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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8 Responses to A Return to Hardcore Story Craft

  1. Wow. What a post on Writers’ Digest. It’s timely, too, because as I was writing my ending for my last project (got a better idea halfway through the first draft), I kept your advice at the forefront of my mind. I knew where I wanted to go, but I also wanted a certain type of ending (can’t say more without ruining the book). My point is, when I danced on the edge of breaking the “killer ending rule” it made my stomach wrench in protest. Nothing about it was easy, but I figured as long as I didn’t stray too far from the parameters, or commit deus ex machina, I could pull it off. Time will tell. I will say, I wouldn’t change a thing. It works, IMO. Besides, I like to push myself as a writer. Playing it safe isn’t half as fun. 🙂

    • I should add, in case a new writer misreads my comment, I meticulously pre-planned each and every scene of the book in order to pull off my ending.

    • Robert Jones

      Hi Sue,

      I agree that playing it safe is not as much fun as an ending that has a purpose. Endings are tough. So many people get them wrong because we really don’t have as much going on in terms of criteria. I think the pressure is also on in terms of pulling everything together. And sometimes pushing for that final twist, the writer can lose themselves. On the other hand, even simple, or even overly logical ending to a complex story can leave an audience expecting more. Which is where I am in terms of my ending. One the one hand, no matter how much of a planner the hero is, life—via other characters—can charge in and throw intellect out the window. That works in terms of irony and surprise. It also leaves the audience expecting that intellect/complexity to be a larger factor in the showdown between hero and villain.

      One very good example of that (and a similar situation to my own) would be the second Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr., “A Game of Shadows.” We have two big brains (Holmes and Moriarty) strategizing a way to outdo one another. In their final showdown—much like the original story by Arthur Conan Doyle—when Professor Moriarty was faced with ruin, it came down to a physical fight to the death. Showing he was a base bully when he lost. And yet, in this movie, the way Holmes brought Moriarty to ruin was not through intellect, it was by pickpocketing Moriarty’s little red book that holds the whereabouts of all of his financial assets that he gained illegally.

      No brain, just trickery. And the final confrontation—which was aimed at satisfying the audience who expects some type of physical action—lacked something. Holmes didn’t so much outsmart his intellectual equal, he tricked him, allowed himself to be captured and tortured just so he could get close enough to Moriarty to snatch the book because he always carries it on his person. All explained in a flashback after the fact. So the audience felt tricked.

      I’m sure the writers felt much as I did when I first planned my story, that the irony of life can sometimes topple even the best laid plans of a genius. But they should’ve seen the boos coming…and satisfied the audience intellectually first by allowing Holmes to be true to his character’s intellect, then push him and Moriarty into their more base confrontation. I’m sure the irony would still have been there when the two big intellects are reduced to brawling. And yet, are we giving the audience the best of both worlds, or simply pandering? It comes down to how we play our characters. If the villain is going to go all schoolyard once his toys and status are taken away, we need to see his temper, feel that underneath it all he isn’t totally in control. Or plant the question what the control freak might be capable of once they lose control.

      Sometimes you just have to write out the problem as I’ve done here to answer your own question. It all comes down to the basics of craft, doesn’t it? I was debating on deleting and not posting this after I’ve come full circle. But decided my own mental process might help someone else find their way. Which is what this site is all about. And I believe answers part of Larry’s question of why people come and go. Sometimes we play it too safe and don’t want to share our pitfalls, our journey. Which doesn’t make for lively discussion and we don’t learn as much from one another. The community doesn’t bond either so the pressure is constantly on for Larry and Art to find new and improved ways to keep us entertained in spite of their own lives and projects.

  2. Martha Miller

    Welcome back, Larry! I’ve missed your energetic posts.

  3. Kerry Boytzun

    Welcome back, Larry.

    I can’t say I’ll finish my book in two drafts, unless the draft itself has all the scenes written in detail—then, maybe it will be finished in two drafts. But I couldn’t create a good to great novel without Larry’s books.

    Your story craft principles provide the rails to keep my train on track. People like to watch football and basketball, but imagine if the goal posts were moved as one team tried to score? Would that be enjoyable or annoying?

    Many writers appear to be writing for them, but reading is a “spectator sport”. But the spectacle isn’t worth watching if it’s not compelling and contains a structure providing the two teams to produce a winner, and a loser.

    Even competitive chess is timed.

    Think about that. Chess and a clock. The professional chess master has a clock to make his move. You just can’t take forever to make a move. This is a structural element of the game, played by the pros. (Hollywood take note that a clock on the writer creates BAD writing—write the TV series BEFORE you start shooting it).

    Imagine watching chess masters that took hours to make a move. Would that be fun, or tedious?

    I was at the library the other day, and the level of story editing of published books has fallen below even the gutter. In a dozen books, I found grammatical errors, and a couple had a writing voice that obviously came off Twitter. This made the story HARD to get into and follow.

    Remember Larry said to “enter a scene late?” This means that you begin the scene at the most relevant moment (Dexter sees blood on the door handle leading into the house…not Dexter stopped to fill up with gas). These dozen books, NEW published books I might add, were excellent as sleeping aids. Horrible.

    I put the book back on the shelf.

    You might accuse me of being an a-hole. I don’t care. But if you are writing novels that are hard to follow and get into—you SHOULD care that your book is being tossed back on the shelf. It’s NOT Harry Potter!

    Below, I will share how I use Larry’s books and information to develop and polish my own novel (most just tell Larry “atta boy, good post. I am trying to share how this material is being used…I suggest others do the same. Maybe the blog would get more interesting. BTW, this is what the car enthusiast blogs do!).

    My own novel, I’m on the 3rd rendition of its “4 part structural layout” (story beats). Mostly, I’ve followed Larry’s Story Checklist Questionnaire and developed a four-act story after I had first created a killer concept. The killer concept was developed using Larry’s Story Engineering. Even the title is conceptual (why would you name a story something that has no apparent meaning? The library shelves are full of spines with titles that are vanilla and boring. Jurassic Park—title is conceptual). After the first rendition of story beats, I wrote the scenes for the first part. This was my first writing experience and I sucked! Thus, my wife, who was editing, had a lot of work to do. BUT—she was intrigued, entertained, and compelled to keep reading (and told me to keep writing), not because I have witty dialogue, but because Larry’s questionnaire made it so damn interesting to find out what happens NEXT!

    However, halfway through writing the scenes for part two, I was getting BORED.

    So after taking some time off, I re-read my notes of Larry’s Story Engineering Books and revisited his Story Checklist Questionnaire. Plus, I applied the material of Larry’s to the TV series we’ve been watching (WestWorld, Game of Thrones, Teen Wolf, Goliath, etc.). Funny, but you learn more from the bad shows than the good ones. Nevertheless, watching a TV series for the second time reveals how the writers were planning their scenes, for better or worse. You see what works, and where the plot holes are.

    I applied what I learned to my own beat sheets, and realized that one of my most compelling aspects of my story’s concept (arena concept), wasn’t present. It would be like watching WestWorld and never going behind the scenes to see the robot techs repairing the robots. WestWorld is deep, but we’re really wanting to know what it’s like to be a customer—and to discover what’s behind the curtain of robotics.

    So I went back to work and am currently redoing Parts 2.5 to the end. It’s one heck of a lot of work, and I’m only creating the beat sheets (but this is much EASIER than rewriting the scenes!). I use Larry’s milestones (First Plot Point, Mid Point, Second Plot Point, etc) to make sure that EACH scene is moving the story forward. Then I go back and analyze it to see if it makes sense, if it can be more compelling, more scary, more risky, more dangerous. This is what I do when I watch Game of Thrones. Did the character’s behaviors make sense?

    **Many times authors make mistakes with characters, writing their behavior as what a normal citizen living in a North American city would do instead of the actual character. For example, we have young characters making stupid mistakes—and someone told me that is because she is so young, only 13 years old. No. A 13 year old living a life where you could be killed the next—LEARNS—to be careful and sneaky. You don’t run through the courtyard of enemies hold a piece of paper for them to snatch and read (your plans). Sure, a fool from THIS century would…but not then. Another way to say it, is a 13 year old living in the hood, where drive by shootings are routine…they are careful when and where, and how—they move along. I’ve seen experience Wizard characters in novels, run out the door to chase the demon without making sure they are fully armed with what matters. This is like the cop running to the shootout without extra ammo. A civilian makes that mistake, not a seasoned cop!

    I am so fed up with “stupid mistakes” being the method to move along the plot. That’s lazy writing. If the antagonist causes the hero to make a mistake—that is GOOD. Sherlock Holmes caught the bad guy due to his intelligence and cornering the bad guy in a trap. A trap is GOOD, clever, has the hero attacking the problem.

    The point here, is it takes care, time and thought to turn your novel-screenplay into a compelling work that is good to great. An average piece of work is done quickly. One that makes sense and fits, no magic mistakes to move the plot, etc., that takes time and effort.

    Larry’s books and information provides the basis to create this work. Writing without it—your book will be thrown on the shelf, or will only be in the land of the self published.

  4. Larry. Glad you’re back and back to hard core story craft. I’ve been around since you came out of the gate. Every time you explain an aspect of story craft, I gain a better understanding of it. It is hard to have “internalized all that ( you) have to offer” when you keep going “about the business of reinvention, rejuvenation, ducks-back-in-a-row stuff.” Your fresh look at the core elements will yield for your reader the possibility of a deeper and clearer understanding and execution of that core. I say “possibility” because we “dear readers” have to bring something to the table of our own. That something being the willingness to be a student. Glad you are back.

  5. MikeR

    I would simply like to remind people that “a big fiction-writing project” really is not THAT different from perhaps much-smaller writing/creative projects that you do every so often at $WORK.

    In those projects, you know better than to “just wing it.” You know that there is, in fact, more than one possible way to get the job done. You’re probably also working with several other people, all of whom are stakeholders in the eventual outcome.

    Therefore, why not apply the same ideas to your personal creative-writing (novel-writing) project? Pretend that you are collaborating with a co-worker. Pretend also that you have a deadline, and, that you have a boss. (If your project ever gets considered by a publisher, it will have BOTH! So, may as well start thinking that way right now.)

    The number-one concern that you have ought to simply be, “be efficient.” You don’t need to write twenty pages of a scene until, and unless, you have decided that it actually fits into your story and therefore is worthy of the time. Until then, a very terse “scene treatment” will do just as well, especially if you have alternatives.

    And: “the CREATOR =does= =have= alternatives!” Even though the Gentle Reader will read only the final text, seeing not one fraction of the process that led up to it, Creators (and, Editors) face alternatives constantly.

  6. Robert Jones

    First off, glad you’re back, Larry.

    Secondly, why do so many people dislike the notion of rules—especially when it comes to the craft of writing? Why has a short book on Stephen King’s process exacerbated that rebellion? And finally, does anyone know the actual ratio of how many people King’s book inspired as opposed to how many it actually helped?

    Food for thought:

    Inspiration is a great thing. I enjoyed King’s book and wanted to write the way he does years before “On Writing” came out. Isn’t King’s book the image most of us have of writers? Usually based on movies and television, which is our first images of most things in life we tag with desire. How many times have we seen stories about writers that use that same process? They form a hopeful idea, or fall into an actual writing gig with stakes and a deadline, then after bumbling around for half the movie will quite miraculously fall upon some brilliant inspiration—then they finish the project in a blaze of speed. Surprise: everyone loves it! And it all came about by banging away at the keys after finding that prized fossil that lead to uncovering a door that lead the writer to the great universe where all stories live and wait to be plucked from. The writer just needed to a tune to the right frequency where their personal muse has been waiting for them. It’s just a matter of cracking the secret mental code, that’s all.

    One could easily come up with arguments concerning the whys and wherefores of King’s book. He has doubtless seen those same movies, and understood the magic pants most people believe they need to slip on to write a novel. Could it be that he simply saw a potential market in giving would-be writers a permission slip to go on a vision quest into that mystical realm? On the other hand, he has a degree in English lit, and even taught classes on the subject before he published his first novel. So Larry’s idea that he understood a good deal of the principles involved, that they were already in place, seems pretty logical. And why wouldn’t they be after he spent years learning and teaching those accursed rules before he decided to write a rule book that inspired everyone to throw away the rule book.

    Irony, controversy, crazy, yet, entertaining stories that gives people an inside look into the life of a celebrity writer. Yeah—I’m almost certain none of that was planned!

    Here’s the big secret. That bottom line—and believe me there is one when it comes to writing. The best craftsmen who understand the wheels that move a story have been around for a while. All the techniques, the arguments, and the theories (the rules in question, by any other name) are all just different approaches to building your story engine. Your own approach to craft. That special way you’ll come to call your own when you sit down to write will be some combination of a snippet of this one and a slice from that one, a shuffling of the same deck of cards we’re all playing with. Even if you stumble into it by trail and error. But that’s the long road into the game. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll thank those who spend their time sharing craft and devoting their time to refining and defining the process. Because eventually you will have questions that need answering. Then who ya gonna call?