Things to keep in mind as you plan, draft, revise and dream, in no particular order… because there is no particular order:
An “idea” for a story is NOT a story. Any more than a seed is a tree. You have lots of watering and fertilizing to do before the seed becomes something that will live.
There are, at minimum, eleven qualities and specific focuses you need to deliver to your story. You can stumble upon them or you can shoot for them from an informed baseline of knowledge… your call.
There are six specific realms of “story physics” that determine it’s level of effectiveness and power. These are the qualitative essences of a story: a compelling premise… dramatic tension… effective pacing… hero empathy… vicarious experience… functional execution.
That last one is composed of six core competencies (so we don’t count it twice, resulting in 11 things you need to know). These comprise the toolbox, the design kit, for your story: concept… character… theme… structure (with about 10 sub-topics included here)… scene execution and writing voice.
If you go 11 for 11, you stand a shot. If you choose to disregard or take for granted any of these eleven variables, you’re playing loose with your odds. And if you have no real understanding of them as an integrated whole… well, this is why writing a great story is so hard.
There is a meaningful difference — in writing and in reading — between a novel and a memoir. When you try to blur the fence between them in your fiction, then the structural criteria for the novel trumps the sequential telling of what really happened.
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but within a novel the truth about what really happened may not be your best dramatic option.
Know what your story is about. If your take on this is that it’s about a place, an issue, a character, a true account of something, or anything else that isn’t conflict-focused, then your answer is incomplete. A story is about something happening… with stakes hanging in the balance. It’s not a story until that takes center stage.
If there’s no conflict, there’s no tension. No tension, no story. No stakes, no tension. It’s simple, really.
Your hero needs a goal to reach, a problem to solve, a quest calling them, a journey to take, or some combination of these… unfolding in context to palpable opposition that will block their path as it (the antagonistic force or character) seeks opposing objectives, and/or simply seeks to defeat and torment your hero.
Your bad guy needs a motive, too.
Character-based fiction is not immune to this universal law of dramatic physics. No conflict, no story.
If you are writing a series and you haven’t been published, then you are better served by writing the first book as a stand-alone. Because you won’t get to write the series until the first book succeeds in the marketplace. And for that to manifest, you simply can’t present a “stay tuned for Book #2 to see what happens” ending.
Anything over 100,000 words is too long in today’s market. Shoot for 80,000 or less. This is true for historical and sci-fi/fantasy, too. Those books you love that are longer than that are by authors who play by different rules than newbies.
Never let exceptions to any of this seduce you into believing you can be one of them.
You can’t invent a new story structure. Even if you try, it must conform to certain narrative expectations. This was true for Quentin Tarantino, and it’s true for you. Be creative, be fresh, be innovative, give us something we haven’t seen before. But it can’t be a new species of fiction. This is professional writing – for money – not experimental writing.
All writing teachers worth their salt are telling you the same basic things, using different contexts and languages and models. Which is all good. The essence of 4-part story structure is nothing but an expansion (necesssary and valuable, because it is clarifying) on classic 3-part dramatic narrative. It’s the Hero’s Journey without the character-focused, softer vocabulary. It goes deeper in one direction, while applying specificity in another. They compliment each other with perfect harmony and fluid logic.
All the paint and accessories and scented leather in the world isn’t worth a dime in the fiction world if the engine doesn’t work.
There is a huge and significant difference between your theme and your plot. When you write a story that is a thinly disguised platform for your passionate views and beliefs, without conflict at the center of it all, you’ll find the going rough. You may like the outcome, but agents and editors will say, “yeah, but what’s the story?” The DaVinci Code had a plot. And if it pissed you off, then it had a theme, too… one you’d have never heard about had it not been for that plot.
Do you really know what the word “story” means? If not — and there are criteria here — stop everything and go back to this all-important Square One. I’ve met writers who have been drafying manuscripts for decades who really didn’t understand what a true story is made of.
If asked what the most important, required, non-negotiable single word in fiction is, if your answer isn’t “conflict,” then you don’t really know what a story is.
If your story is “character-driven,” you are by no means immune to the necessity to have a plot that presents conflict and stakes. Plot is the stage upon which character unfolds. Without that stage, your character is standing on a corner preaching to passing traffic.
The stories put forth by proven A-list writers may not be sufficient models for writers looking to break in. The game at that level is entirely different, including where the bar resides. An A-list writer has an entire floor full of editors contributing to the moulding and polishing of the story you read under their name. You have nothing other than your own sense of craft.
Your idea, and the story that springs from it, needs a large dose of heat and fascination. The concept that arises from your idea (note how that works) must ask a question that that reader yearns to have answered. If the question at the heart of your is banal, vanilla or otherwise old news, there’s not much you can do to pump new life into its execution. A great character interacting with a boring plot will sink you.
You can’t write a story about anything, relying on execution to make it work. The cliche is true: in fiction you really can’t make chicken salad out of chicken… droppings. Work on the strength of your idea/concept/premise first, jack it to its highest inherent potential, before you begin to develop a vision for the story that ensues from it. Sometimes you have to actually write that story to discover this… just make sure you recognize what you’re doing in that case — you are engaging in the search for story. Don’t shortcut it, this is where the gold is found.
Are you writing your story because you really want to write a story, any story… or are you writing a story because the premise keeps you up at night? This alone is often the difference between success and failure. The forced concoction of the unlikely and the mundane and the illogical and the ridiculous is the common threat of the slush pile.
There is a difference between a Prologue and an opening chapter. Both can — and should — deliver a hook.
If you can’t adequately describe your story in a 30-second elevator pitch, leaving the listener wanting to know what happens, or if you can’t write that down in two pages or less with the same result… if you excuse this by saying, “well, it’s sort of complicated“… then you may, a) not be ready to actually write it; or b) be in trouble if you try; and for sure, c) won’t be able to pitch it to an agent successfully. Knowing the core essence of your story, the spine, the central conflict and how it relates to your hero, is the essence of knowing your story. Which you must before you can write it with optimal effectiveness. Which should be your goal.
In short, there is more than one way to skin the storytelling cat, but at the end of the day it was still a cat before you took a knife and hammer to it.
If you’re struggling with what to write, in what order, and why… find a published story (preferrably a movie on DVD) similar to yours (yes, you can) and study it. Break it down. Notice the structure. The sub-plot and the subtext.
Sub-plot and sub-text are different things, often wearing the same set of clothes.
Each scene you write should have a succinct expositional mission. Something to contribute to the unfolding plot, building toward something. It should also – not as its mission, but as an expectation – illustrate and contribute toward character and sub-text. A scene that does one without the other is weak. A scene that does too much of either is also weak. You don’t seal the marraige deal on the first date, you don’t win the World Series in one inning,so don’t try.
One of the key fatal words in storytelling: episodic. If you concoct a series of things that happen to your hero, each shown as a new scene, simply to demonstrate how the hero reacts to that particular moment (characterization), one after another, leading to nothing other than a full exposition of a character’s life or experience within a given time span… that’s episodic fiction. Not good.
The antidote to episodic fiction: a plot. A problem for your hero to solve, a goal to reach, with an obstacle to it, with something at stake. One spine, even if it bends.
If you’re stuck – you call it “blocked” – then something may be wrong with your story. Not you. It’s your inner editor trying to get your attention, and doing so by shutting down the screen of your imagination, so you won’t continue to pursue a broken idea. There are two ways out of this mess: return to the basics of story structure and the power of story physics (those 11 things mentioned earlier), and change something. Play “what if?” games with what you started with, where you are, and where you’d like to end up. Take risks, think outside the box, and listen when your inner editor begins to scream with approval.
Take inventory of where you are in your story, and ask yourself, for any given moment and every scene and story point… can this be better? A better setting? A better backstory? What will jack up the tension here? What would make this character, this moment, or empathic and vicarious for my reader? What would make this more interesting?
Unless your plot dictates what your hero does for a living, give her or him something fascinating as a career. IN a good way, or even a creepy way. Something we don’t see everyday, something that takes place behind the common curtain of awareness. And then pull that curtain back for us to see. If this becomes part of the story, contributing context or a story point, then you have an “arena” story on your hands… a very good thing. I’ve said this before, but here goes: a love story set in an accounting office… boring. A love story set in a convent… now that’s interesting.
There is a critical difference between a hook, an inciting incident and a First Plot Point. All three are powerful tools in the Part 1 (first quartile) set-up of your story. Know the difference, because any attempt to swap one for the other, including a casual placement that doesn’t optimize story physics, will render your story in a lesser form.
The First Plot Point is the most important – and the most heavily imbued with purpose – moment in your story. Screw this up and everything in your story suffers for it.
Overwriting, trying to make the reader notice your eloquence or style or wit to the point where they are distracted, will hurt your chances. Your writing voice is like a scent in the air: be careful you don’t stink up the place with too much cologne. Less is more. Timing and subtlety are everything.
Story trumps prose. Story trumps character. Story trumps theme. If you doubt this, ask an agent or an editor in the publishing business. Oh, they’ll tell you that its all important… but if the story doesn’t cut it, no matter how good the rest of the effort, they’ll reject you.
Agents and editors view prose, character and theme as minimum requirements, and when judged as weak it becomes excuse to reject the work (see if this sounds familiar: “You write beautifully, but I couldn’t invest in your hero and found myself skimming, the story needs more meat.”) What they’re looking for most of all is the home run story, the killer premise, the original idea. They’ll tell an interviewer they’re looking for “the next great writing voice,” which they are, but within a story that rocks their world.
When a reader “doesn’t get” your story, especially a professional reader, its your fault. It wasn’t written well enough. When you hear that feedback, it’s an opportunity. Say thank you and go into revision mode, they may have just saved a year of your writing life. Don’t shoot the messenger.
Everybody is a story planner. It’s just a question of how you plan. Your story won’t work until you find it, hone it, reduce it to a core essence and build upon it. Only then can you really execute it to its highest potential. Whether you outline or pants a draft isn’t the issue — you’re still planning.
This realization will empower you to recognize when you are crossing the line from planning to meaningful drafting. The Great Fatal Error of fiction is that you mistake one for the other along the way. It’s all “story planning” until you decide you have the story where you want it, where you need it to be. At its optimal level of execution. Which won’t be the first draft. But it doesn’t have to wait until the fourth or eleventh draft, either, that’s just a function of process, which may or may not be yours. Knowing when it reaches that level, knowing when your search is over and you’re ready to execute the final draft, is the key to success.
Please consider my book, “Story Engineering,” if you’d like to learn more about any of this, especially those 11 essential essences and core competencies.
Feeling inpetuous? Join me next week in Portland, Oregon at the Willamette Writers Conference (along with about 2000 other writers from around the country, including more than a few from elsewhere), where I’ll be doing three workshops on, well, all of the above. August 3 -5.