Opinions are like… manuscripts. Everybody’s got one.

Ours is an opinion-driven avocation.  From stellar manuscripts that are regularly tossed under the bus to the same old worn out A-list mediocrity, it’s all a bit of a paradoxical crap shoot.

We writers have opinions about more than the end product of our efforts.  We have opinions about what a story should be.  And, more germane to this site and this post, how to write one.

Well duh… especially me.  I just wrote a book about it.  Doesn’t make my opinion perfect or better than yours, it just makes it, well, a target.  One that, according to feedback, is smack on the mark for many.  Not all of whom are new at this.

Not that I’m uncovering anything new here. 

Just rearranging, clarifying and separating the myriad facets of storytelling into some newly cast buckets.

As I consider this post, I’m sitting in a Sheraton in Salt Lake preparing to give a keynote address tomorrow at a large writing conference.  And then a workshop on Saturday.  Am I nervous?  Always. 

About the content?  No.  About a room full of opinions which at this point are up for grabs… absolutely.

You see, I want them to get it.  To understand that I’m not challenging their status quo, I’m expanding and empowering it.

The nice fellow who picked me up at the airport today informed me that half the room (my perception, not his precise words) tomorrow will have been published. In fact, he’s been published.  The woman who was in the car with us has her first book coming out in a few months.  With the explosion of digital self-publishing, everybody who wants to lay claim to being published can do so.

That, however, is no longer the point.  Storytelling is the point.

The conversation reminded me how humbling this writing guru thing can be.  I’m certain that the room will be well stocked with writers who are more talanted than me, more successful than me and, for better or worse, have opinions about writing that are different and more evolved than mine.

And that’s cool.  I’m here to learn, too.

In fact, my new friend told me about one published novelist who will be in the room (gotta admit, hadn’t heard of him, just as I’m sure he’s never heard of me) who said that we should forget all this structure nonsense, that a novel only needs three things to work.

Those three things weren’t specified. 

Another opinion joining the chorus.  Can’t wait to meet that guy in the foyer after my speech.

I’m not threatened by better and more successful authors than myself — happens everywhere I go — in fact, it’s fun to swap stories and bat ideas around.  Truth be told, the more successful the author, the more likely they are to buy into my Six Core Competencies approach, for the most part (two words: Terry Brooks).  Because when you boil it all down — the different ways to describe how this should be done — most informed views are basically recasting the same set of fundamentals within different paradigms cloaked in different words.

You say potato, I’ll say patatto, and we’ll both put the same gravy on the outcome.

And it’s all good.  The more we hear it, explore it, debate it and rip into it, the more we’ll understand about the art and craft of storytelling.

As long as you don’t believe the earth is flat, the moon is made of cheese and stories don’t hinge on certain physics and principles.  Those aren’t opinions as much as they are some combination of denial and naivete.

And they’re out there.

You see, they wanted this writing thing to be fun.  To be spiritual.  To be something they could invent for themselves.  They don’t want some guy — any guy — telling them that they should do this or that with their story, they want to just make it all up for themselves as they go.

Imagine if your surgeon or your airline captain or your lawyer believed that about their craft.

A shame, that.  Because the truth about the fundamentals of successful storytelling is available to everyone, and the means and timeline of discovery are completely within our control.

All this brings me back to a life principle that is wildly, ragingly, in play in the writing world:

We are what we think.  And we bear the consequences of who we are.

If we reject structure, then we are unstructured.  If we reject principles, we are unprincipled.  If we reject teaching, then we reject learning. And in doing so, we limit ourselves.

So here’s the question for today: is your opinion about the writing process and the underlying physics and principles of effective storytelling empowering you, or limiting you?

Simple question.  With unfathomable consequences for writers with serious intentions.

In my humble opinion, the art of writing resides in the way principles of dramatic fiction are grasped, rendered, stretched and made profound — through craft — rather than the way they can be circumvented or ignored. 

That’s not art, that’s narcissism wearing the face of naivete.

As T.S. Elliot said:

When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost… and will produce its richest ideas.  Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.

And so tomorrow, I will chip my opinions about storytelling into the crowd in the hope that someone out there finds clarity that has eluded them.  And that the guy who thinks a novel needs only three things realizes we’re already on the same page… only mine has more lines.

Click HERE to read reviews of Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling, the #1 bestselling fiction craft book on Kindle.

22 Comments

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22 Responses to Opinions are like… manuscripts. Everybody’s got one.

  1. Vivienne Grainger

    I am a beta reader for a published author. She has totally rejected every suggestion about structure I’ve made, or brushed them off with, “I already know that” or, my favorite, “Everybody does it differently.”

    She has great ideas, but I’ve seen for myself that until she is ready to give up her conviction that writing should be easy, as in “Barf it down and done,” she won’t improve as a writer.

  2. That’s an interesting question Larry.

    I think the problem most people see is almost the chicken/egg paradox. People scoff stuff like: “Oh, come on! Homer didn’t map out his plot points! He didn’t study story structure! He just wrote! What’s this fancy-schmancy stuff yer putting on us now?”

    It’s true (probably) that Homer didn’t do this; he was a natural storyteller. I think that’s where books like yours come in: they’re for writers who *aren’t* natural storytellers. You examine the stories of those who do it well, and you find out how it works.

    Homer didn’t talk about plot points. Homer perhaps didn’t consciously break down his story into four parts. But if you look at it, they’re all there — he just didn’t name the components like you did. And if we mimic that structure, we can have a better chance at creating a great story too.

    So in this case, the chicken definitely came first. For some writers, the chicken is all you need. The egg is for the rest of us who need the confines to build the story within.

    ~Graham

    P.S. – Didn’t mean to turn this into an ad for your book, but it sure came out that way… I must say I enjoyed it though!

  3. Omar

    Is it really a matter of opinion? The fact of the matter is, that even though there are different approaches to the right way of storytelling, like Larry’s Core Competencies, each based on someone’s opinion, there ARE rules, there IS a correct way to create story structure. So in the end, it isn’t really a matter of opinion. What is a matter of opinion is how to get to that correct approach. Just my opinion on it!

  4. Patrick Sullivan

    I find this sort of thing funny. I’m actually in the middle of reading yet another writing book, and it is coming from a Pantsers’ perspective, and he says much the same you do, Larry, for those cases. Even if you don’t premap it, you need to use it to make the story RIGHT when it isn’t working in later drafts.

    Funny how some can get it and others are too scared to.

  5. Well said! I linked to this essay, because I’m tired of telling my students the same thing. Thanks, Larry.

  6. Excellent post. I particularly like the line:

    If we reject structure, then we are unstructured. If we reject principles, we are unprincipled. If we reject teaching, then we reject learning. And in doing so, we limit ourselves.

    Well said. That cuts to the heart of the matter. Life is a process of learning, growing and discovery. When we decide to block that process, life gets very dull and we fall behind.

  7. Your comment is important: “Because the truth about the fundamentals of successful storytelling is available to everyone.” In my editing and teaching, I’ve become convinced that many people who write novels are unaware that a body of knowledge about the craft of writing exists. Reading manuscripts, I see profound, prospect killing mistakes all the time, mistakes that would’ve been avoided had the writer read one of many good books on the craft of writing, or had taken a class. We don’t do our own dentistry because we are aware that a body of knowledge called dental science exists, and we don’t know that knowledge. But new writers sometimes start typing away, without any clue that there are proven techniques available to be learned. Story telling has fundamentals. If a new writer doesn’t know them, he or she cannot succeed.

  8. I’m learning not to dwell on people who don’t believe in structure. It’s sort of like trying to date a guy who’s not that interested in you: you can make all the arguments in the world, but even if he reluctantly goes along with it, the relationship’s still going to suck.

    Our audience — for stories and structure — is comprised of people who recognize they need something, and who are asking about what we’re offering. Just my .02.

  9. LOL! “About a room full of opinions which at this point are up for grabs… absolutely.” Damn opinionated people! Ooops, that would include me. 🙂

    Hope it all went well!

  10. “I’m right and you’re wrong” appears to be the motto of lots of people on just about every subject you can think of. Opinion doesn’t alter the reality of this world we share with billions of others.

    My opinions of the IRS, the Federal Reserve, Obama, age of consent, sexual mores, various conspiracy theories and the like don’t alter the laws of the land and don’t affect physics (Einsteinian, quantum, or string) or chemistry. I’ve got choices: I can learn to play the games so I can get through this modern life, I can “drop out” and try to live under the radar, I can use that revolver tucked away in a box to a (usually) unsociable conclusion, etc., etc., and so forth.

    As writers, we need to be able to adopt, at least temporarily, others’ opinions and viewpoints. How can we write a really ratty villain without being able to temporarily assume that viewpoint with all its opinions?

    How wrong could my opinions make me? Dead wrong. How right? The universe would exist forever. The survivors and successful learn how to adapt their opinions, viewpoints and actions to their best survival.

    Sure, gather lots of different opinions. Be able to assume those different viewpoints at least temporarily. That makes your work that much deeper.

    Larry has an article somewhere about finding your own drummer. Each of us finds out what works for us in that gradient scale between pure pantser and complete blueprinter.

    Yep, everyone is entitled to their opinions on anything. What they are not entitled to is to attempt to enforce their opinions on other just because it is their opinion. Criticism directed against you as a person under the guise of a critique of your work falls directly under this.

    What works in writing is pretty objective. Story Engineering covers all that.

    Opinions without wisdom creates fanatics. Every radical around bases their acts on opinions extracted from “authorities” such as the Bible, Talmud, Koran, the local rabble-rouser, or any other “authority.” Usually they can be trusted to ignore the parts which lead to a more unified and workable world.

    Enough of my ranting. Go write something great.

  11. Danielle Zeissig

    When I decided to try my hand at screenwriting, I bought a couple of books on the subject. I remember thinking-this is what I’ve been missing as a novelist! None of my “How to Write a Children’s Book” books ever really helped me. I wondered if there was a way I could apply the process of screenwriting to novel writing. And then I found you:) Thanks so much for doing the work for me.

  12. I look forward to finding out what those “Three” things may be. A story, some skill and an audience? 😀

  13. Betty Booher

    I’m betting many writers have more than one structure book on their craft shelves – my first were tattered copies of Syd Field’s screenwriting texts – but each has a slightly different spin..and different lessons.

    One of our jobs as writers is to pull out the bits that resonate, that work for us, and cram them into our toolboxes. Okay, maybe not cram. More like tuck them in among the other ideas, where they’ll support and enhance our understanding.

    Take the beat sheet – a nice tool on its own, but when combined with Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method, which I’m using on my current wip, the two approaches build on each other to clarify that ‘what do I write and how do I know?’ question.

    In the spirit of combining and rearranging, I found it helpful to take the questions from the story checklist and paste them above their corresponding sections on the beat sheet.

  14. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
    And I know what you were winking at in this post title 😉 you bad boy, you.

  15. I think you hit on the grand obstacle with the statement on many getting into writing to for their “experience of spirituality”. Yet even within organized “spiritual concepts” there are core rules, borders and above all structure.

    If someone wants to daydream, that’s fine, but write down that daydream and no one is likely to care. It was YOUR daydream after all, not theirs.

    Excellent Post Larry 🙂

  16. I’ll keep it short and sweet:

    Before you can start to think outside the box, you have to have a box. 😉

  17. I liked the quote by T.S Elliot. One of the most fun stories I’ve written was one where I re-told the Cinderella story – the plot is already well-known, but it was fun to experiment with what I could do with it.
    I think a lot of stories that people enjoy and which become popular have a similar structure. Look at how many people enjoyed ‘Avatar.’ There is room for experimentation, but being one hundred percent original isn’t necessary to be successful. 🙂

  18. As writers, successful publishing writers, we have to be open to anything that might improve our craft. Keeping abreast of publishing news, writing trends, and always finding ways to pack a punch into our writing.

  19. Steve Smith

    There are some writers who don’t like the structure stuff who approach the whole thing intuitively. They have an intuitive sense of what ought to go into a story, and usually they’re right. They aren’t all “natural writers” either. They develop their writing through trial and error, and eventually (sometimes) they end up with something that looks like a story.

    Every writer has that sense, and indeed every reader or moviegoer does, too. If something’s missing from the story, they can point it out.

    Read a bunch of folktales, and you’ll see that most follow the rules of story structure. It’s a good bet they weren’t reading Syd Field.

    (Or even Larry Brooks.)

  20. Steve Smith

    One more thing.

    That published writer at the conference might have been quoting or paraphrasing W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote:

    “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

  21. Steve — you make a good point, but your math is flawed. “Some writers”… sure. But a minority when you’re talking about beginners. “Every writer has that sense, and indeed every reader or moviegoer does, too.” Well, that’s baloney, Steve. You think all 800 of those people in the room this weekend possess a professional level instinct? Pretty naive, and WAY off the mark. Even more off the mark is your comment that “if something is missing from the story (assuming you mean their own), they can point it out. Wow. Are you new at this? You couldn’t be more wrong.

    Having read hundreds of hopeful unpublished manuscripts in the few years, and analyzed them, I say that with credible confidence. Not sure where you’re getting your source, but I’d rethink these naive opinions.

    Another “limiting belief system” if I’ve ever heard one. Maybe you’re that one in 10,000 prodigy that can assess and edit their own work and require no coaching or input whatsoever. But even if you are, to apply your own high opinion of your abilities to all is, well, irresponsible as hell.

    Hope you feel better taking a swipe at Syd and me. Yeah, we’re unnecessary, writing great stories is really easy and nobody needs help or advice from anyone else. Wow.

  22. I attended the conference you spoke at last weekend and wanted to thank you one more time. Your class was just what I needed and I’m excited to start work on my next book using the principles you taught.