A Return to Hardcore Story Craft

Hey storyfixers… I know I’ve been MIA for an inexcusable length of time. Thanks to Art Holcomb for filling the void a few times while I went about the business of reinvention, rejuvenation, ducks-back-in-a-row stuff, and a general inventorying and understanding of why people read my work, why they come and then go away, and what writers are truly looking for when it comes to mentoring, teaching and the discovery of totally free information that will take them deeper into the craft of writing and the pursuit of their writing dream.

Some may believe – inaccurately – that the title of this blog, and of my latest book (Story Fix), imply I’m all about editing and rewriting, when in fact the most valuable thing to be found here is a perspective on what it takes to develop and implement a viable story from the square one comprised of a compelling premise (emphasis on the word viable, because not all ideas are worthy of a story… this being one of the most toxic misbeliefs floating around out there) using provable, universal and perhaps heretofore unclear (and therefore rarely or vaguely described within the general writing conversation) principles of storycraft.

Let me state the complex in a succinct way:

I believe in, teach, write about and can substantially prove the value in mission-driven, criteria-based story development. I’m betting you may not have heard the writing proposition framed quite that way… and I’m also betting than the notion of criteria – not a magic pill, but a strategic logic – already appeals to you. Especially if you’ve been at this a while.

Too many writing gurus preach benchmark-free story development. And yet, stories that work always – not almost always, but always – touch on specific benchmarks, structural and otherwise… so why aren’t we talking about and writing in context to them?

We’re going to continue a deeper dive into all of this.

If you seek an alternative to the vague frustrations of “writing what you feel, because there are no rules, damnit, so we can just write without thinking about it too much,” all without some sense of how to navigate the creative options along the path… if you seek that higher ground, you’ve come to the right place.

I’m certainly not the only “guru-type” selling you the truth (Art Holcomb, for example, is spot-on with everything he says about storytelling, as is James Scott Bell, among others… read us all, and soon you’ll notice the commonality, as well as the nuanced differences), but I have coined some specific labeling and modeling, perhaps uniquely so, that many say make these principles immediately accessible.

I’ll also shine a light on what’s risky, and what isn’t valid thinking.  

Take the common advice, “just write,” for example.

“Just write” can, if taken in a less than fully-informed way, become the most toxic writing advice you’ll ever hear. Yet, if you can wrap your head around the core principles you’ll encounter here (including the over 700 posts that are available in the Archives; use the search function to find articles on virtually anything concerning the craft of storytelling), you’ll find a rich new context from which to write your stories. You’ll discover an informed context, rather than simply writing what you feel without an understanding of how that fits into a professional storytelling paradigm.

Those who succeed at the “just write” approach usually do so – and will defend that advice vehemently – precise because their core storytelling instinct is already informed by these principles. Even without knowing that’s what’s going on.

I read recently (in a Writers Digest article) that mega-author JoJo Moyes (11 million books sold, and counting) claims to not know how she did that, and that when she begins a new book she feels totally lost. That’s what I’m talking about… obviously, her instincts are keen and her ear highly developed… perhaps, as she claims, without even knowing how or why.

Better to know, I hope you’ll agree.

This is advanced stuff.

And yet, it is the very foundational bedrock of what the new writer needs to understand. It is, in that way, paradoxical in nature, because the advanced craft of writing is no more than a deeper understanding of what newer writers must encounter and grasp (even if only instinctually) before they can truly get far from the starting gate.

So that’s my ongoing platform: framing the most basic, hardcore criteria and nature of the elements and essences of storytelling in ways that will clarify and make them more accessible to both the new writer and the working writer going forward.

If anything has gained me a spot at the table when it comes to writing about writing, it is that I seek to cull out, summarize and present the elemental essences of a story – both in terms of parts and reading experience, in function and in form – in a way that resonates with many. Even – perhaps especially – after they’ve heard it from others, or in courses from names like James Patterson that are really, when you boil it all down, some form of “this is how I do it” shallow rehash of the obvious, without a real thinking-writer’s template for understanding what a story needs to be, regardless of how you get there.

Even the novels of the deniers demonstrate the very principles that I will show you. Everything I offer up has that end-game in mind: a story that works. Really works.

Without bloodletting, suffering or years of frustration over a massive pile of rewrites.

Do you really want to take years to get there, and then not truly understand how you did what you did? And then, how to do it again, even better?

Can you really do what Stephen King does, the way he does it and advises you do it, too? Have you bought into the myth of relying on under-informed instinct, when you have access to the learning that will turn on the light of a higher understanding?

If you know what you’re doing – and believe me, this is something that can be learned – you can nail your story in two drafts. Art preaches this, too, in case you need outside confirmation. The more you understand about story criteria, the more you’ll apply it to the stories you develop.

Almost always, when “famous novelist” writes about writing, they will be focusing on process – their process – rather than the criteria and fueling of the end-product. It’s like LeBron James talking about his training and diet, rather than the fundamentals of the game he plays. Like, how to play defense against Stephen Curry.

So what’s next here?

I’m developing a multi-part series on “Core Craft for the Emerging Novelist,” which exists within one of my new video modules, as well. Look for at least 14 posts in that series.

I am doing a deconstruction of the novel, “The Girl on a Train,” which illustrates how the principles become visible, and therefore, confirming your understanding of how and why those principles apply. Look for that soon, inserted within the multi-part series I just mentioned.

Until then, here’s some hardcore content for you to chew on… right now.  This link will take you to a post I wrote for Brian Klem (October 2013), which first appeared on the Writers Digest website that he manages.

A little taste of what is possible when you hunger for more craft.



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Part 2: What a Studio Executive Wants You to Know About Your Novel

A guest post from Art Holcomb

And so, back to our story . . .

When we had last left our hero (that’s me), I had just had lunch at the Paramount Studios commissary with a studio executive named David, who was kind enough to ask me back to his office bungalow to continue our conversation.

We had just settled in when David said, “Adapting novels into film is the lifeblood of what we do, and therein lies the problem.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Not every novel – including some best sellers – adapts well to the screen. Many fantastic stories, some with powerful depth and import, can never make it to this wider audience simply because of the way the story was told.”

“Okay,” I said.  “So what kind of story does make for a great adaptation?”

David leaned back and looked out the window and frowned. “Well, I guess the first group of adaptable stories could be called THE CLASSICS.”

I grabbed my notebook and started writing.

“For example, one type of classic is the stories from the Bible. You know – Ben-Hur, David and Goliath, Noah and the Flood. Think Cain and Abel and you can see the universal appeal. They are all well-known, powerful tales; all have a tried-and-true structure and have that all-important built-in audience. In that way, fables and fairy tales fit into this category as well.”

“Right,” I said, writing furiously.

“And there’s always Shakespeare and all of its re-imaginings. Remember, West Side Story is really just a fabulous take on Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was a turning point in the stories of our Western culture.  He gave us elemental stories with universally relatable emotions – forbidden love, envy, greed, longing, anguish. They’re the types of story that every member of every culture across the globe can relate to. The whole of human experience can be found in his work.  And universal appeal means at least the possibility of a world-wide audience.”

And, of course, you have to include here the Other Classic – that is, anything that you read – or avoided reading – in high school.  Gatsby, Huck Finn, Animal Farm, and the Scarlet Letter – like that. They’re well known, millions are at least familiar with the story, and so have that built-in audience. Attach a bankable star and you’re half way there.”

I was beginning to see where he was going.

“What nearly all these stories have in common,” David said, “is that they are in the public domain. These older stories mean that we don’t have to worry about acquiring their rights so we’re free to adapt them immediately, and that’s always attractive.”

“But the most valuable thing about these stories is that the writer and director can take the bones of these classic stories and put their individual twist on them. I still remember seeing Shakespeare’s Richard III, which was originally set in 15th Century England, re-imagined into a modern day Nazi Germany-like society.  Very much the original story, but set in a completely different time and place. And it was fantastic! The same thing might be done with any public domain film.”

“That’s a lot of possibilities,” I said.

“Now – the second group: There are some novels that are so popular that they simply cannot be ignored. Books with such Gone Girl, Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey. They all have built-in audiences and massive followings. And there are so many readers who can actually see the book already playing out in their head that they can’t help wanting to see it on the big screen. They are a slam dunk for adaptation.”

I really needed him to slow down a bit.  My hand was beginning to cramp.

“In this group, there are also what I call The Beauties – books that immediately spark the imagination. They have breathtaking images, historically powerful moments-in-time, sweeping space battles – they’re stories that immediately thrust us into their world. Movie stars are particularly are drawn to these projects because they can immediately see themselves as these heroes. And certain directors will see in the story a chance to really put their personal vision to work and make it their own.  They can become the kind of films that can really make a career. These are the films with great story universes and locations that really come alive in the telling – where the world itself almost becomes one of the characters. Adaptations for these can be an easier sell.”

David paused and sat back in his chair and stared at me, waiting for me to draw the obvious connection.

“But. I said, “Should novelist even consider the possibility of an adaptation when they write? Aren’t novels about bringing the author’s unique vision to life? Shouldn’t they just tell their story THEIR way?”

David smiled. “Sure, and we need that, but we’re talking here about the WAY the story is presented more than the author’s vision for the story itself. Remember, a great story is a great story! Movies, books, TV – from our standpoint, these are all the FORMS in which you choose to tell that story. But you can choose to execute the novel is such a way that it naturally invites adaptation for the screen. Screenwriters do it all the time, as do studios. Do you believe that Disney only wanted a movie out of the Pirates of the Caribbean?  That was inspired by a ride. And look where that has gone!  And don’t you think that Michael Crichton had more than a film in mind when he wrote Jurassic Park – it’s now an entire land at Universal Studios.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“What each of these things has in common is that they were all great STORIES first.  Nothing can happen unless that happens first, and the novelist must first learn to be a great storyteller – anyone who doesn’t work hard to learn their craft will never really succeed. But the power of a great story is in how it captures the imagination, how it inspires others with its vision.  If you can write a great story and present it in a way that arouses the creative talents in others, you have the possibility for your novel to do more than sell a couple of thousand books.”

I suddenly got what he was saying. This is the way that screenwriters think but novelists don’t.  Every writer dreams of having their book made into a movie but so few have any idea how to make more likely. There are so many things you can do to make your story more attractive to filmmakers and improve your storytelling skills in the bargain.  But no one teaches that.

David looked directly at me. “You can have the possibility to tell a story that could reach millions more people around the world than your novel alone ever could – just by the way you present it.”

“So,” I said, “How does a novelist do it?”

David leaned in.  “Well, let’s start with the obvious,” and he ticked off a list on his fingertips.

  • “You need a novelist who understands not just writing but storytelling. A novelist can make a compelling read but it takes a great storyteller to make you feel and live the story enough to be start seeing the possibilities in the world they’ve created. Just think Star Trek and Star Wars. People are drawn to the world these writers have created – Hell, people want to LIVE in these worlds.”
  • “Second, many novelists write a story that, in the end, ONLY THEY are interested in. You have to write universally, with universally relatable issues.”
  • “Next, you need a very simple plotline with an easily understandable goal. In this type of story, someone wants just one thing.  Or someone wants to get to some certain place to escape some specific fate.  Most novels glance right over that, and write convoluted plots because they think that’s what good stories are made of.  They’re not!”
  • “Then, you require a compelling, human hero. He or she has good points and flaws, strength and weaknesses.  The audience has to be able to recognize something of themselves in the hero in order to make a real connection.”
  • “You need a powerful, clear and understandable obstacle, villain or antagonistic force. And the more your villain believes that they are the hero of your story, the better your story will be.”
  • “And you need life-and-death stakes. Understandable, palpable stakes.”

“You see,” David said, “Movies aren’t complex and so much of the problems in adapting most novels is that movies are all visual and so many novels aren’t.

David and I talked well past sunset.  I had completely forgotten about my pitch session (luckily I was later forgiven) and, over the years, I had used what David and Bob taught me to teach a new group of screenwriters and novelists.

And now, it’s available to you.

I’ve gone on to use this information to create a new seminar we’re offering this year called Writing the Cinematic Novel.  

In it, we cover:

  • How to find and exploit stories in the public domain (we include a great list of stories!)
  • How to think like a screenwriter and paint your story with a filmmaker’s brush
  • How to bring out the most evocative and cinematic images in your story
  • How to create characters who can thrive on the screen
  • And how to write great and powerful scenes

The on-line class starts later this summer and we have a special discount price for all of Larry’s loyal StoryFix readers who act right away.

If you’d like more information about this seminar or to find out more about our other classes and services, drop us a line at aholcomb07@gmail.com with the subject line ADAPTATION and we’ll send it out.

Remember, seats are limited and this special pricing in only good through June 15th.

Thanks for spending this time with me. Larry’s coming up shortly with his return post – it’s a great one.

So, until next time – Just Keep Writing.


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