Story Physics: The Interview

This is a bit of a mash-up between a guest post and an interview.  I’m not interviewing Randy Ingermanson, he’s interviewing me about my newly published writing book, Story Physics.  

The guy’s a Ph.D., so the word “physics” had him at hello.

It’s an except from Randy’s monthly Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine, which is the most popular digital publication of its kind (he also writes a killer blog… see below to subscribe, something I highly recommend… he offers some nice spiff/incentives, too).  

Randy is the co-author of Writing  Fiction for Dummies, the bestselling writing book in this niche.

This is the story of the mission of the book and how it fits into the serious writer’s quiver of essential knowledge.  Randy doesn’t do fluff and isn’t about quid pro quo promotion… this is actually more a mini-clinic/workshop than anything else.

*****

by  Randy Ingermanson

I met Larry Brooks a few years ago at a writing conference. He was giving a workshop on story structure and I loved what he had to say.

After his talk, I introduced myself and we talked. We think along the same lines on a lot of things, although each of us comes at this fiction writing game from a different angle.

Larry’s just published a new book with a title guaranteed to catch my eye: STORY PHYSICS. Larry is also the author of STORY ENGINEERING, which sketches out what he calls the “Six Core Competencies.” (I call them the Five Pillars of Fiction. Yes, we count things differently, but we’re talking about the same things.)

What is “story physics?” Larry invented this term, and he means the forces that operate in fiction. They’re the basic forces in story that make your fiction fly. If you like, they’re the laws of the universe that tell us what makes fiction enticing to readers. Things like premise, tension, pacing, empathy, vicarious experience, and narrative strategy.

You can write a novel without studying these, in the same way that you can go out and high jump without knowing about force, momentum, mass, and gravity. But if you know about those things, you can optimize your performance. Which is why high jumpers now can jump 18 inches higher than they could 100 years ago.

Larry’s book just came out in the past month and he’s doing something nice exclusively for readers of my e-zine. If you buy a copy of his book (or if you already bought a copy), send Larry an email at storyfixer@gmail.com with the subject header “Randy sent me”. Tell him where you bought the book. If you bought the book online, you can also include the electronic receipt.

I recently interviewed Larry for this e-zine. Here’s how it went:

Randy: There are zillions of books on fiction writing already available.  What’s new in STORY PHYSICS?

Larry: Most writing books focus on conveying what the reader needs to know to write a book that competes in the marketplace. That is professionally competitive.  The fundamentals, equally valuable (and often misplayed) for both newbies and experienced writers.  My first book (“Story Engineering”) did just that, bringing a unique model and vocabulary to the process.

But like a clinic on “how to play golf,” there’s a huge difference between doing things right, by the numbers, and then executing those fundamentals at a level of excellence that takes you to a higher level. A professional level of effectiveness.  This is why so many fundamentally sound books are rejected, and/or don’t sell. They are technically fine, but they lack the “power” of what makes a story appealing.

This book focuses on those qualitative differentiators — the “forces” within a story (think of them as literary physics) that make one novel or screenplay better and more commercial than another.  Essentially, it goes beyond “how to get published” toward “how to write a bestseller or an award-winner,” by again creating a model and a fresh perspective and vocabulary about those story essences that makes them more accessible to writers at all levels.  My earlier book was about the tools.  This book is about putting electricity, muscle and intention behind those tools.

Randy: That sounds cool. People often talk about “taking it to the next level” but they don’t always tell you how to do that, which is frustrating.  In STORY PHYSICS, you describe six “story physics” elements that drive fiction.  The first on the list is “a compelling premise”.  What’s the difference between an “idea,” a “concept,” and a “premise?”

Larry: A great question, because this is an area where many writers stumble.  All three terms are nebulous, and to a great extent interchangeable within the imprecise nature of the writing conversation.  Was The Da Vinci Code an “idea?”  Well, certainly it was that … an idea on steroids.  When you break those terms down into three separate, sequential and hierarchical focuses, the writer suddenly has something to work with.  An “idea” is a seed, the genesis for something that will grow.  Could be anything.

“I want to write a story about time travel” is an idea. JUST an idea.  Not a concept, and not a premise.  A “concept” is a compelling and appealing source of energy springing from an idea (even if this concept is the starting point itself), something that creates a stage, a landscape, upon with any number of stories could be written.

Using that “time travel” idea example, you could leverage a concept from it like this: “What if, in a world in which time travel is a newly discovered science, a group of Big Thinkers sets out to retrieve genius minds and doers from the past — da Vinci, Einstein, Plato, Steve Jobs, Jesus Christ, etc. — and bring them to our time, in our world, to help solve our problems?”  That’s NOT a story … yet.  But it is a concept.

Of course, complications ensue … and when they do, that’s leaning into “premise.”  They are sequential.  From the arena, to the story platform, to the story’s dramatic framework — that’s idea-concept-premise.  Lots of wiggle room in those connections, too.  The deeper you go into this hierarchy, the more the forces of story physics come into play.

Randy: Thanks, that’s helpful. I actually used your idea-concept-premise terminology recently when I was trying to come up with the marketing blurb for my latest novel, which I just released. I had been having a terrible time finding a way to explain the premise. And right while I was reading your book, I had a breakthrough. So I went to my computer and typed up 40 words that really catch the spirit of my novel.

Talk to me about “subtext.”  In your book, it sounds a lot like what I call “storyworld.”  Are they the same?  And do some categories of fiction need more subtext than others?

Larry: I think they are very much the same.  Because a “storyworld” defines its own parameters and constraints and laws and possibilities (in the above concept example, time travel becomes part of the storyworld, creating a permissible context, and thus a “subtext” for the story itself).

Subtext isn’t limited to environment, time and place, though, meaning the inner (as well as external) “storyworld” for your characters exerts force on their beliefs and decisions.

A love story in a nunnery is different than a love story in a homosexual subculture or a community that tolerates bigamy or among grade school faculty members.  All are different contexts that exert force on everything in the story, and as such, they become part of that “storyworld.”

Subtext can also refer to unseen and unacknowledged forces between the players — a husband leading a dark secret life (in any “storyworld”) creates context for everything he says and does as a partner, parent and citizen, especially if/when he is hiding or planning something.

Context is one of the most powerful words in fiction. Subtext becomes context in a way that blurs the line between them.  One is thematic, the other translates theme into action.

Randy: In chapter 12 of your book, you talk about how theme can be the “silent story killer.”  Explain what you mean by that, because I see a lot of writers who want to change the world with their brilliant themes.

Larry: Challenging the world and its belief systems and laws is one of the highest callings of fiction. It’s like sex in a marriage … if it’s ONLY about that, things probably won’t work out.  Stories are very much the same relative to theme.  It (sex and/or your theme) can be hot, it can be great, it can be the centerpiece, but real life swirls all around it, and ultimately defines it.

My answer is found in this golden storytelling principle: “a great story isn’t just ABOUT something.  It is about something HAPPENING.”

Randy: That’s for sure. And I see this a lot with novice writers. They want so bad to preach a sermon or paint a picture that they forgot that the reader came to watch a movie.

Larry: Which means, if the writer creates a hero that is merely a window into a theme, “the adventures of X within this time and place,” primarily for the purpose of illuminating an issue, that can be a story killer.

Because it may be weak on dramatic tension and pace, and on character itself (notice how, despite her strong themes, Kathryn Stockett used a PLOT to drive “The Help” to its thematic place in history).

With conflict-driven drama in play, just “seeing” the world in which a character lives and moves will fall flat. In essence the theme kills the story … not because of what it IS, but because of HOW IT IS HANDLED by the writer.

A better story leverages dramatic CONFLICT within a particular and highly thematic time and place, allowing the thematic aspects to surface as — and here it is again — contextual in nature, and therefore, illuminated.

If the writer clearly cares more about theme than plot, then the story is at risk, on several levels.  That’s how theme becomes a “story killer” … it smothers or displaces dramatic exposition of a plot. Theme works best when it emerges as a CONSEQUENCE of the story, rather than the sole intention of the story.

Randy: I’ve seen plenty of novels where the theme just drives everything, and it feels like the story was concocted to perfectly illustrate the theme. It feels phony. And it’s boring.

The flip side of that is the fact that some of the biggest hits of all time had strong themes.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin is heavily theme-driven.  So is Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.  So is The Da Vinci Code.  So is The Shack.

All of these books sold loads of copies.  And yet the themes of these novels contradict each other, so they can’t all be right.  What are your thoughts on that?

Larry: Themes don’t have to be “right” to be powerful. Mein Kampf by a guy named Adolf something-or-other did pretty well, and is still on shelves today. Propriety isn’t the point.

Yes, those stories do have strong themes.  But that’s not remotely what I mean by theme being a potential “story killer.”

In fact, those stories also all have strong protagonists and a PLOT, giving us a character who needs to DO something, experience something specific, a character with a problem and a goal and external opposition to it — in other words, a PLOT — rather than just a “tour” of the thematic issues.

The hero of “The Help” had to write a book about racism (the theme itself), but that didn’t just happen.  In fact, the whole story was about resistance to making it happen, and the consequences either way.

Nelson Demille’s bestseller Night Fall proposed a thematic truth — that TWA Flight 800 was the victim of a missile and then an FAA/government cover-up. That was his theme, and he was selling it hard.

Was that in contradiction to the “proven” truth?  Absolutely. But that didn’t dilute or invalidate his intended theme.  The litmus test isn’t truth, but rather, relevance and emotional resonance.

Theme is simply what a story is asking the reader to think about, consider and challenge. Perhaps to feel and experience.  That’s it.  Right or wrong isn’t the issue, even when the writer wants it to be.

A great story always grabs you on several levels.  One of those levels (The Da Vinci Code did this one really well), one of the options, is when it thoroughly pisses the reader off.

Randy: LOL, I read The Da Vinci Code as fiction, so it didn’t really bother me that Dan Brown (in my opinion) didn’t go a great job on his research. But yeah, he did make a lot of people angry.

One thing I try to teach my students is that nobody ever bought a novel because they wanted to change their religion or their politics or their basic worldview. But lots of people have bought a novel to be entertained and then ended up changing their religious or political beliefs or their worldview. Because story gets inside you and works on your emotions.

Which brings us to another topic. You talk a lot in your book about “vicarious experience.”  Why is that so important?  Can you give examples of stories where that’s the strongest element?

Larry: Every romance novel that works — within that specific genre, or within a story that simply has a love angle involved —  depends on “vicarious experience” to make it happen.

That reminiscent, perhaps regretful, perhaps hopeful, but vivid feeling of being in love. Same with thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. They transport the reader into an alternate reality, yet one in which they can RELATE.

If the reader can travel to a time or place within your pages, if they can have experiences that are so vivid and frightening or exciting or enraging or otherwise provocative that it “feels as if they are right there,” that’s a force of storytelling. They can take the ride without the cost or the risk.

Randy: Tom Clancy does that really well. When you read The Hunt For Red October, you almost believe you could drive a submarine. When you read Patriot Games, you almost believe you could stop a machine-gun-bearing terrorist with your bare hands. Almost.

When you read The Hunger Games, you can almost believe you’re there in the arena. When you read Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Game, you almost believe you’re a little kid inBattleSchool. So I agree with you that vicarious experience is a big part of story, and it’s something fiction teachers don’t talk about as much as I’d like. I call it the “powerful emotional experience” and my opinion has always been that this is the main purpose of fiction. It drives everything else.

Larry: This is a powerful piece of storytelling physics.  You may have never been on a space ship, but if the writer can make you feel as if you’re having that experience, living it, that aspect alone is compelling.

And if the other essences of physics are in play — a hero we’re rooting for and empathizing with, striving toward something we care about, with dramatic tension and pace, etc. — then the vicarious experience is all the more integral to the overall impact.

The point of “Story Physics” is to define each of these forces of storytelling as an intention for the writer, a benchmark, a box to consider and check off as they expand their idea into a concept and then into a premise, and from there into a manuscript, and to harness those forces to make it all work more vividly, more intimately, more urgently, and more provocatively.  Not as a random result of how you’ve assembled your story beats and scenes, but as an intention for them.

Without these forces of story physics in your quiver, you’re writing on autopilot. On instinct. Or as a reflection of something you know or have read. Or in the hope of getting lucky. All of which can work.

But your odds go up significantly when you know what WILL make your story work, and work better, more optimally, in the long run, and engineer these forces into your story plan, rather than retrofitting it later, which is always harder to pull off.

Randy: Some writers believe that instinct is all you need to write a story. Well, instinct is good. It’s essential. But it also needs to be guided by a trained mind. We’d never send a pilot off to fight the enemy with just instinct. We find pilots with great instincts and then we train the heck out of them.

Thanks for the interview, Larry! I appreciate your time.

*****

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with about 32,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day E-mail Course in How To Publish a Novel.

 

 

13 Comments

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13 Responses to Story Physics: The Interview

  1. Anthony

    Wonderful!

    Writing Fiction for Dummies was the first book I ever picked up on the subject. Larry, Randy, and James Scott Bell taught me how to write stories.

  2. The concept of “idea/concept/premise” really helped me out today. I finished a novel about a week ago. This one was different because I planned it first and I used some organizational ideas from Mr. Brooks. A friend of mine asked me today what it was about, and I was able to tell her quickly and concisely. I’ve never been able to do that with previous books (and there are 9 really bad ones in my basement). Before I would babble until I realized eyes were glazing over.

    Instead, I got interested questions and, as I filled in details about the hero’s background, I even got some tears. Yipe!

    I know idea/concept/premise was only a small part of this interview, but it has been great to be able to concisely tell people what my book is about. If my character’s backstory caused tears, maybe people will root for him!

  3. Nice!
    I haven’t yet had time to get into Story physics, but I must really check it out at some point. Your tips are always very interesting, and useful! Thanks for the blog, by the way!

  4. “The litmus test isn’t truth, but rather, relevance and emotional resonance.”

    I’m always amazed how many readers get this, and how many writers don’t.

    My copy of Story Physics is in transit. This conversation is a nice confirmation that it’s going to tie together Story Engineering in my head.

  5. Story Engineering changed the way I thought about writing. I’ve read dozens of how-to-write books, and most are good, but Larry has a way of laying down the fundamentals so you really feel like you know exactly where you’re going before the first scene is written. It really frees you as a writer to be creative within the scenes, because you know you’re not heading down a blind tunnel. Randy started me along this line of thinking with the Snowflake method. Following you guys, along with Mr. Bell, is enough to get any writer well on his way.

  6. I enjoyed Randy’s question about Idea, Concept, and Premise.
    Before I was done, not only did I listen, I sorted out Larry’s response so I could see it. Not sure if I got a good handle on premise or not.

    Idea = seed.
    Example: “ I want to write a story about time travel.”

    The abstract word— “idea” — defined by a metaphor “seed”, comes clear with a concrete example. “ I want to write a story about time travel.”

    Concept = energy. a stage. a landscape.
    The abstract word -“ Concept” — defined by another abstraction – “source of energy” and a couple of metaphors, “stage” and “landscape” also comes clear with a concrete example. “What if, in a world in which time travel is a newly discovered science, a group of Big Thinkers sets out to retrieve genius minds and doers from the past – ad Vinci, Einstein, etc – and bring them to our time, in our world, to help solve our problems?

    Premise = ???
    An implication and an assumption define premise. “ Of course complications ensue…and those complications lean toward premise.”

    Apparently, the writer must complicate the concept to get to the premise. So, I guess premise can be defined as the complication/s interjected into the concept. ( I’m also guessing that the world’s problems in the above concept will not be the complication/s that lead to a good premise. Or, they sorta could because they will provide some push back along the way. But, NOT the major push back. NOT, the real complication leaning toward the premise.

    At this point Importing all these big guns to fix the problem appears to be a liner series of events aka non-events made wo wo because it has a sci-fi context that leads to a presumed fixed world. From bad to good made possible by the best in the biz. A salvation story with a big line up of saviors.

    The presupposition here is that these guys could fix anything. Also, It assumes that they have nothing to do with the problems that exist. Who’s to say that Einstein wasn’t a jack wagon whose theory of relativity didn’t screw the whole thing up to begin with. ( Guess what, some, and more than you would think, actually believe he/it did.)

    You want to complicate this one. Let Jesus get in a fight over how to fix it with Steve Jobs. Let Plato have no clue about what to do but pushes his bad ideas and manipulates to be in charge. Let de Vinci and Einstein conspire to actually wreck the whole thing. Now fix that one hero.
    P.S. The hero needs to be the janitor at the Etherial Elon bus station that brings this crew in.

    Would premise become clear with a concrete example? Or did I break the code?

  7. Sara Davies

    Great interview.

    @Curtis:

    If the set-up is that a crew of superior minds is retrieved from the past to solve today’s problems, my expectation as a reader is that they are going to confront a specific problem, or series of problems, possibly culminating in facing the mother of all problems. In any case, the reason they are brought together would be the source of dramatic conflict and cornerstone of the premise. Infighting might make the journey more interesting, or become a delivery system for theme (such as: even the greatest minds can’t solve the world’s problems). If the janitor calls great minds into the present to solve the world’s problems, finds out they’re bad at it, and discovers he has to solve the problems himself, the initial reason for bringing them together still has to be the primary source of dramatic conflict. The character arc of the janitor might be that he needs to realize he is as brilliant as any of those guys…but he still faces an external challenge that makes him seek outside help – or what are those guys doing there? I could be wrong, but my guess is that the conflict must be implicit in the premise, so the reader knows what’s at stake and what kind of battle is going to be fought.

  8. @Sara — spot on right. The premise connects to the primary source of dramatic tension, the core story, or it’s not the premise afterall. Which works only when you’re in the story development phase, not the pitching phase. Promise an agent one thing, then deliver another… you’re toast. L.

  9. @Sara

    Thank you for taking your time to work through the material. As usual I should have stopped about three paragraphs earlier. 🙂 Ask him what time it is and he will tell you how to build a watch.

    “… the reason they are brought together would be the source of dramatic conflict and cornerstone of the premise. ”

    Which means generating a simple concrete premise statement occurs in response to the “why” question.

    Thank you for the bonus — an example of theme. You are a good explainer.

  10. Kerry Boytzun

    Good exchange, Sara and Curtis.

    I recommend getting into the heads of the characters and imagining how they would act IF they were in the situation (that you call a story) instead of how you WANT them to act.

    In the case of bringing a genius from the past back to life–imagine that YOU were transported from wherever you were now–to Earth present day. Would you be thrilled that you were interrupted? What if you were “busy” working on another lifetime or something else?

    OR–what if you (the genius) had been wronged in the past, and now you have a chance to “get even”?

    What if the genius wasn’t even that smart, and was just the local poster boy for other people’s work–that was stolen?

    Many people invent characters that the author figures should just march along to what the author wants–but if the character was genuine–he would most likely have alternate agendas.

    In other words, bringing people back from time to solve YOUR problems assumes a BIG idea: that these people even WANT to solve your problems.

    It’s like Bugs Bunny waking up the genie in the lamp while he’s napping, taking a bath or whatever (the genie has other ideas…)

    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1i9z2_bugs-bunny-a-lad-in-his-lamp_fun#.UeQtw9JeYuo

    Just putting it out there…

  11. Robert Jones

    Just catching up here.

    First of all, great interview. Touched on many key points and expanded on several.

    Thumbs up to Sara.

    And another great point from Kerry. Conflict needs to be built into every level. I like the idea that those “great minds” would not all be pleased to help. Especially if they hadn’t finished their work in the past. Plus, if their past lives meant so much, why hasn’t humanity followed their examples, used the tools and precepts they have given us? And how does seeing that humanity ignores these things anyway effect their work in the past? Many cool conundrums, lots of different views…and how/why do they all come together (if they all come together) to help?

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