Nail Your NaNoWriMo #12: May the ‘Forces’ Be With You

Let me open this one with a couple of very quick analogies.

Two singers.  Both trained.  Both carry a mean tune, and then some.  Both great looking.  Maybe even friends of Simon Cowell’s.  One makes it big, the other never gets past the karaoke bar.  Why?

Because one sings with power.  The other, try as she might, just sings.  Better than you and me… but not good enough to get paid.

Two athletes.  Both have mastered the fundamentals of their game.  Both hustle and apply great intensity.  One has a pro career.  The other doesn’t get beyond the annual local tryout.  Why?

Power. Speed and quickness.  Moves.  All of this equals power.  One has it, the other, not as much.  Instinct isn’t enough when there’s a paycheck on the line.

Power is a function of physics.  And physics are the application of natural law.

Even in writing. 

These types of analogies are everywhere. 

As is the lesson behind them: fundamentals are the ante-in, but power — the understanding and application of pure brute storytelling force — is what separates good from great. Published from unpublished.

Within these analogies, effort and knowledge and all the practice in the world cannot always make up for a lack of strength, speed or a natural gift. Sad but true.  Few are born with the gift.

But that’s where the analogy ends.  Because in writing, a gift is not required.  Our reality as writers isn’t limited by “natural” talents.  In fact, there may not be such a thing when it comes to writing.

Because this is a learned craft.

The power behind a great story… that can absolutely be learned.  It’s far more about knowing than it is talent.  In fact, the degree to which you understand the forces that make a story work is the degree to which the world regards you as talented.

Your story really can be great right out of the starting gate — even within a 30 day writing window — if you truly understand and apply the forces – the physics – that make a story really sing.

There are five of them.  They break down in many ways, and it could be successfully argued that there are many more than five.  These aren’t core competences as much as they are the physics behind them.  Every successful story has some combination of these going for it.

Here they are.

A Compelling Premise

Taking nothing away from Dan Brown… but there are a few thousand writers who could have tackled that same idea and combination fo elements (“The Davinci Code”) and written a smash bestseller.  Because the concept, and the myriad themes were absolutely sizzling.  This has nothing to do with talent, it has everything to do with recognizing the inherent power of an idea, and then how to harness them.

Dramatic Tension

This is simple, universal and eternal: your story has to have a hero (protagonist), you (the author) have to give that hero something to do that takes the form of a need, a challenge, a problem to solve, a goal to reach or a quest…

… and then… you need to put obstacles in their way.  The collision of the hero’s goal and those obstacles is dramatic tension.

Every single scene after your First Plot Point should have it to some variable degree.  At least contextually.

What makes this work — the physics behind it — are the stakes you’ve established.  The “why” behind it all.  What could be won or lost, the consequences of success of failure.  If you can harness these physics by making the reader care, based on those stakes, then your story will very likely work, and work well.

Hero Empathy

It’s a myth that the reader must like your hero.  Good, but not necessary.  Antiheroes are everywhere in stories these days.

But the reader must empathize with the situation and the journey you’ve put before your hero.  They must feel the dramatic tension, which is never a given, it’s a skill-driven pursuit.  And again, stakes are the means to creating this empathy.  If the reader can feel it, in addition to merely  understanding it, then you’ve hooked them.

Read a Michael Connelly novel and you’ll see this at work.  There’s more going on than a whodunnit proposition to solve.  This is why he owns his genre.


Beyond empathy resides vicarious experience.  Simply by taking the reader into a specific time and place and making it visceral and alive, by offering us a seat on a journey we might not otherwise experience (the key to the success of Avatar, by the way), if we can experience the journey through the eyes and ears and perceptions of the hero… then, when coupled with stakes, the reader is on board.  They’ll feel it.

Doesn’t have to be a trip to another dimension or universe.  In fact, this aspect literary phsyics is what makes a love story work, or a thriller or even a historical novel.

The Reading Experience

This one is “the X-Factor” of writing.  hard to define, very much the product of experience. It’s part writing voice, part wit, part pathos, part intangible. 

Not all stories are high concept.  They don’t all deliver an experience you’d want to have.  But there’s something about them… you can’t put it down.  It’s how the elements combine to become a sum in excess of their parts.

It’s like the best plate of spagetti you’ve ever tasted.  Nothing special or original about it… it just works.  And it’s no accident.

Getting there, though, depends on your understanding of the parts, and of the forces behind them.  So don’t short change your basic understanding as you begin to assemble the elements of your NaNoWriMo story.  Make the parts sing, fuel them with all the force and physics you can… and then combine them with the grace and touch of your inner genius.

Keep these physics in mind as you plan your story.  Don’t settle on these counts, they’re too easy to take for granted. 

Don’t.  Instead, seek to blow them out of the water.

Now is the time.  Because all of it can be planned.


Filed under NaNoWriMo

8 Responses to Nail Your NaNoWriMo #12: May the ‘Forces’ Be With You

  1. To expand the physics a bit, if you’ve got the power, there is a lot more you can “get away” with.

    If you have power, you can achieve momentum with your reader. Your writing is so powerful, it will pull or push your reader right over some of those unintentional cobblestones.

    As the author, we might not notice those cobblestones for years; then they pop out at us. So what? The power and momentum of your craft carried the day.

    Go write something great.

  2. Another fantastic article. I hadn’t thought of these principles in those terms. Some of them I hadn’t even put into words. I take them for granted as part of a good story whether I’m writing it or reading it.

    Hero empathy is an interesting point. I might hate some of my characters if I met them in real life. In a novel, I’m seeing them from their point of view.

    I read somewhere a long time ago that writing in first person automatically gives a character some sympathy. I tried it, accepted it and used it. After all, it’s easy to change first person into close third person. Most of that editing pass is changing pronouns.

    Today your article helped me to understand why that works. In first person I’m seeing that undeserving character from his point of view. He justifies what he does. He thinks he’s okay or he’s ashamed and wants to change. All of his inner life holds together coherently because he’s stopped being an enemy and become a person.

    The five principles you mention in this article are true of every good book. They all feed into each other. They’re different branches of the same tree. Reader Experience may be made up of the others taken together. It’s something as hard to notice while it’s going on as falling in love.

    A good book gets under your skin. It becomes part of you. I can never get Hannibal Lecter out of my head and don’t want to. Vile as his personal habits are, he showed me something good in myself – an ability to stay sane in hard conditions.

    It’s a powerful trick to put a good strong theme statement into a villain’s mouth. That’s the other thing I learned from Hannibal Lecter. Anything can be acceptable to a reader who’s drawn in deep enough to care.

    So I write people I’m not. I write naive young women and men who were Boy Scouts. I write bigots. I write people of different races and different economic class. I write people of different religious and social views. When I do, they stop being strangers and start to become an odd collection of friends.

    That’s a big part of Reader Experience too. Beloved characters are friends, they become real in an emotional sense. Hannibal and Dumbledore both are there with good advice if I run into trouble. When I’m tired and lonely, I can return to them and let go of my troubles for a while, coming back with a better idea of how to face them.

    So thank you for once again articulating things I felt and didn’t understand consciously. This is beautiful. Thank you for doing this series. I have a feeling this November will be my best in a very long time.

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  5. Hmmm. I’m going to have to disagree with your rationale behind the force called A Compelling Premise.

    “…there are a few thousand writers who could have tackled that same idea and combination fo elements (“The Davinci Code”) and written a smash bestseller. Because the concept, and the myriad themes were absolutely sizzling. This has nothing to do with talent…” — Really?! There are thousands of “compelling premises” out there sitting in the bottom of “unfinished manuscript” drawers. What Dan Brown did with an idea is nothing short of displaying exceptional talent. There were actually quite a few other books with the same general premise components that were published before Dan Brown’s but they didn’t even come close.
    I’ve read way too many books with very simple premises that were fantastic reads. There are even books out there with pretty mundane premises but that were written so wonderfully that it didn’t matter. Good authors are able to write about nearly anything and make it amazing.

    Dramatic Tension is an absolute must – I completely agree with you on that one.

    Hero Empathy is also an absolute must!

    Vicariousness – hmmm. This one is tricky because I believe that what you speak of is a function of a solid understanding of POV coupled with good writing. So, while I agree that a good book will allow the reader to live the experience with the character, this isn’t gained simply telling a story through the eyes, ears, and perceptions of the hero because this can be done very badly. It is gained by mastering the elements of POV and solid writing. I do agree that these are mechanics that writers can learn but it may take a serious study of how to use POV well to attain this level of vicariousness.

    The Reading Experience – I agree that this is a combination of the elements in a way that works, but you really haven’t given many of those elements here.
    You do give the caveat, “They break down in many ways, and it could be successfully argued that there are many more than five. These aren’t core competences as much as they are the physics behind them,” so I won’t go into this here.

    I understand that you’re just giving a high level view of your book but in my opinion, I really only see three solid forces here – Dramatic tension, Hero empathy, & good writing. Those three however, are worth their weight in gold for a story so thank you for putting this and your other NaNoWriMo posts up for us all to read. Much appreciated.

    Daniel Todd Noyes

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