Usually, when you let it slip that you’re a writer, the response is, “what do you write?” As if you’d just said the most unexpected thing possible.
Everybody’s a writer, it seems (that comes out later), but hardly anyone admits it.
And when you say “novels” or “screenplays,” one of two things is likely to happen.
Most often you get a polite nod, perhaps a flash of confusion and then, “wow, cool.” Or maybe just a nod that says, “okay then, we’re done with that.”
Or once in a rare while the dreaded follow up: “have you published anything?”
Now there’s a dance and a half for you. The answer is no more comfortable if you can answer yes than it is when you say not yet. Trust me on this.
It’s possible, though, that the rare genuinely curious might ask you to tell them your story. Ask you what it’s about.
Good luck with that. You have about a 30-second window before their eyes glaze and you find yourself speaking to a blank albeit polite stare. You lost them at, “Well, it’s about…”
If this happens in casual conversation, your answer could be just about anything, focusing on any one of the four elements (that’s all you’ll have time for… trust me on that, too) of the Six Core Competencies:
It’s about a guy who… (character).
It’s about what would happen if… (concept).
It’s a story about love or… (theme).
It’s the story of growing up with an alcoholic mother who ends up in prison for… (structure, possibly inspired by something that actually happened).
You can make any one of these into a compelling elevator pitch. In fact, eventually, by the time you have a draft that is worthy of submitting, you absolutely will.
But what if you haven’t finished it yet?
What if you’re pitching your “story” to an agent at a workshop? Which story will you tell?
As a writer developing a novel or a screenplay, it doesn’t matter what you say within the safe confines of an elevator. But it’s absolutely essential that when it counts – when pitching to an agent, or at some point, when you’re actually writing it – you have a solid answer for all four of those elements: character, concept, theme and structure.
Because all four of them are stories. Essential ones.
Stories that concurrently unfold in combination with the other elements, with edges and transitions known only to you, the author… and on their own.
Because you never know which of the stories a reader might react to first, or strongest.
This has always been true, but what may be new to you is an appreciation for the mindset of visualizing our stories as a melting pot for several conjoined storylines at once, each of them contributing to the other.
Consider your favorite novels and movies, and you’ll discover…
… there is a foreground story.
A background story.
A character-driven story.
A sub-plot story.
A sub-textual story.
An arena story.
An emerging story.
A departing story.
A thematic story.
A surprising story.
A touching story.
A gripping story.
A story of empathy.
A story of emotion and meaning.
The context and intention of the above is not to be considered as descriptions. As adjectives. No, I’m saying that these stories – like different people occupying the same room, all exist and unfold as discreet storylines within the pages of your manuscript.
Need an example? Let’s look at The Davinci Code.
The foreground story is Langdon’s journey as an interpreter of symbols and clues in pursuit of a killer. His journey, juxtaposed against his own belief systems, becomes a character-driven story, as well.
The background story, which emerges gradually, is the underlying cause of this skullduggery, in the form of an ancient sect of Catholic monks hell-bent on hiding the truth behind their religion.
The sub-plot story involves the nature of the woman called in to help him. Which ultimately links to sub-textual story about what really happened 2000 years ago.
The emerging story is the existence of a centuries-old sect of assassins working at the behest of the Church to hide certain truths, which poses a challenge to the belief system the Catholic Church has been protecting and wielding for over 2000 years, and what may or may not be true. Which is part of the sub-textual story.
The thematic story is the relevance of this hypothesis to our very real modern lives, which haven’t been privy to the backstory this novel suggests.
The gripping story (dramatic tension) is Langdon’s survival in pursuit of the truth… will they kill him before he finds that truth? Notice how this differs from the foreground story – the murder mystery – and that it overwhelms it in the final act.
It’s also gripping in its use of Leonardo Davinci and his art as a cryptic time capsule of meaning, using the real thing to whet our appetite for more.
A story of emotion and meaning… because chances are this novel (and the movie) pissed you off or shocked you into doubt. Which is why you talked about it, which is part of why it exploded.
A story of empathy because to some extent you care about poor Langdon, because he is metaphorically chasing down the truth of a religion that has always troubled you to some extent. Or not. For some, Langdon was them.
All this… in one little story that happened to sell over 80 million hardcopies, just as many paperbacks and fuel two movies and the author’s backlist into immortality.
Do we think Brown pantsed all this stuff?
Stumbled upon it as he wrote? Made it up as he went along? And if he did, do you think he got it all down in a couple of drafts? That he’s really that good?
Maybe this list allows you to appreciate the genius of this novel a little more, and the opportunity to go there for yourself. When Nelson Demille was asked for a blurb by the publisher, he turned in four words: “This is pure genius.”
The truth is more likely this: Dan Brown considered all these stories as parts of a whole, then fleshed them out individually and sequentially. Drafting was probably part of the process, but because this didn’t take half a lifetime to create, I can assure you he was writing toward something in each instance, rather than stumbling upon these storylines.
And thus we look in the mirror and ask ourselves… do I do that? Can I do that? Should I do that?
The answer to the latter is… absolutely, you should. If you want to break in, to write a story that leaves a mark, then absolutely you should.
Think about it ahead of time, that is.
And if you pants (make it all up as you go along), do you realize that this process is nothing other than, nothing more than, a search for all these stories? And that only after you’ve discovered them, vetted them, played with them, can you actually optimize a draft that marries them seamlessly?
Ever tried to play with an idea within a draft? That’s why some writers require years and year to finish. I’m here to tell you, you can play with an idea in your head, in conversation and using beat sheets, to almost a full extent before you write a word.
Notice how each of the various stories going on – in The Davinci Code, in virtually every other sophisticated novel that works, and in your own stories — has a beginning, middle and an ending resolution. How the driving force that moves them through this 3-part grid (or it’s inherent 4-part dramatic unfolding: set-up… response… attack… resolution) is dramatic tension, which can be defined as: something that needs to be done, something opposing it, with stakes and consequences for both.
That’s what a story is. For each of these levels of storytelling.
In a story that works, there are at least this many stories going on at once… sometimes more.
As authors with professional aspirations, it’s easy to focus on one or two of these stories in context to our Big Idea (whichever of the four elements that it initially emerges from) and let the others take care of themselves. But as story architects, we always benefit from a view of the nuances of all the stories that are unfolding in our novels and screenplays, because only with this proactive knowledge can we manipulate and optimize them.
We almost always begin with at least some idea in our heads.
We then attempt, or should attempt, to evolve that idea into a Big Idea. And right there we face a critical crossroads:
To begin writing, or to continue the search for the rest of the stories (plural intended) that are required to exist arm in arm, dancing to the same music, within the whole of our narrative. To make those parts a sum in excess of the whole.
If the writing of drafts is your chosen path toward the discovery of all these concurrent stories (nothing wrong with that, but if you don’t get this, then it’s really really hard to pull off), then you need to know that you’ll have to go back and smooth the edges between them (the various stories), because it’s virtually impossible to optimize this dance until you know the entire arc of all the stories.
And in this market, you do need to optimize them to compete.
And you thought this was going to be easy.
Simply by acknowledging the need to tell all of these stories in context to each other and your Big Idea… you just made it easier, if only a little.
And a little is far better than hoping you’ll get lucky.
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That “tip jar” issue (mentioned in the newsletter) has been resolved, it’s bottom right. This is the last time I’ll mention it here… unless there’s relevant news.
And if you’re new to the approach described in this post (the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling), please consider my bestselling book on the subject… HERE.
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