Bold Storytelling Statements That Are Almost Always True

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by Larry Brooks on May 3, 2013

A great concept is the raw grist for a great premise.  Not necessarily the premise itself.

Idea… concept… premise… for writers these are separate and essential things.  Unless they aren’t separate (an idea can arrive in the form of a concept and/or premise).  Which rarely happens.

The order in which they arrive is not set in stone.

Premise evolves FROM a concept… even when it begins the other way around in the writer’s head. The risk is to hatch a premise that does not connect to an underlying concept that energizes it.

Example of a premise without a concept: guy falls for girl on a space station, where they are the only two inhabitants.

Example of a concept that is not yet a premise: what if two people assigned to a space station are both a human clones but neither one knows?

Story very close to that: Oblivion, in theaters now.

Concepts can be arranged hierarchically.  Go deep enough and you end up with a premise.

Fail to go high enough and you leave dramatic opportunity on the table.

The most common weak link I see in the story deconstructions I do: a misunderstanding of what the phrase “dramatic tension” means, and a resulting lack of it in the story.

Great stories always have external tension that become the fodder to make internal tension transparent.

External tension drives story architecture.

Plot is not a dirty word.  It is synonymous with dramatic tension.

Show me a story with no plot and I’ll show a short story, or an unpublishable novel.

The concept acts as a “battery” that fuels the premise and the narrative itself with energy.  The concept is not the appliance itself, it is the electricity that runs it.

A rich concept can yield multiple stories, or multiple takes on an obvious story.

You really can’t hope to turn a concept-light, tepid premise into a great story through stellar execution.  A cow’s ear is still a cow’s ear, even in the shape of a silk purse.

The Hunger Games, without the games, is just another teenage love story.

That said, a story that is concept-light but strong on premise (example: The Help) can be twenty million copies worth of wonderful.

Premise is like personality: hard to define but you know it when you see it.

The most common storytelling mistake is an under-cooked premise.

“Story” is a relative term.  Not all of them are worth telling.

Your lyric, poetic, brilliant writing voice… it’s never the point.  In fact, it can kill your ambition if you think it is.

You can’t reinvent this game.

Some claim there are no rules, but there certainly are one helluva solid set of principles driving how you write strong fiction.  Depart from them at your own peril.

Plot is the stage upon which character is allowed to reveal and explore itself.

Developing a story on autopilot is the enemy.

Paranormal abilities should never be the thing that solves the crime in a story.

Don’t kid yourself, it’s been done before.  So what’s your fresh twist?

When a major story beat involves the hero “suddenly realizing” something… that’s a bad sign.

Write what you know” is good advice.  Write what you love is better advice.

Reading novels is not a particularly empowering way to learn to write novels.

Never underestimate the power of vicarious experience delivered to your reader.  Give your readers a ride.

The more you do it, the closer you get to it, the less glamorous and more blue collar this storytelling gig becomes.

Settling is the great killer of stories.

Narrative side trips are a close second.

Changing lanes is next.  If your murder mystery becomes a ghost story on page 214, see the next statement.

If you pants your story, then discover it becomes something other than what it began as, you absolutely need to write a new draft that uses the new context from page one.

Not knowing what makes a story great makes the whole thing a crap shoot.  Somebody will eventually win the lottery using random numbers.

Many of the novels on the bookshelves are not as good as the one you wrote and cannot sell.

Self-publishing is a new, unproven frontier.  One that hasn’t fully evolved.  And one that brings unforeseen risks, because traditional publishing at least provided an infrastructure to vet the work.  That’s why Youtube won’t ever compete with the films we pay money to see in theaters.

There are more multimillion dollar success stories coming out of traditional publishing, even today, than the ones you hear about from the digital self-publishing world.  The odds of a jackpot are no better on Amazon.com.

Do not copy the way A-list writers go about their work… they have a different bar, and it’s lower than ours.  (Look at the way Nelson Demille — one of my favorite authors — decided to end his #1 bestseller, Night Fall… if we tried that we’d get laughed out of the mailroom on its way back to us.)

Deus ex machina — look it up.  Then avoid it in your stories.

I am sometimes drastically misunderstood.

The word “troll” has been completely redefined in the last ten years.

All writing lessons are good, except one.  Listen to it all, pick what you like.  Soon your wall will be full of what sticks.

The one that is not good: if you don’t know anything about what makes a story work, don’t worry, just put your butt in a chair and start writing, it’ll come to you eventually.

If you live long enough.

The knowledge is out there.

You may or may not get it by being a voracious reader of fiction.  Probably not.

Process does not define story.  It does, however, define the amount of blood required to write one that works.

Suffering is optional.

Coincidence may happen in real life, but it can kill your story.  Usually does.

So which comes first in “romantic suspense,” the romance or the suspense?  (Wait, that’s not a statement…)

Literary novels need conflict, too.

Literary fiction leans into conflict that resides internally to the character, something that becomes the core story and the foremost challenge to the protagonist.  Literary novels are NOT plot-free.  Structure, stakes, pace and story physics are still required.

To the guy on Amazon who said he wants to come to my house and throw books at me: I’m still waiting for you show up.  That’ll be fun.  But not for you.

The Adventures of X” story is the hardest of all to write at a publishable level.

Setting, time and place are planks used to construct a stage, hammered together with ideas.  But you can only look at the stage for so long before you long for something to happen, and the nails need to be solid.  Solid what?  Answer: hero-driven drama.  And when you add that, the story is no longer primarily about setting, time and place.

Stories that explore a time or place or culture as the primary intention of the author are… usually boring.

Episodic storytelling is almost always a story killer.  There is only one kind of story in which that works, and it’s the hardest type of story to write.

It’s a dead heat in the race to win the title of “most important word in fiction,” between conflict and context.

Meanwhile, subtext can make or break you.

A good novel is rarely – as in, never – the life story of a fictional character.  (See above, on episodic.)

One of the most toxic, misleading sources of writing guidance for newer writers is the language of book reviews.  A “novel about the depression,” for example (which is how reviewers might frame it), doesn’t begin to define what the novel has to cover to work.  Example: The Great Gatsby.

Show, don’t tell,” is golden.  Unless nothing happens in a particular transitional story beat (like a time shift forward)… then just tell it.

Your high school writing teacher was wrong about a whole lot of stuff.

First person narrative is not only okay, it’s hot.

Mixing first and third person… perfectly fine, IF they are never mixed within a single scene.

Your high school writing teacher is rolling over in her/his grave right now.

I do mishandle the word deconstruction.  Deal with it.

There has never been a successful final draft written without the writer knowing how the story will end.

There is only rarely a first draft that ends precisely as the writer thinks it will.

You can – it’s entirely possiblenail your story in two drafts (1.5, draft and polish)… IF you understand what you’re doing from a story architecture perspective, and at a deep level… if you let this drive your story discovery and planning process.

Conversely, if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing.

Paradox, I think they call it.  A wonderful word for writers, and about writers.

The journey may or may not be the thing.

The trick isn’t to write ABOUT something.  The trick is to write about something HAPPENING.

Key words from the title of this post: almost always.

 

{ 21 comments }

Joel D Canfield May 4, 2013 at 5:24 am

I can’t even absorb this much in one sitting. I think I’ll print it out and have my wife read it to me repeatedly on our drive to California.

I’m a pantser moving toward the middle. A detailed outline would drive me mad. Preparing the 6 core competencies in advance, writing a book in 1.5 drafts — THAT sounds magnificent, even if it’s not realistic as a pantser.

More preparation = less wasted effort, in anything. It just makes sense. I’d be delighted to finish in 3 drafts. At the moment, I can’t picture the book I’m working on being done in less than a dozen drafts, which is why it’s on hold while I study Story Engineering before I go back to it.

Thanks for another brain-filling (and witty) post, Larry. Your generosity means a lot to me.

Tony McFadden May 4, 2013 at 5:31 am

“There is only rarely a first draft that ends precisely as the writer thinks it will.”

Amen, brother.

Act One churning out now (you know the one) and I oscillate between “This is a steaming pile of buffalo crap” and “Damn, this might be *really* good.”

Some of these deserve framing. You should put some of them together as motivational posters…

Morgyn May 4, 2013 at 6:09 am

Joel, with you. Printing, highlighting, will be using this post to question current WIPs. Larry is the bucket of water in your face everyone who works alone needs, giving us the questions that need answering before turning our work loose to beta readers. (IMO) Why embarrass yourself, LOL?

Am in the stick- it-on-a-shelf phase that it may become a stranger’s work with one WIP. Pulled out another MS that came close to getting bought and read it through, started edited and most important, asking questions as I went. Jami Gold did everyone a solid, turning SE into a spreadsheet that points to likely page/wc points for each element. About 5 chps in on current ms, was reacquainted enough to apply the spreadsheet to it. Stellar editing tool! Need to add about 15K to bring the ms up to desired length. Added SE markers to proposed addl story elements on my narrative/character spreadsheet. Viola! Writing road map!

There is a big smile when you apply SE to an old work and see just how “on time” you were. And knowing consciously as opposed to intuitively WHY what you did was important — allows you to make the most of it.

June still dragging its lazy feet! (Story Physics!)

Norm Huard May 4, 2013 at 6:22 am

This is like watching a carnival parade with a hundred colorful clowns competing for our attention.

Or better still it’s like a benches-emptying brawl in the hockey playoffs with the fans trying to decide which fight they want to watch, or, perhaps join in.

Will the fans be jumping over the boards onto the ice?

Will Larry get a major penalty for being the instigator of this brawl?

No referee in his right mind will dare blow that whistle because Larry will win Coach-of-the-Year Award anyway, just for telling it like it always almost is.

Great post Larry. Thanks for keeping us motivated.

Mindy May 4, 2013 at 6:30 am

Good grief! That was a lot to absorb. I’ll have to print it off and read it again, then again. I like what Joel said about having his wife read it to him. Lucky Joel. My husband won’t do that. Thanks.

Curtis May 4, 2013 at 6:30 am

And ten years ago “Trolls” were a lot more fun. Once upon a time you could count on them for a little productive tension in your story. Now, they are worthy only of #delete.

Nann Dunne May 4, 2013 at 6:31 am

Larry, you’ve given us a lot of overviews in this one post – and I agree with Joel that it’s a lot to absorb. I think it would have helped if you had numbered the “statements” to distinguish them from your explanations. (But I can do that myself.) Sometimes my left brain yearns for order that my right brain tries to shrug off. I think that’s what has happened with this post. My left brain will put numbers where needed, so my right brain can absorb more easily. :) As always, thanks for the enlightenment.

Christine Lind May 4, 2013 at 6:47 am

Anyone notice the brilliant way Larry wrote (and smuggled in) that very passionate line about the guy who wants to throw books at him? I want a ring side seat if the guy ever shows up.

Pretty sure this was not his primary intent when writing the statement: But I think without realizing it, he just gave us a perfect example of the “vicarious experience.”

Normandie Alleman May 4, 2013 at 7:03 am

Whew! That’s a lot of meat in this sandwich.

Thanks for the great points. I especially like the part about high school writing teachers. Nobody taught deep point of view during my formal education. Now all the cool kids are using it.

Martha May 4, 2013 at 7:31 am

Fabulous post, Larry. I can almost see you sweating this one out, walking back and forth, passionate as always about your hope that we’ll get it this time. I especially appreciated the reminder that subtext in our fiction is a must. Keeping hammering at us. We’ll get it one of these days.

MikeR May 4, 2013 at 7:33 am

Without a doubt, “this is one of your best posts yet.” Thanks. (I printed it, too.)

My day-job is being a computer software project-manager (that’s “head geek” to you, pal ;) ), and I see “pantser programmers, too.” You’d think that computer software would not be seen as something that should be made up on-the-fly, but I repeatedly find myself mentoring people in “software architecture.” Showing people who are used to never-ending debugging (“rewrite”) sessions that, (a) you CAN plan the thing out first, and (b) when you do that, the pager STOPS going-off at 1:30 AM. You find yourself making the discoveries and the decisions that you’re used to making “with 3,000 lines of source-code already written” (“in the middle of the seventh draft”), at a much-better point in time … i.e. before you invested time, energy and hair-follicles into something that’s going to be shredder-food.

You also realize that, “there’s more than one way to do it,” and that the first one that pops into your brain might not be the best one, and/or might not be complete. The time to discover that is “before.”

In designing my story, I’m finding that not only is there one premise – there are several, inter-woven. One’s the premise of the key-man and what happens to him; others are the people with whom he interacts; another is that of the guy who winds up dead in the bathroom.

There’s also a setting … a -time- and a -place- … a point-of-view about race and social-caste that is somewhat-castigated today, but that was not universally seen that way at that time. I really want to make you =feel= that. I want to =put= you there. I want it to feel real, and I want it to seem “odd, but not.” I’m not yet sure how I’m going to pull that off. But I know that I want to, nonetheless. Theme.

I guess you could say that right now I’m at the point of walking slowly through the meat-market, contemplating what sort of meal I would like to prepare. Picking up things, considering them and brainstorming how they -might- fit into an engaging tale. Considering, not only what was motivating about six people’s lives before-and-after their lives met with murder, but what I would =prefer= for those motivations to be. Liberated by having written nothing yet, and knowing that I’m writing, nonetheless.

It certainly reminds me of what I read in David Gerrold’s “The Trouble With Tribbles,” when he was wrestling with the design of his first published teleplay … “yes, a touch of Klingon makes it a story” … and of the book “The World of Star Trek,” when they talk about the hundreds of randomly-chosen names that they went through to finally =decide= upon: “Kirk,” “Spock,” “Enterprise,” and even “United Federation of Planets.” Did anyone actually, painstakingly, in a committee meeting(!), =decide= these things? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Sharon C. May 4, 2013 at 7:54 am

I LOVE this post. Yes there is a lot of meat between this bun, but this is quite a valuable list of advice. I am a planner and a thinker. I believe the more effort put forth up front, the more efficient the execution will be. Writing is about thinking, thinking requires focus. For me so many of your points, Larry, are dead on. Thank you for the simplicity of the list.

Jason Waskiewicz May 4, 2013 at 10:40 pm

This is yet another good post that really speaks to me of late.

I wrote 9 novels as a “pantser”. They were awful conglomerations of a series of disjointed mini-adventures which Mr. Brooks is kind enough to describe as episodic. Outlining first cured that. It also enabled me to write much faster and after 2 months of actual writing, I’m now halfway through my rough draft. I find myself changing the outline slightly, but it’s wonderful to have a plan.

As for the rest of his post: I hate to sound sycophantic, but I agree. I do not write what I know. I’m using a tropical and a desert setting, and I’m writing about a breaking yard and a crippled protagonist. However, as I’ve worked on the story, I’ve realized that there is a lot I do know: desperate people, good people, bad people, the Christian faith, freedom, hard work, love, and people.

One other item that sticks out is that “A good novel is rarely – as in, never – the life story of a fictional character.” My original plan for the book was to start at age 9 when he was crippled, possibly with various events before that. Once I began planning, I realized he was a lot more interesting in his late 30s. In my original plan this was when he became a true actor in his own life rather than reacting to events. Once I started outlining, I realized that this was the time to start the book. I started it when he became interesting. The rest is background.

On a purely side note: this came in handy after a conversation with a physical therapist. I discovered I’m better off keeping the injury that crippled him quite vague. She pointed out that he would have needed to be quite lucky to have any kind of usable legs at all.

My only real concern is the 1.5 drafts. Maybe I have too many bad habits built up from 9 novels written by “pantsing”. I’m not there. The outline put me close, but I’m discovering scenes I need to add and a lot of writing I need to redo. I’m a clumsy writer. I think that that 1.5 drafts ideal may be better for the more experienced writers, not those like me who have yet to produce a good product.

MikeR May 5, 2013 at 7:26 am

Jason, I think that all of us -do- to some degree “write (from) what we know.” Even if we set our stories in a tropical desert, in a “breaking yard,” and a “crippled protagonist,” we write about things universal – “desperate people, good people, bad people, (the Christian) faith, freedom, hard work, love, and people.” (Thinking also of the “I sell newspapers” quote in Larry’s book, which BTW is absolute classic.)

We readers/writers are attracted to a story on many levels – and I can’t wait to read yours … I’m already engaged. I already want to know. I don’t know what a (ship?) breaking yard is like: I want to close my eyes and see it. I could imagine a crippled character in one, whether or not I ever (need to) know what caused it. I want to feel the heat on my face. Faith, freedom, desperate people and love. Wow. Is it done yet? ;-)

As for “1.5 drafts,” my first computer program was eight lines long, took six months to write, and had a bug in it. (The PC would not be invented for many years to come.) I’ve written a million lines since. (Seriously.) Today I could conceptualize that program instantly. No matter. Larry never said that it was his first rodeo, even if it was his first novel. (And here’s another book idea for you, Larry: take one of your own books, now that WP’s republishing them, and break it down.)

I’m perfectly aware that I have zero experience in this … yet. But I’m just as determined to “learn how to do this well” as I was determined to (self-)learn my (current!) day job. I know that I’m a toddler, but how could I be otherwise? It’s all good. “1.5 drafts” would be a fabulous outcome, but “no wine before its time.”

To realize that story-design “exists,” and that it has both an engineering and a physics aspect, enables one to apply what we geeks would call a “breadth-first” vs. a “depth-first” approach. A “process guideline” leads to greater efficiencies. You’re no longer building a complete (or half-built) house as a way to decide what sort of house you want, or where on the lot to put it. You’re -choosing.- “Priceless.™”

Morgyn May 5, 2013 at 10:18 am

Larry, two questions:

“Concepts can be arranged hierarchically.” As in which has the most story “weight?”

“The Adventures of X” story is the hardest of all to write at a publishable level.
An example of this? Sindbad the Sailor?

Thank you!

Sara Davies May 5, 2013 at 1:50 pm

If we can’t count on getting it by reading, what is the best way to get it? What is the best way to learn/improve? What are the best resources? What is the fastest way to get from concept to completion of a first draft?

Raijin May 5, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Hey LB
I have just got Story Engineering in the mail I am a few chapters in. I am eating it up! Its like a nice Reef and Beef followed by a wonderful ice cream. lol.

Larry May 5, 2013 at 9:57 pm

@Sara – can’t decide if your question is rhetorical, or borne of frustration (given how involved you’ve been in already pursuing the answer to your own question). The answer is so vast that I could write a book about it. In fact, I did, twice in fact… and that’s my best answer. The answer awaits there, and elsewhere.

I’ve used this analogy before, and I’ll try it again: we’ve all flown on airplanes, but nobody thinks they can fly one just because they’ve been a passenger. Same with being a patient. Or sitting as part of an audience in a concert hall or in a stadium. Being a customer, a consumer, a patient, or a fan – a CONSUMER – is not the path toward ‘becoming’ the artist or the pilot or the performer.

Or the author. Nobody (whos isn’t being rhetorical) would ever be tempted to believe that. And yet, people who consume novels – a craft as deeply complex and challenging as these other trades – seem to think they can.

Yes, you have to “read” stuff to absorb the craft. But if one can’t tell the contextual difference between that, and what I meant in the post… well… being a storyteller requires more intuitive intellectual dexterity than that level of obviously (to the point of sarcasm) literal, rhetorical interpretation. L.

So what is the path? Learning and study CRAFT, and then practice it, and then juxtaposing what you now know about craft against what you NOW see when you read the fiction of others. After exposure to the principles, THEN (in combination with study and practice) will simple “reading” the work of other novelists help you reach their level. Like a pilot sitting in coach next to you… that guy DOES know how to fly the airplane, because he knows what it takes. Knowing what it takes, in addition to what it looks like, is the key. L.

Robert Jones May 6, 2013 at 10:54 am

Larry (and fellow story chasers),

I wish this post came about a week sooner. But it does confirm a good deal of what I had to deal with last week in some of its statements…so thank you for that.

I also need to thank Sara and Zoe for reading my babble while my brain went into freeze mode in the middle of last week. Storyfix has been like a classroom setting a couple of times, ranting with fellow students who either helped, or needed help. We all occasionally find ourselves on a creative ledge we need to be talked down from. For this, I am also thankful.

Probably the coolest part of last week, when I decided I needed to go back to a bit of the basics and list my current scenes on index cards to play around with order/omissions, was that it forced me to pull out my original set of scenes on index cards. This was partially prior to my discovering Storyfix, and some just afterward. And while my story is still a WIP, the difference between then and now has proven I’ve made real progress since arriving here and reading Larry’s printed work as well. And that is always a legitimate thrill.

After taking a break over the weekend, I am coming into this week knowing I’ve put some serious miles down on the road at my back.

Ever grateful…ever onward!

Sara Davies May 6, 2013 at 12:59 pm

@ Larry:

Yeah, I got your original point – a consumer can look at a professional’s work and think it looks easy, without knowing how much work goes into making it look that easy. Anyone can be an armchair critic. And usually is.

But I’m asking different, related but somewhat tangential questions – not rhetorical ones. And looking for specific answers. Titles. References. Examples. Names. Specific resources. Trying to learn how to learn, how to optimize my time. I’m interested in the “how” part of it, not just the “what” or “why” part. You’ve learned enough that you can articulate what you know. How did you get to that point?

Where were you in your understanding of writing when you started doing it? What helped you progress? Did you take classes? Did you work with an editor or a writing coach? Did you deconstruct a bunch of other books? Did you participate in a writer’s group or get feedback from other writers? If you read books about writing, what were they? Did you have teachers, or writers you tried to emulate? Who were they? How did you get from where you started to where you are now? How did you learn? How did you arrive at your process?

I realize these answers will be different for different people, but it would be useful to get a sense of how someone who has actually published managed to reach that level.

Chris Norbury May 6, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Damn, Larry, but that’s good stuff. Keep preaching to the choir. Most of us will internalize it sooner or later.

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