Staple This To Your Forehead

All writing tips are not created equal. 

Or, among us writers, equally.

Some are so huge, so obvious, that they don’t resonate.  This one is like that. 

Nobody is above it.  Which means, if you missed it, you’ve missed the point.

As someone who reads unpublished manuscripts for a living, and seen the results of this truth not being honored as it should be, I believe it should be a daily manta.  I recommend you write it backwards and staple it to your forehead, so that every time you look in the mirror you are reminded of this massively huge, diabolically subtle storytelling OMG truth.

I’ll settle for you pasting it right above your monitor.  Read this, notice this, every day you sit down to write.

You may recognize your own dance with this issue right off.  If you can’t see the wisdom in it, then you need to pay attention and discover what it means.  Because on the list of things that will tank a story, this one is right at the top.

It’s all in the italics.

If you don’t connect to the sub-text of the italics in the next three paragraphs, you’ll miss the point, And the point is career-changing.  Here it is, one of the most important writing tips you will ever hear, rendered in three parts:

The objective of storytelling, the point of it all, isn’t to write about something.

The idea isn’t even to write about something.

The highest goal of your storytelling is to write about something happening.

When you can execute the last one and still make your story about something… then and only then will you have elevated your story to the level of art.

At any given moment in your story… in each and every scene of your story… ask yourself: what is happening here?  Right now?  How does it connect to what’s come before… how does it relate to what will happen next, and thereafter?

You should begin with that last piece as your goal.  And then evolve your story to allow it to embrace the first two.

So rather than asking (or answering, when asked) “what’s the story about?”… ask and answer this instead: “what happens in your story?”

When you know the difference, you’ll have crossed a threshold that will empower your stories, and perhaps your writing career, to greatness.

27 Comments

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27 Responses to Staple This To Your Forehead

  1. This is wonderful advice and something that we really should keep right in front of us as we’re writing. I believe that every aspect of the story should be written with that end in mind–dialogue, description, backstory, everything! Thanks for this!

  2. Eleni

    So true. I’m teaching my six year old daughter how to structure a story using the hero’s journey, and I tell her she must see the action of what’s happening, why it’s happening and then I have her predict what will happen next as a result. Wish someone was around to tell me this when I first started!

  3. “….write about something happening.”

    Couldn’t help but think of a Tom Waits song that would translate this insight into a question….” What’s he building in there?”

    This one could easily outline a novel.. Waits lays the story line out leaving everything to the listeners imagination helped along by some interpretive “music.” What’s he building in there?”

  4. This ties in very well with another piece of excellent advice from your site: every scene needs a mission.

    Excellent advice as always.

    After I’ve written the first draft, my next step is to remove every scene that doesn’t advance the story. Tightens things up quite well.

  5. I am a Meisner Technique-trained actor. Sandy said, “the foundation of acting is the REALITY of doing.” (Emphasis mine.) When I create a character, he has to DO something REAL on stage. Other wise, I’m just pretending. Same with writing: characters Do something. If not, they’re just squiggles on paper.

    Thanks, Larry. Great advice. However, these darn staples are painful, man!

  6. @Larry. Story is a verb?

  7. Not so long ago a workshop friend said to me, “I like the way you write but there’s nothing really going on in your book.” I knew there wasn’t anything going on. I was writing from gut instinct, pantsing and poking around in a character’s life and hoping to discover the path to a story idea. I’m wiser now, but those years were sort of wasted. Wish I’d seen this tip half a lifetime ago.

  8. Diane Turner

    Ouch! Think I’ll use tape. Great advice. How many of us could have used it years ago? Your site is insightful and the information useful. Thank you.

  9. Norm Huard

    Allow me to paraphrase a quote from A. Bartlett Giamatti (1923–1989), U.S. educator, baseball commissioner. “Self-Knowledge,” Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games, Simon & Schuster (1989). You can find it here: http://quotes.dictionary.com/Athletes_and_actors_let_actors_stand_for_the#8JchXy2FOPfTUsmG.99

    Story writers, like athletes and performing artists share much. They share the need to make the gesture (in the case of writers, describe the gesture—actions of their characters) as fluid and economical as possible, to chose from all the possible moves, the single, most precise one. They share the need for impeccable and split-second timing (in the case of writers, pacing). They share the need for thousands of hours of practice in order to train the body (in the case of writers, the mind) to become the perfect, instinctive instrument to express. Story writers, athletes and actors, given the heap of emotions, choices, strategies, knowledge of terrain, knowledge of audience, secret awareness of injuries or personal weakness, need to possess the ability to concentrate so that all these external elements and distractions become integrated and absorbed to the self, to be able to change the self so successfully that it changes us (the readers, the fans, the audience).

    Why do readers read stories that writers write? Why do fans go to baseball, basketball or hockey games that athletes play? Why do audiences go to see performing artists, of any kind, perform? To see it happen. Will our heroes succeed in their quest? What will they do as heroes to make it happen?

    Perhaps the politicians of the world could staple Larry’s advice to their foreheads also.

    Once upon a time in America, when people asked: What’s happening in America? Americans could answer: We are going to put a man on the moon and bring him back alive. That story captured the imagination, not only of a nation, but, of the world.

  10. Ouch! I did what you said… and now my forehead hurts. :/

  11. @Norman — maybe the best reader comment/contribution ever on this blog, and there’s been tons of killer input. Thanks so very much. L.

  12. “…what is happening here? Right now? How does it connect to what’s come before… how does it relate to what will happen next, and thereafter?”

    Just keep doing that over and over, aim the happenings toward a satisfying climax and denouement, and you have a strong story. Simple, right? Not really, but it’s a perfect recipe. Great advice, Larry! Thanks.

  13. Gotta say, Larry, with your post and your readers’ comments, it’s a brighter day here in the Oregon rain.

    Stapler at the ready. And…ouch.

  14. David Barber

    Yes Sir, I ask myself these questions on every scene I write! Thank you for summarizing it down to just three lines!

    Dave

  15. That’s exactly it. Something needs to happen and keep happening to keep attention.

  16. Larry–you just rocked my world with that tip! Thanks for the shake up today, I needed it.

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  18. Jim Moisan

    Great post!
    I’m thinking now (in large terms) that “what the story is about” is covered by your story element “Theme,” and “what is happening” is covered by “Concept.”

  19. Great words of wisdom, Larry! I posted it above my writing desk.

  20. This is fantastic advice! I’m currently an English and Writing Arts major. As an English major my professors are always telling me I need more analysis and I don’t always understand what they mean. This helps me to make sense of it. They don’t want me to merely explain what the story is about, but rather, to focus on what is happening in a scene and why that is happening. When I focus on these aspects I can understand the stories in whole new ways and when I apply them to my own writing I can tell my own stories even more strongly.

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  23. Thank you for this advice!

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