The Epidemic and Systemic Sabotage via Brainwashing of Aspiring Novelists

As a writing coach and author of writing books and articles, I deal in numbers. Volume. Significant databases of writers and stories. Manuscripts, story plans, synopses, samples, story analysis and the hands-on witnessing of stories under development. And I’m here to tell you…

… there’s trouble in River City. I see it, I read it, every single day.

Too many of today’s writers don’t really understand what a “story” is.

I know, that’s a heretical thing to say. String me up and throw books at me, the ones that don’t tell you everything you need to know, or how it is in the real world.

But based on what I see, the stories I’m paid to read and evaluate, this story-thinness is too often the case. Often enough, in fact, to sense a trend, the presence of a career-killing writing virus that is the single most significant factor in why people can’t get their novel published.

The “story” just isn’t strong enough. In many cases, it’s not even a story at all. Even if the original idea has merit, the ensuring premise and the story built from it may not.

I’m on an airplane as I write this, heading to a Big Time writing conference, where I’m slated to present three workshops and — more germane to this post — sit down with 13 writers to go over their manuscript samples.

Add that to my coaching work, for which I’ve read over 500 story plans and dozens of full manuscripts in the past two years. All of it sort of mushes together in my head, leading me to a depressing conclusion.

Which is… somebody out there is leading our aspiring writers right into the dumpster. Where they got the idea that the stories I’m seeing – a much too large a percentage of them – are actually “stories” in the truest, most literary and commercial sense of the word, is beyond me.

It makes me sad, actually. These stories represent dreams and aspirations. Somebody has to say it: you need a better handle on what a good story IS… and what it ISN’T.

There are some terrific prose stylists out there pounding away, for sure. But eloquence and tricked out narrative won’t get you published. Not even close. In today’s market story trumps… everything…including your sentences, and — here’s the rub — including your characters.

Which is why we need to know what a story is… and what it isn’t.

Just showing us a character, from all sides and angles, does not a story make.

It’s as if these folks had all just emerged from a summer camp on “writing a literary novel” (perhaps with “M.F.A.” somewhere in the header) under the assumption that the ONLY thing that counts is “writing about a character.” Never mind giving that character something to DO, something that matters, or providing the reader with something to root for, via the unfolding of a dramatic plot.

Writing art… a noble pursuit.  But writing for readers commercially… that’s a completely different ballgame.  Thing is, too many aspiring to the latter are adopting the mindset of the former.

Somebody slept in on the day when the teacher told the class about CONFLICT being the most important element of fiction. Even in literary fiction, where the hero needs to be doing something — besides living their life — that the reader can relate to and empathize with.

Not a whole bunch of different episodic glimpses of conflict, the only connection between which is the fact that they feature the same protagonist… that’s a diary, a biography, not a story.

All the stuff that happened to Bob that made him the man he is today…” is not a story, either.  Not in a commercial sense.

Where do we get our notion of what a story is, and what it isn’t? Books, workshops, writing groups, something your freshman lit teacher said, blind naivete… I’m not sure. But it’s out there, and it’s killing dreams right and left.

Maybe those of us standing in front of the room aren’t doing enough talking about the right things. The things that make a story work at its most basic, fundamental level.

Most of us cover it, though, leaving me dumbfounded as to the source of this virus. Even writing teachers who aren’t big fans of structure — and there are plenty of ’em – usually emphasize that dramatic tension and escalating exposition (versus episodic exposition) is what makes a story tick.

It’s what makes a story a story.

Today’s aspiring novelist, it seems, wants to “write about the life of a character.” Period. It just sounds so… literary. Very impressive in the foyer as we trade pitches over shrimp and cocktails.

And thus, we keep getting pitched the life story of a fictional character.

Which — somebody forgot to tell them along the way — almost never works. Because we (the readers) have no reason to care, there’s nothing to root for, very little with which to engage on an emotional level.

For all of that to happen there needs to be a PLOT.

There, I said it. A good story needs to have a PLOT. In one form or another. A bunch of smaller plots, told in sequence… isn’t a novel. It’s a biography of a fictional character.  It’s a collection of short stories featuring the same protagonist.

Not a novel.

Unless you’re writing something to pass a class taught by a “literary author,” this is a true statement. If you want to publish your work in today’s market, you must have dramatic tension in play across the full arc of the story.

My conclusion — and it’s the most drastic, dramatic thing to say out loud in this business, to a room full of aspiring writers — is that too many aspiring writers today don’t really understand what a STORY is, at its most fundamental level. A real story, not just a character profile that spans the decades of a protagonist’s life.

That while you can certainly sit down and write about anything you want, you can’t expect anything and everything to be the raw material for a compelling novel with commercial plausibility.

Nobody seems to have the balls to tell these writers that they don’t have a STORY there. Which, if this is the case, is the most loving, timely and helpful thing they absolutely need to hear. Tell them that their story is thin on at least three of the six essential core competencies of fiction (you need ALL SIX of them for the story to work), and almost all of the six realms of story physics, which is the raw energy that makes any story work..

The life story of a fictional character is the most common case in point.

It’s all there, in the premise.

But there are other story killers that reside at the premise level, and until the premise changes there’s really no chance at making it come alive on the page. Such as: a killer concept leading to a lame premise. A vanilla premise with nothing conceptual about it at all. Or a complete mangling of the story’s structure in the name of “there are no rules.”

There aren’t. But there ARE principles, and they’ll sink you if you play too loose with them.

My favorite example of what a real story looks like, despite being well written, character-driven and thematically rich (the intoxicants of the literary-minded, and thus, the seductive alternative to plot), is the bestseller The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

I get push-back that actually claims this novel is an example of “just a story about some characters living their lives, that it really has no plot, and look what happened.  It’s all about the characters.”

Look again. Somebody isn’t reading the damn thing closely enough.

Because there is a significant PLOT at work in The Help, propping up and driving the thematic weight of the story as it fuels the entire thing… from providing a framework for all that stellar characterization and arc, to giving the hero (Skeeter, as the primary protagonist, and Aibeleen as a major enough player to claim co-protagonist props) something to DO in the story, a purpose, a mission, a quest, a problem to solve… something the reader will ROOT FOR because it is emotionally resonant, which the life story of a fictional character isn’t), all of it with massive stakes and significant opposition always in play.

Notice that this novel ISN’T “the life story of a colored maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.” It’s a concentrated drama unfolding over a concise period of time.

Harry Potter? Totally plot-driven.  With a great hero.

Jonathan Franzen’s books? Read them again… there’s a plot in every one of them.

Many well-intended “life stories of fictional characters” claim to have drama, but when you look closely it is delivered in chronologically-segregated chunks, as a series of vignettes that are, in essence, nothing other than short stories from the protagonist’s life, many of which are never resolved and have absolutely no drama. They just happen.

If you believe a “story” is simply a collection of words and scenes that feature a character, that give us a documentary and/or a chronology of something that happened as an isolated diary-entry from a fictional life… then go ahead, call it a “story” if you like.

Just don’t say it to an agent or an editor.

This is the type of assignment you received back in your creative writing class — write about something that happened to you, or happens to a character.

Fine. Learn to write scenes, that’s a good thing. But a scene is not a novel, and a series of scenes that aren’t parts of a connected plot spine aren’t a novel, either.

Character arc is not plot.

But somewhere along the line writers have come to believe they can just string these episodic chapters together and call it a novel… without a central dramatic arc… without a front-to-back contextual need or problem or mission driving the character… without giving the reader something to root for.

All this, under the assumption that the reader will be content to look in at it, as if peering through aquarium glass with voyeuristic pleasure. Or worse, to marvel at the symmetry and beauty of your prose.

If Skeeter didn’t need to write that book about the maids in Jackson, you have no novel. Perhaps more certainly, you have no mega-bestselling novel.

If the goal is to pass a writing class, to score a good grade and a comment from the teacher that “you write really well,” then sure, go for it. It’s good practice for writing scenes.

But that isn’t the game you’re in now.

Even if you aspire to publish a “literary” novel, which really isn’t a free pass from the fundamentals of what makes fiction work, the greatest of which is rooting for a character who has embarked upon a worthwhile path toward DOING something, encountering conflict, seeking to achieve something, solve something, obtain something, stop something, or otherwise resolve something…

… versus simply living from episode to episode over a period of time, or even a lifetime.

I call it “the adventures of (add hero’s name here)…” story.

And it doesn’t work.

I’m not saying it has never worked, but I am saying it’s not a mainstream gateway into becoming a published author. And even when it does work (a perception, that), much more is going on that a diary of a protagonist’s life experiences, the things that made them who they are.

It just won’t work unless you write like Cheever or Franzen or our favorite literary obscurity. And even then — long odds, that — if you look close enough, you’ll see a PLOT in there somewhere, giving the hero something that much be done, driving things forward.

If you miss that, you’re missing the whole point.

16 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

16 Responses to The Epidemic and Systemic Sabotage via Brainwashing of Aspiring Novelists

  1. Pingback: Writers Don’t Really Understand What A “Story” Is | Page Pounders

  2. MikeR

    I wish that I could remember the name of the short-story now, but the only writing teacher that I ever had who was worth her salt fairly threw it down on her desk and challenged us to read it. I remember that the story opened like this: with a terse description of the salient physical characteristics of the tip of a double-barreled shotgun … which was pointing directly at the protagonist.

    In the second paragraph, the man swats it to one side. The gun goes off – and kills his wife. The gunman throws it at him – he foolishly catches it – and melts away into the night. Bang. (Literally.) The guy just killed his wife. There had been problems, you know. Arguments, you know. People talk. People listen, too. People remember.

    On to paragraph six.

    We all know the old saw about the gun that appears over the mantelpiece in act-one has to go off by act-three? I like this one much better.

    Sometimes, I think that part of the problem is that we, in our ordinary lives, really don’t like conflict. We avoid it whenever possible. Naturally. However, when it comes to writing a story, we’ve got to become: “storytellers.” Spinners of =artificial= tales. Creators of conflict.

  3. Elizabeth Colebourn

    Just bought my first Kindle, and the wonderful thing about Kindle is that it gives percentages as you read. After downloading “Story Engineering” (of course) I went on to read Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” which seems like a very “literary” novel. And I was delighted when at the 25th percentile, I discovered the FPP; at the 50th percentile the Midpoint emerged, and then at the 75th percentile the dramatic SPP showed up. Thanks, Larry. I would never have understood this without your teaching.

  4. Jenny

    People who hang out on this site should watch the movie Snowpiercer with Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1706620/?ref_=ttrel_rel_tt

    Not only is it a really good example of story structure with well-delineated plot points, pinch points, etc., it is also offers good examples of character motivation, stakes, opposition, tension, pacing, and how to reveal backstory little by little instead of dumping it all in one spot.

    And the fact that it takes place on a train works on many metaphoric levels.

    Plus, it’s a good, entertaining film.

  5. MSL

    A case in point:
    I’m currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a literary novel and one of the most beautifully written and nicely observed ‘character’ novels I’ve read in a long time. But here’s the thing. The first plot point? Bang on target!

  6. I have coached some VERY neophyte songwriters, yet virtually all come to the table with a decent idea of song structure.

    It cannot be only the difference in length that makes story structure so elusive to folks who, ostensibly, care about it.

    Anybody ever wastes my time by the campfire with “The Continuing Adventures of . . . ” will be camping alone from then on.

  7. Jason Waskiewicz

    I would lay a lot of the blame at the feet of the people who write about books. There are exceptions, but a lot of them really push character or clever writing much more than they push plot. Those of us who read what had been written about a book are now quite separated from the book itself and left with the idea that these are the important things in writing. And, in fairness, if I ever do get published, I really don’t want someone to write an article about my book that gives away the plot.

    And, it is so easy! There are a number of classic works that are the story of a life. What I’ve learned is that editing is much harder than creating. There is so much I want to include that I have to edit out. When I started my current book, the original idea was the story of the hero’s life. He actually had quite an interesting life. Thankfully, I outlined and planned first and noticed something really big: the hero doesn’t actually start doing anything until age 36. All the rest, interesting as it is, happens to him. So, I now have an interesting backstory for him, and I started the book at age 36. That solved the problem of exactly how young he should be when I start writing!

  8. Kerry Boytzun

    No-Story Virus. I like it. Clearly as Larry’s experience has shown, there is a huge colossal lack of story understanding out there. Larry asks, “What is the SOURCE of the No-Story Virus?”

    I had wrote a LOT but then deleted it all because people have short attention spans. So here’s the very short version of the source Larry is wondering about. Two reasons: Hollywood – Main Stream Publishing of Novels; can’t cognitively put together complex relationships with what appear to be unrelated phenomena.

    Okay the first one is easy. There are too many “popular” TV series and movies that are mistaken to be “good”. Flashy special effects, and big names are marketed as why the movie was great. The movie Osage County–no story, period. Great acting. Big names. Sucked. Nebraska movie. You call that a story? Sucked! Boring. As I look it has great ratings on the IMBD website. Big deal. Both movies made me depressed, bored and worse. As for TV series, it seems the goal is to make you feel miserable as the characters are sliced up. Like a Saw movie. Horror? No, horrible. They suck. Oh how about the Fast and Furious movies? Sure, it’s like watching wresting and a care race. Story? Not so much. The problem is that people are using these movies as examples on how to write a story. I’ve read screen writing books. Clearly big money is making a lot of movies that would fail–in screen writing class.

    Same goes for a LOT of published books out there, and I’m not talking about the self published ones either. I’ve noted a LOT of readers love to read about episodic family adventures that have excellent narration and make you feel like you’re right there. Yes they’re popular, but I don’t know how Steinbeck is as good as he is touted to be. I’d rather read Michael Crichton’s earlier work. Steinbeck can write great prose, make me feel the country, dirt and all that. But whatever story went on in East of Eden–it was in SLOW MOTION. And more misery. Maybe people love to read about misery and people not solving problems? To me a story is about solving a problem, successful or not. Heroic.

    The second reason is that people can’t think critically (unless trained) and thus can’t write critically. A Story that Larry is talking about, in fact everything he talks about–involves critical (advanced) thinking. The challenge here is that most people don’t feel they have to do anything to improve the caliber of their thinking. Thinking for most is like a computer in regards to garbage in = garbage out. I compare Thinking to Math. If all you can do is x+y=z level of math (thinking) then you will NEVER write the kind of Story Larry is talking about.

    However, it’s not hard to learn more math or Story writing skills. The main problem is that people don’t believe they need to improve their mind.

    I have heard many professors at higher education universities tell me that the caliber of the student (mind) has gone downhill dramatically and gets worse every year. The funny thing is that the students believe they’re the smartest students every. I guess the joke is on them. Just because you can Google stuff on your phone–that doesn’t make you wise.

    It’s starting to sound like it’s a lost cause. Like everything else on this planet. Oh, and I’m told I’m being negative. No, I am positive that things have gone downhill in the last 50 years, with the only exception of technological advances with computers and similar technology.

  9. Robert Jones

    The argument for character Vs. plot can be trailed all the way back to William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe–both of whom wrote plays during the same period. Shakespeare wrote more character-based stories, while Marlowe’s work was entirely motivated by plot. And while few pedestrians have heard of Marlowe, everyone knows who Shakespeare is to this day…even if they’ve never read a single one of his plays outside of whatever was forced upon them during high school.

    Add to that any number of literary greats and most writing teachers will come up with their version of that same argument. The average eight year old will most probably have heard the names Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer–even if they never shared in their adventures. Hell, most kids won’t even know that Mark Twain penned them.

    These are the arguments I’ve heard since I first decided to take writing seriously. Characters make your story, a character well done can outlive the author–even become more famous. And sometimes these arguments are true. I won’t say that I disagree. We are certainly living in an era short on memorable characters. On the other hand, would anyone remember Lady Macbeth if Shakespeare hadn’t placed her within the situation in which she found herself?

    In spite of all the learned teachers–or perhaps to spite them–the greatest of characters is only half the battle. Depending on one’s point of view, you can move that needle up and down the scale of importance anywhere you like, but you have to use some common sense and look at the other half of the equation.

    I like to think of character and plot as the sacred marriage of all fiction. The most avid readers and film buffs among us could site numerous plots that were interesting in spite of the cardboard characters who populated them. They could also give us great literary examples of novels that seemed to lay out the life of a character with great writing and even moral intent the reached beyond the depth of mere circumstance. It’s all pretty subjective. I’ve read and watched some of both. Some of them required a bit of effort to get through, however–and therein we begin to see the flaw. One write up, the other writes down. Neither bridges the gap for all the people in between…which is where the potential for the most commercial viability comes into play.

    Those same teachers of writing can also draw some pretty wide distinctions between “Commercial” and “Literary,” the former often being made to sound like a backwoods cousin born out of incest. But how many great literary novelists are born into a single generation? The odds of success on that score are one in several million. And even then, try to locate those among them who don’t use the same story structure that Larry teaches. If you understand structure, you’ll see it there. If you don’t, then you’re missing a valuable component that someone forgot to tell you about.

    Structure is not a formula for the commercially destined alone. And without a successful marriage–which connotes an understanding and equal partnership between plot and character–any thought of achieving that literary dreams is moot anyway. And commercially, your story will be DOA in the hands of anyone you convince to look at it, or read it if you’re self-published.

    In today’s market, it’s more important than ever to get your work in the best shape it can be before casting it upon the waters. Those waters are already too polluted by mediocrity. And you can’t take a narrow view because Hemingway, didn’t do it that way. There’s no door to squeeze through, or line to cut to get ahead in writing. You’re grand imagination will only spew ideas down an empty well without a well-rounded understanding of craft.

    And most are greatly influenced by the “Already Great,” or “Strongly Opinionated.” In the end, it’s simple: you have to take it upon yourself to learn. And you do that by picking the brains of a variety of successful and knowledgable writers/teachers. The more you know, the better your chances will be. And it’ll save you that annoying moment when you realize your favorite writer/teacher didn’t tell you everything. So few do.

  10. @ Robert Jones: “I like to think of character and plot as the sacred marriage of all fiction”
    ————
    Great observation!

  11. MikeR

    “And, it is so easy! There are a number of classic works that are the story of a life …”

    … and yet, look closer. ARE they? No, if you seriously look at the total presentation … wizard, little-man, curtain and all … I suspect that you will see that “the total experience is, in fact, QUITE concentrated.”

    THE ACTUAL BUSINESS OF EVERYDAY LAW-MAKING:
    C-span.
    http://thomas.loc.gov

    THE FICTIONALIZATION (and COMMERCIALIZATION)
    Fox News.

    I rest my case. BUT, it’s actually an important one. “If you want to know what the US Congress was doing today,” Thomas will tell you. However, it will put you to sleep. Quickly. As will ANY “day in the life of …” story!

    Fox News … C-SPAN … Huffington Post … all the rest … know how to package this stuff into a commercially-palatable story. Which is precisely what they sell to the public, every day. And, if you observe VERY closely, you will see that every one of their offerings =also= has a well-defined “story form.”

    And, in my opinion, “this isn’t a trick, and it isn’t a sell-out.” The reality of all commerce is that, not only must you make it, you must also sell it. Sell it, yes, without compromising it … but, sell it.

  12. Here’s what I’ve learned from studying the Larry Brooks School of Actually Teaching People How to Write. Characters are paint brushes used to paint your story. Oddly enough, you don’t need to mix a bunch of oils for 49 different flavors of pink. A decent set of 8 watercolors does nicely.

    Seriously, which do you like better – the splatter on the wall that is open to interpretation or the actual painting of a scene with a subject? Character alone is paint splatter. Scene with a subject is a story.

  13. Kerry Boytzun

    Was thinking today that many people think a Biography is a story. I looked up Biography for a definition: an account of someone’s life written by someone else.

    Clearly a biography does NOT have the structure of a story but could be warped into one. Yet many “stories” out there are glorified biographies of a single character, or multiple characters and or families.

    I don’t like any of them…find them boring. Besides, biographies always leave out the really interesting details. Hitler for example, on how he didn’t die but moved to South America. Research the research on it for yourself. Is that a story? Yes it could be, but notice what is really interesting: Hitler escaped and it’s been covered up to this day. Kind of grabs you by the short and curlies. Believe it or not. Wish all the “stories” written had that kind of draw. (There’s a reason the Hitler bit has power…ethics, morality. Them’s fighting words and will make an average story come ALIVE).

    Unlike the episodic adventures out there.

    Larry, perhaps you could write an article about biography vs. story as in how to tell the difference–as a writer.

    thanks, Kerry

  14. Robert Jones

    @Kerry–Too true. A biography is like history…laced with opinion and supposition disguised as fact. And we seldom see the big-wigs of history on their worst day, or what they really did in certain arenas (politics, for a prime example).

    However, there are a handful of biographies that generated a lot of attention. Like the one I mentioned above. Why did it get attention? Because the writer used fiction techniques and layered the life in question as if it were a story rather than just passing on information. Which most do.

    So I’m not recommending biographies as a lesson in fiction. I am saying that fiction techniques can enliven a biography immensely. And for those who get it right, understand their craft, we can see how an understanding of the fundamentals of fiction can make what is usually a dry read (to all but the avid history buffs) sing on the page with the same kind of suspense we might find in a good work of fiction.

    The proof for me was in the pudding–if I may be permitted the use of that particular cliché. I passed along a copy of “No Ordinary Time” to a person who doesn’t like fiction be he feels it’s “made up” and therefore not as interesting as the straight facts of non-fiction. When I later asked how he liked the writing, he admitted he got through it (a big book) twice as quickly as the average biography–even those of a shorter length. When I asked why, he said it really seemed to glue his attention to the page. I explained that this was due to those BS fiction techniques he likes to ridicule.

    Anyway, that was my basic point in favor of this book. A well-structured book teaches us something regardless of genre. Though I certainly prefer fiction as a rule. And that’s the basic difference between fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction is passing on information, an accumulation/interpretation of a collection of facts, placed in an order of importance “based” on historical information of a life, place, etc., building toward a high point in that life/era as a focal point for the work as a whole. Fiction is the generation of suspense, placed within a simulacrum of life. Each event building toward the point of an ever increasing emotional state within the reader as they are driven towards a climax/conclusion based on the writers imagination–yet infused with touches personal experience, history, psychology (brush strokes that reflect reality), as the writer weaves his/her yarn along the structural grid of story.

  15. Bill Cory

    Well, I, for one, am sorry for the current State of the Novel, and I go along with Larry and the rest of you.

    But I am also pretty happy about it because Larry has reminded me that a good story has to be engineered, has to have all the right problems and struggles in the right places, a satisfying and believable ending, plus good characters … and then it has to be written well.

    And if he’s right, I am among a privileged few writers who realize this. Hey, I think my odds have just improved!

  16. “Very impressive in the foyer as we trade pitches over shrimp and cocktails.”

    How I love shrimp and cocktails or just shrimp cocktail!

    Yes, plot is key. Even Walter White would be stranded in the middle of the desert in his own story if it weren’t for the fantastic world the writer created for him.