Oh, the Drama of it All!

Mining The Foundations of Your Story

Art – indeed, life itself – is all about recognizing and building layers.  Some theoretical, some physical, some experiential.

This is why the President of the United States, according to law, must be at least 35 years of age.

This is why kids shouldn’t drink and octogenarians shouldn’t pilot airplanes.  It’s why you need an advanced degree before you operate on someone’s brain. 

Because there’s the procedure… and then… there’s science, based on proven theory.

Same with art, too.  Any painter will tell you that their work is layered, and that experience is what unlocks the potential of those layers.  Whether it begins with a pencil sketch or simply spilling color onto a blank canvas, the finished product is always a process of layering and evolution.

Same with architecture, teaching, psychology, engineering, venture capital investing, accounting, landscaping or just about anything else that has even the slightest element of skill involved. 

Bridges, for example, come in all sizes and shapes and styles.  Yet even so, every bridge depends on an identical set of natural weight-bearing laws, called physics.  Violate them and the whole thing comes crashing down, no matter how beautiful the arches.

So it is with storytelling.

What I call the Six Core Competencies of storytelling – concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice – is really a way to describe story development.  To identify the standards, criteria and specific realms that must be addressed for a story to work.

These, too, are simply layers.  But they are based on something that resides beneath them, propping them up, bearing the weight of the story.  Without these foundations, the six core competencies are just power tools without an outlet.

When regarded alone, each core competency is a discreet layer that contributes to the architecture of the overall story.  When combined (and plugged in), however, they become a higher stratum of storytelling – this is where the art resides – and when that layer is polished, this is what the world will experience, for better or worse.

The undoing of many writers is to begin with and focus on the skills without an adequate understanding of what resides beneath it all, bearing the weight of the story and holding everything in place.

What does lurk beneath it all? 

The answer is, as with that bridge, physics.  Literary physics.  Forces that, when applied, always empower a story and, when absent, render it inadequate.

Don’t like bridges?  Try this: these literary physics are what the principles of aerodynamics are to the designing of an airplane.  You can fly one without an understanding of them, but you cannot build an airplane without it.

We are the designers of our stories before we are the builders of our stories. 

And as such, we are bound by theories of dramatic physics.  It is incumbent upon us to understand the underlying literary principles –natural dramatic forces – that make fiction work.

Just like the Six skill-based Core Competencies, these foundational, theoretical principles are non-negotiable.  And yet they are malleable and can be rendered artfully – indeed, this is what separates the great from the good and the good from the rest – while always residing in some for at the very  core of a great story.

A surgeon must understand biochemistry.  An architect must understand engineering dynamics.  A visual artist must understand perspective and dimension.  A musician must understand musical theory, even if it is instinctual.

And a writer must understand dramatic theory.

The good news is that, unlike bridge building, literary physics are often instinctual – the so-called “natural storyteller” – much more so than a mastery of the Six Core Competencies that brings them to life.

Dramatic Theory: The Foundations of Fiction

Just as the Six Core Competencies become discreet skill categories that house its own roster of storytelling tools, so too do the foundations of dramatic theory break down into a handful of separate buckets.

There are four major dimensions of dramatic theory to consider:

Dramatic Tension

There must be opposing goals or forces in play in your story.  Otherwise the story becomes episodic, more descriptive than expository.  An essay, a memoir, a vignette, a character sketch.  A good story is a question asked and answered. Unless there is a hero who needs or wants something (the compelling nature of which is the power of the story), and there are forces opposing that need or desire (the fear of which is also empowering), and there are consequences hanging in the balance, it’s not yet a fully functional story.

All six of the core competencies are in context to this truth.

Reader Empathy

This is a make or break deal.  The reader needs to care.  They need to be involved in the story, both emotionally and intellectually.  This is done through a combination of character craft and the establishing of stakes.

Flow and Pace

Like a pretty face, things get much more interesting when that face says and does things that surprise and compel us.  When there is complexity behind the smile.  A story must move into that complexity, both forward and backward (through the implication of backstory), in and out of various focuses, but always driving toward an outcome through the addition of expository information and an evolution of dynamics brought about by the actions of the characters.

The largest can of worms among the six core competencies – story structure, with its attendant parts and mission-driven milestones – is the tool that puts this theory into practice.

Vicarious Experience

For all its potential, even all of this can fall flat if the reader doesn’t feel the moment in the key scenes of a story.  This is where vivid description and visceral linguistics come into play (the core competency of writing voice), bringing the narrative alive in a way that transcends the page and becomes a portal to another existence. 

Issues such as time, place, setting and arena are driven by this theory.  If the reader is immersed in a new reality or within a realm so compelling they’ll forgive even a pedestrian story – think The Davinci Code – you win.

The extent to which these literary physics are seized and optimized is the extent to which the story will be effective.  That said, the extent to which they are assembled and rendered via the Six Core Competencies also becomes the extent to which the story will be effective.

The airplane needs the pilot, the pilot needs the airplane, and both are subject to the natural laws of aerodynamics that get the thing off the ground.

This is why writing a great story will always be art.  Just as long as the craft embraces both realms.  It is always a dance between art and craft, music and lyrics, singer and song.

This dance becomes our goal and our journey as writers.

In my book and on this site, I’ve often said that the Six Core Competencies that build on these foundations (an optimization of dramatic theory is the goal of the six core competencies) are just the ante-in, the entry-level skills to get into the writing game at a professional level.

That said, one might legitimately wonder why, then, a story that covers all of these bases with a nifty level of skill still might not find a publisher or an audience.  Both a fair and frightening question.

The answer is found beneath the core competencies – down there under the bridge below the surface of the water – because it is here where a qualitative assessment kicks in.

A story that nails all six of the core competencies can still suck.  

But a story that nails all six and in the process optimizes the four foundational realms of literary physics – dramatic tension, reader empathy, flow/pace and vicarious experience – will never suck.

When we arrive at a place where we finally understand the architecture, nuances, elements, skills and essences that make a story great, we will have one foot planted firmly in each realm.

How are you doing at the foundational level of your storytelling?  Can you differentiate this realm of story dynamics from the realm of competence in story design and execution?  Or are you just flying the airplane — pushing buttons because the operator’s manual says to — without a clue as to how it gets off the ground?

One is physics, the other is physical.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Oh, the Drama of it All!

  1. All the Core Competencies and the entire writing process entail a lot of Craft. However, the actual execution, the doingness, and how a story comes across really require the four parts of the Dramatic Theory as you go over here.

    Craft is the What we do. Lots of mechanics, but each and every bit of Craft requires us to apply our Art and Creativity to breathe life into it.

    Perhaps only the first little bit of setting up a new story is more “mechanical” than creative — that simply consists of setting up your computer with a new directory and copying a set of templates (What If prompts, Beat Sheet Template, etc.) into it.

    Everything else requires our Creativity just to apply, even if it is “just” Craft. My take is that everything but the initial template setup requires _more_ Art/Creativity than it does Craft. The How we do each piece contributes to the end result more than the What we do.

    Got to do all the Whats (Craft) to get something viable. How (Art/Creativity) we do the Whats is what gives the story a fighting chance to be commercially viable.

    Now, go write something great.

  2. I’m starting to realize there’s a sad lack of dramatic tension in a lot of more work so far … more editing needed! But hopefully will be more aware of that in the future, along with the other parts of the foundational layer. So much to keep in mind. 🙂

  3. This post is just what I needed! I have to create a short synopsis for my WIP and am trying to wrap my head around a whole cast of characters and events to distinguish the foundations of the story.

    While the synopsis is a feedback included exercise with agents and editors at a conference I want to get the best feedback possible. All this will benefit the final polish and submit process as well. Then I can start the whole process over again with a new story.

    It will be a fun day when I can start something new with the 4 physics and 6 competencies from first draft than halfway through the revision phase. 😀

  4. Hi Larry,

    I listened into the chat you had at Savvy. I loved what you had to say so right afterward I went B & N to pick up the book. Gone through most of it and the pages inside are laced with pink highlighter.

    I have a question. I have been working on a three act structure for a novel…is there an easy way to translate that into the four part structure?

  5. Elizabeth: Easy as pie. Larry’s book talks about that on page 141 and 142 (I think somewhere else too). The 2nd act is broken in two halves, which become Part 2 and Part 3.

    Larry: Your question, “one might legitimately wonder why, then, a story that covers all of these bases with a nifty level of skill still might not find a publisher or an audience,” is even more frightening than you let on.

    Just because authors can’t find a home for their book with a publisher doesn’t mean it sucks. But that perception definitely permeates the fiction writing mythos, and is reinforced by the gatekeepers and “successful” authors.

    Books are rejected for many reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the writing and the story. Your book could be perfect in every way, but if a publisher doesn’t see a large enough audience for it, it will be rejected. Publishers are in a period of decline. They need blockbusters to survive. Of course, not all of the works they publish are blockbusters, but they have to play the numbers.

    Every book must start off with the potential to be a strong earner, so if your book targets too narrow a market, you don’t stand a chance. Your ONLY hope is to find a small niche publisher who believes in your work, or self publish.

    If you DO self publish, you’d better be ready to take on the work your publisher would do for you, such as professional editing and book design. Your book should look as good (or better) than what a publisher would do for you.

  6. @Elizabeth — see Daniels’ response to your question about 3 act versus 4 part storytelling. Same thing, really, only I’ve broken the “confrontation” (act 2) down into to separate parts, because they have different missions. Part 2 is the hero’s “response” to the game changing twist of Plot Point One… then comes a context-shifting mid-point (new information that parts the curtain of awareness for the hero, the reader, or both)… followed by Part 3, in which the hero shifts into attack (proactive) mode. Everything in story architecture is best served when viewed as “mission-driven”, which is the case for each of the four different sequential parts of a story. Hope this answers your question.

    @Daniel — amen, brother.

  7. Larry, great post. In answer to your question and to add to Daniel’s answer; “why a story that covers all the bases still does not find a publisher or agent”; you are both forgetting one thing. Publishing is business and authors are suppliers of products. If you send in the best ever story about a singing dwarf who saves the Universe that covers all the bases a publisher might reject it because they are just about to publish a story about a singing dwarf who saves the Earth, even if their story is inferior. Also they may have a couple of name authors who are just finishing books about singing dwarfs, so again they may reject yours even if it’s better, because it might make more business sense to them, to market known authors who already have a fan base.

    What I’m trying to say is, writing the best damn book in the world that obeys all the principles of Brooks, McKee, Vogler & Maass might not get you published if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. It will improve your chances, but I recall about ten years ago talking to a top London publisher who said she wouldn’t touch historical fiction even if it was an original manuscript written by Shakespeare. Publishing is business and therefore has trends and fashions and you have to fit in with the market.

  8. This posts reminds me to not look so closely at the nuts and bolts that I forget the reader experience. I must make sure my readers care, deep down below the surface of everything technical that I’m trying to do.

    Crank up the tension, awaken empathy, flow, and pace, and make it an all-encompassing experience (the vicarious part). All excellent reminders. Thanks, Larry.

  9. Hi, Larry,
    As I was speed-reading this post I misread “the reader needs to care.” Instead my brain saw:
    the reader needs a cure.
    But really, that’s true also, isn’t it? The reader needs, by the end of the story, to feel that a cure has been effected.
    Thanks a million for all you do, and for the two of your guidebooks that I have in my bookshelf, dogeared and highlighted, within arms’ reach.

  10. @Lynne — hey, that’s brilliant. Either a fortunate accident or your subconscious mind speaking out. I’m voting the latter. “-” Thanks for sharing… and curing. L.

  11. Christie Rich

    Hi Larry,

    I am relatively new to writing fiction. I wrote what I thought was a great first draft. Every person that read it said they loved it. I had no clue what story structure was. I pantsed the whole thing. I sent it to an editor that showed me what was wrong with it. And, know what? Everything she pointed out could be categorized into the six core competencies.

    I started a revision that turned into a re-write, and found your book along the way. I am taking my time with this one; hopefully, making sure everything is in the right place and sequence. I love this version so much more than the last. There is so much more depth and layering this time around.

    Thanks for writing a terrific tool for newbie’s and veterans alike! It is the best thing since chocolate.


  12. Christie Rich


    I’d love to see you deconstruct Star Wars.