Last post I opened a can of worms that a few of you found… confusing. Even discouraging.
And some of you, thankfully, found to be liberating and empowering.
I promised a follow-up, but did so without taking into consideration that confusion might ensue. So today’s post is sort of a dance between clarification and continuation (sounds like marriage to me, but that’s another post), with the goal of making room for all of us on the same page.
If you count yourself among the confused (rather than the discouraged, which is a different response altogether), I ask you to go back to the last post (Part 1) and scroll through the Comments until you find one from Cathy Yardley, an astute blogger on writing craft and a very knowledgeable contributor. She confessed to being a little confused, too. Which I took to heart.
Believe me when I say, I get that it’s probably my fault. This stuff is thick and gooey and nuanced, which is ironic given that my highest objective is to clarify.
Read my response to Cathy’s call for clarification.
I’m hoping that’ll help.
There’s a reason we go deeper into the storytelling experience.
Since I mentioned marriage, allow me to leverage that analogy for a moment.
It’s hard. It continues to be hard the longer we do it. We succeed at it, if we ever do, in spite of it being hard, applying what we’ve learned and tested and grown into along the way. Or not.
Given that easy-to-accept truth, you wouldn’t think of saying this:
Gee, this is hard and confusing, so stop telling me what makes a marriage work or not, stop breaking it down into its most basic levels and then providing tools to apply to the challenge, and stop telling me how to make my marriage stellar in a neighborhood full of separations and weekend visitations, which is just, I dunno, normal. Just let me wing it and make my own way, because all that psychological crap is just so darn confusing. I mean, just look at the Joneses next door, they don’t ever talk about their relationship and they seem happy as hell.
That’s what some writers feel when confronted with the depth of knowledge available about storytelling.
“Just shut up and drive” may work in some relationships, but when it comes to your relationship with your story, it’s a recipe for frustration. Possibly a train wreck.
The information and the understanding is out there. We all get to choose whether we wear blinders or reading glasses.
I’m delighted that so many of you “get it.” That the relationship between storytelling physics and storytelling tools, and the possibility of storytelling art is, while still challenging, an intriguing and promising can of literary worms.
You get that the recognition of three levels of storytelling experience – essences, if you will – is empowering because it provides a variety of ways to approach and evaluate our work. It’s overly simplistic to just ask, “is this good enough?” Especially in comparison to “Is there enough dramatic tension… is the pacing right… will my reader feel the vicarious experience of my hero and root for her or him on that path… and is the conceptual centerpiece of the whole thing going to be compelling enough to anybody but me?”
Which question(s) gets you further, faster, and with better outcome? The ones that are based on an understanding of dramatic physics, that’s which.
One reader commented that these levels and all these component parts and realms and essences and tools and empowering hoo-hah (my words, not his) is starting to feel like Buddhism (apologies to enthusiasts for that belief system, those are his words, not mine).
Which translates to: why is this so hard? Why can’t we just write our damn stories and not worry about all this “stuff”?
I’m sorry this is hard. I’m not the one making it hard. I’m one of the guys – for better or worse – trying to bring clarity to the inherent difficulty of it. And in doing so, hopefully add to the bliss of it.
Clarity comes from breaking things down into their component parts, and then examining the relationships between them to help us make better choices.
Just like in marriage. And in health, investing, spirituality, even politics.
As in life.
Even when it all seems so… complicated.
Another reader expressed concern that the underlying physics and the six core competencies tended to sound like the same things, or at least overlap. A fair assessment, and a great can of worms to open.
Because they are, and they aren’t.
Breaking It Down
If you don’t like the term “physics” (my editor at Writers Digest Books didn’t, by the way), then call them literary forces or fundamental qualities. What you call them is less critical than how well you understand them.
Or better put, understand how essential they are.
These forces are like gravity. They simply exist. Deny them and you’re still stuck with them. Harness them and you can achieve things like flying and dancing and hitting balls for fun and profit.
I’ve broken them down into four areas that writers should grasp (my opinion), because each stands separate and alone – yet related and dependant – in a story that really works.
– dramatic tension (conflict in the story)
– vicarious empathy (we root for the hero, we care)
– pace (how quickly and how well the story moves forward)
– inherent compelling appeal (why anyone will want to read this)
These natural dramatic forces are not tools, per say. They are, however, what make writing tools and models and processes effective, because such things are designed to harness — optimize — their power.
And that’s the difference between the four forces – physics – of dramatic theory, and the Six Core Competencies that allow us to access and optimize them.
The Six Core Competencies are tools.
They are based on physics, and they describe the physics, but they are not the physics.
They are an operations handbook to the physics.
You could argue, perhaps, that they somewhat overlap with the four forces (essences) described above, but they’re really a defining context and a list of standards, criteria and elements that allow the writer to optimize the physics.
A concept – one of the six core competencies – touches on all four of the inherent set of physics (forces, essences) in a well told story.
Characterization focuses on three of them.
Theme touches all four.
And structure… that completely defines how effectively all four will perform.
Scene execution is the means by which all four happen.
Writing voice is the delivery vehicle, squeaky wheels and all.
Allow me one more shot at an analogy here in an effort to clarify.
The physics of cooking are: heat, food, seasoning, presentation. They aren’t things, per se, they are qualities. They aren’t even activities until, well, they are put into play. They are what you have to work with. They are what you seek to optimize. You deal with all of them, to some degree (or absence), every time you cook a meal. Leave one unhonored (like, serve the chicken raw) and the meal will bomb.
None of those, however, stand alone as a recipe. They are the raw materials, the variables, of a recipe.
A recipe is, in fact, a set of core competencies that coalesce into a strategy and a plan that allow you to optimize those four forces, or variables in the cooking equation. Each one of those four things – heat, food, seasoning, presentation – can be understood, applied and put on a plate in any number of combinations.
The core competencies of cooking are what allows you to optimize those forces. To harness their power for good, for effectiveness. The core competencies become a recipe. And not necessarily a formulaic one (you still get to pick the china, determine the strength of the spices and decide between rare and well done). You still select the levels you desire to put into the outcome, from a pinch to a pint to nothing at all.
And if a recipes calls for you to zest a lemon, which is a skill-based activity, then you’d best understand what that means, practice it, perfect it and nail it. Especially if your goal is to cook professionally.
Or you could just wing it, make it up, or skip it altogether — because this is so freaking hard! — and take your chances.
In our stories, the Six Core Competencies are a set of tools that allow the writer to understand and optimize the raw forces from which a story is made. The better you apply them, the better the story.
Physics are just there. Wai ting to be used or abused or worse, taken for granted. Waiting to help you or kill you. They are eternal.
They are waiting for your creative choices and tastes.
The Core Competencies are a means by which to make sure that what you serve your audience is both delicious and nourishing, and in a way that allows you to impart your own touch.
A set of tools. Working with a set of physics.
Which leaves us with the third realm of writing experience (again, the first being physics/forces/essenses, the second being the six core competencies, or however else you wish to label them: and that is the polish, the final veneer.
And therein, in what has heretofore been craft, resides the possibility of art.
Whether by design or by pure blind stumbling luck… whether by trial and error or focused intention… whether after decades of effort or after a single informed and enlightened draft…
… art doesn’t stand a chance until craft has been served.
And craft, no matter how you define or apply the tools, is totally dependant on physics.
My book — “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” — has recently been published by Writers Digest Books and is available at most bookstores and online venues.
Image courtesty of Eric Fredericks, via Flickr.