… And How to Avoid Being Among Them
In the omnipresent kumbayah of the writing community, it is considered impolite, if not impolitic, to utter this truth aloud: most stories fail. Most writers fail.
That has been true since the advent of selling stories for money, and it remains true today, even in a world in which anybody can publish anything simply by pushing a button.
There is a reason—an over-arching, infallible, contextual reason—that tees up a set of powerful, more visible explanations stemming from it.
It is this: more often than not, new writers don’t know what they don’t know.
Some new writers don’t even understand the nuance and depth of what that actually means.
Storytelling, much like walking, seems natural and organic. But while that is perhaps true on the story-consumption side, it doesn’t mean we can all be professional dancers or Olympic runners without learning a thing or two.
They are shocked when told that their novel—usually their first, but unless they figure things out soon, this becomes a foreshadowing of the future—doesn’t conform to the shape and flow and expectations of novels in that genre, followed shortly by outrage that there even are expectations that create a narrative shape and flow that result in dramatic and emotional resonance.
They have misunderstood the axiom that says “there are no rules,” skipping over the part that says, “but there are principles involved.”
That, by the way—the shape and the flow and the expectations—are precisely why newer writers need to hang on to their student card. Because like it or not, like gravity and taxes and the outcome of certain elections, they just are. They’re out there, waiting to make or break your writing dream.
From my perspective as someone who teaches the craft of fiction in addition to plying the trade, the real problem is that this blank page mentality seems to have been legitimized within certain segments of the collective writing conversation. As if there is nothing to know, beyond one’s innate, genetic gift of story sense. As if first drafts will always suck, even if you’ve been writing them for three decades.
As if suffering is not optional.
You may have heard this myth promulgated at a writing conference keynote, for example, by a bestselling author—any number of them, in fact, because this is symptomatic—who, other than the investment of years and gallons of tears and alcohol, cannot come close to explaining how or why their latest book sold four million copies.
New writers in the audience tend to hear that number… four million copies… without hearing the inherent disconnect within the message itself.
Sure enough. Write just like Stephen King. If you can. But it helps to know what Stephen King knows, even if he rarely puts that in a box to share with the rest of us.
This is perhaps the number one, most prevalent explanation behind why writing is hard, why the percentage of wins is low, and why some writers struggle for years without getting it.
Because they don’t know what they don’t know.
Here’s a true story, one that is all-too common.
The story of a writer who didn’t know what he didn’t know. And then, when confronted by the The Truth, he wasn’t sure he wanted to buy into it.
At a writing conference a few years ago I was working the “blue page” desk, where writers dropped in for fifteen-minute consultations, five pages of manuscript in hand. Now, there’s not much that can be learned from five pages, beyond a first-hit assessment of the writing itself, and perhaps, how that one chosen scene plays.
One guy, very serious and confident—a bit of swagger, in fact—brought me his spy story. Before reading his pages I asked him to pitch the dramatic arc, resulting in a curious look. Because dramatic arc, at least as a common term, was one of the things he didn’t know that he didn’t know.
But that he needed to know.
It was an espionage story set in Paris. A retired US spy, formerly stationed there, is called back into service because chatter on the “dark net” has exposed a terror plot involving some bad actors (spy lingo for bad guy) that our hero used to interface with. His assignment would be to infiltrate and expose the terrorists and prevent the bombing.
Which, it occurred to me as I listened, is certainly something a reader would root for, and seems to be the raw grist of significant dramatic tension and a series of surprising twists. So far so good.
I asked him at what point in the story the hero—who had been shown being reactivated, shutting down his real life in the US before leaving, then setting up in Paris as he reintegrated with his former network—actually learn anything that required him to react. To move forward. Discover something. Encounter the unexpected. Or run into something that changed the game and made it all dark and risky and urgent.
He just stared at me, motionless. It was as if Rod Serling had hit the pause button.
“What I’m asking,” I said, “tell me at what point in the story your first plot point comes in?”
His eyes fogged again, so I attempted to clarify: “The key inciting incident. The doorway of no return, the launch of the core dramatic plot after all the setup has been put into play.”
Then his face suddenly lit up like an amnesiac being told he is actually a millionaire.
“Oh, that. It happens on page two-twenty, when someone he thought was an asset tries to kill him.”
“I see. As in, two-hundred-and-twenty?”
“How long is the manuscript?”
“Four hundred thirty-eight pages,” he said. “Thereabouts.”
We locked eyes. Time froze, the angels wept.
“So you’re saying that you have two hundred nineteen pages of setup in a four hundred thirty-eight page novel… yes?”
A beat. “Setup?” he inquired.
Deep breath. “Tell me what you wrote about for two hundred and twenty pages, prior to actually putting your dramatic arc into play. What happens over that span of pages?”
There was that term again. Dramatic arc. My bad.
Then he smiled. Sort of. Already sure his answer was the prize winner. It was, but not in the way he thought.
“You know,” he said, “the backstory, all about his life as an insurance salesman after his spy career, how he was restless… and there was his marriage breaking up, and his kid flunking out of Stanford…”
I jumped in: “For two hundred and nineteen pages? That’s what the narrative was?”
His smile began to wane.
“Have you ever heard the term, first plot point?”
“Key inciting incident?”
Head still shaking.
“Any notion about story structure, the three-act paradigm, the four-part story arc, the contextual flow of the narrative, leading to and then launching the dramatic arc, with at least two primary shifts spaced evenly over the body of the story to escalate tension and create pace?”
I summoned my best smile and delivered my softest introduction to the presence of certain principles that apply to, and are evident within, nearly every modern commercial story, truths that enlightened, trained writers not only know, but understand and practice, including the names you read and admire and wish you could become someday.
Then I recommended a few books, mine included, that might help.
“Sounds like a formula to me,” he said as he got to his feet. Because somebody out there, maybe in a keynote address, had used the word formula in a judgmental, erroneous context.
“That’s just a word. Is gravity a formula? It just is. Same with the principles of solid storytelling. It’s physics. Literary physics. They just are.”
He shook my hand, almost as if he felt sorry for me.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
And off he went, about to pitch his novel with the fifty-percent-plus setup act to some agents, who would probably like the pitch, and just possibly, never even ask about how the story is presented.
They’ll ask for the pages, then five months later they’ll send him a rejection slip, without the slightest explanation beyond this being “at the present time, not what we’re looking for.”
And he will have learned nothing.
And thus the writing treadmill goes round and round.
We get to choose. Do we listen to the more informed voices in the writing conversation, or the ones that allow us to hide?
Or do we just run?
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