Conquering the “Wisdom Gap”

Knowledge is understanding that a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable.

Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.


Maybe you’ve been at this a while.

You’ve read all the books and blogs, you know…

… the difference between a concept and a premise…

… you know that good stories unfold over four contextually-driven parts of roughly equal length…

… you understand the purpose and placement of a functional first plot point…

… you know that story doesn’t really trump structure (because you also know that story is structure)…

… and you realize that process, provided it is fully informed, doesn’t matter, because the criteria for effectiveness doesn’t care what your process is.

Among a whole truckload of other storytelling stuff that you know.

Or maybe all of that is Greek to you.

In which case, you are on a path.

It’s up to you to determine if you remain motionless and clueless (perhaps uncaring, which is more dangerous than unaware) on the path… because hey, this is writing, and writing is fun, so just leave me alone and let me scribble away as I please.

Thing is, this path is an ascending slippery slope, which means if you stand still for too long, you’ll slide backwards and eventually fall flat on your tookus, wondering what went wrong.

Or you can decide to go higher, to build your awareness and practice of craft to the point not only do  you get it, but you suddenly see it in play in the stories you read and watch on a screen.

Either way, there’s something else you need to know, sooner or later.

You might wonder why your story isn’t selling, when some of the stuff you read isn’t any better. In your opinion, at least.

The more you know about craft, the less frequently you’ll experience this. Because you’ll be able to sense the answer. You’ll know how high the bar is, and what remains to be learned and put into play before it can be reached.

But then… something else might strike you: how do those writers—the ones with the killer ideas you wish you had, and the consistently bestselling writers who nail it time after time—do that?

Are they simply smarter and more creative that you? Maybe… maybe not.

What do they know that you don’t?

The answer may be… nothing. You may indeed know what they know.

The truth is it may have nothing at all to do with knowing. The best writers in the world will tell you that nobody really knows anything (a direct quote from William Goldman)… even when in reality it’s obvious they know a lot about storytelling.

So what is it? What is that final thing we need to know… to understand?

It is this: getting into that elite elevated place, where the Kings and Baldaccis and Noras and Gabaldons and several dozen other elite writers dwell, isn’t wholly defined by knowledge at all.

Rather, it is defined by storytelling wisdom.

Which is a fusion of knowledge, informed instinct and experience… resulting in wisdom.

Those elite writers have an evolved, higher sense of story.

In other words, while your writing knowledge may match up, your writing wisdom—the ability to sense the best possible creative notion and solution in a given story moment, not to mention land on the best possible story premise in the first place—may still be in an earlier stage of development.

Hey, they were there once, too.  Rare is the writer who was born with an evolved story sense.

Writing wisdom is the ability to land on, and then implement, a stellar execution of a story element (beginning with a promising premise) in the moment of creation… either within a story planning phase, or an organic story development process.

The ability to come up with an OMG story idea, the one you wish you had thought of.

The ability to deliver a scene that jolts you right out of your socks, or sends your heart into spasms of bliss or shatters with utter terror… and do it better than the rest of us can do it.

Writing a story is a constant process of creative decision making.

We apply knowledge to know what kind of scene is required in a given moment. We apply whatever state of wisdom—story sensibility—to land on something that is optimally effective in an artful, emotionally resonant way within the context of the narrative at hand.

Our goal as writers is to elevate our story sensibility. To become wise in our vision and selection and delivery of story elements that flesh out a promising premise… which is also the product of wisdom.

Even if you know as much about basic craft and story structure and the requisite story physics as David Baldacci (for example), chances are that in the moment of creation and execution, he will come up with something better than we will.

It happens in all fields of art and intellect and athletics. When it counts, superstars draw upon a depth of sensibility developed over time—that’s Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice paying off—to make the right move, in the right way, with the right touch and power.

All the guys in the NBA, for example, have off-the-charts athletic gifts and a highly developed sense of the game. But when the clock is winding down and you have one shot to win the game with a one-on-one move, who do you want to have the ball?  Steph Curry, that’s who.  Lebron James, that’s who.

Hard telling if either player has the deepest well of knowledge of the game they play. But both bring wisdom to the moment that consistently elevates them above their peers.

That’s what we need to do with our stories. Elevate them above the crowd. That’s the goal.

It manifests in the details.

A quick example from my latest book, a non-fiction project about relationships.

I was writing about a promise my wife made to me, relative to fidelity. This is what I wrote, which as you’ll see required a decision in the selection of a specific name in a specific context:

If I cheated on her, for example, she assures me she would plant a two-by-four squarely in the middle of my forehead while I slept, and that it would be a committed swing the likes of which Albert Pujols would be proud.

It made perfect sense to me. I wrote it, and I moved on. But was it a wise move?

Upon completion my step-daughter would be the first beta reader. She was encouraging, but she mentioned this: “It was sorta confusing to me. I got lost a few times.”

That’s what beta-readers do. They generalize. They over-state. Because it turns out she was confused by only one thing, in one place… and that perception translated, for her, into a “the book was confusing sometimes” generalized response.

Agents and editors and producers do the same thing. One bad move, one less-then-wise choice, and your project is labeled accordingly.

Turns out she had no idea who Albert Pujols is. No clue. Never mind he was the best power hitter in baseball over the past decade. She’d never heard of him.

That knowledge put him into this analogy. On that level it made perfect sense.

But was it a wise choice? Nope. Because she didn’t recognize the name. Nor would many readers in this niche.

So I changed Albert Pujols to Barry Bonds. She’d heard of Barry Bonds, as would anyone not living on an island somewhere. Problem solved. The book was no longer confusing to her. (Apologies if you do live on an island and have never heard of Barry Bonds, one of whom I just heard from; hmmm, maybe I just unwittingly put a little tomato in this fruit salad, so I’ll live and learn, which is the point, one worth keeping Barry here for a while…)

Wisdom, like God, resides in the details, as much as it does within the bigger issues where knowledge rules.

So how do we get there?

What if we don’t have the feedback on hand to lead us toward wisdom in our storytelling decisions?

I have a theory about that.

I believe that the elevation of story sense isn’t solely reliant upon practice, nor is it exclusively the consequence of studying the craft. Rather, it is using a broad and deep exposure and comprehension of craft—knowing all there is to know, all that you can find—and then applying that knowledge to recognize and analyze genius story moments in stellar stories, written by writers who wield an elevated level of wisdom as a matter of course.

Athletes have game tapes. Performers have playback and America’s Got Talent, where evaluation is the show. We writers have… the ability to analyze and evaluate every story and film that is critically hailed and commercially viable, with a view toward understanding why.

We all do it. But writers with a high degree of story sense do it differently, and better, than the rest of us.

The more you know, the easier it will be to see why a given story premise or idea or execution is deemed powerful and resonant. The writer (and certainly, the non-writer) who doesn’t understand the underlying craft will never comprehend the genius at hand, only the outcome of it.

So it’s a two-level path to get there.

First, immerse yourself in craft, to the point where you can cite the litany of storytelling principles chapter and verse, and explain it to anyone in terms that make it accessible.

Be the student that becomes the teacher.

And then, after you’re there… start noticing what works. Study stories. And just as valuable, study what doesn’t work. Make that level of inquiry—reading anything and everything, all of it informed by your vast wealth of knowledge about the craft—your graduate course in writing wisdom.

When you are well down that path, you will inevitably be able to apply a higher qualitative aesthetic to your own work. Your choices will be wiser, the impact of them collectively consequential.

Informed by wisdom, built on a foundation of knowledge, you will no longer be tempted, however blindly, to plop a few tomatoes into the fruit salad of your story.


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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

9 Responses to Conquering the “Wisdom Gap”

  1. John V

    Nice post. To add a line to the first quote that I felt at the end of reading your thoughtful post: Maybe greatness lies somewhere in that persistent effort to make a delicious fruit salad.

  2. Martha Miller

    It’s always good to read what you have to say about the craft of writing, Larry! Thanks for your wisdom — again.

  3. Wonderful post! And a nice reminder that we should never stop being a student of craft. I didn’t know who Albert Pujois was either, but I do know Barry Bond. Love this line: “Apologies if you do live on an island and have never heard of Barry Bonds, one of whom I just heard from.” So funny!!!

  4. I had to wiki barry bond. I live in New Zealand which is an island!

  5. Ryan

    I would have went with “Hacksaw Jim Duggan” with the two by four analogy although sadly there are those who do not recall that guy either.

  6. Kerry Boytzun

    Excellent post.

    The high-caliber Story Sense Larry wrote about, is the conscious competence reached in a discipline, whether a sport, cleaning, fighting, singing, or writing.

    What stops most people is the desire to be conscious of how they are being in the moment. Being is out. Doing is in. Do the stuff, turn the wrench and hammer the nail. The art of it, the big picture of it—you have no control so don’t worry about that crap. But as an author you are the creator. This changes things.

    Famous parable:

    A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. “Master, I wish to become your disciple,” said the man.
    “Why?” replied the hermit.
    The young man thought for a moment.
    “Because I want to find God.” The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under the water. After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke.
    “Tell me, what you wanted most of all when you were under water.” “Air!” answered the man. “Very well,” said the master.
    “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”

    There are many things to consider here:
    The man has a wish. How does he know when he will attain it? Is his wish (goal) specific in what it will look like, how long to attain it? The point the alleged Master is saying is how serious is this man in this endeavor?

    Metaphorically, what is the river substance? In regards to writing, could it be the river of words? In other words, you can drown in books, movies, and TV, and yet not have a clue on how to swim in it. Your “sense” of the river isn’t there, is it?

    Why is the man even asking? Is it really a wish he wants or does he want someone else to do the work for him? Does he want to learn or be shown how? I think the latter. We have a plethora of people who want to only be shown the You-Tube/Twitter condense version of everything so they can put it on their phones, watch it (consume it) and then it’s off to the next thing.

    The man’s answer to what he wanted most while under water: was that a conscious desire or a reactive need of panic? Where I am going, is did the man truly want to live or is he not prepared for death? What is the man accustomed to? Normal breathing doesn’t require any labor, hence it’s not valued and instead, taken for granted.

    If realized you had a LIMITED TIME to create a compelling novel—would you still try? Would your attitude be more serious?

    Does staying alive mean living a life of compliance and distraction (get a job, fit in, don’t complain, obey)?

    If your story sense is as dull as most people’s lives (in the moment)—good luck with that.

    Somehow, you have to become an imaginative lunatic. Like a child’s imagination. But you must have the common-sense, the Story Sense—of how to weave it into your story.

    • Kerry Boytzun

      Another realization:

      “Tell me, what you wanted most of all when you were under water.” “Air!” answered the man. “Very well,” said the master.
      “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”

      We don’t know if the hermit was really into God. The hermit could have been meditating to the sound of the river, to be one with nature. We’d have to ask the hermit. However, the master/hermit was telling the man to come back to him when his GOAL (“because I want to find God”) was what the man could keep his focus on “when the going got tough” (painful).

      In other words, the man lost sight of his focus when he was bombarded by the river (the antagonistic force of—for writers—too much information, advice, distractions of life, job, kids).

      Going with the hero metaphor in a story, the man should have wanted to be able to stop the man from drowning him—or to realize that his answer of finding God—was when he faced the meaning of the situation he was in.

      Being = the Why. Doing = the How.

  7. MikeRobinson

    But please, also remember(!) that when you read “a published novel,” you are looking at the FINISHED work. If the people who helped to produce it (including, but not limited to, the author himself) have done their jobs well, none of their efforts are visible. The room is spotless. There’s not a speck of marble-dust anywhere: just a magnificent sculpture awaiting your adoration. “The process” is invisible.

    But, when you take a block of marble in YOUR own hand and try to turn it into something beautiful, you have to learn EVERYTHING about “the process,” including how to make forward progress when there’s no one telling you what to do, and when every decision that you will make is neither “right” nor “wrong.” Until now, it might never have occurred to you that your Gentle Author was making decisions every step of the way. (As a mere Gentle Reader, you never saw any of the choices that he set-aside. Therefore, it all looked like magic.)

    When you “embark upon the creative journey” for yourself, no matter what your chosen creation might be, always bear in mind that “creativity” fundamentally consists of choices. Your choices. Don’t look for road-signs leading you out of the forest that you have made: choose your own path.

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