Case Study: The Square-One Death of a Story

Premise makes or breaks you.


Often before you write a single word of the story that your premise promises.

Only rarely can you make chicken salad out of a sow’s ear (to combine two apropos bon-mots).  Trying to do so is one whopper of a low percentage wager.

You think writing is art?  So is pegging the commercial and literary viability of a story premise.

It’ll kill your story, unless you kill it (different context) first.

This one is awkward. 

I’ve asked an author — who courageously consented — to allow me to share my feedback to his $150-Level Story Plan Evaluation with Storyfix’s craft-hungry readership.

Those of you who suspect I am a raging insensitive bully will be heartily rewarded.

The author and I have hashed this through, he’s accepted my apology for any tone issues that crossed the line (there are certainly some that nudge it, such was my level of frustration), and he says he sees the light.

I actually get (and give similar feedback) projects like this quite frequently (processed one today, in fact).  That’s the source of my obvious frustration — because I’ve written nearly one million words on his site about these principles, as well as two books — and the energy behind my recent focus on this idea/concept/premise black hole of story disaster and opportunity.  I’m amazed and gratified that, almost without exception, I get a thank you note rather than indignant outrage accompanying the accusation that I just didn’t get it.

Nobody said this was easy.  But people… think it through. 

Writing conference etiquette is such that nobody critiques the IDEA/CONCEPT/PREMISE level of a story, as if ANY story proposition is worthy of a manuscript. That you really can make anything work, if you can write well enough.

But in my experience (well over 400 of these in the last 18 months), easily HALF of the proposed stories were DOA (that’s Dead On Arrival, folks), precisely because the author put forth a story proposition that, in some combination, made no sense, would appeal to a miniscule fraction of any reading demographic, and, even if viable, jumped the tracks along the way to turn into something else entirely.

This one is a love story.  What the author deemed a romantic comedy.  I’ll be interested to see how many of you laugh.

Am I being too harsh?  Am I a cruel insensitive bastard?

Or… am I saving the story itself?  Empowering the next draft to a higher level of effectiveness?  That’s certainly my intention and hope, snarky tone and all.

You are invited to read and analyze this for yourself.  Feel free to leave you own feedback, if so moved, consider it a gift to the writer.  (I’ve covered the “what-were-you-thinking, dude?” part, so anything you feel helps him move forward would be appreciated.)

And in doing so, I hope you’ll experience the sensation of moving further along — up — the learning curve.  Nothing says “ah-hah!” like seeing principles put onto the field of battle, naked and exposed.

You can read it here: Story Plan Analysis – DOA

I hope you will jump at this opportunity.  This is a rarely seen glimpse of a story’s birth – often ugly and bloody – in a world where all we have normal access to are published works in bookstores and online.  While modeled competency is valuable, it can be hard to learn from that which has been already polished, leaving the principles alone and isolated.

This analysis is a head-on collision between principles and execution… fasten your seat belt, you’ll see how easy it is to drift into the wrong lane.

May you never fall off the horse (onto the back of a shark you’ve just jumped) at Square One.

Here’s a little postscript to add some punch to this process.

The author has written four full drafts of the story described in this analysis.  He makes reference to “parts” by number in his notes, which are from another “story model” that, frankly, didn’t serve him.

He is about to write his fifth… this time with some targets and criteria to shoot for.

Learn the craft.  Use the principles.  Think it through before you get to page one.

Because no matter what your process involves, any draft is better when you’ve envisioned it with the criteria of effective storytelling in mind.


If you’d like to explore the relationship between an idea, a concept and a premise, and why this is critical if you want to publish and attract readers, scroll down to the post that ran just prior to this one (or click HERE), called “The Bermuda Triangle of Storytelling.   The discussion thread is particularly illuminating, especially the most recent entries (45 comments and counting, as of this writing).



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30 Responses to Case Study: The Square-One Death of a Story

  1. I DID laugh–not because the story was a “comedy.” I found myself giggling at Larry’s obvious frustration, which seems entirely justified. I didn’t find Larry’s comments “cruel, harsh, or bullying.” He was trying to break through to the author. For example, Larry has made it perfectly clear that the optimal place for the First Plot Point is 20-25% of the way through the book. That’s pretty simple and straightforward, isn’t it??

    I’m not laughing at the author, however. He obviously has deep-felt emotions, he’s not afraid to keep trying with multiple drafts, and his efforts are to be applauded. Going forward, Larry asked for our input, so here’s mine:

    I may be way off-base (and I apologize if I’m wrong), but this story sounds “autobiographical” to me, a story “ripped from real life,” as if the author is working through some personal issues here. It’s been said that every first book is somewhat autobiographical, so there’s nothing wrong with that approach. But real life is often messy, hard to make sense of, not exactly riveting, for the most part. Now that the author has written this book, I would advise congratulating himself, putting it in a drawer, and starting a new one–letting his imagination run free and abiding by Larry’s principles.

  2. Wow. First off Larry, as you suggested, this was a rarely seen glimpse of a story’s birth and the feedback we all, or at least many of us, could have used at the start, or before the start! To see it in action is priceless.

    I agree with Elizabeth – this is probably somewhat of a memoir. I started my 1st novel as ‘somewhat of a memoir’ and disposed of it at roughly 50,000 words. Not enough conflict or drama.

    My 2nd novel, after starting out fast, was on life support at roughly 60,000 words, and needed months of thought and rewrite to bring it back to something that could be completed. I think I eventually got there, but it was like stumbling along in the dark.

    These were the result of EXACTLY what you’re talking about – going straight from Idea to drafting. I’ve been thinking about what you said and already altered the Premise and Dramatic Thread in a way I never saw coming, for a new novel that is noodling around in my head.

    Done well, I think there are 2 advantages to Engineering these elements proactively.

    One, as you’ve made clear, is that the process will, at a minimum, be more efficient. That is, even if you’re able to eventually get it ‘right’, you’re writing will go a lot smoother if you identify your Concept and Premise before you start writing, rather than try to discover it.

    The other advantage, even if you eventually get there, is that I think your story has a better chance to snap, crackle and pop from the very first page (all things being equal), if you’ve defined the Concept and Premise before you put pen to paper (a cool term, though no one puts ‘pen to paper’ anymore).

    Anyway, thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. I was “subjected” to a treatment from Larry (not quite so emphatic) and it was exactly what I needed.

    Exactly what the *story* needed.

    Sometimes the truth hurts.

  4. Robert Jones

    I felt as Elizabeth Parker did. The funniest parts were Larry’s comments (though, not so funny from the author’s POV). If I were writing this into a romantic comedy, I would have to put an exasperated friend in there who is an actual author, trying to help the hero turn his autobiographical mess into a novel. And yeah, I sensed some real life-based drama going on there as well because of certain details.

    Aside from that, I have to agree with Larry. From the beginning I doubted the hero and such a woman would ever get together. He has no roots, a nothing job, and an alcoholic father. On one hand, he’s admitting his life is a big fat zero, then he discovers he really is a good guy just the way he is because his father takes a punch and he stands up for him?

    In real life, or even in a certain kind of story, the guy might find himself in this situation. But it’s the end result of some lengthy, sorry chain of events. Maybe he had a promising future prior to some tragedy that took his mother, sent his father into a bottle, made a real mess of life. But the question I kept asking myself was…if he has no roots to the community, no job worth fighting for, a father who crawled into a bottle and messed up whatever his prospects might have been–how on earth is he ever going to find himself by staying in nowhereville? If the rich girl saw him as a project worth rescuing, he would be better off getting out of that mess and running for his life.

    But how did he meet this girl? They run in different circles. Did she just happen through town and they bumped into one another at the local pub? Why would she bother with him? There has to be a reason. Like maybe he rescues her from some kind of trouble she finds herself in as some of the local yokels decide to mug the rich girl. But again, why is she there? Car trouble? Sounds cliche, but it would at least be a reason. Some other unexpected circumstances that is less cliche would be better. Something that fit into her life that made her different than her rich friends and family. Charity work maybe? This would at least show her as a real person and not just a flashy toy.

    So through whatever circumstances, they meet, they talk…she has to see something in this guy. Does she encourage him to follow his childhood dreams to do something with his life? But again, this takes him out of his circumstances and changes him. I think I would believe that over the fact that he finds himself as a caring man who wants to stay in a nothing life just to help his dying father. In order for that to work, we would have to develop some respect for the father as well, give the guy a reason to dump the girl and stay with him. Other wise the hero just looks like a bleeding heart dope who stays home out of loyalty to the notion of family in his own mind–because we can’t see a reason yet that he would ditch the girl and go home. Why, because he’s discovered that’s who he really is and she’s too glitzy?

    If she doesn’t have some good qualities, these two are never going to have a conversation, much less fall in love. And if she does have good qualities, then it seems that she’s caving in and going off with her family just because they think it’s best she get away from the poor guy. She’s shallow and totally unworthy. By the same token, he’s caving in to a sense of loyalty, or some hope that he can bond with his father through his illness and fix the wrongs of his family by being a bigger man than his drunken father. But why would he have to ditch the girl in order to get his father some help?

    This is a tragedy. But since all the characters are motivated by exterior circumstances and guilt thrown on them by family members, the readers will come to think (as I do already) that neither of these two deserve anything better than their crappy lives because they have no backbone.

    If you intended to show this as a character study of two fools, the guy eventually becoming a drunk and living in his father’s house after he dies, the girl marring some shallow rich guy who cheats on her and treats her like the trophy wife she is…that might be a statement to make in a literary novel. Because let’s face it, people are lead by the hand due to family, friends, our entire social strata. That would certainly be a tragedy. But since the majority of people can’t see themselves as bred to be a part of whatever social strata they are born into, the idea will probably be lost on most. So it becomes a niche subject for a novel, or the plot for an indy film.

    On top of all that, we need to know who the villain is. It sounds like you intended to have it be the girl’s father. In which case, he can’t win. The girl needs to defy him. And the guy (if he’s the hero) needs to be the catalyst for her doing this. Meaning, he needs somehow be smart enough, good enough, to sway her away from her people, playing on something she really desires to do with her life other than what her father has planned for her. What does she want to do with her life, BTW? And how does the guy convince her that he can help her, be supportive, that they will be free of all the crap and have a better life together?

    Conversely, the guys father could be the bad guy. Hero meets a nice girl with decent prospects that could pull him out of his nowhere existence and suddenly the guys father announces that he’s dying? That’s a pretty antagonist move. But in this case, it would seem the girl is trying to help him follow his dreams for a better life. Maybe she’s the hero. Maybe the guys father does his best to embarrass the girl’s family and gets both sides into a tug of war. All orchestrated by the guys manipulative father who wants his son to stay at home and take care of him. Maybe he’s lying about being ill. Maybe he’s lied about a lot of things. And for the guy to really find himself, he has to discover the truth and learn to make his own decisions.

    Personally, I can see this second scenario working more realistically. But either of those two possibilities gives you a villain. There’s a lot to work out in terms of making it all come together in a believable, reasonable way. There’s potential in a story when different cultures end up clashing. And when family values and skeletons try to pass problems on to the next generation and perpetuate issues rather than resolving them. And done as a serious drama with a love story at the heart of it all, it could play well.

    However, you need to take the autobiographical elements and put them aside. At one time, every editor made their new authors write an auto-biography first in order to get all the stuff off their chest and out of the way before tackling their first work of fiction. Because one’s personal history always gets in the way of writing their first novel. Sure, every book ever written has things based in real life that the author has seen, or experienced. However, those slivers of life are inserted into a well thought out plot…not the other way around. Or it won’t work. As important as our problems are to us, no one wants to read about them unless they come through a winning character who captures their hearts, has goals, fights the good fight to achieve them against great odds…against all odds. Because this is going to cost the hero greatly in some way if he loses.

    Anyway, I hope some of this helps if you decide pursue this project. The fact that you’ve been through four drafts means there is something here that’s pretty important to you. If it’s to make this story work as a successful piece of fiction, I admire your drive. We all struggle. We all keep learning. On the other hand, if this story is important just to get something off your chest, I would say four drafts is enough. Use your passions to explore other possible stories. Nothing need be wasted here. Once you’ve written a novel that works and have a better understanding of what makes fiction applicable, you can always return to this story and revise it–in a less personal way. Because being too close to a project can strangle the life out of it. Hence, the reason those editors of old made their authors work out their personal issues in a non-fiction format first.

    Best of luck…and keep writing! Critiques can send us for a loop, discourage us. Or they can make us stronger. Like your hero, you’ve got some serious decision ahead of you. Fight the good fight, I say. Is there any other fight more worth fighting?

  5. MikeR

    First of all, a sincere thank-you to the author. It took guts to say, “okay.”

    This story has a lot of interesting-sounding characters in it, a lot of creative ideas for situations and things-to-do, such as going to a Buddhist monastery. Australia is a far-away place for many people.

    In all of those hundreds of pages of text, there’s going to be something that was alluded-to as part of stitching the scenes together, but that has never (yet) been brought out. Read all four drafts through, looking for it. These are not going to be points where the guy’s thinking about himself or staring at his navel. They’re going to be things happening in the story-world, surrounding(!) the scenes in which the characters now are interacting, which -hint- at the presence of a much bigger piece of ice under that salt-water. If you’ve written 200,000 words about that story-world, it’s got to be hiding there somewhere. Find it, drag it out, then find all the other places in all that text to where references to it are similarly lurking. It will be something that the characters never engaged with because they’ve never yet been forced to do so. And it will be one helluva a concept once you find it.

    Now, turn it into a story. Transform it into what it properly already should be: something which none of the characters can ignore or escape or out-run … and I don’t mean death, fate, or bad luck. It is likely to be something that affects all the major character-groups in some way right now, but in different ways. It’s dragging them already, right into a collision course. I don’t want to suggest per-se what it is; go find it. I’m a gamblin’ man that, among 200,000 words written four times so-far about the same thing, it’s there … unrecognized … and it crops up again and again throughout the text. It’s not love, hate, insecurity, uncertainty, or aimlessness. In fact, it motivated your scene selections as an author even though you didn’t know it as such. The story’s wandering because you haven’t forced the characters to be on-the-hook, so none of them are ever really engaged, which gives your PT too much time to just sit around and think. Go find that thread, turn it into a rope, and wrap it around their necks, with Love being the only way out.

  6. MikeR

    To say it again … re-read the text, all four versions of it. Lightly cross-out the stock characters, the stock situations, the been-there done-that events, all the stuff that’s just idle wandering. Look carefully among the chaff for the truly-original idea that none of them had to confront because all of them had the option not to. It will show up repeatedly throughout the drafts. It will be what’s leading you(!), the author, to have made those scene selections, and – when you weren’t digging into the mosh-pit of stock or the bucket of autobiography – to have built these characters the way that you did.

    And when you pull it out and look at it, it will have a fuse, and that fuse will be lit.

  7. All is not lost. It just needs more. Let’s start with the ending. How’s about: the guy realises she’s a bitch and ditches her. She changes and abandons her privileged life and comes looking for him. Happy ending. It’ll need a lot more than that of course.
    Crucially, how did they meet? Give the guy a more active job and role in life. Make him a high-class thief who is fencing the girl’s family’s mansion. Or a cop who is under-cover investigating the father who is operating some kind of scam.
    The FPP could be when he discovers it’s NOT the dad who’s doing the crime stuff – but the girlfriend! Or he thinks it is. Might be more twists in that yet.
    I know that’s all a bit Hollywood, but it would help to lift it. Those are simply top of the head ideas and I’m sure the author can come up with more and better of his own.
    It needs a ton more story, twists and stuff, and the hero’s character needs to change for sure. I say throw every story idea you can come up with at the wall, see which ones stick and be worked into this, and build a farce around what is at the moment a tragedy.
    Or, here’s another idea: the guy is funny, right? That’s why she falls for him. He’s a stand-up comedian and he does her engagement party. That’s where they meet, hook up, have sex, and the father finds them, the fiancee too. All kicks off from there.
    Hell, I could do this all day. I’d better stop.

  8. The two fathers know each other from way back. They were rivals for the love of the same woman. (His mother, or hers, your choice). They also know shit about each other: crimes they committed. Stuff of which they would now be deeply ashamed. They fear each other because of this. But there’s something in that backstory dragging them together.
    That’s how the couple meet, and why they are torn apart.
    Just riffing, in public.

  9. Martha

    Fascinating stuff, and I say thanks to this author for his guts letting us read all this, and kudos to Larry for also having the intestinal fortitude to tell the author the truth. I’ve been there — Larry analyzed one of my manuscripts and told me the truth. I grew in my ability to tell a story as a result. This tale reminds me a little of “Crocodile Dundee”, a low-budget Australian movie that made millions. It’s the story of a down-under guy, rough around the edges, who charmed a ritzy American journalist. Ritzy American Journalist is charmed because she recognizes that beneath Crocodile’s rough exterior, he’s a true gentlemen. Oh, and he just happens to save her life. He did lots of other heroic things along the way so when she said “I do”, we all sighed and clapped madly.

  10. Hugely helpful! Thanks to the author for letting us see inside the process. It certainly helps me to see how some of what I am doing doesn’t work–and more importantly WHY.

  11. newguy

    Firstly I actually kind of like the author’s idea here. On the other hand Larry is definitely right about the difficulty rooting for the protagonist when the protagonist ditches his prize after he finally achieves his goal.

    This story sounds a lot like the Frog Prince tale retold. However in this story the Princess comes along, kisses the frog, the frog then tries turning into a prince only to realize he does not want to be a prince.

    I actually believe this story is true to life to some degree. Woman go for “fixer uppers” all the time. Many women love the challenge of trying to turn a frog into a prince. I’m not sure this idea can be turned into an interesting novel though without some changes.

  12. Robert Jones

    I like Mikes idea of reading between the lines of your manuscripts and playing “What if?” What he said about a situation the characters can’t escape from is good as well. That’s called a crucible–a situation that the characters are trapped within, each not willing to leave for reasons of their own until the situation is settled one way or the other. This usually applies to the hero and villain foremost, but can effect everyone involved, or even the entire planet in a sci-fi or disaster story. Whatever it is that connects them, or locks them in battle, that’s the crucible. Or as one writer put it–the crucible is the container the characters are trapped in as the story heats up.

    Simon’s take on the two fathers certainly fits here and is an interesting idea as well. It speaks of a clash of cultures over love before. And from the shape the guy’s father is in, he lost that battle. In this scenario, the guys battle scarred father is Obi-Wan Kenobi, the son is Luke Skywalker, the girl Princess Leia, and her father is Darth Vader. Obi-Wan is saying, “Don’t fall in love with Leia, Luke. The Dark Side (their wealth) will lure you in and destroy everything you stand for!”

    There’s a post here on SF about the “Heroes Journey” and looking at strong, universal archetypes. Sometimes placing your characters into other, similar roles, can open a lot of possibilities for those “What ifs.”

  13. MikeR

    My gut feeling here – and, it is only this – is that, somewhere in Australia, in that monastery, in all those cities I’ve never (yet) been to, and in all of those interesting- sounding characters … there is a premise waiting to be found. It will have been there all along, but never yet noticed for what it could be fashioned into. The points that have been discussed so far – boy meets girl, yada yada – are not “it.”

    This central story, built around its fire-breathing premise, will catch the two lovers in its wake and, say, drive them to where they must fall in love but will simultaneously be doomed if they do. (For instance.) All of which is happening in interesting, lavishly-described settings that I have never yet been to, but that you know well (or seem to).

    Write -that-, my friend, and my money is SO yours! 🙂

  14. Wow, great stuff. Thanks a ton to the author for allowing Larry to post this … in public … that is what I call paying it forward. Great insights into the process. We all need to have a Larry inside our head to ask those tough questions as we go through this process.

    And if you don’t, we always have Larry.

  15. I agree with Robert about the crucible: there has to be something holding all the characters together, forcing them to face conflicts, and there isn’t here. Also, if you’re going for a more literary approach, then they don’t need to live in separate worlds. One side doesn’t have to be dead poor, the other fabulously wealthy. There could, instead, be subtle class distinctions which are trivial to an outsider, crucial to the characters. One side could be lower middle class, the other middle middle, for example. That way they could all live in the same town, a few streets away. The woman is from a slightly posher family, with pretensions. Work, friends, life keep them revolving around each other. There can then be backstory conflicts between the characters. He could have a job which keeps him constantly meeting the father, the rival etc etc.

  16. A reader just sent me this directly, but I thought it contributes to the conversation here, so I’m posting it for that person, it’s an interesting approach:

    It seems to me this city mouse-country mouse story is easily fixed if you make the woman a mistaken love interest. There is another woman the hero is really in love with once he gets his thinking straight around the midpoint. Need some external conflict all three are fighting. But this is an entirely different story.

  17. Well done author, for your bravery in sharing. I’ve had Larry’s red writing all over my story ideas and I know that it’s sometimes not easy to read his comments, but always the truth.

    Don’t know why, but I immediately thought of the novel: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil when I read this pitch. In the story, an unattractive woman completely transforms herself in order to get back her husband (I mean, burns down her house, ditches her kids, gets ridiculous plastic surgery and implants). Maybe the male character could do some extreme makeover – but that would make it more of a dark comedy. As the story reads right now, it’s a little boring.

    I also like the idea of him having some cool profession. I immediately thought, since it’s Australia, that he could be a really hot surfer. I mean, if he’s dull as dishwater, he’s got to at least be hot. As others mention, he could save her from drowning while on vacation? Women love a man in a wetsuit. I also think the second paramour could definitely bring in some additional conflict, like Bradley Cooper in The Wedding Crashers. Constantly in his face, letting him know that he’s not worthy of her, he’s out of his league, etc.

    Love the idea that this love isn’t real, there’s someone in the wings that’s the real deal. Maybe a girl from his surfing club that he’s never really noticed? She’s not girly, so he’s never seen her as a romantic partner but at some moment he has a lightbulb moment and really sees her. Anyhoo, just my thoughts. Could be a really great chick lit BOOK.

    Cheers and well wishes on your continuous journey.

  18. Robert Jones

    On a totally different note…I mentioned this story plan in conversation with my brother earlier, who said he felt the story had potential as a tale of a self-saboteur…someone who needed to overcome that aspect of his inner demons before he could succeed at his goals.

    I still think the hero could stand some beefing up, but he may be the type of person who shows real promise at first blush, the girl takes an interest in him, wonders why he never moved on to better things, he’s such a good looking guy, plus a bit of a fixer-upper–all the key elements people have mentioned above. They fall in love, then she finds out why his prospects have stayed at zero. Something her snooty family and friends use to spike nails in his coffin with an “I told you so” attitude.

    The girl is about to accept the proposal of the rival BF, who moves in as soon as the hero looks like road-kill–and he has to prove himself, yes, still find his true self, his true potential, plus figure out a way to prove it before he loses the love of his life. Isn’t that’s basically how a love story model works? This sort of flips around the notion of the original plot that was a bit backwards. Yet it can keep many of the same elements, just arranged things differently.

  19. To share a struggle this intense shows courage and generosity. I think this author has a story to tell and they’re just having a hard time separating their emotional highs and lows from what makes a readable story. (I was married, for a very long time, to someone whose concept of storytelling was a laundry list of things that happened, and how they made her feel. No thought to *a point to the story* – just episodes, loosely connected.)

    There were a couple times, Larry, that I wanted to suggest you put that vein back in your forehead, but I was laughing too hard. I would pay money to see this conversation on film, it would be hysterical. As a father of 7 I have had many conversations where I could have played the role of the red text.

  20. Carl

    I’m the guy with the story that went wrong. First of all I’d like to thank everyone for taking the time to comment and give feedback, it really is helpful to me. I knew for some time that the story as it was didn’t feel right.
    I’m happy to hear what people think I know it all helps in some way.

    I just want to share with you all what I was thinking when I wrote it- not at all to be defensive and say I’m right but just to she’d some light.

    To Simon I’d like to say about your point about the fathers being connected from he past, that I originally had that in there but took it out because i thought too much of a coincidence?
    And you mentioned the subtle class difference- I wanted to write about the quiet internal battle that goes on trying to make ourselves right for another.
    That sometimes it isn’t a big battle(I get that this might be boring reading).
    They met in a pub which I thought was a good place to meet seeing as though I did. It is fairly autobiographical. Maybe a mistake, I have never been good at making stuff up. I work as a comic and what works for me is to talk about stuff that has happened. I like the mundanity of life sometimes.
    I understand that this way of thinking mightn’t work for fiction which I feel fairly new to.
    Anyway thanks Simon

  21. Carl

    Thanks Elizabeth for your comments

    It is a personal story I tried to base it on. When I was younger I met a professional woman and I was a tradesman. I wanted to explore the idea of how I lied to myself to be like her and her friends but kept failing.
    I do understand that the story is missing.

    In perhaps my only defence I can say that when I read the scenes out in the class I was in people found it very funny. I guess I didn’t get that across to you guys(my fault). It’s great to get that feedback though.
    It was ripped from real life, I do find real life interesting, As I said I’m a comic so I’m not adverse to people not laughing. I’m not offended at all really. If anything it made me laugh seeing how off I was!
    In a way- out of all the bad novel outlines out there mine was selected, I win! )

    It’s all new to me this and exciting
    Thank you

  22. Karen W

    Hi everyone.This is going to be a lengthy response so I hope that readers will indulge me…

    First off, as everyone else here has said, I want to say a big thank you to Carl for allowing us to share in his story world, and for risking his vulnerability and ego in the hope that we might learn from it and be better storytellers ourselves. It’s always easier to see the faults of others – and their work – than it is our own, and I am sure I’m not alone in saying that this critique has been instrumental in so many ways.

    As Carl has already shared with us that the story is, indeed, largely autobiographical there’s no point me speculating/labouring on that issue any longer, although personally I had also got this sense. But maybe my reasons for suspecting this might be illuminating to Carl and perhaps to others. For me, it was mainly due to the episodic nature of the narrative as it was presented. In my experience this is a really common and understandable error when writing stories of this nature: we assume that because they “happened in real life” that there must be an inherent logic to the events, as well as motivations and feelings that are in and of themselves dramatic and true feeling for outsiders.Unfortunately, it’s kind of like showing your wedding pictures to complete strangers; their context and level of interest is only personal to you, and without something universal and essentially dramatic happening, a forward movement towards a very tangible goal with stakes attached, we have nothing as readers to get a handle on.

    It is not for me to suggest ways in which you could make your story work from an events point of view, although I do think Robert J’s suggestion of the father escalating his sense of illness in order to keep the son at home was a great one, a la The Royal Tenenbaums. I also think it is a highly credible one, although you must remember that this is more a situation than a premise as it stands. Without a goal for the hero, the opposition means nothing, and without stakes attached on either side it also means nothing beyond a thin episodic “slice of life” representation. Unfortunately (?) in terms of commercial fiction these days, art rarely successfully imitates life and it becomes a very hard sell indeed without a clear sense of drama and external obstacles and a hero we can root for (even anti-heroes have elements which we admire and can get behind such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). Real life is messy: odd, completely random things happen; we do things we can’t explain, but in fiction this doesn’t work in a commercial sense.The themes you seem to be exploring here, Carl, are important and universal, but you need to spice them up to make them palatable to a commercial reading audience.

    Having said that, however, I think that you are doing yourself a disservice by labelling your work romantic comedy as it seems to have more depth to it than that (no offence to anyone who writes in this genre but it tends to be less serious than the themes Carl is going for here). Perhaps you should be aiming for a genre crossover here, a literary comedy, for example (once you get the comedy across, of course!!). These crossover genres are very popular now, at least here in the UK, and seem to be satisfying a need for less predictable straight genre fiction. Maybe I’m biased, writing in literary crossover, myself, so don’t feel bound to telling a story that you inherently don’t feel an attachment to. That’s my point, I guess – that only YOU know what is driving this story at its heart; what the message is that you are trying to get across. As for whether you should ditch trying to write a semi-autobiography or not – to me that’s a moot point. Many hugely successful novels have been written from a base that is so, the difference being that the events were tweaked to fit in to a dramatic and compelling and universal paradigm.Maybe instead of flogging the “write what you know” horse we should be saying “write what you are passionate about.” If you are passionate about this story then go ahead and write it, just know that you have to convey that passion to us through a hero who WANTS something tangible and not just something ethereal, like “to find out who he is”. A hero’s journey should be both external and internal; we should be able to “photograph” what he wants in a sense so that it is something we can see. I can’t imagine “a man trying to find who he is” but I CAN imagine a man trying to impress a woman who he feels is too good for him, or a dying father who is a pain in the arse who is trying to oppose this goal and stop him from leaving his side. Does this make sense?

    This is all by the by, however, until you get your central conceit right and workable and to this end I wanted to offer a tip that has really worked for me in other areas of writing. It’s kind of related but precedes Larry’s advice to write the story from a first person POV. Maybe you’ll decide to go with that, maybe not, (I personally think it’s a great idea), but before all that, right in the planning stages, what I find really helpful is to write every major character’s arc from a first person perspective so that I can get a handle on what each of them wants, why they want it and what they stand to lose if they don’t get it. Doing this makes me see not only if there’s an inherent logic to their goals but allows me to see ways to dramatise those goals and find an effective opposition to it. It’s worth trying from both a character and a plot forming perspective. Give it a go. Half of what you write won’t end up in the story itself, but it will give you the ammunition to write from a really well-informed perspective of your characters and plot line.

    My only caveat to writing both a semi-autobiographical novel and/or first person is that you risk the narrative becoming both static and too introspective. People assume that first person is an easy option; it’s actually the hardest, because you are spending time in someone’s head who we may not actually like that much; you are responsible for creating an even more compelling “voice” to your narrative, in addition to facing all the logistical problems of perspective (only being able to know what they view directly themselves). The temptation is always there to naval gaze and as a result the narrative becomes extremely “quiet” which kills commercial viability stone dead unless you’re someone like Franzen and have a dedicated readership already.

    I also wanted to share my thoughts on Larry’s services (ahem!!) having had the pleasure of assessment myself. I chose the cheaper $50 concept and premise analysis because I wanted to see whether my premise worked on a fundamental level before subjecting him to a full blown outline (poor Larry, ha!). Let me preface this by saying (in the hope that this might give people some reassurance) that I am not a newbie writer. I am a published author and award winning screenwriter who is making the leap into long form fiction now. Well, I flunked out at the first hurdle: Larry was gracious enough to tell me that my concept was both compelling and “cool” but after that it all went downhill. I was guilty of a disconnect between my two main plot threads, although in my defence I will say that they did have a connection in my head!! What I am trying to say is this: Larry is absolutely spot on when he says that no one will tell you that your novel fails at its most basic level, ie. at the very concept itself. When you submit to agents, etc, you will get form rejections, even personal rejections, that say things like “it wasn’t compelling enough”, “we love your writing but couldn’t engage with it enough”, “we like it but don’t love it”. I even got “this novel will win prizes but not a wide enough readership”. I went through these issues with my first novel, and only NOW realise that they meant the same thing: I was falling at the first hurdle of concept and how to dramatise that concept to make it commercially viable to a buying audience.

    Now, here’s a tip for anyone who wants to make use of Larry’s excellent (and ridiculously cheap) assessment. Don’t try and impress him! Answer the questionnaire as much to make sense of the story to yourself. I made the fatal error of thinking I was in an elevator with Larry and had 20 seconds to give him my idea, concept and premise. As a result I wrote short pithy, almost throwaway sentences in my questionnaire that only confused him and myself. I jumped ship, I tailed off into describing cool scenes that made no sense because Larry couldn’t see how they connected to the central core of the novel and he was right. I needed to concentrate on the meat of the story, and not the salad garnish. He was completely on the money in telling me that it made no sense because what I had presented him with didn’t! If I were to do the exercise again (which I will) I will tell the core story: who is my hero? What does he want? Why does he want it? But also Who Opposes him? Why? What do each of them stand to lose if they fail? To make myself clear: if you avail yourself of an assessment from this site do yourself a favour and don’t go fishing for compliments on how cool your book is going to be; get it right, get it tight and then get it written.

    Carl, thank you again, and thanks for everyone for indulging this post. And Larry, are you ready for me….?!

  23. MikeR

    Thank you, Carl, for allowing your story to be shared, and then for participating personally in the thread. It is rare to see both sides of a work-in-progress.

    The fact that you are a comic yourself, explains much of why you’re going for comedy in this piece – and it could well be done as a comic piece, but there is obviously much more depth to it. So, it will be a bittersweet and thought-provoking piece of comedy … as much comedy is. (Only the Jester could speak whatever’s in his head to the King, and keep his head.)

    The fact that these scenes are “autobiographical” was also pretty clear. It can put you, the author, too close to the story to see it as a third-party Gentle Reader would. Real life is an excellent source; now, fictionalize it. Literally, invent a concept and a premise … or, as I suggested, look carefully for the one that is already there. Choose it in such a way that it maximizes the characters you’ve put into the story, just as the characters are put into the story to maximize the concept and the premise. It’s ALL fiction, so you get to work both ends. The comedy swirls around it and through it even as it is swept forward by it; the comedy does not necessarily -drive- the story.

    And, I will also say this: I love “places” in stories. Cities I’ve never seen, monasteries, and the gritty places that don’t make it into Chamber of Commerce advertising. These are rich textures that strongly draw me to, and into, a story, and I suspect that you have plenty of them.

    By now, in those four drafts, you’ve got lots of already-written scenes, a strong cast of characters, plenty of good ideas. A tremendous amount of raw-material to draw from. You have choices to make. You get to select, to invent, exactly what concept (and then, premise) will drive your story forward towards whatever you decide it should be. (From among a number of good possibilities.) In the end, I think, “this story’s gonna be a good ‘un.”

    As a comic, therefore an expert of sorts on the subject of comedy, this could be comic. However, the comedy will be the top-coat on a much deeper, more compelling tale, set in a number of exotic-to-me places, that I think is gonna turn out to be “one helluva read” someday.

  24. Robert Jones

    Hi Carl–Thanks for coming forward and talking with us directly. I believe I understand what it is you’re attempting to do. Life, however, can seem like a series of random events. Most people move along their journey on auto-pilot, accepting things that happen as if by default. Only in hind-site do we begin to make sense of it. And we can often look back on years when life seemed to just amble on before a change occured. A change that allowed us to moved forward, got distance from that period in which we were living. Then we saw some meaning, some part of it that shaped us, made us grow.

    In fiction, we don’t have years before the FPP comes along and pulls our character into a different level in his existence. In fact, given the criteria of each of the four parts of story structure, we are forced to choose the most relavent events, those that best shape the life of our characters as a whole. Which is the whole idea behind story structure. It gives us mile-markers that indicate we’ve been in this phase for a while now, time to move on.

    I came to SF with an outline close to complete. I saw that Larry had something to offer that seemed like a missing ingredient to me. More than that it made sense. And I wasn’t exactly coming to writing from a square one mentality either. So I knew it made sense when taken in conjuction with what I already knew. I finished my outline anyway before buying a copy of SE. I wanted to have my story in hand and use it as a way to figure out structure. Here’s what I did…some of which might be helpful for your own revision process:

    After gaining a working knowledge of what the criteria was for each of the four parts of story structure, honing down my concept (which I would end up honing down at least half a dozen times more), I took all of my previously prepared scenes and placed them into whichever of the four parts they best fit into. I noticed right away that I had scene that didn’t fit into the order I originally planned. I had scenes that fit part two criteria in part one, part one criteria in a couple of scenes later in the story.

    After a few well chosen curse words, I simply tossed each into the piles they best fit into, figure I would definitely need to rewrite my scene order. Then I discovered I really didn’t have much at all in part three once I finished. Part three would’ve been 30-40 pages of the hero abruptly overcoming his inner demons and moving on to tackle the villain. I was mising some large opportunities by not giving the hero time to rise properly and get his hero on.

    By the time I reworked my scenes, some stitching together and rearranging had to be done. I found many scenes were now useless and could be disgarded before I even started drafting. All this before I even opted in for Larry’s $150 plan–which had me revise my outline several more times to work out some bugs and more extraneous detail.

    If I had done this in draft form only, I would’ve scratching my head and wondering why it still was not working. And in my previous novels, much like Karen W’s wonderful tale, turned out to have a very similar effect. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to see all of these foundational difficulties once you have several drafts finished, the prose polished. Then you discover what you were doing was a very lengthy practice session that just “feels” off. But we did so much work, so many right things in some cases–how, what, why, where did it go wrong?

    Larry has been answering those question here (and in his books) for several years now. And frustrating as it might be sometimes for both student and teacher…I think these are answers very much worth repeating. Because we could go on for years getting the kind of vague feedback like Karen recieved and just scratching our heads until something snaps–when we either miraculously get it, or we give it up as a bad job and figure we’re just not very good at it.

    Knowledge is power. Few people seek it beyond a point. Fewer still are willing to share it.

  25. Robert Jones

    Things have come to a bit of a standstill here. What I would like to know, or offer, before this post moves on and gives way to another–@Carl–do you have any specific questions or concerns that have not been addressed?

    It was an act of bravery to come forth. But now that you have, it is certainly an opportunity few writers have to put forth legitimate questions and get responses that might be helpful. I re-read your posts and it sounds like what you’re saying is “This is what I have and I want to find a way to make it work.”

    I think it can work. However, from the standpoint of a new writer, internal villains are extremely difficult. Even for literary writers, they don’t always work as well as they should–or could.

    Larry’s method of having inner demons to conquer, plus and external villain, is the best way to have the best of both worlds. There’s always a chief antagonist, even in real life. And I’m thinking if we were to sit down and talk about your real life experience, we would probably arrive at a conclusion that someone–a chief someone–was probably most responsible. Or even if it was entirely a social/class dispute, that we could take all of those differences in class and make then manifest within the persona of a main antagonist.

    You mentioned the idea of the two fathers knowing one another coming up previously in your drafts. I would say that might be a strong clue. And if, for example, the girl’s father became the main antagonist, the guys father, or the hero himself (in term of his inner demons) might manifest all the aspects of opposing class. Therefor, the internal battle might be made an exterior one through characters who symbolize both classes and their opposing distinctions. This is what fiction does. It’s battles are symbolic, yet reflect real life in a way that can relate such lessons, or share experiences with others. And those experiences are always more relatable when they come on stage in the guise of a person the audience can see. Writing is a visual media. The visuals happen inside the reader’s mind. And without envisioning characters and scenes to represent those visuals, you leave them with nothing more than an airy, philosophical message that people will not remember, or relate to, as well as they can when the message is delivered by characters who symbolize the various components.

    That’s story telling. That’s the medium of fiction and even non-fiction shares this. Compare the average biography to the biographical writings of Doris Kearns Goodwin in her Pulitzer Prize winning work, “No Ordinary Time.” Which is about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The difference that makes Goodwin’s writing stand out from the pack is that she opted for being very visual, making it read more like a movie rather than just delivering factual information. In other words, you can find elements of real life and adapt them to a visual, or fictional canvas. One you understand the parameters of that canvas.

    So, one last call for Q&A–let’s smoke ’em if you got ’em!

  26. Patti Hartley

    I recently received the $50 feedback from Larry regarding my concept/premise. Money well spent! As for this story, I think I see where the author was heading (a little). A kind of Meet The Parents type of situation, but remember, in that film, the Ben Stiller character was extremely smart, likeable, and had a worthy women to fight for. The conflict occured between the Ben Stiller character and Robert DeNiro’s, which made us laugh and root for the good guy. Completely different concept and protagonist. Thanks to the author for sharing this feedback!

  27. Ouch! Kudos to the author for allowing Larry to brutally, honestly, sincerely dissect his novel. Great stuff, Larry. I’m glad you’re so blunt because you make your points so much more clearly and emphatically that way.

    As soon as I finish my first draft and scrape together $150, Larry will be given carte blanche to dissect my writing.

    I feel like I got $150 worth of education and it wasn’t even my book! 🙂

  28. MikeR

    @Chris – what you say is so very true. @Larry isn’t reticent about dispensing his excellent advice. He doesn’t build a fence around it and insist on selling tickets. He doesn’t sit cross-legged in a roomful of incense (well, I don’t =think= he does … 😉 ). He’s just as blunt and candid about your work as, well, as a reader/buyer would be. And he’s a damn good teacher.

    Writing is an extremely competitive world … even more so now, as self-pub has unfortunately filled the pond with unedited (and quite unreadable) drivel. It takes a comparatively long time to do a novel or even a novella, especially if you’ve never done it before, and yet it promises absolutely no return on that investment. You need every advantage you can get, just to stand a chance. You need someone who really cares; who cares enough to tell it – bluntly, frankly – like it is.

  29. First, I’ll reiterate – thanks to Carl for sharing this with all of us! I think it’s fun to see what ideas this story generated in the rest of us.

    I thought the story could be saved by starting later – the MC is already a sell-out. He’s in the city, he’s slick, he’s living large. He has a great socialite girlfriend, that maybe he thinks is just great arm candy. She thinks he’s a fun guy with a hint of bad-boy that annoys her father (she likes that) and is great to date until it’s time to settle down.

    Then, his long lost father shows up and MC starts to have conflicting feelings – he realizes he wants family, too, not just big city “success”. And, the girlfriend starts acting weird – turns out there is this other guy!

    But – when she tries to break up with MC because she is thinking about settling down with this lame guy her dad approves of, they realize they are actually in love. MC learns to share his inner side with her = big romantic moment.

    Or something. 🙂

    Keep writing Carl! It takes bravery to share inner emotions with others, and it takes determination to craft plot around all that.

  30. Carl

    Hi Sibilant
    Thanks very much for your comments, they are helpful ways to consider the story. I really appreciate the sentiment of your message it’s very encouraging
    Thank you