Shot Putting and the Art of Story Maintenance

This is a tale of three writers, each with a story they think is good enough to find a publisher.  It is told, analogously, through the story of three athletes who think they are good enough to make an Olympic team. 

Even if that’s not your thing, the point at hand should be.

The athletes here are shot putters.  Two are hypothetical, the other is actual legend.

If you’re not familiar with that particular Olympic event, shot putting is when men and women who can’t fly coach because of their sheer mass heave a 16 pound (7.26 kilograms) metal ball as far as they possibly can.  Hopefully without sending their rotator cuff into apoplectic shock.

The two hypothetical athletes are 6’5”.  Both weigh in at 290 pounds, with approximately 14% body fat.  Both can bench press 315 pounds ten times, with a one-time max at about 455 pounds.   At a glance, on paper, they should compete equally. (If you’ve ever been at a writing conference and looked around to notice that everyone pretty much looks the same, including the published presenters, then you’re already on board with this analogy.)

But they don’t compete equally.

One hypothetical shot putter took third in the Olympic trials, throwing 68 feet, 6 inches.  He didn’t make the team.

The other hypothetical shot putter did make the hypothetical team, and won a bronze medal in the hypothetical Olympics, throwing 71 feet, 2 inches. 

That distance, however, was well short of the standing world record, set in a 1990 non-Olympic meet by the non-hypothetical Randy Barnes (USA), of 75 feet, 10.25 inches. Barnes then went to win the Olympic gold medal in 1996.  His world record remains untouched to this day.  (Think of him as the Dan Brown of the XXXXL set.)

In reality, the likewise 6’5” Barnes weighed in at one pound more than our two hypothetical athletes.  At the risk of giving away my point here… that extra pound wasn’t the difference.

The physics involved with throwing the shot were the difference.

All three athletes had equal size and strength (which is the case in virtually any professional sport, where bench players and everyday players look no different than the superstars).  Each had trained for the same number of years, with the same level of coaching.  But Randy Barnes, the world record holder with a real Olympic Gold Medal stashed away somewhere… he had all that, and something else.  Something that made his work better.

He had superior craft

Which was the product of superior physics.  His talent was defined by those physics.

And so it is with writers, as well.  

Because stories — all stories — are driven by forces of literary physics.

We all bring ideas to the keyboard.  We all create characters, and bring them to life with sentences and paragraphs.  And yet, one out of a hundred submitted manuscripts actually gets published. 

The difference?  Two words: story physics.

If you offer other explanations, such as: a better and more original idea, a more intriguing character, a wilder ride, a story that grips and won’t let go… those are simply outcomes derived from the very same thing: story physics… the inherent forces that cause a story to work… or, in their absence or softness, not work.

Story physics are the reason your last novel was rejected.  Only rarely do they tell us why, but when they do it sounds like this: “I liked your concept, but the character didn’t move me.”  That’s story physics.  “I never really got into it.”  Story physics.  “You write well, but this story just isn’t our thing.”  Again, story physics.

Writing talent is the sum of the applied forces of story physics rendered with artful craft.  One without the other doesn’t end up in a bookstore.

If you sat down and watched video of these three shot putters in action, their mechanics would appear to be identical.  The way they spin in the circular deck.  They way they use their lower trunk to explode and then extend at the point of release.  The way they follow through.  Only an expert would be able to break the differences down into millimeters and milliseconds, and even then, the differences are miniscule.

Don’t like shot putting?  Insert the game of golf into this analogy and nothing changes.  The pro who is exactly your size hits the ball further and straighter than you do (me, too).  Why?  Because of the physics in play at the moment of impact. 

Which is something the golfer is completely in control of.

Are you in complete control of the story physics driving your novel? 

Have you even considered them? Or are you settling for conceptual propositions and story beats that, at best, simply fit together and make sense?  Are you relying on the power of your concept, without understand the ways you can add to that power through optimization of available parts and milestones across the narrative arc?

The stellar mechanics those shot putters and golfers all have in equal measure… those are the ante-in to this level of competition.  Victory would be won with something beyond mechanics, even beyond the pure brute strength required.  Victory is when physics work together to create a sum in excess of the parts.

Make no mistake, if you seek publication you are entering a professional level of competition, one where nearly every manuscript has some level of craft going for it.  Story physics are your best way to rise to the top of that pile.

Pretty words have almost nothing to do with it.  That, too, is simply an ante-in, and one that can actually detract if taken too far.  Pretty prose is the equivalent of the shot putter’s designer track shorts that day.  Everybody’s got a pair.

Randy Barnes didn’t just go through the motions and hope his ball went further.  He redefined the potential power those mechanics were designed to impart.  He had better game.  Just like we must find a way to raise our game.

Which writing athlete will you be?

Factors other than routine mechanics – the stuff I write about – come into play: market timing… the size and clout of the publisher (which can determine whether a book gets reviewed or not)… the mood of the acquisitions editor or the Barnes & Noble wholesale buyer… the size of the promotional budget… the brand equity of the author and the presence of similar stories out there.

But let’s forget all those for a moment, primarily because these are things over which we have absolutely no control.

Let’s look at what you can control: the nature and level of the story physics you put into play in your novel or screenplay.  These are the creative choices we make in our narrative, and they are ours to control.

Not all ideas and concepts are equal in terms of compelling power.

Not all dramatic questions convey the same weight of conflict and tension.

Not all heroes are equally worthy of our empathy and our support.

Not all bad buys give us the creeps.

Not all stakes compel us to care equally, or at all.

Not all stories become microcosms of our world and its issues.

As authors we get to choose the state of each and every one of these variables in our stories, and at any time in the writing process.

Which means, ultimately, how well the story works is completely up to us.  Luck and timing be damned… stories are equal opportunity seducers of readers.  And readers aren’t easy marks.

Story physics is the stuff of that seduction.

Look at each element of available story physics and grade yourself.  If your dramatic tension, for example, is at at B-minus level, consider what you can do to raise it to a grade of A.  Do that for your premise, pacing, hero empathy, vicarious ride and the narrative strategy you are employing, and consider the cummulative effect of these grades.

Everything can be technically correct, and you can still end up with a C-plus story.  Easily.  The job then isn’t to change the structure, but to pour fuel onto it and ignite it to a higher level of impact.

Great stories are all about the compelling nature of the premise… the intensity of dramatic tension… the artful nuance and sheer power of pace… the degree to which readers empathize with and root for the hero while fearing and rooting against an antagonist… the delicious vicarious journey delivered to the reader… and the artful grace and touch of the writer’s voice and creative execution.

One writer never gets published.  One does, but remains mired in the mid-list, or lower.  The other… well, you know her/his name.  Time after time.

Is this talent?  Sure.  But what IS talent?  Answer: an instinct about story physics.  Nthing more.  Success at that level – a published novel, a screenplay sold, a bestseller – is rarely an accident, and even more rarely is it just plain luck.

It is almost always, when you break it down, a question of story physics.

My new writing book, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling,” will be published by Writers Digest Books in June of 2013.

Where are the story physics in your work-in-progress?  Too close to it to really know?  Suspect they’re fine but not sure?  Sense it’s not working as well as it should but aren’t clear as to why?

Consider my new story coaching program, which focuses in on key story moments in context to your overall conceptual framework to evaluate the effectiveness of your choices in terms of their underlying story physics.

It’s like an MRI for your story, but without the pricetag.  At $100, this might be the best investment you’ll ever make in a story you intend to spend a year of your life writing. 

Click HERE to learn more.


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6 Responses to Shot Putting and the Art of Story Maintenance

  1. Tzalaran

    Going to do NaNo this year, and i’ve spent this October going through and getting my beat sheet formalized and decided last night to fill out the “Most Powerful Writing Tool on One page ever” worksheet. For the first time i was able to start and finish the whole thing and i rarely was stuck for more than a second on a question. For that reason, i think i have a god grasp on the story physics for this novel after the planning i’ve put into it..

    My friend is thinking about doing some writing and we’ve been discussing story structure and the pre-writing process in order to be efficient in our efforts (he’s a musician, and doesn’t want to spend as much time as i have worldbuilding and such). Your site has been the best resource we’ve found, and i don’t see how i’d be at this point without the guidance you’ve given. Thanks!

  2. Larry, I love your blog posts and have learned a lot from them. However, given the hypothetical story above with the athletes, please explain this to me. How is it that writers are exhorted to work at their craft until their eyeballs pop out, come up with compelling ideas/characters/dynamics/you-name-it and then one reads absolute drivel that is supposed to somehow be indicative of this magic benchmark? Two books I read recently: one by James Patterson who does not even PRETEND (and he says so in interviews) to worry about depth of character and all associated elements, and Jeffrey Archer. Patterson’s book was one of the new Private series; Archer’s was about art theft. Both fell wa-a-a-a-a-y below the golden mean you espouse. So, how is it that ho-hum books are celebrated? Some of the stuff doing the rounds now is atrocious. I am not sure if I should mention 50 Shades etc. (which has been trurned into numerous parodies including 50 Sheds of Grey – hilarious gardening and DIY book by a man!) What’s an author to do?

  3. Leanne Lucas

    “How is it that ho-hum books are celebrated?” Fiona, I think you answered your own question when you gave the authors’ names. James Patterson. Jeffrey Archer. It’s just a known fact that authors who consistently produced good material in the past can get away with ‘ho-hum’ books in their later years. As for newer authors who seem to succeed despite my opinion of their ‘ho-humnesss’ – what can I say? If I manage to make it through one of those books, I tell myself it’s a valuable exercise in learning what NOT to do. Besides, do I really want to make a gazillion dollars writing garbage? Okay, stupid question. I probably wouldn’t turn it down, but at least I hope I’d recognize it, and try to do better on the next book. On the other hand, did any of those authors think they were writing garbage at the time? Maybe that’s the question we should be asking. Why didn’t someone, at some point in the process, say “This really sucks. What were you thinking?”

    Any thoughts, anyone?

  4. RE “successful” books: Larry rightly points out that once you’ve written the book, there isn’t a lot you can do to make it sell; there’s a lot of chance there.

    Yes, you can market, ensure your author platform keeps getting better, and do other promotional actions such as SEO on your website. Chance still has a lot to do with “success.”

    We (definitely includes me) must have the story physics and Core Competencies in place just as a start. Larry has shown us several times via lists, checklists, articles, etc., just what these are and how to think about them.

    Larry might call putting together all these things in an optimal way to be “story instinct.” Call it what you will, it is our own creativity, talent and artistic ability that is superior to all of these items. By superior, I mean without it, we’ve just got a bunch of words.

    All our creativity/artistic talent won’t make our writing ante up to the minimum needed to be successful. For that, we need to have the story sense/Core Competencies all addressed creatively. That minimum level we need to cultivate in ourselves grows higher all the time.

    With “traditional” publishing, if an author got a decent editor, he had a fighting chance of whipping a lot of that into shape. Now, with self and indie-publishing, we are finding it harder and harder to find someone decent to bounce our stuff off of. We’ve got to find those resources ourselves and generate enough objectiveness about our own work to get that master-work up to par.

    Note that Larry offers a very-inexpensive service to get us on the right track. He probably won’t function as a complete editor, but will help us ensure we’re at least on the right track.

    Now, go write something great.

  5. I like to think that my brain is a muscle which I have to train into those physics. I also believe that these special physics only occure when you put your whole power into every sentence you write, which takes courage. Furthermore, to me, those physics making a story successful are still not quite tangible. It’s a feeling, like they say with movies, a ‘feel good movie’, something about this special book, this special story made me feel good, care, be involved. This feeling is not the result of only character or only setting, it’s how all these aspects play together, like with a good song.

    I also think we need to get rid of our black and white thinking, which we often use in our daily lives, if we want to write multi-layered stories, stories with a deeper meaning. There is more than a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, there’s more to a tree than just the colours green and brown. Just like there is more to a shot-putter than simply power.

  6. Ron

    Although I’m living on a tight budget, I had “Story Engineering” listed to buy in next week. Is “Story Physics” similar to “Story Engineering”? Should I wait for your latest book?

    I realize that you would prefer that I buy both. Yet, at this moment of some major upheavals and potential career changes in my life, I’ve got to make every dollar count. So, based on the tone of your blog, I will trust your answer about which book I should get.

    Thank you for your patience,