We hear what we want to hear.
Last weekend I was privileged to take part in a great writing conference thrown by Writers of the Flathead (it’s a lake, folks) in Kalispell, Montana. A rewarding and very classy experience, run by and attended by warm wonderful folks.
My mind was in overdrive the entire time.
I kicked off the morning session as the first of three presenters, my position on the agenda rendering a sort of keynote context to my remarks. I figured I shouldn’t just launch into the specifics of three dimensional characterization… you could still smell the coffee and many eyelids were still at half mast.
And, based on a show of hands, over half the people were attending their very first writing conference. Babes in wonderland.
In my opening salvo I mentioned that, after dozens of these events, I’ve come to realize that pretty much all speakers and instructors are saying the same basic and critical things about writing, only with wildly different takes and approaches.
And I promised that my words would set them free.
Glassy eyes ensued.
But it’s a critical point.
Successful storytelling has a specific set of dramatic principles in play, and if you’re writing a novel or a screenplay with the intent to sell, your story will end up unraveling in a certain way, in a certain order. No matter what it’s about.
And no matter what words you or the next speaker you hear use to describe it.
That’s the variance among presenters. And it’s a good thing. Different approaches toward the same basic structural and dramatic outcome, based on a consistent and proven — and expected — set of basic principles.
Too often the teaching focuses on the approach. The principles of storytelling – dramatic theory meets scene sequence, the very stuff all these first-timers have most likely never heard discussed – get too little clarity and focus. And in that deficit resides the risk: writers begin to confuse approach with outcome.
The approach can be anything. The outcome can’t.
Decide well. Because some approaches to story development work better than others. Some don’t work at all.
But no matter how you go about it, in the end – if you are to succeed – all roads lead to the same destination: a story that adheres to the criteria that drive the six core competencies of successful storytelling.
No matter how they are described.
In hearing about different ways of going about it – somewhere on a continuum between anal-retentive obsessive pre-draft story planning and oblivious seat-of-the-pants random acts of organic narrative with no direction or affinity – many writers get lost in the interpretative challenge.
Storytelling is like gravity. It’s physics. And there are many forms, many of them delivering high art, of playing with gravity.
But if you want to fly, you need wings and forward motion. Those are principles you cannot negotiate.
So it is with dramatic theory and story architecture.
Some writers still hear what they want to hear.
For example, after breaking a healthy sweat espousing the virtues of mission-driven story development, another speaker referred to me as a drill instructor.
And some, hearing what they want to hear, took that to be a bad thing.
If you want to hear that there are, in fact, no principles in play as you develop your story, you’ll arrive at that conclusion upon hearing someone advising you to play with your story and see what happens.
Principle-free storytelling isn’t what they’re saying. But it’s what some writers hear.
They are confusing approach with outcome.
This is like an architect playing with a sketch to see what happens.
Doesn’t mean the building that eventually springs from the architect’s work will end up looking like something from Dr. Seuss.
The objective of story development is to come up with the best possible creative options for the story, and at the right moments in the story. To get there, you have to consider what came before, what comes after, and the mission of the moment you are in.
Not just what pops into your head as you sit there merrily writing along.
Which is precisely what some writers hear… because that’s what they want to hear.
The drilling continued.
My other session was a two hours condensation of my basic 16-hour workshop — don’t try this at home – on the nature of and relationship between the six core competencies of successful storytelling.
If they thought I was a drill instructor the previous morning, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
But they discovered something in this longer session that the folks who opted out after my strong opening remarks (drill instructors are scary sometimes) didn’t get: I was teaching outcome, not process.
I was modeling the non-negotiable. For many, it was their first glimpse of the finish line.
And thus the drill instructor morphed into a guidance counselor or wilderness guide. An interpreter of the vague and amorphous.
For the folks in that room, the light at the end of the storytelling tunnel was suddenly visible.
Here’s the thing that separates the serious from the deluded.
Before every workshop I give, I ask a question: how many of you want to turn professional as a writer? To actually accept real money from a publisher?
Everybody thrusts an enthusiastic hand into the air. They always do.
And when they do, they are signing up for something that they have complete control over: how they get there.
It’s where they must end up, in terms of story architecture, that they have no control over whatsoever.
You have complete control of how you write. And what you write, creatively. But how your story unfolds along it’s spine, it’s underlying dramatic power and flow… that’s an expectation you must write toward, not invent for yourself.
But that’s drill instructor talk. Scary.
Even if it’s true… which it absolutely is.
So instead – in direct contradiction to that raised hand – some writers hear what they want to hear.
Because the truth is a challenge, a high bar, and a mandate.
You can’t have it both ways.
If you want to write a story for your kid, for example – one with no hero, no conflict, no-setup, no turning points, no resolution, just vivid descriptions of candy canes hanging from fluffy clouds – have at it. There are no principles, because your hand isn’t in the air, there’s no professional future there.
Never mind your kid will be bored silly, by the way.
You can’t aspire to becoming a professional and then discard or evade the truth of what you must know, how you must execute and the level at which you must perform as a storyteller.
Okay, everyone assume the push-up position. On my count…
I hear what I want to hear sometimes, too.
It happened in Montana, in fact.
After my morning session, having worked myself up into my usual lather of passion and enthusiasm for the craft of storytelling, an attractive woman approached me in the lobby.
“You look hot,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling oh-so-modestly. “So do you.”
She grinned, way ahead of me.
“No, you’re hot.” She used her fingers to indicate quotation marks for clarity. “Your shirt is soaked.”
Like I said, we hear what we want to hear.
Writing – and teaching writing – always finds a way to humble us.
If your hand is in the air in answer to the question – do you want to turn professional as a writer? – then allow me to humbly recommend my new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published.” The no-bullshit, clearly-stated way to that particular outcome awaits you there.