may sound – I will follow my heart, but this does not mean that I am going to abandon everything else that makes a story work. But how could I possibly try to build something solid, when the foundation is flawed?

    Next year will bring my results early enough. So…I´ll see soon enough.

    And now, I would like to ask a bit of a personal question to everyone who would like to answer.

    Does anyone here see him or herself being a famous writer in ten years coming? And with famous, I truly mean famous! You know, filthy rich, known, compared to the likes of Steinbeck, Faulkner or even JK Rowling?

    And, the even scarier question on my part – what keeps you from being one of them?

  48. Sara Davies


    I really like this discussion, too, and I completely understand what you mean. I “found” the story I wanted to tell by writing down pieces of scenes and dialogue that welled up from some weird internal place. It’s hard for me to understand how people can hatch a plan from nothing. It’s hard to understand how some people can paste ideas on from outside, all thinky-like. I have to feel it, be there, be living it. Having said that, now that I’m beginning to wrap my mind around the concept of dramatic structure, I see how organizing principles can offer a springboard for meaning and momentum. I suspect it is possible to remain alive with ideas while taking a higher-level view of the story’s trajectory – it’s just a more streamlined and efficient way of doing it – a sort of shorthand to the same process. When you’re trying to get to the airport, you want to be on the interstate, not on a dark road where a guy with a grand piano leaps out of the bushes and plunks down and starts banging out Neil Diamond tunes for no reason and you can’t get around him. But if you don’t even know you’re going to the airport, you’re never going to get there.

    No confidence, no ambition? I gave up a long time ago. Money would be nice? I was an art major. I’m used to creating things in a vacuum without compensation, recognition, approval, understanding, validation, or encouragement. I can be objective about what I do because I have a goal, a vision of what I want to create, that is central to my efforts. When I fail to achieve that vision, I get frustrated and scared. If people like my work, great, but I just want to do the best I can, write the best book I can write, make it what I would want to read, make it reflect my values and standards, and it isn’t done until it does those things.

    “Fame” proves nothing about the quality of your work. It might prove something about your ability to make connections, the degree to which you enjoy and/or are skilled and confident about putting yourself out there. But you could submit the same work to ten different places, get rejected from nine, and win first prize in the tenth.

    We had a big confrontation once with a successful illustrator, I forget why – but he flipped out and started railing at my husband (another fine arts person, gallery shows, grants, etc) for supposedly thinking he’s more pure or that commercial artists are sell-outs. It was an odd scene, because neither one of us has ever held such an opinion. Where did that come from? As if we wouldn’t be happy to make a decent living doing work we enjoy? Really? Some of us are just weird and marginally functional, and we do what’s in our comfort zone, period. We do what has meaning for us in the moment. We’re non-assertive introverts who’ve grown accustomed to low expectations and keeping our clothing in orange crates. Poverty gets frightening at times, but recognition, while nice, is not the objective, can even become like a drug for some people. I envy, admire, am happy for, and/or respect the mentality of grown-ups who can approach their art or writing like a job and focus on deliverables…but what I can control is what I create for its own sake, so that’s where I put my attention and energy.

    Would you want to be recognized for work you weren’t really proud of? If people love something you’ve done but you think it’s garbage, how does that feel? Why do you think it’s a scary question?

  49. Robert Jones

    Hi Sara and spinx,

    I’m just coming back to this after diving deeply into my plot for a while. I’ve managed to strengthen the “tent poles” considerably. Story structure works, but I think it would work a lot better coming at a story from scratch with the tent poles in mind instead of attempting to tear down a story that I’ve already invested so much time and effort in. It becomes a sort of monument to the amount of time and effort you’ve already invested. Much like a person in a relationship that’s not working, but carries on in steadfastly attempting to force their views into an already established structure–even if that structure is largely present in the imagination and not so much in reality.

    It really took me several tries over recent weeks to gain distance. I listed scenes under their basic four part headings, I scribbled them out in a new order on legal pads. I did this until they became fragments I could hardly stand to look at. Then I left those fragments and read, watched movies, tried not to think about them. And while not thinking about them, a few ideas popped into my head.

    Coming back at it this week, I found what I thought would be my tent poles, then read over Larry’s criteria for each, making sure I came up with a way to make them fit that criteria. In stewing over them, I realized the rest of the story would need a major edit and some adjustments to make them work with the criteria adjustments.

    I feared in my chopping and arranging that I would lose what attracted me to my story in the first place, hence the realization that my sitting with this story for a while, had cemented it into my brain in a way that made it seem like I was tearing down a cherished little cottage by the sea. Fear-motivated thinking indeed.

    Interestingly enough, my villain has very strong feelings concerning fear, and its uses. He’s become such a friend of fear, he can’t see his own. And this was pretty much my problem in a nut-shell. I had a hard time seeing I was afraid on some level of losing what I had worked so hard at to achieve. Which is kind of ironic. My story is still intact, just more streamlined. I still have a little fudging to do. I can already see how some scenes might be chopped, or combined with others to streamline it even more in a couple of places.

    Spinx, I do think about becoming a famous writer. I would be fibbing if I said I didn’t. But like Sara, I come from an arts background, though more commercial in terms of how I made my living. The artist who wanted to be famous then tried very hard. There were no dead end projects for me (well, maybe a few) but I tried my best on each and every one. This did gain me a degree of respect from some.

    The odd thing about fame is that it’s mainly an illusion. It generated by one of two things for most people: how much money they make being number one. But it’s also an ego-based idea that goes beyond that. Ego has made many famous as soon as they see their name in print, or get a regular paycheck for their efforts. Some confuse this with happiness. It can certainly make you happy for a while. But if you aren’t based in some type of solid thinking that allows you to enjoy the work for the work’s sake, the rest of it can blow you away in a hurry. No solid roots means you’ll be carried by the momentum of ego, public opinion, or worst of all–the success of your last project.

    Trying to duplicate past successes has ruined many a career.

    My advice is, be as broad as you can in your tastes. Find a basic understanding of quality. Then please yourself. Write the book you think should be written. Think about the type of writer you think of when you think of a famous writer, but also one who has a solid, lasting career. Then become that kind of writer. And enjoy the process. Make it an enjoyable journey within your heart of hearts.

    Another really interesting thing about the fame-game–once you get published and develop any type of following at all, there will always be people who think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread. There will also be people who hate you and think you’re the worst crap in print. Money and ego not withstanding.

  50. Zoe

    I love this post and the responses below. Robert your comment about distracting your mind by doing something that comes as second nature to you, helped me immensely.

    I realised when reading it that the best ideas to move my story forward seem to come to me while I’m driving to work. So when I was struggling with part of the outline process I went for a long drive and came up with a killer twist which has juiciness that excites the life out of me to write.

    I do have a problem at the moment though, which I would love peoples thoughts on. The easiest way to show my issue is to give my ‘elevator pitch’ with two different opening sentences.

    To avoid the unjustified execution of her last living relative, ex medical student Sasha must leave the relative safety of her none exposed island refuge and search for a resolution in a virus ravaged mainland. But there’s one major problem, nobody who has ventured back to the mainland has ever returned.

    My alternative, replaces the first line with ‘To prevent the death of her sisters unborn child’.

    These are two very different set of stakes to lead with, both produced due to the law against reproduction that the native island council has imposed on refugees in return for allowing them to live there and to help maintain supplies (less mouths to feed). My current outline is based around the second set of stakes. The forced abortion of the unborn child Sasha’s sister is carrying, which has not yet been revealed.

    The other idea for the stakes is ‘The probable execution of Sasha’s sister for breaking this cardinal rule’. I don’t know which one to lead with, I’ve built up around the forced abortion one, but my gut is telling me the second one puts more at stake. While this is a good thing, the left side of my brain is stalling me, its saying that execution is less believable than forced abortion.

    I can’t tell whether I am killing the idea by taking it too far or taking the real world version of these stakes to a more interesting level.

    Then again the hunger games made ‘kids killing kids’ accepted and believable. So maybe its just my confidence as a rookie writer that’s holding me back.

    I feel like I am ‘pantsing’ the outline process in a way, I keep rewriting my story structure at the moment. Just when I think I know my character so well, another direction I could take things makes me want to rewrite parts of her entirely to fit.

    I understand that its better at this stage than when I’m actually attempting a draft, but being fairly new to this writing lark, its hard to tell if im being over anxious about how things are going to play out, or if I’m actually honing in on the right direction to take things! Is there such a thing as overplanning?

    I’m so grateful that I discovered storyfix and avoided these problems half way through my first draft!

  51. Robert Jones

    Hi Zoe,

    First off, I’m always glad to hear my suggestions have helped someone. I’m really starting to enjoy the back and forth with other writers–which makes me anxious to launch my own blog, or website. The problem there is, once I finish my novel, I’ll most likely be writing under a pseudonym and will end up dropping any blog under my own name. It’s like the second most common name in the world. And since as writers, we also have to sell ourselves, I want to come up with a name that doesn’t suggest “average.”

    Anyway, I like where you’re going with your ideas. It’s important to explore choices and flesh out plot and character. It’s what we all do, or eventually do once writing becomes serious. I always start filling up a notebook with a sort of Q&A about my characters and story before I begin writing it. Only hacks settle for the first thing that pops into their heads. We try to avoid cliches, and first ideas usually aren’t quite fresh enough, or need a bit of work.

    That’s why people write multiple drafts. But I gave up pantsing after I got lost in a big mess of my first novel by doing just what you’re doing now and coming up with the possibilities–but only after I was several chapters into the writing. And by the time you have several hundred pages to keep reworking, it’s an exhaustive process. Now I resist the urge to dive in until I have a story I’m pretty satisfied with in outline form. It’s much easier to make changes, but can still be plenty tough at times.

    As far as reading over your plot ideas, have you considered combining them? What if the sister already had the child and had to run to protect it? The threat of a forced abortion might be a terrible fate to hold over a character’s head, but for my money, endangering a living helpless child will always strike the emotions of an audience more forcefully. Children represent innocence.

    Some suggestions in this area:

    1) A child might also be used to reveal things about your main character. People will tell children things they won’t tell an adult. They also open their hearts to that innocence because they don’t want them to make the same mistakes, to prepare them. This would be ideal if the child could somehow be old enough to have at least some semblance of understanding, but people spew to infants as well–either because they can’t talk back, tell their secrets, or because they believe some part of them will understand, feel some part of the messages they impart intuitively. Much like a pregnant mother talks to the unborn child within her womb.

    2) Your stakes aren’t fully on their feet and marching until there is a villain with some very good (either real, or perceived) reasons to want that child out of the way. If the villain wants the child dead, it’s always best to give them a personal reason, their own stakes. Also, there might be worse fates than death. Maybe the villain has been saying there are no children, but they are really tucked away somewhere being used for some awful purpose. Pregnant mothers (like the sister) are dragged off and kept alive until they come to term, then killed as soon as they give birth. That’s a pretty big secret for the villain to have if planned right. Only the sister escapes and gets some type of message to the hero.

    3) What makes your hero qualified to be your main character? There would have to be a reason why the sister couldn’t keep the child safe. Is the sister dying? Is the child better off and out of the villain’s reach if the main character gets it back to her island refuge? Is the hero risking everything if the villain discovers that island? As a med. student, maybe she’s working on a cure that would help others in some way (maybe even whatever condition that’s killing her sis). Whatever she’s doing, has to be something the villain would be opposed to. I like the fact that no one comes back from the mainland alive. That’s certainly a danger on one level, but it comes from the environment and not your villain–who is the main antagonistic threat opposing the goals of your hero.

    See what I’m getting at here?

    4) On top of that, your hero has her inner demons (personal issues, past secrets, or events she isn’t exactly proud of) that get in the way. Can these inner demons be exploited by your villain? Is there a connection with these IDs and the sister that will crop up and cause problems? Even members of the same team need to have their differences. And all of these things are going to come to a head within the confines of your story, becoming obstacles for your hero, CONFLICT on every level. All of this will become obstacles that get in the way of your hero reaching her goals. Imagine, each piece of the puzzle (the plan) for both hero and villain being what each believes is necessary to sustain life, reach their goals (whatever they may be) in the world you’re creating. Defining the importance of these goals, and where your characters find themselves on the game-board just prior to the explosion that puts them in opposition–that’s your set up. And when that contest between them ignites (you’re first plot point) anything might happen. And your characters will ultimately risk anything to win.

    When all this is ready to rock on the page, you’ll have a plan for a truly gripping story. Most writers really miss the definition LAYERS (planning that makes everything seem against the hero on each level as the plot heats up, and CONFLICT (built into each level, each relationship). Because when stress build in life, doesn’t it effect everything? Doesn’t even the most solid of footings/relationships seem to turn against us when life goes to hell? And if your plot isn’t the sort of crisis that puts your hero through that sort of hell, then maybe you need to go back and figure out the character’s truly worst day, and write about that instead.

    Of course, all this needs to build a little at a time, becoming more intense as you go along and the pressure builds. That’s all part of planning that outline.

    5) And this is my final suggestion, I promise. Consider your hero and villain tied together by an invisible, inseparable cord as that plot builds. Some writers have termed this as a CRUCIBLE. The definition that sticks in my mind when I think of this is that a crucible is the container your hero and villain are trapped in together as things heat up. and often the best way to go about this is NOT to think in terms of having a protagonist and antagonist, but rather both opposing forces believe themselves to be the hero. Even if your villain is truly evil and delusional, he/she believes this to be true. And remember, even the worst villain has some good point, or someone they love that brings out a momentary glimpse that they may have been a good person, or could have been, under different conditions. We could all take wrong turns in life and become less scrupulous in some way. Your villain is an example of someone who took that low road. They may have even had their reasons at the time, but they’ve lost site of those reasons along the way and became corrupted–possibly by the very thing they were initially fighting against.

  52. Zoe

    I can understand your anxiousness to launch your own blog, until I saw the back and forth comments on some of Larry’s posts I hadn’t really found a place I felt confident enough to post about my own ideas. But if you launch one be sure to let us know.

    I get the importance of fleshing out character and plot, I don’t think I really struggle with that part, my problem is more that I come up with too many ways to take things and I can never decide which way to go. Just when I think I know my character quite well, in comes a plot twist that begs to be added, one which would mean re-writing a part of her completely, I also find myself reworking the inner demons you mentioned to fit with the new ideas I come up with, again the most exciting ones seem to be the ones that stick.

    Multiple, backed up, documents with re-worked outline versions are the only thing saving my sanity right now.

    I am starting to notice when a direction feels like the right one though, it tends to excite me more than what I already had in it’s place. What you’ve said about reworking things makes me feel a bit better about exploring every avenue.

    I suppose I’m too emotionally involved already with the idea of my island natives having created laws for the virus fleeing refugees against reproduction that I am determined to incorporate it (however I’m now questioning if I should I give this up or if it can be turned into something that causes enough empathy). It was the combination of an article I read about the Chinese laws surrounding this issue and my love of post-apocalyptic fiction that have brought me to the start of my concept in the first place. I like your ideas about a living child as apposed to an unborn child, especially the ease of showing more depth in Sasha through talking to a child, and its making me want to somehow work a child into it somehow, mentally exploring this idea as I type.

    However the reason the child is a danger to Sasha or her sister in the first place is because reproduction is forbidden on the island, a law which when broken has to hold severe consequences, and its deciding what the consequence is that I am having trouble with. A live child wouldn’t help me with this, though as you’ve said would help in other ways – so I’m still thinking of incorporating it somehow if I find a mission for said child. At the moment my options for the consequences are; expulsion from the island (forced back to a mainland where you would have to face a. the unknown and b. a deadly virus), or forced abortion (that is perhaps becoming an issue to perform due to the complications that can occur with abortions when you don’t have antibiotics… antibiotics being a supply that the island are quickly running out of) or finally through the execution of those who get pregnant (which as I said in my last post I am struggling to justify).

    The prospect of Sasha’s sister suddenly having to face these consequences (due to rape – making it further unjustified), produces the stakes that fuel Sasha’s return to the mainland to face what’s there (also something I have been working to flesh out). A part of me keeps coming back to the idea that these stakes would mean more if it was Sasha herself that suddenly had to face these consequences. But the thought of writing a rape scene into a young adult novel scares me (perhaps I need to do more research into young adult fiction as I have never come across a first person rape scene in a young adult novel I’ve read yet). This explains the point I’ve come to already, but your post has me questioning if what I have is enough. Certainly Sasha being the pregnant one and being able to reveal her true thoughts to her ‘bump’ would be a much more interesting prospect to deal with.

    My stakes certainly aren’t fully on there feet yet, but I suppose I have come to those options for the consequences that will set the stakes based around what I already know about my villain. Without wanting to give too much away about my antagonistic force, the most I can say is, Sasha initially thinks it is the virus (which she believes if she can set out to find a cure will solve all her problems), she then goes on to thinking it’s the something/someone else she finds on the mainland that gets in her way but eventually finds out it is the same island council setting the laws against reproduction on the island and the truth they are hiding from all those who live there (their safe haven is a prison and they don’t even know it).

    I definitely need to work in more in the way of the layers and conflict you mentioned, its easier to create a path straight toward the goal than it is to build in the obstacles that’s for sure. I am finding the connective tissue between the big moments, is the hardest to build this into.

    The ‘crucible’ you mentioned is definitely helpful, the opposing force on the mainland actually has a very similar goal to Sasha’s but due to it’s own inner demons and back story is going about it in a much more sinister way. The native island council who has fuelled Sasha’s journey has its own reasons for thinking the reproduction law is the heroic path to take. Of course all the virus wants is to keep on replicating itself.

    Your post has given me a lot to think about and some much needed reminders of things I need to keep in mind. Thank you!

  53. Robert Jones

    You’re welcome, Zoe. I didn’t know this would be a YA novel. So please, take my suggestions to be general considerations to move you forward. That connective tissue is certainly hard to figure out at times. Given time, you’ll consider many of the factors we’ve talked about as if they were second nature. But the questions about possibilities, and not settling until you’ve dug around a while is a good sign, really.

    I believe that once you spend enough time thinking about your characters, the notions of how they will react based on their character will make some of this easier. Then getting the main plot-points nailed became a big help for me. I know a bit about story structure, the key elements are not entirely new. It’s Larry’s take on them that has brought it into as close a scientific approach that’s new. This has helped me take parts of my own story much deeper. However, I’m the sort of person who needs to go over things several times, take them apart, chew on them some more, then finally digest them.

    Doing that with my current plot (an idea that was already written as a draft, then redefined to fit into a trilogy) plus digesting Story Engineering at the same time has been great fun some days, and had my brain turning flip-flops other days. When the pieces begin to click, it’s much like you say, an instinctive feeling that knows when your best ideas are shining through the murk.

    I’m finishing this week up being close to finished. There’s a bit of tweaking left to be done. A few places to polish, or punch up, and I’ll be done plotting at last. I began this one around November–though I may have started reading over my previous draft around Halloween and thinking about what needed to be changed. A written draft would’ve taken me about four months, give or take. So looking at the amount of times I’ve been over this thing within that amount of time, I feel I’ve gotten a fair amount accomplished. Especially when Thanksgiving and Christmas took a good deal of time and planning in the midst of it all.

    But we all keep marching and asking questions along the way. I like to think of it as being a “Story Detective,” unearthing clues until the end result can support itself based on facts created out of whole cloth. Of course, there are truths inserted from both research and observation of human behavior–so some of our lies are true 🙂

  54. Matthew Stull

    I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion, but having written one full novel (nothing published our even sent off) and starting a new one, this article helped me feel confident in what I’ve already written and taught me a few things with all the discussion! Thanks Larry, Robert, and everyone else!

  55. JM

    I have been following this blog for a little now, and I have already purchased Story Engineering and devoured it. I love the advice and the sensible knowledge that has helped me realize that I really can DO this! I have been working on my concept patiently because I do believe that a strong concept will shape the rest of the writing process. A failed concept says you really don’t have a set vision of what happens, where it goes, and why. Like I said I have been working on my concept for about a week now tweaking it, twisting it, making sure it fits with what I see for the novel itself. Below is my concept and any feedback would be appreciated… but please be gentle! I believe my concept poses a dramatic but also asks that dramatic question within the concept. Not sure if it is supposed to or not. But without further delay…

    What if you found the most coveted treasure in the Universe, an item that contained all the Knowledge and Power of the gods during Creation and you are responsible for handing it over to a group who intend to harness and use its Power for evil and destruction? What if you are the only person now that can stop their plans? What if you are destined to be the Redeemer of the people and bring the Evilness to an end forever?

    But what if you didn’t know that?

  56. @Jason – nice job on the concept. It offers a compelling, provocative “idea” at its heart, as well as inherent drama, good vs. evil, a hero’s quest, siginficant opposition and antagonism, character arc, and many ways to blend in subplot and socio-political subtext. As good as it gets where concept is concerned. Congrats, now go kill it. Let me know if I can help. L.

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