We get stuff stuck in our heads. One way to get the wrong stuff unstuck and the right stuff successfully installed is to experience the learning – the truth – in different ways.
Some refer to these different ways as learning styles. Cognitive. Kinesthetic. Active. Inactive. Two-by-four to the skull.
It’s all good if it gets the right stuff into the proper brain cells.
When it comes to writing, we must acknowledge we are dealing with some abstract, fluid and frankly cloudy issues which sometimes elude us. Contradictory opinion makes this landscape even more nefarious, like trying to land an airplane in a fog bank during an earthquake with no fuel and no landing gear.
Even when we see it on the page, sometimes we aren’t quite sure what just happened.
As writers seeking to be successful, we must be sure.
That’s why I use so many analogies as I preach the gospel of the Six Core Competencies. I describe my approach as a left-brained attack on a right-brained avocation, though I am quite certain a successful story draws equally from both hemispheres.
Here, then, are some analogies, one for each core competency, that might help the hemispheres of your brain collide and make magic.
An idea is a seed. An idea is rarely a vetted, viable concept.
A ghost story about doctors. That’s not a concept, it’s a seed, the germ of an idea.
A ghost story about a deceased doctor who keeps showing up in an inner city ER to save patients without insurance… that’s a concept. An idea with legs. An open door to the consideration of the other core competencies, which the seed alone doesn’t provide.
Seeds come in all sizes and shapes and purposes. But without planting, without nourishment and watering, they are nothing more than little buds with no story to tell.
Unless you’re making a salad, the seed is never the end-game.
Sometimes we aren’t sure what seed we hold in our hand. So we plant it, nourish it, and soon it begins to show itself for what it is. What it should become. In which case, you may need to transplant it from a pot to a yard, because the thing was an oak instead of a tulip all along.
If you stare at the seed long enough, you begin to ask it questions. Who are you? What can you do? And then, when you ask the right questions, those inspired by the literary license to transform any seed in the world to any plant/story species in the world – which we have as writers, by the way – the questions change.
You play with the seed until the questions – the what if? questions – begin to possess you. When one of them quickens your pulse, you know your seed has just become a concept.
Two words: Charlie Sheen.
Love him or hate him, there’s no arguing he’s complicated. Maybe a little sick. Possibly as brilliant as he claims to be. Certainly contrary to much of what we hold as heroic. Inarguably multi-dimensional.
So is he the hero or the antagonist? Too early to tell. A plot twist may be coming.
He has a backstory. He has character arc. And – if you’ve been paying attention – he has an entire detox-center full of inner demons.
All of which he denies. He is a case study in truth or dare, truth or consequences, true grit versus truly pathetic.
He shows us three dimensions of demonstrated character. The guy on television, the character written for him, the man the show dictates must appear in that role.
The guy whose bluster is transparent and his fear palpable.
The guy we can relate to, or at least in this instance empathize with, because he has children he loves that a court of law says he can’t see. He is a walking poster boy of sub-text.
The ending isn’t written yet, and the ending is where true, third-dimension character emerges.
The character is never the story. The character is our window into the story. There’s a funky guy in Albuquerque suing his employer, too, but we don’t care. It’s the character that draws is in, and it’s what happens to the character that provides the stage for us to see who he is.
It’s Sunday. You go to church with a heavy heart.
The preacher opens with a story about his recent fishing trip. About the ride out to the lake. About the new gear in the back of the SUV. About the stunning sunrise and the reflection of the mountains on a smooth glass of morning water.
About his complex relationship with the fish.
He cites scripture about becoming “fishers of men.”
And you leave… clueless. You have no idea what that fishing trip has to do with you, with life, or with scripture.
You just experienced a story without theme. Without meaning and relevance.
Entertaining and interesting… yes. The guy tells a great story.
But it’s not what you came for. The preacher was into it, passionate about it, and wanted to share it. But it was about him, not you. He wrote that sermon for himself, even though he believed others might get something from it.
You didn’t. As a sermon, as it was written and presented, it was empty. Void of meaning. And you’ll forget it by next Sunday. In which case, you just might try another church altogether.
The story has to pierce the heart of the reader. A great story is always entertaining… and always relevant to life on a personal level… for the reader.
Let’s talk about sex. About love making. Romance. Stage setting. Foreplay.
Sex has structure to it. Oh yes it does. All the stuff you can think of that seems to defy structure in sexuality is really from, analogously, what would be the other five core competencies. But when it comes to what happens when — not how — in what order and why, which is the essence of structure, things go down pretty much same for everybody.
And if you doubt that, when was the last time you began your love making with an orgasm and ended it by undressing your partner and pouring a glass of wine?
This is true even if you’re in the room alone.
And it’s especially true if you want to turn professional, which is another story altogether.
Just sayin’. That’s how you discover structure in storytelling… by looking beneath and beyond the concept and characters and theme and the inherent creative lattitude of storytelling and really comprehend the sequence of the story’s architecture.
Known fact: with sex, going too fast too soon doesn’t usually work. Neither does going in the wrong direction, or – horror of horrors – screwing up the ending. Satisfaction is at the heart of the implied contract between consenting participants.
The most powerful thing about love making is a sense of anticipation. Of exploring sexual tension and expressing feelings. The give and take. The mystery and fascination. The complete and total confidence and thrill that comes with submission and/or taking charge.
If one party just lies there, the story isn’t a good one.
Some like it edgy, some prefer it safe. It’s always a dance, never a solo. At least when it’s good.
You understand the genre of what you’re about to do before you light the candles. If you’re both on that particular page, then limits expand. But woe to the lover who brings out the wet suit when the partner wants to stay on dry land.
It’s organic and natural, but it’s not. You can play, but you dare not stray from the expected lane, even if you challenge it which can be fun if the swerve is mutual. If you turn on Letterman in the middle of the story, you’ll lose your audience.
The night has phases, and you know not to mess with them. The dinner out. The candles and music. The dress code. The limitations. The context of the past (as in, make-up sex versus stranger sex versus first-time sex, versus agenda sex, etc.). The passion of the present. The learning curve and the open door.
You don’t make love between the salad and the entre.
It’s a sequence that never changes. Even so, it has limited creative options and opportunities.
It’s all about the foreplay. The set-up. The ying and the yang. Don’t write a story without them.
You know how it ends before you begin. Getting there is the real story.
Which, if you know what you’re doing, you time and execute perfectly.
It’s time to drop to one knee and propose. You pick the day. The spot. You buy the perfect ring. And now you have some choices to make. Because there are lots of ways to pull this off.
But because it’s so important, it has to be perfect. You could do it easy, impulsively, off the top of your head (that’s for you, pantsers), what feels good in the moment… or you can plan it, in context to what you know about your story, so it’s perfect.
This scene has a succinctly defined mission, as all scenes should. You know precisely what needs to be put into play. The mannin in which it changes the story going forward. Now it’s a question of how to make it happen.
A proposal – just like a scene in a story – always happens in context to a past and a future. How you got there matters. What you do to prepare matters. What happens next matters even more.
What you know about your story, and your intended, also matters – you’re not going to shower flowers on someone who is allergic to pollen, and you’re not going to propose via text to a hopeless romantic.
Your creative choices don’t just forward the plot, they matter to all five of the other core competencies. Just as much as the mission of the scene matters. But no more or no less. Because it will become part of your story. It will forward it, energize it.
You’re a talent scout for a major record company. You used to be a book editor, but this pays more. Someone recommends a local band, so you drive to Walla Walla to sit in on their gig at Monty’s Grill and Karaoke Bar.
The band is solid. They write their own stuff, and it’s got edge. Chicago meets Muse, with a dash of Jay-Z. Not your typical garage fare. The drummer is better than a lot of your contracted acts. The guitars are tasty, too, ready for radio.
But that singer… ouch. Not that he/she is off tune, just… boring. Nondescript. High school talent show 101.
Thing is, he/she is the founder of the band. He/she is the band. As in a story, there’s no separating the singer from the band. The singer defines the band.
And so you pass. The music is great, but the voice… not so much. It won’t compete at a professional level.
Not that you need the next Daughtry or Josh Groban. You should be so lucky. A lot of bands do well with so-so singers, but the voice must at least compete. This singer doesn’t have the chops, despite the killer songwriting.
It’s all about the story… until the voice detracts from it. In that case it’s a deal killer.
Any light bulbs going off out there? Hope so.
Larry Brooks is the author of “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” just out from Writers Digest Books, and has spent much of the four weeks since its release as the #1 bestselling fiction writing book on Amazon.com.
Special offer: if you forward a receipt to (firstname.lastname@example.org) for an online purchase of the book (or not, I trust you) dated between today and the end of the month I’ll send you my ebook, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters” for free. Just say “Storyfix sent me” in the subject line (or not) and the deal is yours.
And if you bought the book earlier, you have my sincere thanks, but not the free ebook. Gotta get the rest of the gang off the procrastinating dime here. My hope is that, having read it, you already feel like you’ve received more than your money’s worth.
Here’s a timely post that will help. It’s from Mary Jaksch at Goodlife Zen, a blog about how to get things done, and done right. Click HERE to check it out. Mary is also the editor over at Writetodone.com, so she always reflects a writer’s point of view.