So What’s Your Story(ies)?

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.

If you missed the inaugural Storyfix newsletter (February edition), you can get it HERE

If you like what you see, you can subscribe to future editions (it’s free) in the upper left-hand corner of that page… or the upper right-hand corner of this one.  Hope you’ll give it a shot.

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.

Please help me grow this site in 2012.  If you benefitted from this post, please send it along to your writer friends and collegues.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

19 Responses to So What’s Your Story(ies)?

  1. Wow! You’ve certainly given us a lot to think about–or should I say plan and draft about. I love the Da Vinci Code example. Thanks for this great post!

  2. Laureli Illoura

    LOL: “okay then, we’re done with that.” It’s so true! (And the awkward moment takes time to pass through your head as you grapple with what just happened).

    Your list of storylines I need to be conscious of cranked up the heat a bit… a big “Aughh!” escaped as an immediate reaction before I snapped back to reality. The reality is that, thanks to you, I actually have a real handle on this stuff!
    So, HUGS to you Larry!

  3. Todd B

    Great post, Larry! I like the spin on the four elements, really puts them in a perspective I didn’t consider with regard to the “elevator pitch.”

  4. spinx

    I´ve never liked the concept of luck….

    Luck comes and goes, skills stay.

    And you´ve just helped me get another thing in perspective. At least a little…..more to think about……..these days, I find myself thinking my stories more than writing them. To be honest- I have not written a single word in over a month, yet most of my time went into arranging ideas in my head.

    That feeling of just not being good enough, skilled enough to paint the vision you see….it´s a pain in the ass—–but then again, the great joy of reading something you have brought on paper – now THAT always wins out for me!

    Excellent post.

  5. Larry, thank you for this fine post (and all your posts & books). Elevator pitch time is coming up soon, so this is giving me a lot to think about.

  6. @Larry this one goes in the next book. The ” Story(ies)” idea, with each of the fourteen stories you list breaks new ground relative to story development. The more I thought about it the less daunting it became.

    In fact, the most frightening thing for an author, as I see it, is to hope to satisfy each of the fourteen story(ies) without knowing they must be satisfied. To accomplish that comes closer to miracle than luck.

    That fourteen point list is the whole enchilada on a quarter of a page of paper.

    P.S. I’d think about a tm for story(ies) .
    This one is going to gather material around it as you think about it more.

  7. @Curtis — thanks for this feedback. Morever, thanks for getting it to the strong degree that you did. Immediate recognition of underlying power can clarity is huge… that’s how I felt when this model struck me, and now we’re on the same page. I will definatey take this somewhere, maybe an ebook entitled: “The 14 Stories Within your Novel” or some such. Thanks for the motivation and encouragement. L.

  8. @Larry

    I read this post in the context of having recently seen ” Joyful Noise” It is a Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton picture about, in the words of the director, “a choir competition. ” Yeah.

    Well, I was prepared to be bored out of my mind. If was fluff. Then suddenly it wasn’t. What made it not fluff was your 14 stories. They were all there. All 14 had an arc including the community. The viewer was hooked and engaged from beginning to end.

    Latifah and Dolly put people in the seats on the day one opening. It opened #4. But, the writer/ writers who had a clue about story structure held it in the #7 spot the next week. It is still up in the charts and still making money.

    I know one thing. Whoever writes against this guy better bring their ” A ” game. He could turn a team of butterfly catchers in search of the rare albino monarch into a story. All 14 of them.

    Oh. This just in: Caroline Leavitt to The Writer in the current issue. ” I’m a big believer in mapping out my character arcs as much as I can before I even start to write.”

  9. Just when I think you’ve said it all… LOL. You’ve broken down the story into it nuts and bolts and given us a lot to think about. If I may ask you one favor, would you please explain this thought a little further:

    “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.”

    I got them all except this one, and I agree with Curtis. You could write a book around this post. Many thanks!

  10. 1) It’s a coming of age story about a young male Smilodon fatalis going walkabout and meets an amazing female cat

    2) It’s about what life was like for a pride of sabertooth cats in the Pleistocene near the La Brea Tar Pits

    3) It’s a story about family and love

    4) It’s based on a specific fossil Smilodon fatalis from the La Brea tar pits, my speculation on how she lived and died.

    And of course, “It’s a cat lovers story about very big cats who lived long ago and had big teeth.”

    It was a fun mental exercise to take each of your four prompts and describe Sabertooth in those terms, with two memorable characters I could focus one of the pitches on each of them. The fourth gave me a hard time doing it without spoilers and isn’t what I’d use for the elevator pitch. I’d probably use the Cat Lovers pitch. Or the other one. “Think of Big Cat Diary set in the Pleistocene around the tar pits.”

  11. I’m on the email newsletter list… and yet I never received the email! Guess I will try signing up again…

  12. Matt Brook


    As always, thank you for a great thought-provoking article. I never thought about ALL of the different storylines having their own structure. Knowing that, and implementing that, definitely will make ones story stronger.

    Can you provide definitions of ’emerging story’ and ‘departing story’ for me? I think I know what they mean, but I want to be sure.

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  14. Matthew McInnis

    “Agreed” to essentially everything above.

    I would also like to second the request for clarification of what you mean, exactly, by “emerging” and “departing” stories. The example doesn’t include a reference to the departing story and a little extra clarification would be helpful.

  15. @Matt and Matthew — you ask a good question about emerging and departing storylines. To some extent these various story focuses are rhetorical and/or isolating… meaning, the lines between the micro-stories often overlap. That said, allow me to clarify what I was going for.

    The EMERGING story is, in essence, the flowering of the story as set up in Part 1, and then ignited at the First Plot Plot. The core dramatic tension of the book rarely announces (nor should it) early, Part 1 becoming a gradual unveiling that “sets up” the character and the stakes while establishing sub-text and theme. The story “emerges” from the opening quartile, and thus, it becomes a micro-(though critical) sequence.

    The departing story is the “Oh! That’s what this is really all about” moment, and all that leads up to it Shutter Island is the best example I can think of, but Davinci shows it, as well (most great stories leave us with a different story than the one we opened with). The departing story is the truth that has emerged from all the deception and arcing and true meaning, so it’s evident on both a dramatic and a thematic level.

    Both emerging and departing stories are elements of deliberate story architecture. Which means they must be discovered and vetted (optimized) before they’re really nailed (whether through planning or a series of drafts). It’s almost impossible to “pants” this level of nuance, though (as I just said) it can be developed through drafting. Either way, once you get this (which I hope you do) you’ll see it at work everywhere, most especially in your own work. Hope this helps! L.

  16. HI Larry,

    Maybe The DiVinci Code sold tons of books, but in my mind, “pure genius” should be saved for The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Book 5 was almost 1000 pages and in my opinion, too short. I can’t stop thinking about the multiple plots, multiple characters and multiple story lines.

    As I read your plotting techniques, I wondered what ole George does. Does he plot out the arc’s of each character? each plot? Have a master chalkboard? I can’t imagine the scope of his notes and how he pulls the book together. How he could craft such a complex story? Each chapter ends with a hook. Each character has his/her own voice. It just blows me away.

    His architectural plans would be as complex as constructing an entire New York City from the ground up, and even that isn’t a big enough analogy because he created a whole new world. Perhaps, the only thing close would be when we were waiting for the rest of the Star Wars series.

    Genius, genius, genius. He has me drooling for books 6 and 7 and constructing my own adventures for his characters in my dreams.

    Wonder if he would consider an interview for your blog and share his process?

  17. I thought The Da Vinci Code was a terrible book, full of overblown writing. Angels and Demons seems to better epitomize your detailed breakdown, in fact, of TDVC. However, personal feelings aside, thank you for a really great post. I have learned a lot from reading your articles.

  18. Rick

    Larry, I appreciate you so much. This may be my favorite of all your posts.

    I’m working my way slowly through your book “Story Engineering.” In fact, I’m actually rewriting it in outline form to
    1. Make the information more accessible for “at a glance” refreshing
    2. Make sure I’m really grasping what you’re saying (I often find that I’m not and have to give a point more attention until I do)

    One thing about Brown’s book that bears noting is that the sub-textual story (that the Christian/Catholic religion has been a fake and what really happened is etc.) is not remotely original with Brown. It’s an old, well-refuted conspiracy theory that he nevertheless used to dramatic and commercial effect. Maybe I should look into a few of those for MY story! :^)

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