Storyfixins… Weekend Wanderings, Wonderings and other Wistful Wackiness

“The Help”… nails it.

I’d mentioned that I’m reading  Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” in preparation for serving up a series of analytical deconstruction posts here on Storyfix.  Saw the movie preview today (film comes out in August), which reminds me to remind you that the series will apply to that, too.

Perfect timing, I think.  Read the book now, if you haven’t… we’ll kick it around together in depth… and then, when the movie comes out, we’ll all feel like we were sweating it with the screenwriter each step of the way.  It’s an amazing feeling to see something that you understand deeply, at the core of it’s literary being, come to life before your eyes. 

It’s the best learning tool there is.

Why “The Help”? 

First off, any novel that clears the fence in that fashion (as in, a home run) warrants our attention.  Also, it’s not your typical genre story, it’s adult contemporary fiction that approaches what some prefer to call (in contrast to genre fiction) literature in terms of intention, execution and the level of respect shown by reviewers and readers alike. 

There are cynics out there that — still — cling to the belief, even the hope, that literature or genre-neutral stories are somehow immune to the principles of story architecture and the six core competencies that drive it, if for nothing else than the fact that such stories are often character-driven to an extent that plot milestones and contextual scene missions can be challenging to recognize, and therefore, become easy targets of debate.

And, the hope that there is something magical afoot.  There isn’t.

But there’s no debating the integrity of the structure in “The Help.”

I’m happy to report that “The Help” delivers its First Plot Point right on time in the sequence of the story.  If you’ve had any doubt or lack of clarity on this issue, this deconstruction (and indeed, the book itself) will set you straight — it’s right where it’s supposed to be.  No sooner, no later.

And not because of some rule

Rather, because that’s where the mission of the first plot point — how it impacts and shifts a story — is most effective.  When some writers rail against what they insist on calling rules, they’re disrespecting what works (and always to their own detriment, and to that of anybody that believes them and reads their work), not some self-concocted notion of creative restriction. 

The First Plot Point in “The Help” happens on page 104 of the newly released paperback (out of 530 pages, or just shy of the 2oth percentile mark), and everything that takes place prior to this moment — about 15 scenes delivered within six chapters — serves the textbook definition of the “Part One set-up” scene context, including a killer hook and the establishment of time, place, main characters, stakes, sub-text, sub-plot, pre-Plot Point worldview and foreshadowing. 

The whole Part 1 enchilada, in textbook form.  How cool is that?

Sorry if this disapponts any naysayers still out there, but you’ll have to look elsewhere to disprove the principles of story structure.  Unless you go back a century or two, good luck with that.

But… did Kathryn Stockett even know?

Or was this just a happy literary coincidence?

Answer: doesn’t matter. 

Nor does her writing process matter.  Because whatever it is, it drives toward implementing the fundamentals of what makes a story work on the page, at whatever stage along the way that she happened to arrive at that moment.

Sports analogy warning: When Tim Lincecum throws a killer 96 miles per hour fastball on the corner at the knees, does he even know the mechanical principles of physics that allow his less-than-massive body to achieve such stellar performance?  Or is he simply practiced and skilled enough to do what needs to be done in the moment to deliver the best possible pitch?  Doesn’t matter there, either.

It just happens.  Rarely by accident or coincidence.  Even when it cannot be explained by the doer. 

When skilled professionals deliver near-perfection, it is almost always in alignment with the principles of literary physics that do explain it.  Even if they just got lucky that one time. 

It behooves all of us striving to achieve that level of excellence to seek out and understand the reasons why things work.  “The Help” can assist us in that behooving.

Stay tuned for more reasons “The Help” is still kicking butt on the bestseller lists, and why it can and should be held high into the light of analysis and even skepticism to become a model story with much to teach us about the how and why of storytelling.

Send me your poor and broken stories. 

Or, any manuscripts you think are ready for primetime.

I’m filling up my summer calendar with stories to analyze for writers who are willing to risk and share and be open to coaching.  For a limited time I’m discounting my fee for this work — $1000 for a 400 or fewer page manuscript; an additional $2.00 per additional page; write me for a quote on a shorter treatment and beat sheet analysis.  Takes about two to three weeks, and the result is a rich “coaching document” that analyzes the story in context to the six core competencies, with creative alternatives and solutions offered for issues that aren’t, in my opinion, optimized in your draft.

Can you handle the truth?  I hope so.  Because if you don’t hear it from me, you’ll certainly hear it in less precise form from someone else who is less willling to help you fix whatever needs fixing.

Let me rock your writing conference.

I also do keynote addresses and conduct writing workshops that entail anywhere from one hour to a full two days of intense banging on the craft of storytelling.  Just got back from one in Salt Lake City, and I’m still catching my breath (I do get a little excited up there), as are the folks with whom I shared those illuminating and rewarding hours.

References available.  Tons. 

I’ll work with your budget, but as a win-win target I look for expenses (air and hotel) and, depending on workshop length, at least a grand or so.  For a full day or two of workshopping, something reasonably more than that.  But when I say I’ll work with you, I mean it, tell me what you need and what your parameters are.

This notion isn’t just for large conferences, either.  I’ve done “private” workshops for writing groups wherein the participants pool their resources and work with me in a smaller venue.  Do the math, it becomes pretty reasonable if the headcount is as low as 10 or 15 folks.

There’s something powerful about real-time give and take, and that’s what happens in my workshops.  We all walk away better at what we do — me included — and, usually, a bit hoarse and tired.  But not tired enough to stop the adrenalin from kicking in to fuel a new assault on your WIP from an enlightened, energized and fresh point of view.

Book review misinformation.

It’s still happening.  People are reviewing my book, generally with gracious favor, but occasionally with some interesting feedback.

Feedback is good.  I’ve just offered to sell you mine, so of course I need to be open to hearing it.  What I’m hearing is that the first couple of chapters of “Story Engineering” are, well, trying for some readers.  That it takes too long to get to the meaty point of it all.

Not the first time I’ve heard that… about my workshops… my blogs… my own stories.  Even lectures to my son and romantic overtures to my wife.  So you have my attention.

Most of these readers go on to state that the content, once they get there, is what they came for.  A few try to pigeonhole it as something more appropriate for newer writers — a great many seasoned writers disagree — and some just can’t get over that patience-dependent first impression. 

I can see how this perception happens.  Anything I say about it at this point risks defensiveness, but I prefer to think of it as explanatory.  It’s simple: this material is new.  It flies in the face of what many writers have come to accept as solitary, gospel truth.  And so, in my sometimes lengthy view, it merits explanation, set-up, paradigm shattering and attention-getting. 

That’s it.  It’s there because it might not work as well if it wasn’t.

The first Protestants had the same problem.  And they were dealing with the same book as their nay-sayers.

But there’s another level of input I’d like to address… again. 

And that’s the occasional misinformation that a few reviewers are putting out there.  Along the lines of, “what Larry’s saying is (insert issue)… and it’s wrong.”  It would be one thing if what they perceived me saying was quoted accuratly and then labeled as wrong, but that’s too often not the case.

Too often a reviewer is describing their perception of what I’ve said, then wrongly assigning that misperception to me, and then bashing it.  When they’re just plain wrong about quoting what I’ve said — not the perception of it, which is their right, but the actual nuts and bolts of it — then it serves nobody, reader or author or reviewer. 

The first two are misled, and the last is misspoken.

An example: in a review posted today, a reviewer claims I’ve contradicted myself when I say in the book that “The Davinci Code” and “Raising the Titanic” are examples of killer concepts and of sub-par characterization.  He claims this contradicts my contention that all six of the core competencies need to be rendered at a professional level.

He couldn’t be more wrong about these examples being contradictions.  Because he fails to quote the rest of the standard: only one or hopefully two of the core competencies need to be stellar — which he agrees the concepts for these two books are — to break out as a bestseller, while the other five need only be professionally adequate.  Which I clearly state that they certainly are.  I also say the characters in these two books are not particularly, overwhelmingly stellar, that characterization is not the reason (I said that only about Davinci… I would never say that about Dirk Pitt in the Cussler book, because Pitt is an iconic character) those books were runaway bestsellers.

So I need to clarify.  Which I hope I just did.  Classic over-simplification, implication and flawed perception.

Which, ironically, are things that undo us not only as reviewers, but as storytellers, as well.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Storyfixins… Weekend Wanderings, Wonderings and other Wistful Wackiness

  1. Larry – You are direct and bold and passionate about your daily directives. On the other hand, the ‘ramble’ that attempts to stem misquoting, misdirection, or misunderstanding in reviews of your book are more passionate, less informational, and therefore, weak compared to anything else you write. Is your message a warning that all things will be misinterpreted no matter what? Or that you truly wish it hadn’t happened to you? Or is there a lesson you wanted to share with those of us who update daily? Can anyone stop misdirection or misunderstanding? And once it’s out there, isn’t it out there forever?

    Yes, DaVinci – weak characters in an obviously contrived plot – what are the chances anyone is a direct descendent of Jesus, after all? Yes, Pitt – caught in a story-telling mode of another generation, but engaging. A 2-time reader, probably not much more than that. I recently picked up a Cussler in which he thanked Steve Berry for his advice. Aha! Now we understand the networking of THRILLER writers and that old dogs can be taught new tricks…more or less.

    You are a NEW dog. You not only forge ahead, you share the bumps and bruises. We learn from these. Nothing easy was ever worth gaining, right? Homework is eternal. And so are the pains of reading reviews that don’t actually see what we wanted to be seen and don’t reveiw truthfully, as we meant our words to be reviewed. As many theatrical productions are slammed right out of the theatre, so are many books dropped because someone didn’t read and think at the same time.

    Do we learn to live with disappointment? Yep. Then we muster the forces and the juices and curse words if they make us feel better, and get back to work.

    Kate Lacy

  2. Richard

    “What I’m hearing is that the first couple of chapters of “Story Engineering” are, well, trying for some readers. That it takes too long to get to the meaty point of it all.”

    As someone wiser than myself once said, “If you don’t like the book’s setup, start reading chapter three.”

  3. Hi Larry. I love Story Engineering but sorry but I’m going to have to disagree with you your view on what one or two people take from your book. You cannot decide what someone understands from your writing. Every person comes to a piece of text from a different perspective; take the Da Vinci Code as an example.

    A priest might throw down the book in disgust shouting ‘heresy’. A conspiracy theorist might say ‘I told you so.’ An English Major might say ‘poor grammar and construction, weak characterisation.’ A thriller lover might say ‘fantastic’. A film producer might say ‘get me Dan Brown’s phone number.’ etc.

    Each person is reading exactly the same words but seeing something different and they are all correct. Your book is no different. If a person reads it and sees something, they are correct even if you did not mean them to see that on your writing. You can’t dictate meaning to your readers. All you can do is write and explain to the best of your ability and if someone doesn’t get your meaning then tough. Ask any teacher who has stood in front of a class of 30 kids about the difference between what they taught and what was learnt.

    If readers are taking something unintended from your book then you can do one of three things. You can ignore it. You can spend the rest of your life trying to convince them they are wrong – you will not succeed. Or you can learn from it and ask yourself why they believe these things to be true and perhaps revise your book in a second edition to get your points across clearer – this is not a bad idea because a relaunch will generate a lot of publicity and therefore more sales.

    There is a saying; if one person calls you a dog ignore them; if two people call you a dog ask yourself why are they calling you a dog; if three people call you a dog buy yorself a kennel. If more than one person is interpreting something in your book a particular way there is a reason for it and the solution is not to try and convince them they are wrong.

    Let’s hear more of your excellent theories and less of the reaction to a ‘misunderstood review’.

  4. P.Humphrey

    You write “the core of it’s literary being” There is no apostrophe in “its” when used as a possessive, which it is here. When you put an apostrophe in, you change it to a contraction of the two words “it is” or “it has.” I’m a former proofreader and things like that drive me crazy. If writers don’t get our language right, who will? Especially a teacher.

  5. Steve

    Sounds like you’re a current proofreader.

    Not sure if I missed something, but it seems to me that Larry pointed out a valid distinction between what he said and what he was being criticized for saying. That’s (that is) quite different than a mere difference of opinion.

    God forbid that Larry correct the misquote here, on his blog.

    And really, isn’t it all about the core being literary?

  6. Pingback: Larry Brooks Is Deconstructing The Help