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 Published from unpublished.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.
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.
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.