Part 2: A Deeper Understanding of Craft

Last post I opened a can of worms that a few of you found… confusing.  Even discouraging. 

And some of you, thankfully, found to be liberating and empowering.

I promised a follow-up, but did so without taking into consideration that confusion might ensue.  So today’s post is sort of a dance between clarification and continuation (sounds like marriage to me, but that’s another post), with the goal of making room for all of us on the same page.

If you count yourself among the confused (rather than the discouraged, which is a different response altogether), I ask you to go back to the last post (Part 1) and scroll through the Comments until you find one from Cathy Yardley, an astute blogger on writing craft and a very knowledgeable contributor.  She confessed to being a little confused, too.  Which I took to heart. 

Believe me when I say, I get that it’s probably my fault.  This stuff is thick and gooey and nuanced, which is ironic given that my highest objective is to clarify.

Read my response to Cathy’s call for clarification.

I’m hoping that’ll help.

There’s a reason we go deeper into the storytelling experience.

Since I mentioned marriage, allow me to leverage that analogy for a moment. 

It’s hard.  It continues to be hard the longer we do it.  We succeed at it, if we ever do, in spite of it being hard, applying what we’ve learned and tested and grown into along the way.  Or not. 

Given that easy-to-accept truth,  you wouldn’t think of saying this:

Gee, this is hard and confusing, so stop telling me what makes a marriage work or not, stop breaking it down into its most basic levels and then providing tools to apply to the challenge, and stop telling me how to make my marriage stellar in a neighborhood full of separations and weekend visitations, which is just, I dunno, normal.  Just let me wing it and make my own way, because all that psychological crap is just so darn confusing.  I mean, just look at the Joneses next door, they don’t ever talk about their relationship and they seem happy as hell.

That’s what some writers feel when confronted with the depth of knowledge available about storytelling.

“Just shut up and drive” may work in some relationships, but when it comes to your relationship with your story, it’s a recipe for frustration.  Possibly a train wreck.

The information and the understanding is out there.  We all get to choose whether we wear blinders or reading glasses.

The Feedback

I’m delighted that so many of you “get it.”  That the relationship between storytelling physics and storytelling tools, and the possibility of storytelling art is, while still challenging, an intriguing and promising can of literary worms.

You get that the recognition of three levels of storytelling experience – essences, if you will – is empowering because it provides a variety of ways to approach and evaluate our work.  It’s overly simplistic to just ask, “is this good enough?”  Especially in comparison to “Is there enough dramatic tension… is the pacing right… will my reader feel the vicarious experience of my hero and root for her or him on that path… and is the conceptual centerpiece of the whole thing going to be compelling enough to anybody but me?”

Which question(s) gets you further, faster, and with better outcome?  The ones that are based on an understanding of dramatic physics, that’s which.

One reader commented that these levels and all these component parts and realms and essences and tools and empowering hoo-hah (my words, not his) is starting to feel like Buddhism (apologies to enthusiasts for that belief system, those are his words, not mine). 

Which translates to: why is this so hard?  Why can’t we just write our damn stories and not worry about all this “stuff”?

I’m sorry this is hard.  I’m not the one making it hard.  I’m one of the guys – for better or worse – trying to bring clarity to the inherent difficulty of it.  And in doing so, hopefully add to the bliss of it.

Clarity comes from breaking things down into their component parts, and then examining the relationships between them to help us make better choices.

Just like in marriage.  And in health, investing, spirituality, even politics. 

As in life.

Even when it all seems so… complicated.

Another reader expressed concern that the underlying physics and the six core competencies tended to sound like the same things, or at least overlap.  A fair assessment, and a great can of worms to open.

Because they are, and they aren’t.

Breaking It Down

If you don’t like the term “physics” (my editor at Writers Digest Books didn’t, by the way), then call them literary forces or fundamental qualities.  What you call them is less critical than how well you understand them.

Or better put, understand how essential they are.

These forces are like gravity.  They simply exist.  Deny them and you’re still stuck with them.  Harness them and you can achieve things like flying and dancing and hitting balls for fun and profit.

I’ve broken them down into four areas that writers should grasp (my opinion), because each stands separate and alone – yet related and dependant – in a story that really works. 

They are:

–         dramatic tension (conflict in the story)

–         vicarious empathy (we root for the hero, we care)

–         pace (how quickly and how well the story moves forward)

–         inherent compelling appeal (why anyone will want to read this)

These natural dramatic forces are not tools, per say.  They are, however, what make writing tools and models and processes effective, because such things are designed to harness — optimize their power.

And that’s the difference between the four forces – physics – of dramatic theory, and the Six Core Competencies that allow us to access and optimize them.

The Six Core Competencies are tools.

They are based on physics, and they describe the physics, but they are not the physics. 

They are an operations handbook to the physics.

You could argue, perhaps, that they somewhat overlap with the four forces (essences) described above, but they’re really a defining context and a list of standards, criteria and elements that allow the writer to optimize the physics.

A concept – one of the six core competencies – touches on all four of the inherent set of physics (forces, essences) in a well told story.

Characterization focuses on three of them.

Theme touches all four.

And structure… that completely defines how effectively all four will perform.

Scene execution is the means by which all four happen.

Writing voice is the delivery vehicle, squeaky wheels and all.

Still confused?

Allow me one more shot at an analogy here in an effort to clarify.

The physics of cooking are: heat, food, seasoning, presentation.  They aren’t things, per se, they are qualities.  They aren’t even activities until, well, they are put into play.  They are what you have to work with.  They are what you seek to optimize.  You deal with all of them, to some degree (or absence), every time you cook a meal.  Leave one unhonored (like, serve the chicken raw) and the meal will bomb.

None of those, however, stand alone as a recipe.  They are the raw materials, the variables, of a recipe.

A recipe is, in fact, a set of core competencies that coalesce into a strategy and a plan that allow you to optimize those four forces, or variables in the cooking equation.  Each one of those four things – heat, food, seasoning, presentation – can be understood, applied and put on a plate in any number of combinations.

The core competencies of cooking are what allows you to optimize those forces.  To harness their power for good, for effectiveness.  The core competencies become a recipe.  And not necessarily a formulaic one (you still get to pick the china, determine the strength of the spices and decide between rare and well done).  You still select the levels you desire to put into the outcome, from a pinch to a pint to nothing at all.

And if a recipes calls for you to zest a lemon, which is a skill-based activity, then you’d best understand what that means, practice it, perfect it and nail it.  Especially if your goal is to cook professionally.

Or you could just wing it, make it up, or skip it altogether — because this is so freaking hard! — and take your chances. 

In our stories, the Six Core Competencies are a set of tools that allow the writer to understand and optimize the raw forces from which a story is made.  The better you apply them, the better the story.

Physics are just there.  Wai ting to be used or abused or worse, taken for granted.  Waiting to help you or kill you.  They are eternal. 

They are waiting for your creative choices and tastes.

The Core Competencies are a means by which to make sure that what you serve your audience is both delicious and nourishing, and in a way that allows you to impart your own touch. 

A set of tools.  Working with a set of physics.

Which leaves us with the third realm of writing experience (again, the first being physics/forces/essenses, the second being the six core competencies, or however else you wish to label them: and that is the polish, the final veneer.

And therein, in what has heretofore been craft, resides the possibility of art.

Whether by design or by pure blind stumbling luck… whether by trial and error or focused intention… whether after decades of effort or after a single informed and enlightened draft…

… art doesn’t stand a chance until craft has been served.

And craft, no matter how you define or apply the tools, is totally dependant on physics.

My book — “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” — has recently been published by Writers Digest Books and is available at most bookstores and online venues.

Image courtesty of Eric Fredericks, via Flickr.


Filed under turning pro

21 Responses to Part 2: A Deeper Understanding of Craft

  1. I think a new circus tent diagram is in order. When I finish reading the 6 Core book, I plan on putting everything into my own MindMap.

  2. Yay for a cooking analogy! Baseball’s great and all, but thanks for a different approach today. You’ve been talking about physics for a while now, and I think the light just dawned today.

  3. Larry, there’s brilliance and enthusiasm in all these posts. I love your book, the analogies are awesome. I even get the physics.

    Can I respectfully recommend that you not worry so much about what we get, or miss. Instead, go write some novels. You get it. You’ve revealed it. Now go have fun doing it because showing is always more powerful than telling. Put all these principles and all your passion into some stories.

    As a writer, I’ve got craft books and tips up the wazoo. As a reader, good stories are hard to find. We don’t want stories that show the craft, we want stories that are so good to read we will reread them over and over as an example of stellar craft. It’s the marriage of craft and talent with stories for an audience. Stop trying to fix us, instead give us the examples of how it’s done.

    Take a vacation and create a new world. (Please, no paranormal predators or post-apocalyptic settings!) Take your time and give us some stories to savor.

  4. Larry,
    I love the cooking analogy, too. I really get the idea of how the ingredients relate to the “essences” of your story. And you must have all the parts before you can have a meal.
    (just like with our stories)
    Like you alluded to- You can spice up a chicken with the most expensive Turkish Saffron in the world and slap it on 200 year old, Wedgewood China. But if you don’t cook it…You have nothing, really. Nothing useful anyway.
    Your book blew my mind, and made me realize how very much I was missing. I was working hard..but NOT smart.
    Thank you for helping me find my way.

    And Shane– how much do you love Mind Map?? It is awesome..

  5. We now have Story Physics as the necessary basis to Story Engineering. These “physics” basics actually precede the Six Core Competencies. They are a Why we need the tools of the Six Core Competencies.

    We need to know the Story Physics described here _before_ even touching on the tools of How to work on them and with them. Otherwise we’re architects who design a beautifully functional building for a year, but then discover it was supposed to be a home for retired sex workers, not a bank. Oops, never asked. Lack of a basic.

    Now that we can understand the forces needed to be present and aligned (which Larry will work on in his next several posts — and perhaps produce us a nice ebook), we can understand and use the What to do of the Story Engineering tools. Eventual mastery of these enables our How to do them of our artistic talent the best possible chance of shining through.

    It might be like taking a trip to NYC from Los Angeles. Plot, plan, routes, stopovers, reservations, etc. However, without the Why of the trip, these are not sufficiently aligned. We might end up taking our party clothes (clown hat, floppy shoes, and greasepaint) when the actual purpose of the trip is to negotiate a million-dollar contract for our next novel.

    Is any of this easy? Who said life is easy?. It’s a jungle out there in the real world and only the tigers survive — and they are having a hard time, too.

    Ask an engineer. Did he start designing a bridge before learning mathematics and Newtonian physics? If so, no one would trust it because it probably wouldn’t work. Same with other engineers such as electrical, biological, geophysical, etc. Does a heart surgeon start cutting before learning the basics of circulation?

    Good on ya, Larry. Looking forward to much more. Now we have an even better handle on how to write something great.

  6. Ruth Greenwood

    I’m a songwriter (recorded, on TV, albums). And I have noticed a phenomenon that is, I think, at the heart of why your work is so unsettling to some. Growth as a writer is comes in a two-track way, my peers and I have found: the first track is an increase in the quality of the writing, the second track is an increase in one’s critical faculties, i.e., raising the bar for what you consider to be good writing. Unfortunately, once you raise your standards, your past work suddenly sucks. Or at least seems diminished. We feel glum and thus get piqued with those teachers who’ve made our past work “feel” lousy. (The truth is, what we’ve written before hasn’t changed. But our standards have changed…risen.) We get mad at the guy who moved the finish line, forgetting that he taught us to run faster, smarter, and more true to our artistic vision, too. The other phenomenon is that after a great craft lesson, we may focus on craft for a while, which may result in writing being more “thinky” and less a rush of inspiration-fueled adrenaline. We forget that, in time, lessons in craft get metabolized and we can rock with the muse as usual. We may make a more thorough check at rewrite, but we still get our hot moments.

    You unsettle people, Larry.

  7. Ruth Greenwood

    I forgot the good news. We’ve always found that the growth in critical faculties is always followed by growth in the quality of the writing. It goes from suck to successful. I’ve seen this happen as a musician too. Playing a Thelonius Monk song and exercises in every key, one a week, my playing got worse. “Of course it did,” said my improv teacher, Charlie Banacos, another master teacher, “Keep going. It’ll be even better than before when you’ve done all 12 keys.” And it was. But it sucked until it shone one day. One step back, two forward. It’ll happen.

  8. Knew you’d bring it home, man. 😀

    I think I see your point now. I’ve been so enmeshed in these concepts, it doesn’t seem to me that you can use the tools without a grip on these concepts. Using your amoeba novel analogy from previous comments, I was thinking he didn’t handle the character competency at all, or else he’d know he’d created a character that people did not care about. It seemed like a breakdown in his use of the tool, as it were.

    But I see that your point is that if people do not understand these four basic “physics” rules, they’re not going to understand how to use the tools. Basically, they cover why readers read. If you don’t understand the reader, you’re not going to write for anyone but yourself (and not in the good way.) As you say, we’re writing to publish.

  9. Martha

    Ahhh, confusion ensues, of course. This is not an easy thing to comprehend. I took Larry’s class three times before it all sunk in, and then I suddenly saw the whole picture, as in an x-ray. I could look at the unmanageable mess of my manuscript and see it as a whole thing with a head, body, and tail. But the tail was attached to the head and the torso was missing a heart. Now I knew exactly where each of them should go. Relax, folks. Breathe deeply. Stick with it. Think Zen. It’ll happen.

  10. Hi Larry,
    I think you misunderstood my comment on the first post. Above you state that a translation of my comment would read: why is this so hard?
    That’s not really what I was stating.
    The intent of my comment was more akin to your statement:
    “This stuff is thick and gooey and nuanced, which is ironic given that my highest objective is to clarify.”
    I was noting that you set out to clarify a concept, and that undertaking ironically led you to developing conceptual layers that threatened to undermine your original intent.
    I don’t find what your saying discouraging in the least. As I stated, I loved “Story Engineering” and I’ve drunk the Kool Aid on underlying structure.
    I don’t see a conflict between pantsing and doing things as you recommend. Without a doubt, there is a underlying structure that readers (or viewers) find satisfying. Whether this is learned or somehow innate is probably beside the point.
    I pants away when I’m in story creation mode and switch to ‘engineering’ when I actually want to write the story down.
    Engineering will never ‘give’ me a story; but once I have an idea, your method definitely allows for evaluation of the idea and a (dare I say?) template, within which the idea may be fully developed.
    No slur on Buddhists was intended in my previous post: I am one.

  11. Sorry, I meant there is “an” underlying structure…

  12. Larry, these analogies work well for me. Thank you.

    Writing is hard. Any real creative work is hard. That’s kind of the point, in my opinion.

    It’s worth doing well, though, and understanding these underpinnings makes doing it well SO much easier. But it’s still hard. And I love it.

  13. Ben

    Larry, I hope this topic gets covered in your next book. I’ll be waiting in line to buy it.

    Ruth, your comment really struck home with me. It’s easy to get stuck in a mode you’re comfortable with. Then when you try to learn a new skill, all those habits get messed up, and you have to rebuild. In the end, you turn out better than before. It’s true in just about any field of endeavor. Thanks for the insightful comment.

  14. Jennifer

    Larry, this makes total sense to me and deepens my understanding of what I’m trying to do, namely write stories. I am devouring your book and your posts. I was lost before, writing in circles, getting frustrated, not getting anywhere. You’ve given me some great tools.

    This morning I read a review of a biography on Nabokov. He, Nabokov, said “Style and structure are the essence of a book…”

    I thought you would like that quote.

    (The end of the quote is “…great ideas are hogwash.” I don’t know that I agree, but that’s what he said.)

  15. Larry–I completely get it. And I appreciate you taking the time to break it down in such a way that makes it easy to understand. I love all your analogies, they really help illustrate the points you’re trying to make. Thank you for doing what you do to help the population of writers who want to do it the right way the first time… and not spend years in the “kitchen” experimenting and trying to eventually make it come out right.

  16. It seems to me that most endeavors are driven by tools, technique, and talent. Your book Story Engineering provided me with an excellent toolbox containing useful tools and techniques. The talent is up to me, of course.

    Your book and your blog have helped me hurdle the biggest obstacle I faced in my writing: figuring out what to write next.

    What I don’t understand are the arguments others level at you for making writing formulaic or taking the fun out of it. For me, you put the fun into writing!

    Before I learned about story structure, I felt like I was writing in the dark. Now a light shines on the path of my story, letting me joyfully write each scene with clarity and purpose. Thank you for that!

    To be honest though, it sometimes feels like you are beating a dead horse with your blog posts. I know you are just trying to figure out better ways to share your message, and I respect that. But this post and the last one almost seemed to obfuscate that message. I was confused until I realized that you were basically saying the same things you have been, but with a new slant. And, hey, it worked for some people, so kudos. I’m just observing here, not criticizing.

    Please keep up the great work. I believe I already “get it” when it comes to story structure, but learning is an ongoing process of nuance and depth.

  17. As someone for whom physics itself was never a strong point, the analogy of the four essences being used by the tools of the six core competencies helped a lot. This clarification was useful to me, and I found myself sensing where you were going when you finally reached the third section, art, and explained why it had to come after the other two. Wonderful!

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