Elevate Your Storytelling Game

A Few Thoughts To Help You Make Your Story Better Out of the Gate (Which Is Your Head)

But first… you are invited to read an interview running on Authornomics… with me.  There’s some value there, in that it illuminates the sometimes long and winding road that becomes the path to publication.  In my case, my latest novel, Deadly Faux.

It took nine years.  Just sayin’.

Things To Remember

There is a difference between concept and premise. Sometimes it’s hard to spot, but it’s always there.

It is a difference not easily reconciled because the terms have become — disastrously so — interchangeable, even among those who operate at the highest  levels of the business (agents and editors.)

But WE need to know.  There are plenty of posts on this topic here.

I”m not saying you must have a high concept story.  But know this: without a strong concept, the story relies, almost solely in most cases, on character and theme.  The two toughest things to pull off.

Dramatic tension — conflict — is what drives fiction.  In all genres.  Sometimes it’s subtle, but it’s always there… in stories that work.

Why are character and premise so tough, if you try to position them as the engine of a story?  Because writers make the mistake of believing they can write about those things — character and theme… especially theme — directly, rather than allowing them to emerge from a dramatic story arc.

If you can really understand what that last sentence means, you are heading in a very healthy storytelling direction.

Those types of conflict-free stories tend to be “the adventures of X’ tales, a series of scenes that show: the prejudice in a town… in tolerance in a family…  the toxicity of past abuse… the consequences of bad parents.  In other words, theme.

Theme is good, but best when it is the outcome of a dramatic arc.

If your story is about “showing how my hero discovers themselves after X,” and you don’t have a specific story arc that is dramatic in nature, the story could be at risk.  Your intentions are well-placed, but you need more.

These two things — the relationship between concept and premise, and the nature of a theme-driven story that has no dramatic arc (giving your hero a specific problem to address, with a specific antagonist that represents the issue, rather than the issue itself being the villain) are huge.

Wrapping your head around them will put you in the top ten percent of authors submitting work for publication… right out of the gate.


The offer is still open: buy my new novel, Deadly Faux, send me the online receipt (or the name of the bookstore), and I’ll send you my soon-to-be-done craft ebook using the book as a deconstruction laboratory.  See the plot points and story beats where they reside, and why, and understand how concept and premise are both in evidence, yet remain different and hierarchical.

Opt-in at storyfixer@gmail.com.  The ebook will be ready in a week or two.  Let the transparency begin.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

10 Responses to Elevate Your Storytelling Game

  1. Emergence is difficult for most folks to grasp which is probably why letting theme and character emerge is so difficult. What if people don’t get the theme? What if people don’t see that this guy isn’t a heartless jerk, he’s just confused?

    Allowing emergence requires trusting the reader.

  2. Thanks for sharing your long and winding road. Your advice and style is strong and often very immediate, like “here’s the key, now produce the novel.” 😀

  3. @Terri – my intention is more like this: here’s “a” key (not “the” key), slide it in, try it out, see how much easier the door opens now, better than the bobbie pin or hammer you “may” have been using before. L.

  4. Robert Jones

    Hi folks…been away for a while, though I’ve read most postings. Just haven’t taken the time to comment a lot. After finishing a plot I could live with, I’ve been intensely putting it all together on scene cards with new material added. Next week, scripting finally begins…HOOHAH!!!

    How has developing that concept held up? Pretty well, actually, but I arrived at in what may be a less than traditional way. Every time I discovered a problem it took me back to that basic foundational level. But that foundation encorporated a great many things, most in terms of balancing the hero and villain on my end. And since that’s usually core, even when my concept became “conceptual,” the story was out of balance on certain levels. I had my villain’s back-story, and even that didn’t seem to even out the scales through several drafts of a scene by scene outline.

    Writing isn’t easy. Has that been stated enough here?

    What helped me find balance was a simple thing. Robert McKee, in his screenwriting book, “Story,” mentions that a scene consists of beats. Each beat generating from the onset of the POV character’s “want,” or “expectations.” Whatever the POV character expects to happen when he takes that innitial action, doesn’t happen. The exact opposite happens, generating another action. By the end of the scene, the initial expectation, if positive, “turns” into something negative. Or the reverse.

    So I began applying this as one would apply the law of opposites to everything. What “emerged” was a villain who truly became the antithesis of the hero. Each scene became a microverse within the macroverse of the novel. Every action/reaction a mirror to hold up to each side of an argument. Symbolism began to emerge that added layers to theme and premise. And not so coincidentally, the concept that I first applied to the hero generated a sort of anti-concept for the villain.

    The goal, or finish-line never changed. The outcome of my original theme was still in place. The story I wanted to tell from the onset remained…though at times when each side of the argument grew, hero and villain each having desires that could’ve been widely explored, or make the outcome radically different, depending on who crossed the finish-line first. But by exploring both sides of the mirror in depth, I found ways to improve both sides, both reflections–and my plot finally fell into place and worked.

    It took a lot of reading, movies, documentaries, exploring my own human experiences, to find common denominators between dark and light. However, when you can discover that universal truth about humanity that fits into the struggles between your hero and villain, it becomes whole. That one key conceptual image can emerge as well. Or maybe i should say, “becomes sharpened” as a result. Because what are we writing for if not to at least partially uncover a truth that we all know, but possibly didn’t see the implications, or ramifications, within our own lives?

    Writing isn’t just about a fun story. It’s a journey, encapsulated within a parable, intensified by boiling it down until what’s left in the pot is its most flavorful essence. But let’s not forget that pot was filled to the brim when we first turned on the flame. So if concept, premise, and theme aren’t emerging yet, you may have to expand your search. Or maybe just allow things to boil a while longer. Personally, I used to hate delays. Because I’ve been subjected to the same misconceptions about time wasted being a bad thing as many people in this world. But through writing, I’ve learned that delays can often prove benificial, that a less than productive day often means that the pot hasn’t stewed long enough. And when I discover the next piece of the puzzle, I’m glad I didn’t jump in and attempt to press forward for a day or three.

    Creativity is often a model for the rest of life on various levels. It’s quite different than the precepts the world expouses. Which I think is why so many writers have trouble, or give up. Because if it doesn’t happen fast enough, it’s a waste of time and resources. And we try to incorporate into our creativity a system, or work ethic, what is primarily used by business, and is flawed by design. If it weren’t, why would we turn to fiction in the first place? Wouldn’t we all be contently running around enjoying the “business” of our day jobs and lives in general?

    Eventually, it becomes a business, once we get published. But what we do now, what we learn, comes from a bit of a deeper well. With practice, we can add business and work ethics. But most of us won’t get there if we put the end result before the learning. Sort of like the cart pulling the horse over a cliff.

    Just a crazy thought 🙂

  5. Robert Jones

    BTW, I did read “Deadly Faux” and am looking forward to the ebook. As everyone reading this should be!

  6. Sara Davies

    To reiterate my compliment of your novel, which inexplicably has been deleted: Deadly Faux is a great, fun read. Wolfgang Schmidt is a cool, new and different male thriller protagonist. This is the last time I’m going to say this, so if you delete it again, you’re on your own. Have a nice day.

  7. Matt Clark

    Wait, Wait! I need more here. I just learned what not to do, but can you show me what to do? I need the last example: what does that high concept story look like?

    – You gave me theme: “the adventures of X’ tales, a series of scenes that show: the prejudice in a town… in tolerance in a family… the toxicity of past abuse… the consequences of bad parents.”

    – You gave me character: “showing how my hero discovers themselves after X,”

    So what would the concept pitch/overview/one liner look like? I need to see it to understand it.

    Follow up if you don’t mind answering:
    – If Theme and Character are details of premise. Is there a comparable example to better understand concept?

  8. @ Matt — fair question. There are about 25 posts within the last two years here that deal directly with what a concept is, and isn’t. Try the Search function (to the right), for “concept” and you’ll have a lot of reading on this available. L.

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