Rethinking Your Story: A Menu of Variables to Consider

The Fifth in a Series on What Elevates A Story to Greatness

Rethinking… what does that even mean

It’s not about fixing mistakes.  That’s not rethinking, that’s finishing.

It’s not about revising your story.  That’s not rethinking, that’s repairing and renewing.

Rethinking is more about reconsidering.  It’s about the strategic decisions you make along the way.  About planting a flag and then going for it through execution.

Sometimes you need to move the flag.  Rethinking helps you do that… to higher ground.

Rethinking what, specifically?

So far we’ve discussed arena and vicarious storytelling, which are close cousins in terms of the reading experience, the former being a means toward the latter. 

The objective of creating a strong arena story is to deliver a vicarious reading experience separate from plot and character, which makes it a tactic in the quest to get there. 

The bigger picture of vicarious storytelling, though, transcends arena to suck the reader into the story to an extent they feel transported.  Less-than-vicarious stories are like going to the zoo — you are looking in on something you can’t access. 

Fascinating, yes, but not exactly vicarious… few of us wonder what it’d be like to actually be one of the elephants. 

Highly vicarious stories thrust us into the cage.

So that’s two powerful things to think about when you’re rethinking.  And right now I’m thinking, based on your comments so far, that you get this.  So let’s move on. 

How else can we rethink our stories?

The key word here is rethink.  As in, reconsider.  Which implies you have a story in mind, or perhaps already underway.

Or not.  You can reconsider your plan as effectively as your work-in-progress.  In fact, that’s absolutely the best time to do so.

Either way, this is a critical differentiation from simply covering all the basics. 

If you are in search mode for a story to tell, there is a long list of available criteria to apply: a killer concept, a complex and compelling character, a rich and provocative theme, solid structure, all applied through well-crafted scenes and an appropriately rich writing voice.

And then, within each of those six core competencies, there is a long and challenging roster of variables to juggle in the pursuit of greatness.  All require thinking, and all are subject to rethinking.

But that’s like telling your little leaguer they can reach the major leagues by hitting well, throwing hard, hustling, learning the nuances of the game and practicing really, really hard.  It’s obvious.  These are the fundmantals of the game. 

You don’t need to rethink them as much as you need to execute them right out of the gate.

But it takes much more than basics to reach the big leagues, both in baseball and in writing.  And that’s what we need to consider, and if we’re already under way, what we may need to rethink as we go.

Here, then, is a short list of things to consider, reconsider and perhaps embellish to elevate your story.

Pacing — does your story escalate in terms of tension, the layering of new conflict through exposition, the occasional unexpected twist, and the growth curve of the hero in the midst of it all?  You can do everything by the book and still not have optimized the story’s pacing. 

So consider this element, and perhaps rethink your pacing strategy.  How can you keep things coming, faster and harder, until the story breaks wide open under the weight of its own tension and urgency?

Passion through patience — are you desperate to tell a story, any story, or do you desperately need to tell a specific story?  How important is this story to you?  Are you rushing it into being?  Consider a little self-evaluation — the ultimate act of rethinking — and make sure your story comes from a place of passion, that it deals with something important to you, that you have something meaningful to say about it through your characters, and that isn’t remotely a storytelling-by-the-numbers proposition that allows you to meet a critique group deadline. 

 Ask yourself if you could write only one more story before the plug is pulled, what would it be?  Why is this important to you?  If you can’t answer that question, go into search mode for that answer. 

A clever story idea isn’t enough.  Even when well executed.  The weight of your story, on multiple fronts, is what will elevate it toward greatness. 

How commercial is your story? — unless you’re writing a story as a masters thesis, the commercial appeal of your story can actually transcend the quality of your execution in the eyes of an acquisitions editor.  Who will care about this, and why?  Has it been done before?  

Or, is your story out there on the fringe of credibility or acceptability to an extent that you are shooting yourself in the foot, commercially-speaking?  I recently evaluated a story about a guy who assassinates some senators because they oppose term limits, then gets a presidential pardon because, well, it was the only way to make the point loud and clear, and the enlightened President actually thanked him for serving the American people through these assassinations… the writer actually thought this concept would sell.

John Grisham himself couldn’t sell that story.  Take care in what you choose to advocate or use to titillate.  The line is both fine and deadly.

Are you rationalizing the violation of basic storytelling principles? — if so, it’s time to rethink your story.  I hear from people all the time who tell me they need to have their first plot point in the first scene, within the first ten pages — the principles of structure be damned — and then they defend it either in the name of art 0r the hope that their huge storytelling talent will overcome the laws of literary phsyics they are violating. 

Don’t be that writer.  Art has structure and rules.  You can’t fingerpaint The Mona Lisa while blindfolded.

If you aren’t sure if your story unfolds in accordance with accepted storytelling principles, then stop everything and learn enough to be sure.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, precisely because some of those engineers in togas didn’t truly understand how to anchor a granite column.

Are you settling?— if so, rethink that decision.  Often in considering the merits of  your story, you harken back to the months or even years it took to get where you are, and you begin to rationalize the flawed status quo as just fine in light of the daunting revision task ahead of you.  Sort of like building a house and discovering the foundation was poured over dry quicksand that will get soft the next time it rains.

There’s more to consider in the rethinking process. 

Much more.  Rethinking cuts both ways — back toward the fundamentals with which you’ve built your story, and forward toward revising and embellishing in the quest for greatness through sharpening and focusing and adding new elements that enhance the reading experience.

To summarize the most available areas of focus as you rethink your story, in no particular order:

Arena… the vicarious nature of your story… pacing… the depth and edge of your concept… the degree of reader curiousity and empathy you evoke… the crispness and efficiency of your prose… the integrity of your structure… the power of your themes… the passion of your intention. 

Talent, that elusive label we all seek as writers, is really nothing more than taking these elements to the next — and highest possible — level in our stories.  Every time.

Read a perceptive review of my new novel, “Whisper of the Seventh Thunder,” HERE.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

7 Responses to Rethinking Your Story: A Menu of Variables to Consider

  1. Story telling is such a monumental process – every aspect of it, from the ground up … conception through final draft. The end result is SO worth it, though.

    “I hate to write; but I love to have written.” So true.

  2. Steve

    Arena- working on it. Vicarious nature- working on it. Pacing- struggling with it. Concept- check. Evoking emotion from the reader- I think I’m ok. Prose- never thunk I’da make it two the prose…working on it. Integrity of structure- slow and steady (that’s why I’m here). Theme- check. Passion- check.

    I think back to other ideas I’ve had for stories, usually a result of my odd brain that comes up with a quirky single scene or two, and notice how they seem so far away from what the story ends up being more about later on (that organic thing). But I think it’s important to be able to let go of those “central” scenes in an idea if they end up not really working.

    A couple movie examples (spoiler alert of sorts):
    The Jacket- Pretty interesting story all the way through until the end. It violated human nature at its core.

    WhitOut- Too predictable and the part that was supposed to be the most dramatic and thrilling, was one of those “neat” ideas that might have been part of the inspiration for the story, but it didn’t work. It was ridiculous in my opinion (caribiners, rope and subzero weather. Weak). The ending was almost like the director asked the actors “so, got any ideas?” Maybe I’m wrong.

  3. Ben

    Good thoughts. I especially appreciated the part about rationalizing a broken rule, because I think I may have done that in my own story–trying to decide whether it is plot point one or a disturbance to the character’s world.

    On another front, I recently found more confirmation of the principles of story structure you preach here. I played the video game BioShock because of the reputation its story had. I got to the end very impressed, so I decided to analyze it to see if it was well-structured.

    Lo and behold, the first quarter or so introduced the world and the main characters, when things changed and the protagonist got pulled into the conflict. For the next quarter he tries to survive, and at the half-way point there is an emotionally involving scene that invests the player, as the protagonist, in the conflict–you want to go on the offensive.

    The next section of the game culminates in a scene with at about the 3/4 mark which gives two big plot twists in a row that change the scope of the conflict and set the protagonist on a course toward the final battle.

    I’m thinking about writing a blog post about it, but I want to finish reading Story Structure: Demystified first. Just wanted to let you know that I’ve found still more evidence to believe you know what you’re talking about.

  4. Monica Rodriguez

    A great post, Larry. You push authors to the limit — where we need to be, what we should aim for.

    But I don’t feel I’m at this level yet, the level of rationalizing breaking rules. When I’m trying to decide if something is a plot point or merely the initial disturbance, I’m afraid I’m still struggling with identifying these clearly, especially in my own work. Larry’s deconstruction exercise (Avatar) was a great help, but I’m still a work in progress.

    I feel like I’m a bit green for this post, even. I’m still working on the fundamentals of the game. I’m still working on last month’s post on the beat sheet, which has been great in making me realize my Part 1 had character development at the cost of stakes development. But I’m still struggling with creating a beat sheet for what should be there in my story.

    So I wouldn’t dream of ‘rationalizing breaking the rules.’ I feel like I’m still in playing Little League down here. And I have way more thinking – and learning – to do before I get to rethink.

  5. Steve

    I’m right there with you Monica R. You’re not alone.

  6. Monica Rodriguez

    Thanks, Steve!

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