Wherein we address the question: “Why, when I have a hot idea and a killer concept, an astoundingly compelling hero, a powerful theme and I just happen to write like the love child of Hemingway and Margaret Mitchell… why, with all those wonderful things in place, can’t I sell my story?”
This might be why.
Your scenes suck.
Shortly after I launched this site I wrote an ebook called, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”
Maybe you have it. Maybe you should have it.
But that’s not my point today (honestly), other than to add: well over half of these tips are ideas and strategies you may not have ever heard before (or heard defined quite this way), but are dead-on empowering.
Now back to my point, which sets up the 102nd killer writing tip promised in the title.
That number – 101 – wasn’t entirely derived from entry-level online marketing lingo. The term “101” as street slang means an entry level dish, the basic stuff, the first line information you need to know. And okay, it sounded onlineseque, too.
Guess it worked – this thing has sold many hundreds of copies. It ended up being a grander effort and a more robust, relevant writing resource than I envisioned when I conceived the idea.
Love it when that happens.
Of course, when you launch a successful project, the next challenge is how to follow that act, and do it in a way that leverages the equity of the original, including the name itself. And when there is a number – like, 101 – in the title, the concept for the sequel sort of writes itself.
In this case, “101 More Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.” Or, “The Next 101 Slightly Advanced Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.” It would, of course, offer “202” level tips (more advanced and subtle stuff) for writers who want to wrestle with the nuances.
Good 101 tells you what. Good 2o2 tells you how.
One of those new 202-level tips is haunting me daily.
It’s a natural evolution, an enhancement, of what I believe to be the most empowering, liberating and exciting writing tip… ever. One that’s not something I’m ripping off from another body of work, but rather, a distillation of the essence of what we know about dramatic effectiveness getting boiled down to a principle that can be expressed and understood at a glance.
Something that works. Something that will make you better. And, because nobody’s defined in quite this specific way, maybe something you aren’t proactively doing now.
Proactive effectiveness beats serendipitous effectiveness every time.
So here it is, the most powerful writing tip I know (you’ve read it here before… it’s also Tip #96 in the aforementioned ebook). I reprise it here, not only because you can’t encounter this morsel of narrative gold too often, but because it forms the pre-requisite foundation for rolling out The 102 Killer Writing Tip itself. Here ‘tis:
Every scene should have a succinct mission.
Sounds simple. But it’s one of the primary reasons unpublished manuscripts remain unpublished – they ramble. Mess this one up and you compromise everything about the story, from pacing to reader clarity, vicarious empathy (a required reader outcome) and expositional effectiveness.
Have you ever read a novel that is starting to either bore you, or confuse you, or both? Chances are this is the reason: the mission for each scene is either missing, muddy or muddled.
When I talk about story planning, this is what you plan: the mission of each scene. Only when you completely understand a scene’s mission can you write a scene that optimizes drama, characterization and expositional effectiveness. In other words, the reader’s experience.
Characterization is not the mission of a scene – any scene — at least in this context. The only viable exception here happens in Part 1 of a story, and even then, character is best served by something happening (show, don’t tell), and whatever is happening needs to be story-driven, not random and isolated merely for the sake of characterization.
New writers make that mistake all the time. Published writers, not so much.
Characterization is a part of every scene in a story, just like staying upright and awake is a given expectation of someone playing a sport. It’s essential. But the real mission of a scene, in this context, is expositional: what information is the scene imparting to the reader? What changes? What is being exposed here? What is the wrinkle, the twist, the unveiling?
What is taking the story forward, and/or building the basis of the story, in any given scene? That’s the mission. To answer that question.
Who answers it? You, of course. But as you’ll see in a moment, the real deal-breaker here is whether your reader can answer it, or has to guess.
If it’s not there, then the scene violates this principle. And it can kill your story.
You can find all the exceptions you want, but that doesn’t negate the validity of the principle. But exceptions are rare because those books rarely get published.
Because they don’t work.
If you’d like to read more about this tip and the storytelling physics that make it so powerful, click here. But come back, because I’m about to show you how to make sure you’re doing it.
The 102nd Killer Writing Tip
This is subtle. Forgive me if I’ve already oversold it and rendered it obvious, but this is the acid test:
If, after reading a scene, the reader cannot immediately define what new information has just been revealed, what the mission of the scene was, then the scene has failed to accomplish this mission-driven goal.
And the reader will have no clue why they were forced to read it.
At best, the reader will ignore or tolerate the mission-void scene and press forward in search of more and better story exposition. At worst, especially after too many of these clunker scenes, they’ll put the book down and do something else.
A clear and powerfully rendered mission is the key to writing a great scene. Which, by the way, is one of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.
This isn’t just for major milestone scenes (the plot point, the pinch points, the hook, lull, open, climax, whatever…), it applies to every scene in the book.
Pick and choose your characterization-only scenes (those without expositional content otherwise), because you’re asking the reader to tolerate, rather than appreciate.
Once you wrap your head around this principle, with a full and functional understanding of this mission-driven concept (both for your scenes, and for your four contextual story parts), you can then apply the acid test to every scene you write.
Is the mission clear and easily comprehended?
Is it valid and necessary to the forward motion of the story?
Is there only one mission, one point, happening in this scene, other than the assorted minutea of characterization?
Is the mission of the scene itself overtly, proactively characterization, or is it just showing more of the same character stuff you’ve already established?
This is the writer’s equivalent of the touch that makes an athlete successful… the ear that makes a musician stand out… the instinct that makes a professional (insert any field here) consistently competent… and the craft that elevates something to the level of art.
Need an example?
Click HERE to read a chapter from my 2004 novel, “Bait and Switch” (named to Publisher’s Weekly “Best Books of 2004” list).
Any trouble discerning the mission here? And yet – I hope you agree – the scene still has it’s own arc, is loaded with characterization and, in no small part because this stuff is spicy hot (as in, rated-R), plenty of entertainment value and (c’mon, admit it) a vicarious ride.
The purpose of writing mission-driven scenes isn’t to cut back on character and entertainment, it’s to enhance both.
This is your mission, should you decide to accept it. Use this principle in your scene writing, and apply this evaluative tool, to make sure you take full advantage of the opportunity it presents.
Oh yeah… if you’d like to read more about and perhaps even order a copy of “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters”… click HERE.