Category Archives: turning pro

Part 2: A Deeper Understanding of Craft

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.

The Feedback

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. 

They are:

–         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.

Still confused?

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.


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A Deeper, Richer Understanding of Craft

I used to think that the title of this post describes what we are all out to achieve as writers.  That this is, in fact, a description of the writing journey as well as the destination.

 Not so sure anymore.  I’m certain that it can be – and I suspect that it should be – but I’m more convinced than ever that it doesn’t have to be, nor is it always so. 

 Like the song says, some girls just wanna have fun. 

 Some even get rich and famous in the process.

The more I study this stuff, though, the more convinced I am that, whichever side of this fence you are on, a richer level of understanding opens deeper access to a set of empowering tools and principles that might otherwise prove elusive.  A set of criteria, checks and balances that allow us to optimize our stories both before, during and after we’ve written them.

Imagine if you could look at the story you are about to write, and/or the story you’ve just finished, and assess it in context to something that is universally true and essential – a set of forces and principles and criteria that exists whether you acknowledge them or not – wouldn’t that be a good thing?  I think it would be.

Without such an understanding… well, you’re stuck with your instincts and the mathematical probably that you’ve hit the target as close to dead center as you possibly can.  That there are no better creative decisions left on the table that trump those you’ve already made.

In other words, a crap shoot.  And in a game that offers you a path to bettering your odds.

Some writers get to the promised land placing these kind of bets.  Others spend decades waiting for their horse to come in.

I say, learn how to build a better horse and watch what happens. 

You can wait for the game to come to you, or you can go after it. 

As it is with sports and music and other forms of art – even in relationships and business and our health – it certainly is possible to dive in, experiment, learn, grow your instincts, get better and advance along the storytelling path – perhaps even to a professional level – without aspiring to truly understand what you’re up against and what, as a result, you are up to.

Or, put another way, to break it all down into its component parts. 

We know we need to cut down on calories to lose weight… but do we always know why?  The science behind it?  The real analogous question here is, would we be better at it if we knew why?  

Would our options increase and our risks be mitigated if we knew?

I think so.  Doesn’t mean you can’t lose weight simply by skipping lunch and not sweating the details.  It also doesn’t mean you’ll end up reaching your goal, or possibly paying the wrong price to get there.

Unless you seek to become a professional nutritionist.  Then it matters that you know.

Sometimes a result is a natural outcome of an organic experience over time (like skipping lunch).  Sometimes it’s just too much fun and too rewarding to allow a story to just flow out of you, instead of sweating the underlying principles that make it work.

I’m not talking about planning

No, this mindset is as effective if you plan as it is if plod (pants) your stories.

I’m talking about the application of criteria, principles and even instinct that is based on something bigger than yourself, outside of yourself.  Something that is true for everyone, before and after your time on the writing stage.

As important to writing as, say, gravity is to playing golf or flying airplanes.

We can’t alter the physics that make a ball curve in mid-air when thrown properly (or a golf ball curve in mid-air when struck improperly)… make a song pierce the heart like a whispered truth from God… or make a painting into an unforgettable frozen frame that captures the essence of the soul itself.

We can ignore them and hope for the best, betting that our instincts make up for our ignorance or rejection of what is true. 

Fact is, a set of underlying physics are at work in these outcomes whether the athlete or artist acknowledges or leverages them or not.

For those who seek to understand what storytelling craft is all about at a deeper level – an understanding that can lead to a steeper learning curve and a hastened outcome as well as jacking the fun factor through the roof – I offer the following.

There are three realms inherent to the storytelling experience.

These aren’t issues of process as much as they are issues of essence.

A cynic could easily mush them together into a single breath of creative exhilaration and call it good, labeling them as different takes on the same thing.

But storytelling absolutely can be broken down… into three different realms or essences.  Those who see them as separate essences are uniquely equipped to optimize their stories, and in a way that those who don’t or won’t cannot.

If you are building a structure – a bridge, a house, a strip mall – or writing a novel, there are three essences in play.  Three levels.  Three focuses.  Three forces.  Three stages.  Three contextual lenses through which to view your project.

And they are paradoxical, because they play out in sequence, and then at a certain point they combine to play out in simultaneous three-part harmony (intentional mixed metaphor).  You can look at them backwards, retroactively, sequentially or melded and gain great value… or you can harness them out of the starting blocks and also gain value.

Or you can ignore them and hope that your instinct, rather than your proactive hands-on working knowledge of them, will have imbued your story with what they provide.

They are:

         the physics that allow a structure to bear weight and hold together in a stiff wind…


         the blueprint that shows how the structure will hang together, a plan that comes together as the result of the discovery of what the end should look like…


         and then the final coat of paint and polish and artful touch that makes the structure an aesthetic, qualitatively judged piece of real estate.  

There exists only one set of underlying physics.  

Those physics comprise the first realm, or essence, of storytelling.  Or of any craft.  They don’t care whether you recognize them or not, because they will rule your outcome in spite of you.

But you should care.  Because to not recognize, say, the physics of story pacing in your novel is to leave that essential quality up for grabs. 

Name your field of endeavor, you’ll find that these three realms or essences apply in some form in evidence: the physics that govern it all… the search for effective application… refinement .  That the last one is what separates the successful from the masses who apply the same set of physics and tools.

Notice, however, that the reverse isn’t true. 

Form over function may work in interior design, but its a deal killer in storytelling.

It is literary physics… discovered and pro-actively applied with a set of tools used in the search for story… that provide function for the layer of paint that is the sum of your words.

Stay tuned… I’ll go over the three realms of the storytelling experience in my next post.

A mindset is a beautiful, powerful thing once ridded of limiting beliefs. 



Filed under turning pro