The Third in a Series on What Elevates a Story to Greatness
If sports analogies aren’t your cup of tea, then allow me to apologize in advance. But today’s case is a great example of how thinking differently can make the difference between a bench player and a superstar.
Which is also true in writing.
I’m going to make the safe assumption that not many of you know who Stephen Strasburg is.
He was the first player taken in the first round of Major League Baseball’s free agent draft last June. A very big deal if you’re a baseball player. Sort of like having your first novel picked up for a seven figure advance with a Spielberg movie deal attached, all before anyone outside of New York knows your name.
Strasburg signed for a draft record $15 million deal. He’s been called the next Nolan Ryan, due in large part to the fact that he can throw a baseball consistently between 98 and 100 miles an hour (he can gas it up to 102 on occasion), not to mention that his curveball breaks like a hair-pin turn at Monte Carlo.
All that, and they just sent him to the minor leagues.
Even though he had by far the best spring of any pitcher on his team (the sorry Washington Nationals). Even though yesterday he struck out eight hitters in four Grapefruit League (spring training) innings.
Why? Because he isn’t ready. That’s a direct quote from the people who made the decision. Why isn’t he ready?
Because of the way he thinks.
He thinks like a rookie. What made him successful at the Division-1 college level — he just reared back and blew the ball past everyone — won’t make him consistently successful at the professional level.
Just like what makes you the darling of your critique group won’t get you published.
In Strasburg’s case, how he thinks translates to how he does certain things – subtle things, stuff than only experienced pros usually understand – on the pitching mound.
The moral of this story:
At the major league level it isn’t just about your astounding talent or, if you’re a rookie, even your statistics. It’s about doing things a certain way, the proven way, the expected way, the right way.
A way that says you’re ready.
Once again, this holds true with writing, as well.
The higher you aspire, the higher the bar.
Last post we looked at one of the ways to think differently about our stories — create an “arena” within which a story unfolds that is, in and of itself, as compelling and mysterious and fresh as the character and plot elements you use. Invite us into a new and fascinating world. Allow us to experience this place, this culture, this dimension, this state of being.
Here’s another one. Similar, but slightly different. Because with this little piece of storytelling gold, you throw in the realm of relationships and consequences along with setting and ambiance.
If you discard this notion because of the fact it seems obvious you’ll be missing an opportunity. Because applying this principle is precisely what successful authors do in great stories, so much so that it becomes an essential criteria for a great story.
This’ll sound like telling a basketball player to play better defense. Or a chef to pay more attention to presentation. Or a doctor to work on her bedside manner. Notice how, in all these examples, the forthcoming advice in question doesn’t pertain to core talent or skill, it is directed toward a nuance, a sense of application.
It allows them to become more effective at what they do.
And as writers, this simple edge might be the very thing that elevates you toward that tiny percentage of authors who publish.
All that said, here’s today’s way to think differently:
Strive to give your reader an exteme vicarious experience.
Look up the word vicarious: experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another (Mirriam-Webster).
Make us fall in love. Make us feel terror and elation. Make us taste the moment along with the characters. Transcend the mere observance of an experience by allowing the reader to, as much as possible, actually be there. Make it easy for the reader to believe this moment is about them.
This embraces the entire storytelling experience.
It is bringing your characters to life with depth and realism that is tangible and visceral. It is a writing voice that imbues each moment with urgency without smothering it with useless shades of purple. It is the subtle and sometimes diabolical psychological manipulation of reader emotions and images through context and implication.
It is an understanding that less is more and that anticipation is the sweetest foreplay of all.
There is no formula for vicarious writing, other than delivering each of the six core competencies of successful storytelling at an incredible high level of proficiency. It can be learned, but before that happens it must be chosen.
It’s like telling a rookie to play better defense against Lebron James. Or telling Stephen Strasburg he has to be quicker to the plate out of the stretch or players like Jacoby Ellsbury will steal him blind.
Once understood, once embraced and once mastered, vicarious storytelling is the key to reader enjoyment and the ultimate success of your story.
The sooner you begin thinking about it – choosing it – rather than waiting for it to simply show up in your stories as a result of all your practice and study, the quicker it will manifest as a key element of your writing playbook.