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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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