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.