The Bermuda Triangle of Storytelling

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by Larry Brooks on February 23, 2014

Don’t Let It Sink Your Story Before It Leaves the Harbor

“Idea” is one of the most dangerous words in storytelling. 

Every story begins with one, in some form… so what’s so dangerous about that, you ask?  Ideas are wonderful things, right?

In the most obvious conversational context, “idea” is a generic term for a creative unit of thought… certainly a good thing.  Bring on those creative units.

I want to set a story in the future, on the moon,” is an example of an idea… that isn‘t a story yet.  It requires many more units of creative thought to become an actual story.  “Make it a love story…” that’s yet another idea, but still not a story.

Let’s allow that one to sit there undisturbed in this obvious and worthless generic context. 

Because there’s another take on idea that can, if not fully grasped, kill your story.  In fact, this one explains a significant percentage of stories that don’t work or at least  don’t distinguish themselves, leading to a preponderance of rejection slips and bad word of mouth.

In this other more complex and critical context, the one serious writers need to wrap their head around, an “idea” is a loaded gun: what you do with an idea, what you understand about it as a storytelling asset, and most of all, where you point it, determines whether your story lives or dies.

By “do” with it, I’m not talking about how you write a draft.  Rather, I’m talking about what you put in the draft that exceeds the limited scope of a simple idea, or even a multi-faceted idea.

Add enough facets to your idea, and sooner or later you’ve reached the level of story treatment.  Which is closer to what you need, provided the criteria for a compelling treatment have been honored.

Seriously, there is a certain percentage of writers out there who would take that previous idea I just mentioned – set a futuristic love story on the moon — and start writing a manuscript from it.  Hoping to discover the story along the way.  And, a depressingly large percentage of those writers won’t understand what they missed along that path…

… which will be something called concept, and something called premise.

Now, before you send me a nasty note… drafting as a means of story discovery is just fine, that can certainly work.  How you evolve an idea into a story isn’t the point today.  What happens to the idea in your process, whatever your process, is.

There is a preliminary layer of story awareness that resides between the idea and a draft

Some writers dwell on it, creating notes and outlines, other skip it altogether in terms of writing it down.  But no writer can afford to ignore it, because right there in that middle space is where the story takes form.  If the idea is  the story’s conception (seed meets egg) and the draft is birthed from that essence with an added layer of premise… then this idea-incubation phase is the nine-month long process of creating a life inside of you.

This true for any draft that finally works

What happens in that incubation phase is this: you summon a concept that defines the contextual landscape of the story (something conceptual in nature), and then you develop a premise set upon that concept.

Write a love story: that’s an idea.  Set it in a nunnery: that’s a concept.  Tell the story of a nun and an up-and-coming cardinal squaring off with their emotions as he fights off an accusation of child abuse… that’s a killer premise.

Why is it killer?  Because the premise adds inherent dramatic tension and heavy themes.  The concept only defines the landscape for either of those qualities.  And the idea that started it… that was just a door opening.

An Example You’ll Recognize

In The Hunger Games, the dystopian world and the Games themselves are the CONCEPT.  Katniss’s journey relative to the Games, to Peeta and to her ultimate role as the poster girl for rebellion… her confrontation with the President… that is the PREMISE.

Big difference.

So what was the author’s idea in the first place? 

It wasn’t the concept, and it wasn’t premise.  Those were brought to the party after an idea captured the author’s fancy.  That’s how it works, even when the idea is itself more concept or premise… you need to work backwards and forwards in that case.  As for Suzanne Collins, she was watching Survivor on TV when the Big Idea hit her.  She decided to develop a story around the idea that the most dramatic trials of human beings might someday be televised to the general public, live.

That was the idea.  Which wasn’t the concept, and which wasn’t the premise.  Which, considered alone, is merely a grain of sand on Idea Beach.

This idea-to-concept-to-premise  sequence (those last two are interchangeable in terms of which begets the other) is as true for pantsers as it is for story planners.  Unless your original idea IS a concept or a premise, chances are it lacks the depth and dramatic potential of a vivid or thematic story landscape.  Whether retrofitted back into a story after a draft or two (or more), or leveraged as the opening vision for the story itself, it is the concept/premise level of story richness that makes or breaks you.

It is what turns an idea, any idea, into a story worth reading. 

But not by writing the idea.  Rather, by cooking up the concept and premise that are inspired by it, and then writing a story.

I’ve been fried for suggesting that writing a story without an outline in place is… let’s call it inefficient

So be it.  It works that way for many, I have no problem with that.

But I’ll stand firm on this one: writing a story without a solid concept and premise in play is simply a recipe for one of two things: failure, or a massive rewrite.

Building Your Story On Idea Beach

If your target is high and you seek a publisher for your book, as well as a readership for it when that happens (or if you hope for viral word-of-mouth upon self-publishing), here’s an ugly little truth: it’s almost impossible to turn a bad or even a vanilla story idea into a great story through the application of craft.

Which renders the “story idea” itself  a major metric of the story’s inherent potential, even when it is unremarkable.  Where does it lead?  Have you given it enough rope, considered enough options, to make sure where it does lead is the best possible destination?

Like Suzanne Collins did with that Survivor idea?

Or did you just bang out a draft, propelled by the idea only, in the hope that something good would happen?

It challenges the writer to know what makes an idea rich and compelling (answer: concept and premise), and then what to do with it once that verdict is in.  Of course, in the privacy of our writing space we are alone with that determination, and thus is explained why so many books from good writers don’t make the cut: we may or may not be good assessors of what others will deem to be a good story idea.

We live and die with our acumen in that regard. 

The playing field is huge, thankfully, there’s a story landscape for everybody… but even then the writer needs to understand what must be done with and to anidea before it has a shot at becoming a viable, compelling story.

I read and evaluate story plans (many of which represent drafts that have already been written) that are always executions of an idea… but too often of an idea only… without either a compelling concept or premise in play.  Or on the horizon.

This is fatal, almost always. 

I’ve written about it here at length.  Stories that are nothing more than collections of anecdotes illustrating a theme or an issue.  A tour of a history place or the observation of something that happened.  A character trying to “find herself” through a series of occurrences.  The biography of fictional lives.

These are all just ideas.  Too often there isn’t a story yet.  Because there is nothing (or too little) that is conceptual, and there is no dramatic opportunity or conflict that challenges a hero to earn the name tag (premise).

This type of thing is a story killer.  The relationship between an idea, a concept and a premise defines the Bermuda Triangle of storytelling, where well-intentioned writers too often set sail without the right navigation, sensibility or awareness to avoid being swallowed alive.

Surviving this Story Bermuda Triangle requires more than knowing how to swim (write nice sentences), or an interesting idea.  It’s knowing how to navigate the waters of a story, with a vessel that is strong and sea-worthy.

How good is your idea?  Wrong question. 

How compelling, how rich, how inherently dramatic and thematic is your concept, and the premise that springs forth from it?  That‘s the question you need to consider, to spend as much time as you need seeking answers to.

The key awareness here is to understand not only the difference between these three manifestations of storytelling intention (idea vs. concept vs. premise), but how they empower a story (or, when weak, cripple it) long before the manuscript itself is even written.

Remember, idea at its best only serves to send you toward something… either a concept or premise. 

But unlike your idea… the concept and premise need to virtually glow in the dark to get you where you want to be.  There are criteria for that, you don’t have to (or get to) make them up.

Trying to make an idea work, without considering either concept or premise… that’s a sailboat without a sail at all.

Trying to make a concept work without a premise… that’s a sailboat going in circles hoping to bump into something before you run out of fresh water and beans, or before a wave flips you upside down.

Trying to make a premise work without a concept… that’s setting out to cross an ocean without the boat being big enough.

*****

Do you have a story idea, concept and premise you’d like evaluated?  Try my $50 Kick-Start Story Analysis, perhaps the best value on the story coaching planet.  Because if your story doesn’t work at that level, you’ll discover that any draft written from it will be screaming for rescue, and when it comes it’ll be in the form of a stronger concept and premise.

As for the full Story Plan Analysis ($150), book now for a late March/April slot.  This program looks at where you’ve taken your concept and premise through the four parts and major milestones of story architecture, either as intention or in a draft.

MikeR February 24, 2014 at 5:43 am

“The Bermuda Triangle” is a good corollary for why you should spend serious time in-port, considering every possible angle and alternative that you can anticipate, before finally, yes, setting sail upon what will turn out to be: The Sea of Choices.

When you are “creating” anything, you can’t be listening for “Disney Princess Sound-Effects,” or looking for seraphic beams of light to tell you that you just made The One Right Choice – because there is no One Right Choice. There are dozens. You’re building a complex structure based on choices that are, or could be, “equally Right.” To some degree, you know where you want to go, and to some degree the winds will take you. But both the tiller and the chart are in your hands.

So – it should be emphasized – CHOOSE the idea, the concept, the premise. Choose from among dozens, in an explorative way, and find a way to do that in a way that conserves your most limited resource: time. Which undoubtedly means using some kind of successive refinement: e.g. outlining, one-page scene sketches, and a number-two pencil with the eraser broken off.

Experience, and good teachers like @Larry, will guide you to sea-lanes that other professional sailors have learned to use, so that you can be as creative as you can learn to be … without landing a spot on an “Xtreme (Splat …)” TV-show that glorifies failure.

Martha February 24, 2014 at 8:51 am

This Bermuda Triangle has forever confused me, Larry, and appreciate your clear and helpful explanation. I’m wondering if when contemplating a story idea if also throwing in the question of “What are the STAKES?” would help beef up the idea/premise into a concept.

Robert Jones February 24, 2014 at 4:53 pm

I’m a planner, an outliner of microscopic details–as Larry can testify. Then I’ll boil it down to the best ideas and fit them into the basis of a structural plan that has the big picture rounded off, so to speak.

However, while I was sifting through and attempting to fit the details onto the structural grid, I came back to this notion of a compelling concept/premise at least half a dozen times. When I finally got clear on it, the triangle that was sucking in all my details and making my story disappear, vanished into itself. Then I knew precisely which details fit best on the structural grid and where.

My grid is still a bit full. And I’ve already written scenes that I know the story can survive perfectly well without. That’s the beauty of drafting and fleshing out potential scenes.

Here’s a question I would like to ask about e-publishing, and will probably paste on at least one other blog I respect…since I am considering and researching this as a way to go for myself. Most of the successful indy authors have certain philosophies in common. Most of those things make good business sense–probably because most of the successful indy authors come from some type of business background in the first place.

There’s one thing that seems to be pretty common that makes a bit less sense to me personally, but since it has worked for these guys, they all recommend it. And that’s a very high word count per day, producing at least four novels per year in order to get noticed.

I understand what each of these writers are saying in terms of being constantly in the readers face with something new. That part might even come under business 101 for most business ventures. What I don’t understand, by comparison, is that most of these writers claim they didn’t start taking off until somewhere between novel 4 and 6, when they claim to have fallen into a better groove with their craft, plus went back and did some re-editing on their early books.

So my question from a writer’s POV is, was that first 12-18 months just a practice run that helped get their craft up to a decent level? Because if they made little or no money until they actually fine tuned their craft (and their early works), can this business model of constantly being in the reader’s face really be a proven commodity in this particular industry?

I’ve worked for small publishers and larger corporations who put out product. And they will certainly flood the market with something once it’s a proven sale–even if subsequent product is inferior–in order to cash in on something while it’s hot. But the idea of flooding the market with less than adequate work seems like a boat load of work, a poor launch, and hopefully building towards something better that will take off. And since one blog I recently read said the writers less than great work began to sell once he got better books out there, the market would still be contingent upon getting something of quality out there before a trend can be formed.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a back log of 4-6 novels ready to be purchased once things take off. That would be a definite plus, provided you care enough about craft to get better and get noticed in the first place. But if re-editing is required, it would seem like that first 12-18 months is practice, or a building towards that eventual body of work at best.

This may not be popular conversation for indy authors (but since when have I let popularity stop me from asking tough questions, or even inserting my foot into my mouth), but what if they practiced on their stories, stockpiled them, then launched when their craft was at a higher peak? Doesn’t that set a better precedent for future novels and a larger readership? I mean, they all agree that out of the millions of people jumping into e-publishing that quality and craft has willed out while everyone else has fallen into a ditch. So what if someone launched with something very good right out of the box instead of setting off on quantity over quality?

None of the successful indy authors are going to complain about their methods if they eventually found themselves making money at it. And I wouldn’t argue with any of them who worked their way to the top of a growing industry within 12-18 months. They kept at it, stuck with it, got better at craft. All of it done on the fly. All of it was also pretty new territory as well. But if they could go back and launch their careers over again with what they know now, would they have dove in as quickly, or would they have done even better if they attempted to figure a few more things out first?

We all must do what we feel is correct for us, but I am curios to get some various feedback on this one. It’s certainly a question I don’t see being vetted. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I have a few potential novels that I could start running off the presses within a few months. The big question is, do I bang them out at high speed, or try to get them to a slightly better quality first.

Let’s just say I am looking for common denominators in my answers.

jennifer blanchard February 24, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Wow–this one really nailed it for me, Larry. I was having a difficult time understanding the difference between a concept and a premise… this made it crystal clear for me. Thank you!!

MikeR February 24, 2014 at 8:10 pm

Short-answer, @Robert –

“Self-publishing ISN’T a viable Business Model.”

To find out, I threw together a self-pub book and released it to Kindle via Amazon’s much-touted “KDP = Kindle Direct Publishing” program, then sat back to see what happened next. (Hey, the whole thing took less than a month, so it was easily a worm worth throwing in the water …)

And-d-d-d… the very-short answer is: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Over the course of the next calendar year, I have made exactly eleven bucks.

Ergo: “if you (merely) build it, they WON’T come.” You still need marketers … therefore, you must still plan to engage a Conventional Publishing House who, even though THEY may decide to go the “e-route,” will nevertheless choose to commit the marketing-dollars necessary to [maybe] ‘ignite a spark on your behalf.’ You cannot hope to do this on your own.

Even though “e-” has the potential to remove paper-publishing costs from the business equation, it DOES NOT(!) in fact change the fundamental nature of the business, namely: “He who has a thing to sell / Who talks about it in a well / Has much less chance to get the Dollars / Than he who stands on hill, and hollers.”

Upshot: You still need to write a book good-enough that someone is willing to gamble their own money (and connections …) on it. “The myth(!!) of self-publishing” has not changed one iota in fifty years, even though the physical costs associated with said MYTH have largely been removed.”

Now you know.

newguy February 25, 2014 at 8:16 am

I got to say @ Robert that I don’t personally buy indy books. Maybe I should however I don’t have the time to read anything that hasn’t been vetted by a known publisher. For me it’s about a brand name.

I’m not going to read amateur stuff and if I think that my writing isn’t going to be in the professional realm I will simply not put it out there. Yes I think that marketing is important, however I think there’s more to it. Even if you had 10 million dollars to market your book and therefore everyone knew about your book, if people believe that it’s an indy release they will hesitate to buy it.

In the music scene if a band puts music out without a label/publisher I’m going to be weary about why they aren’t on a label. You can usually hear why within a few minutes of listening. People don’t trust indy stuff. And reading a novel requires a far bigger commitment than listening to music.

I wouldn’t put out amateur writing myself. And publishers probably will not either. If your first published book is amateurish in quality good luck getting anyone to read another one of your books, unless people believe that you are becoming a good writer and your career turns into a Rocky type story.

I would probably use my first few novels as evidence of growing skill and would approach a publisher to see if they think so too. If they don’t want to publish my first few novels, maybe they’ll want to read my later novels because they believe in my potential.

Robert Jones February 25, 2014 at 12:29 pm

@ MikeR and newguy–these are arguments I’ve had with myself. Being more of an old school person, the idea of getting published well is still intriguing. Looking at things from both sides, however, they are a handful of writers who are doing quite well in the indy trade. Those are the writers who do have an inkling of craft. And what they’ve managed to make from a monetary standpoint certainly has outweighed some of the stories of advances given these days by traditional publishers.

A couple of these writers were picked up by a major publisher and even allowed to keep their e-book rights, delivering a best of both worlds scenario that wasn’t even possible a few years ago.

So okay, for the sake of argument, let’s look at it from newguy’s POV, that most people who self-publish are amateurs–a fact, to be sure. Out of all the millions of e-books, how many have done well? How many have been written by authors with any real understanding of craft? Divide that question by the fact that these are the few making decent sale/money. Russell Blake, for example is getting a lot of attention these days. He’s a smart guy, but I don’t think I could match the sort of word count he’s doing and produce anything of great quality…or even mediocre quality.

But if the cream of the craft-minded have risen, it begs the question of what might happen if someone took their time and self-published their book. Maybe a better book deal if sales are proven. Maybe nothing happens at all, who knows? Even Blake says his readers aren’t interested in his craft, or sentence structure, that they just want an entertaining story. I’m not certain I agree with that. I think the fact that he does care enough about craft to build a more solid foundation for his novels is primary. That combined with his business skills.

But I still have a ways to go before the finish line. I’m still watching all fronts and seeing what develops. Things have and will continue to change quickly. In 6-8 months, whatever the equation is based on today might not matter a hill of coffee beans. Meantime I’ll still keep asking questions and rambling on. Better to be educated on all the possibilities. In the end, when I’ve compiled all the up-to-the-minute facts, I’ll trust my gut. Right now, the demands of e-publishing sounds a bit daunting if the criteria of commonalities holds as a rule. Not that I’m afraid of the work, but when you’ve got injuries and limitations, 18 hour days and 4 novels per year sounds a bit beyond my reach physically.

MikeR February 25, 2014 at 1:06 pm

I think it’s very revealing that Amazon changed the royalty-payments system on KDP so that they would pay you regardless of the balance. (Previously it had to accumulate to something like $50…) Obviously, they must have been sitting on a considerable sum of cash in thousands of tiny accounts that had never reached that amount and probably never would. So, their CFO probably told them, “get that accounts-payable line item OFF of our balance sheet!”

That’s when I got my eleven bucks. Good to know.

And, let’s face it – marketing is a fundamental part of retail. It takes money to do it, and marketers therefore make tough decisions about what to “push,” AND we, as consumers, actually benefit from that. We only choose from what made the cut. There might be thousands of books in a bookstore for us to consider buying, but there are not millions. (Actually, there ARE “millions,” but we don’t see them.)

E-books are a fantastic advancement in technology because (a) they reduce the cost-of-goods to zero; and (b) because they open the accessible market to become “the planet.” But, if they are going to be a commercially-viable product, they must still be marketed. And, I think, they also must be edited.

When (not if …) we pick up an e-book and find it to be drivel, we feel ourselves ill-used. Why? Because we are accustomed to reading professionally-edited books that had passed over a number of hurdles: they were accepted into a catalog; they were selected for a push; they were pushed, by a company that gambled on it. We might be delighted to buy e-books (great on an airplane, for instance …), but in no case do we want drivel.

MikeR February 25, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Postscript:

“Russel Blake is getting a lot of attention these days” … because someone is pushing him.

Amanda Hocking quite likely was “an Anybody who made Tons O’ Money” be-cause … the e-publishing engine needed a success-story that Everybody could relate to, to persuade Everybody that Anybody (not “can,” but of course “will”) make Tons O’ Money.

Again: marketing.

Why do things “go viral?” Marketing. (However, what do they deliver? Uh huh. Justin Bieber. ;-) )

Robert Jones February 25, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Mike–The more successful e-authors are using editors. I’m not sure how much their fees run on the average. That brings things into the realm of needing money up front. I think I priced one company that offered a full package deal on editing, formatting, and placing your book with several major e-book distributors for around $1500. That figure might’ve included several ISBN numbers as well, but not certain. There were lesser packages depending on what you wanted.

The problem there is if you invest $1500 and make $11, the only winner is the folks who sold you the service. One would certainly have to get some references for editing though. Because a lot of folks with no real experience are hopping on this bandwagon as well. And I’ve seen some of the lesser ebooks, and possibly even a couple from some of the better selling e-authors that show little signs of the editor knowing their business. But that might be because there are editors for grammar and editors for just typos. It’s a lot to keep up with and one certainly needs to figure out who they are dealing with before plunking down their fees.

Don’t know if anyone got behind Blake. He was doing pretty well already by the time I discovered him and kept on climbing. He seemed like a guy to watch in the e-circle.

KenB February 25, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Larry, what a great clarifying graphic and post. A good adjunct to “Story Engineering.” Thanks.

@Robert: Since self-pub is not the point of Storyfix, I’ll be brief. I’ve been surprised at the number of traditionally published books (Big 5) that have been lacking in editing (spelling, grammar, missing words). Only big name traditionally published authors get a significant marketing budget. My traditionally pubbed friends are expected to fund their own book tours and build their marketing platform. For experienced self-pub info from various authors who’ve tried traditional and changed to self-pub and why, read here: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/ or http://www.norulesjustwrite.com/category/indy-publishing/

Jason Waskiewicz February 25, 2014 at 9:19 pm

I have 9 failed novels in my basement that I wrote as rough drafts from ideas. They’re terrible and deserve to languish in my basement. Call that learning to write.

I gave up on novel writing for a while. Then I got into an idea that has been with me since I was a kid. I wrote about a page, and realized it deserved better. I spent almost a year writing ideas, thoughts, maps, characters, and research into my notebook instead. What I created is novel #10, and the first one which I have felt worthy of a second draft. I’m now almost through the second draft and excited to start the third draft.

The real difference is that I took the time to think about premise and concept, even though I didn’t know these terms at the time. When I then went on to create an outline, I was able to develop the story so that it was about something more than an interesting setting and a unique character. In fact, most of my original thoughts became background for the true story.

This is my long way of saying Mr. Brooks is right. A story needs a lot more than just a cool idea. Take the time to think and really let the thing gel. I am finally to the point that I am actually considering the feasibility of selling to the thing.

newguy February 25, 2014 at 9:23 pm

@ Robert I think you all are making some pertinent points. I would say that craft isn’t just grammar and sentence structure. It’s mostly about story structure. So the argument that people don’t care about craft is way off.

I really don’t like the idea of gatekeepers though so I have to say that I think it’s good that there are people self publishing. If I was going to self publish I would definitely get an editor for grammar and sentence structure AND an editor for story. I would definitely pay Larry for story help and grammar editors to help me write a good book.

The other benefit from going with a major publisher is the support staff. You WILL have someone to talk to about story problems and they can help brainstorm to get your story to work. They’ll be a professional collaborator sort of co-author. I’ve seen authors help out fellow authors who are writing for the same publishing company.

Discovering a book now is a completely different process than 20 years ago. I believe the ebook retailers should separate indy published books from books published by an established company so I don’t have to wade through 10,000 books to find something I like.

The idea that you should ‘look before you leap’ has never really worked in the book markets. In a way you ‘leap before you look’ when buying a book. I buy books based on the author, the cover art, the back panel description, and the publishing company. Since reading a novel requires such an investment of time to find out if the author knows what they’re doing it’s difficult for me to risk buying an indy book. I don’t see any way around this fundamental relationship. I would say an indy should just give books away for free so readers have only time to risk. If the readers like the indy they can buy their other books. The Baen publishing company does this and they’re an established company.

Robert Jones February 26, 2014 at 11:39 am

@newguy–I agree. And this may annoy a few people out there to hear, but there’s a difference between marketing a product and marketing a novel–or any other art-form. There are similarities, yes, even huge overlapping chunks that we could sit around and discuss in terms of common business practices. A good business sense is very much a part of marketing anything.

That being said, a can of peas is never going to get a premier, or have the person who canned them show up at the local supermarket to sign autographs. And the dividing line in self publishing seems to be zero business sense, or ex-corporate America people who are extremely business heavy. Craft is important to some of them, but is secondary, maybe even tertiary, on the bill of producing and marketing a product with high visibility.

Could we all take a lesson from these guys one that score. By all means. But it might also become the flip-side of the guy who cares so much about perfecting craft that they never leave the launching pad. I think e-publishing and traditional publishing will eventually meet somewhere in the middle. And the best of us will calculate a landing place on the middle ground over the next couple of years while the two extremes adjust.

I read a recent blog by J A Konrath where an anonymous “Big-Bestseller” predicts that over the next 5-20 years writing will become a cottage industry with authors writing to a smaller, but dedicated audience–much like e-authors are currently doing. It may happen. And it’s not an easy decision for new authors to decide if going with a traditional publisher today might mean they go out of business in a couple of years. What happens to your rights if that happens?

On the other hand, what’s to say Amazon won’t start charging fees like a vanity press when the millions of would-be writers start dying down and the newness of e-publishing goes away? Traditional publishers might also get with the program and start marketing in much the same way Amazon does with their email notifications, building better visibility through the internet where readers and writers alike can read craft tips and author’s pages in a new way that takes the interactive process further than they do currently.

Isn’t that what it’s really all about in the world of electronics? Interaction? Instead, people are inventing new e-readers and gizmos without offering the same interaction Amazon has. And I think that’s the bottom line that “A” really got a grip on, the draw for everyone who had a novel sitting in a drawer or hoped to strike it rich. They gave folks the same buzz people get when playing the lottery–“You too could strike it rich!”

If traditional publishers stop looking at the internet and electronics in terms of gizmos they can’t compete with, start offering interaction with a hint of opportunity, therein lies the keys to the kingdom.

It might be as simple as a place for writers to list their books for free and without obligation and those that get the best reviews actually get read by a real editor. The weeding out process of trying to hook up with a decent agent, even to get a query letter read by someone not paid to stuff form letter rejection notices into envelopes and mail them back is just ridiculous.

Certainly Amazon, or anyone offering anything that might make the process easier is going to get a lot of attention. There has to be changes. And it can’t come–won’t come–from the win big or close up shop mentality of big business. Because if Amazon ever did become the biggest fish in the pond, it’s only a matter of time before they become exactly the same. That won’t be change. It’ll be a clever diversion that suckered millions and possibly wiped out a good deal of their competition before lowering the boom and catering to the chosen few who are (or will) making them real money.

Heidi Loney February 26, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Hi everyone,

I’m enjoying the conversation on here, but I think you need to have a broader look at writers that self-publish. I think that most self-published authors consider themselves professional as opposed to an author doing it as a hobby. I think the time of the trad published authors being the only professionals is a thing of the past.

All of the self-pubbed authors that I know use a variety of tools to write their novels: writer’s groups, critique partners, beta readers, copy editors, editors, story coaches (Larry), formatters, cover artists, etc. Honestly, even if you are planning sending queries to agents, you have to show your work to others. I have learned so much from Larry, who has story coached me three times now, but I have also turned to beta readers and critique partners for help as well.

On my latest book, I decided to hire an editor, and honestly her rates were not as expensive as you mentioned. You have to shop around. But I wanted to make my book as good as it could be before I sent it out to agents. I think it’s a big misconception, and Larry can certainly correct me here, that someone in an office tower is going to do all of the work for you. They won’t. You still have to do marketing, or use social media, or have a blog and get your book out there.

Just my 2 cents. Take it for what it’s worth. Cheers, Heidi.

P.S. Amazon does charge authors, just not up front. It comes out of the sales, either through digital or print on demand.

newguy February 26, 2014 at 11:31 pm

@ Heidi If we define professional as someone who makes a living writing, I’m sure there are some “professional” indy authors. The mechanic of a book being a large time commitment is still an issue for me though. I don’t like gatekeepers, however, they serve as quality control.

An indy writer can hire editors, artists, etc just like the major publishing company author. Problem is, as far as quality is concerned, they don’t have to answer to any gatekeeper for a final seal of approval. They ARE their own gatekeeper. I look for a reputable publishing company logo on the books I buy because I know that the book with that logo has been scrutinized and vetted by people who are professionals to some degree and have money on the line. Its quality control.

In a way the studio/publishing company/label acts as sort of member of the artistic team in that they oversee the final product. I would encourage indy authors to start their own publishing companies with real professionals if they want to develop brand name trust for their work.

Marketing for indies is incredibly difficult in the book industry. Lots of readers I know stick with certain publishing companies for their reading lists, Wizards of the Coast, TOR, Angry Robot etc., if only to cut down on the swath of books that they are bombarded with when trying to find something new and good to read. I simply do not buy outside of a few of these companies because I am familiar with their quality of work. Also I don’t have time. A book takes 10 hours or so for me to read. I’m glad there are indy authors out there, however I think a lot of readers think like me.

Robert Jones February 27, 2014 at 12:38 pm

@Heidi, newguy, and Mike–I’m looking at my options from both ends. I know there are some professional e-authors out there, as well as some e-authors who were professionals in other areas of business. So I won’t disagree with Heidi’s statements–but it’s a very broad statement to encompass. I will endeavor to touch on the larger point.

First off, even traditional authors will tell up-and-coming writers they need to learn marketing skills. Because if you’re a mid-list author, you can expect little or no marketing from your publisher and writer’s cannot be innocent of this fact going in–even if the publisher encourages them with words like, “If your book is good, it will move.” It can and does happen sometime, but not all that much. None of us can count on that notion alone.

I’ve already dropped Russell Blake’s name in this thread, and I admire the hell out his ability to come up with stories and get them written in the time that he does. He pays two different editors and says he will usually make whatever changes they suggest. Plus he has one beta reader he feels is very good, pays for formatting and cover art. He claims to have written a lot before becoming an indy author and entered the field with certain craft knowledge in hand…which is why, I believe, he has risen and continues to rise. One of the most, if not THE most professional e-author I’ve read.

But few have Blake’s facile mind. There are others I could name that follow most of what he practices, but fall shorter on craft principles by degrees. And there are fewer still who take those principles into the realm of story structure. I’m certain they could improve their game, and their sales, if they learned what Larry teaches here before leaping on the indy bandwagon. Once that leap is made and the hours required to keep their novels in production kicks in, there’s no time to stop and further their understanding of craft. Everything is learned pretty much on the fly. In fact, planning at all seems a dirty word because it simply takes too much time once they are on a roll and can’t afford to stop those wheels once set in motion as stated by the commonalities within their working business plan.

This is part of what I meant when I said the indy and traditional routes will eventually have to meet in the middle at some point. If you’re planning to be in any of the arts for the long haul, it’s not merely a requirement to better your skills, it’s a lifestyle that’s embraced and shared by those who have devoted their lives to it–not just the gate-keepers.

E-publishing has a decent sized audience…currently. But it’s nowhere near the size it could be. You don’t have to tread very far into the blogs of e-authors who are more than willing to admit that the majority of their audience doesn’t care about craft, they just want to have fun. This is not a sustainable audience for the duration. This is an audience that is guaranteed to fold their tents and walk away in large numbers at some point. Mark these words and put them in a place you can look back on 3-5 years from now. Because that’s about the length of time fads and booms have lasted on any avenue in the world of arts and entertainment. This was even true of comic books, and you can’t find an audience more cut out for fun and pure action than that particular audience. In order for this fact to change, people would have to change…and people NEVER change. You only need to look at the adjustments Amazon has made already to see things are heading in this direction already, if one has eyes to see.

Where that leaves us all when the dust settles is anyone’s guess. But as I said, plan for the middle ground and hope you’ll land on solid ground safely with your book in the best shape you can get it. Because when this change does happen, even the best of indy authors will have to begin filling the gaps in their craft knowledge and making their own adjustments if they want to continue. Maybe a few will have enough of a loyal audience to continue onward, but it won’t be the sort of numbers they are currently getting after the cattle moves to greener pastures.

And a word about audiences: Lifetime readers may not all understand the complexities of craft, but they sure as hell have a feel for what’s really good on the page. Just as a writers finds fewer and fewer good authors as they learn more about craft (even Blake has mentioned this happening to him), so do long-time readers develop a need to be satiated, to be moved by the emotions behind words. Action and fast paced stories are everywhere on TV and in film. Readers read for something a little more personal. And those numbers are the large, sustanable audience, the steadfast audience, those who actually treasure books and pass on a love of reading to their kids.

What’s the bottom line? Say it with me folks: LEARN YOUR CRAFT WELL. And do it before taking the plunge. To dive in unprepared, or to think of the arts as a world to conquer through sheer audacity and a keen sense of business will be like…well, like any other corporate business venture. Here today and looking for the next hot thing when the numbers plummet.

Plus writers who know their craft and have been around a while, like any other artists, are a close-knit community ready and willing to drown the posers at the first opportunity. It’s a sea that can ignite like gasoline and spread like wildfire. And I’m not just talking about the big-house publishers trying to hold onto old traditions. All arts have a tradition older than the oldest of the publishers. And they really don’t want to waste their time on those they don’t feel are serious enough, to be hard enough on themselves, to learn the lingo they’ve dedicated their entire lives (and livelihoods) to.

That may sound rude, or even downright ugly, but I’ve seen this too many times myself. And since we’ve already established that people don’t change, you can mark these words for future reference too.

Much of what newguy is saying reflects this attitude…and that’s the attitude you’ll be up against when the walls begin to crumble. It takes dedication beyond dedication to make it in any of the arts and be considered a serious professional. It’s more than what the indy world is fighting against in terms of traditional publishing. Traditional publishing, however, is not about the artists/creators. They are about business and making money. The artists on the other hand, go much deeper, much larger, and take craft far more seriously. The indy generation, fighting for their freedoms on one level (and rightly so), a business level, have only scratched the tip of a much deeper iceberg.

Robert Jones February 27, 2014 at 1:04 pm

BTW–Just wanted to say thanks, Larry. Received your free e-book/analysis of “Deadly Faux” when I signed into my email account before bed last night. 114 pages, wow, that should be some pretty in-depth stuff. Can’t wait to get started on that later!

Thanks again,
Robert

MikeR February 28, 2014 at 11:44 am

@Robert, et al –

I think that it’s just that “the jury is still out” concerning e-publishing, and about what -else- really needs to be added to the current “self-pub” status quo to make it really start to click as a viable business model. I think that we’re going to see the (continued …) emergence of “branded publishers” who concentrate on e-books, but who promote books that they’ve attached their branded seal-of approval to. Without this, there’s simply no way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Sigh … I miss the days when I’d walk into the local public library(!) and Mrs. Godsey was always there, and I’d smile and ask her, “what’s a good read?” She always reached into a particular slot on a little shelf behind her desk – come to think of it, I guess it was “my” slot – and handed me something. I did that for so many happy years, and was introduced to so many books and authors in just that way. There must be a library in Heaven, and she must be busy in it. :-D

Meanwhile – for us as authors (and wannabee authors), it always always comes down to craft: when a lucky reader lucks upon your book, it’s got to be such that she says, “Wow, I’m glad that I found this one!” When the container is finally opened, there has to be a fantastic product inside.

Robert Jones February 28, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Mike–There was a used book store attached to a library I visited for years. Still is, but don’t get there much since I moved. An older gentleman by the name of John–who used to do movie reviews for the local paper, and was also an avid reader–was a great source for discovering some of the best books an fiction, or any genre. Every town needs a John, or a Mrs. Godsey. Most probably do have them somewhere, if people care to look for them.

I’m not saying e-books aren’t viable. Just babbling my current questions and concerns. I put most of my original post on the subject above on several blogs. I got some very courteous responses from a couple of e-authors that was totally helpful. I received some remarks that sounded a bit naive, like, “E-publishing allows us to do whatever we want, however we want.” My remarks throughout have echoed my various feelings concerning the different type of responses and research. Some of them good, others not so good.

I agree with you, however, the dust is still settling. And will continue to do so for a while to come. Even the better e-authors worried about the sea of “chaff” out there. Most agree that it all falls to the bottom and hasn’t effected their own sales, or prevented people from finding the better book in all the mess. Which is interesting. It shows that some marketing and word of mouth does weed these things out–even when they come in the millions. Plus Amazon does have the “Look Inside” feature that allows you to read a few pages. And the crap can be pretty easily spotted. It would just be a lot more convenient to customers as a whole not to have weed through it all.

On the other hand, we all read the blurbs and first few pages of any book. So when you have that many readers going through a handful of books here and there at any given time, it isn’t as if everyone has to sift through hundreds of books just to locate the better ones. It’s more of a shared effort by all the other readers perusing.

On the subject of craft, after taking the year to study, plan, research, repeat (I am writing an historical piece), I came to drafting at last around mid-December. I wrote a few chapters and felt they were lousy. Plus all the holiday hooplah was getting in the way. And after a year of working my butt off in the planning and research stages, I was also feeling pretty burnt out. So I decided to take a couple of weeks off, allow the holiday season to play out and come back to my book afterward.

My two weeks turned into something closer to a month because when I came back to it, I realized I had a scene right near the beginning that I had no idea what the setting looked like, or even exactly where it would be located. More research…UGH! The beauty of historical fiction. So I started drafting my story all over again from chapter one (disregarding my burnt-out bumbling from December) close to mid-January.

Here’s the good and the not-so-good:

By using story structure more learnedly, and having a more succinct scene-by-scene outline, I believe I saved ten tons of guesswork. I used Larry’s books, reading them more than once, as well as his story-coaching services last year. I went over that questionnaire as a tool for story half a dozen times in its own right. My current scenes still take shape with spontaneity, they don’t always follow the scene exactly as planned. But I think the changes they go through are better and more refined for having done the work in the first place.

The mission of each scene has not changed. That’s the real beauty of that one–that within the context of a solid mission, a scene can unfold and grow in unexpected ways, yet, not meander all over the place and screw up your plot and careful plans.

I’m a little rusty after not writing for a while. I’m only averaging between 5-10 pages daily right now. That’s the only bad part. But I don’t expect most writers to devote an entire year to putting the pieces together. Some may–and historical novelists may even take longer. I was lucky in having a fairly good knowledge of my particular period before I began. Now, having all the criteria in place has been like having a GPS for my story coordinates. Things are starting to pick up a bit as I get more in the groove and learn to trust the process–and all the work I did last year. It has been a different process, but a much better one, as far as I’m concerned.

Novels are huge pieces of work, and anyone who has attempted it can probably share stories about getting lost, or discovering a change, or fix, that needed to occur and the changes just upended much of what had been written previously. I am nearing the end of part one and just stumbled onto one of those little gaps with a few scenes yet to go in order to reach PP1. I gulped, wondering how I would fill the gap and get the characters from point A to B–and would this screw up a large chunk of what I had written? The answer was, no, it didn’t. It would seem that if the story is structurally sound in the first place, those gaps and/or changes can be filled without causing collateral damage. Much like the mission of each scene holding out through growth and change within their given missions, so goes the first gap in my plot that required some changes.

That’s probably the best statement I can make concerning Larry’s methods. The proof of anything is always in the doing, and the results that manifest. I used to drive a regular two wheel drive car. But since moving to a mountainy area with lots of snow, I purchased an AWD. The difference in driving in snow now, the solid feeling against the road as compared to my old car going up those slippery slopes…that’s the same sort of difference between my past writing before SF and the current writing. It’s noticeably more solid going in. If you do the work up front and don’t short change the process, there is a marked difference in the immediate quality of craft.

You won’t get you book out there in three months…LOL! But if that’s what you want, you’re a different type of player than I am. So feel free to ignore anything I’ve said :)

Jim March 1, 2014 at 11:16 am

Thanks for the post.

I would like to confirm my understanding of the definitions of the terms Idea, Concept, and Premise, as used in this post. Idea is defined, but the other two are not.

Idea = Generic term for a creative unit of thought
Concept = Add specific setting to the Idea
Premise = Add specific characters to the Concept

Is this correct?

Thanks,
Jim

Larry March 2, 2014 at 9:18 am

@Jim — you’re definitely on the right track, but I think you’re over-simplifying.

IDEA – yes, as you say… but the category is too broad to try to put a fence around it. An idea CAN be a concept or a premise or a setting or a “what if” — it can be two or three things at once. But it always need refinement and focus toward a CORE STORY before it works. An idea can be simple as, “i want to write a love story,” or as specific as, “I want to write a love story set in the White House between the president’s wife and a secret service agent who is a KGB mole.” They’re all just ideas at this point, until you DO something with them. What and how you DO that is the key to success.

CONCEPT — it’s not JUST a setting. A better way to think of it is this: it’s a compelling notion or proposition. Which COULD be setting (time and place, but it could also be a culture, a “what if?” notion, a supposition, a speculation a situation, a worst-case scenario, a best-case senario, a ficitonalized version of a true story, etc. Vampires living and working with humans – that’s a concept (also an “idea,” which proves my point above). But not a story yet. A love story on the Titanic on the night it hits the iceberg — a concept. But not a story yet. (The White House “idea” above, is already a concept, but it may arrive as an idea, either way it’s not ready to draft.)

The lines between idea and concept, and concept and premise, can be fuzzy, which is fine, but don’t over-simplify. It’s not just setting, and often setting isn’t even part of the concept (like those vampire stories, they could happen anywhere, in any time).

PREMISE — again, a bit of over-simplification. It isn’t just adding characters. And it doesn’t have to be SPECIFIC characters. Rather, premise is the framework for DRAMATIC TENSION — a character with a problem and/or goal, arising from a situation, calling for action, in the face of opposition. It is the proposition for a STORY, which has specific criteria (the lack of awareness of that criteria is what kills many stories from new writers).

I’ve written about all of this at length on this site, not just on this post. In fact, I have at least 50 posts on some combination of these three things (idea, concept and premise). It’s simple… but it’s not. Just remember this: no dramatic tension, no sale. Which means, no compelling premise, no sale. And without a concept (a compelling essence that even before character and plot, like the White House setting, or the vampires cohabitating, or Abraham Lincoln exposed as a vampire killer…. whatever) behind/beneath that premise, the sale will be even tougher. L.

Robert Jones March 2, 2014 at 11:21 am

Okay…it has been a long week for me and I’ve definitely ranted. Maybe more than I should have in some cases while working through some things.

Getting back on topic, I know it took me a while going back and fourth on the notion of concept in my own story and quite a few previous posts here. Revisiting the advancement of an idea into something compelling and conceptual, would it be correct to say that it centers on whatever the mental draw of the highest emotional response. Curiosity raised to the highest level a given story has to offer at it’s core, for example. Or maybe hinting at the biggest threat, danger, a potentially bad outcome.

I feel like it has been a while since we’ve touched on this, and I want to test myself without looking back at other posts.

If we use the Washington example: A love story set in the White House between the president’s wife and a secret service agent who is a KGB mole–this seems to be an IDEA, bordering on something fairly conceptual already.

If we move further into the realm of CONCEPT, locking down that worst case scenario, we might say: A love story set in the White House between the president’s wife and a secret service agent who is a KGB mole whose mission is to orchestrate the killing the president and force the nation into war.

Adding PREMISE, attempting to utilize dramatic tension more fully, we then might say– A dedicated KGB mole’s plans near their final stage: the assassination of the United States president and his wife as they plan a weekend hiatus to work on their crumbling marriage, however, what he never counted on was falling in love with the First Lady.

Or is that still just a more refined concept in this case? Or maybe it’s a concept just bordering on premise.

MikeR March 4, 2014 at 6:27 am

@Robert – here’s your story premise in the White House example … a dedicated KGB mole, an assassin who has infiltrated the Secret Service, and the First Lady herself. Never mind the President. ;-) Now, put all three of these characters a collision course that none of them can walk away from, and open the story when each respective loaded-gun is already in their pockets and the bombs are already ticking. As JK Rowling aptly put it, “none can live while the other survives,” whether that is literally true or not. Each one is driven toward a different mutually exclusive goal. You can hear the pages turning already.

When the story opens, each one’s got his own isolated plot and point-of-view and (diabolical?) goal, and (s)he’s already past any point of no-return. (Don’t you dare leave me sitting in the still-lighted auditorium, thumbing idly through the advertisements in the program, waiting for your show to begin …)

Now what happens? Each of them in turn is confronted by the already in-progress actions of another (which they have just discovered, or think they do), and of their own. What do they do? Anything but nothing. Parry! Thrust! Deceive!

If each character has his own collision course, their own consequences, and their own slightly-different schedule (as any three diabolical plots, each conceived without knowledge of the other, naturally would have), each chain of dominoes will collide with the others multiple times as each one caroms off the others until – until(!) – lookout(!) – aaahhhh.. <–Satisfying Ending.™

And then what you hope will happen is less than 120 characters long:

#@brenda this is katie i just finished the most amazing book im so late for my meeting now you gotta get this one heres the amazon link… :-D

Robert Jones March 4, 2014 at 6:53 am

@Mike–That’s exactly what I’m doing in my current story. However, putting the notions of idea, concept, and premise into an easily surmised definition for each as a separate entity is not easy. I tend to interlock the three in my head and it works out fine within the context of the story plan. And I get that there are differences between each one of these things. What I mostly get is that you can’t really have one without the others or the search for story continues until you’ve got a solid foundation in mind for what the story is really about at its core…and serve up some of those juicy steaks–I mean stakes–in the process.

It’s one of those things I will certainly be turning back to and re-reading the material for future novels just to make sure I’ve boiled down everything correctly. I think it’s one of those things that really makes life easier for the writer and you have to mentally define and declare it in your head before it serves your story on a macro level.

On the micro level, defining the mission of each scene works the same way. I have my missions written on each scene card and I read over each card before delving into the next scene. And with the mission declared in my mind, I don’t seem to be able to do any wrong.

So I’m going to add my two cents and say that concept and mission are two birds of a feather. Each declares a mission on different levels that guide the writer towards a specific intention/goal. And without clear intentions and goals on the macro and micro, we are just guessing, or searching, until such things become clear.

A. J. Abbiati March 4, 2014 at 7:58 am

Hi Larry,

Thanks for the definitions; I’ve been waiting for these. Still, I may not be a hundred percent clear about what you’re saying.

If I understand correctly, an “idea” is simply the initial catalyst that gets everything rolling. It’s the first creative spark that drives you toward your story, and that “idea” can be anything, ranging from something minor, like an interesting character trait, all the way up to a fully formed concept or premise. Or both. So in the context of this discussion, an “idea” is more a temporal notion than anything else.

The premise is the story’s dramatic structure. There are lots of different theories on what constitutes a proper dramatic structure, but it could include the main character, his/her story goal, his/her internal obstacle/conflict, his/her external obstacle/conflict, his/her personal stakes, the inciting event, his/her initial state (starting point of the character’s thematic growth), his/her final state, etc. So in the context of this discussion, a “premise” is a dramatic notion.

A “concept” describes what the story is about. It can range from broad, genre-like terms such as “fantasy” or “horror”, to more specific terms such as “vampire” or “zombie” stories. A
“concept” can be more specific than simply a term, such as “a story about a 500-year-old vampire in search of revenge.” Or even more specific than that, such as “a story about Leonardo da Vinci, a 500-year-old vampire, who returns to modern-day Italy to destroy his immortal nemesis, Michelangelo.” So in the context of this discussion, a “concept” is a contentual notion.

If I got that right and I understand what you’re saying in STORY ENGINEERING…

> By definition, a story must include a concept and a premise. An initial idea may not represent a concept and premise, and until it is developed into a concept and premise, you will not have a viable story.

> A broad concept is insufficient. It’s nothing more than a description of the category or genre of a story. A good concept has to go beyond that and offer something more to interest the reader. If the concept is interesting and specific enough to render it unique within the genre/category of similar works, it becomes a “high concept.”

> I can see why it’s hard to completely separate concept from premise. It’s like trying to separate style from function. How do you talk about pants, shirt, and shoes (premise/function), without talking about faded denim, concert-T, and worn out Timberlands (concept/style)?

–Jim

Edward Anthony Giambalvo March 4, 2014 at 8:20 am

Idea = An exotic love story

Concept – An exotic love story set in a war torn nation and time, between a man without scruples and a married woman whose husband’s credentials are impeccable. Except, the woman passionately loves the man without scruples and merely admires her husband.

Premise – All of the above, except the husband is also a renowned scientist, and the fate of the world ultimately rides on the woman’s choices.

I’ve just described Casablanca – killer premise, indeed.

Thanks Larry, you’ve helped me a lot. I’ve just completed a novel that, I think, turned out pretty well, especially for a first effort. But I really pants-ed my way along, jumping from ‘Idea’ headlong into my draft, (and then back again, as you can imagine), when if I had followed your advice, I could have had something that not only turned out ‘pretty well’, but really SNAPPED, so to speak.

MikeR March 4, 2014 at 8:55 am

@Robert, @AJ – One instructor of mine put it this way: “You can =hear= [the premise for] your story when it’s ready: it’s going ‘ticktickticktickTICKTICKTICK!’ And, very soon now, whether the characters like it or not, and even though they’ve come to wish that it wouldn’t, it IS going to go ‘BOOM!'”

The bomb can’t be defused. The events have already started, even though the reader doesn’t know what they are yet (and neither do the other characters, completely …), the situations are dramatic, and there is no turning back.

What I’m trying to do right now with my story is to map out a story-line for each of my main characters (and to devise the main characters to match the situation I’ve put them in), such that all of them are being driven forward by some irresistible motivation, and have already traveled some irreversible distance, by the time that you first encounter them. And they will collide, not all at the same point or time.

In short, I want every single one of them to realize, at some (and some different) point in the story, that they are basically both trapped and screwed. :-) And then (“SO WHAT?™”) one by one, they’re going to have no choice but to throw their well-laid plans to the wind and try to get the damn airplane on the ground, even though there aren’t enough parachutes to go around. As the various bombs go off, so to speak, including ones that (metaphorically speaking …) they’ve hastily made out of spare parts and thrown at one another, they have fewer and fewer choices, more and more pressure, there is no escape for any of them.

TickTickTickTickTICK…

And those are, well, the “parameters” for my story-in-progress. Having never done this sort of writing before, it’s taking some time, but then again I’ve GOT time.

Eventually, I’ll come up with an “imDB [SPOILER ALERT!] plot summary,” such as the one that you might find for (say) “American Hustle.” Three or four pages long, stuffed with details of twists and turns, and matches @Larry’s plot advice, after which I’ll pony-up for a critique. Then rewrite the summary, rinse and repeat.

When the summary’s as good as it can be, then it will be first-draft time.

Larry March 4, 2014 at 9:14 am

@mike @robert — enjoying this discussion, fun to see what happens when we “noodle” a concept into a premise, then demand more of it. It gets better every time, and if it doesn’t, another approach is usually at hand.

Sort of like drafting. But without all the weeks and months required. That’s the point of my ranting about this strategy. So many writers do exactly what you’re doing — evolving the premise — WITHIN a draft, then claim it can’t be done any other way.

Would like to add… the Netflix series “House of Cards” (Kevin Spacey).is almost this exact premise, especially the way Mike has just spun it. I don’t think those guys got together on set and said, “okay, what should be do today?” Just sayin’.

A. J. Abbiati March 4, 2014 at 10:07 am

@MikeR, @Larry — :-) Lots of great examples/analogies, but it might be more helpful (at least for me) to have concrete definitions of idea, premise, and concept. I think that’s where @Jim was heading, and it’s definitely where my mind had been since reading through the info (here and in SE). I tried to reverse-engineer them, and I *think* I got them correct, and I was just looking for some confirmation. Of course, they might already have been defined somewhere and I simply overlooked it.

Our creative writing pedagogy is notoriously bad when it comes to standard terms/labels and definitions beyond grammar/syntax. (Give me five different books on writing theory and I’ll give you five different definitions of plot and character and a handful of identically defined concepts associated with different terms/labels.) It’s really difficult to discuss the nuances of premise and concept and how they interrelate when we don’t necessarily have a common understanding (conceptually and/or lexically) of the underlying principles (story goal, inciting event, etc.).

Compared to the pedagogies of other artistic disciplines (painting, sculpture, music), we are friggen horse-and-buggies while they seem to be Maseratis.

–Jim

Jim March 4, 2014 at 4:14 pm

@AJ – yes, you are correct, what I was hoping for was to nail down a concrete definition of idea, premise, and concept. I find it difficult to understand a conversation without fulling grasping the terms in use.

Frankly speaking, if there existed a clear, concise, “A Writer’s Dictionary” type of definition for how these terms are used in the StoryFix/Story Engineering universe, we would have it already. From what I’ve seen, the the approach seems to be more example-based combined with “I know it when I see it”.

When I say that I sincerely intend no disrepect to our host and to the other folks commenting here. In my opinion Larry summed up what is important when he wrote above “Just remember this: no dramatic tension, no sale.”

If my story doesn’t have an engine, a compelling dramatic scenario that will inherently generate increasing stakes and tension, enough juice to drive a novel, then whether I call it an idea or a concept or a premise is irrelevant, because whatever it is, it’s not developed enough yet for me to start writing the book.

I wish I had fully grasped that seemingly common sense approach ten years ago, it would have saved me many hours of my life focusing on the wrong thing.

Jim

MikeR March 4, 2014 at 5:10 pm

@AJ – It’s all really a matter of terminology. The words we decide to use don’t matter as much; the essential notions, do.

The world is chock-full of “ideas.” Good ones, bad ones. You can look at any story and say that it expresses one or more “ideas,” but “mere ideas” are just balloons in the air … not boots on the ground.

A “concept” is a concrete expression of something, perhaps originally inspired by one or more ideas that you’ve had. It sets fairly-definite boundaries. It’s “on the ground.” It might even have its boots on.

A “premise” has its boots on, a ticket in its hands, a bomb (planted by someone or something else) in its backpack, and a gun (ditto) stuck in its ribs. A premise is Dramatic. Nothing else is.

When the director yells, “Action!!” … ONLY a premise is going to run like hell, ONLY because it absolutely cannot do anything else, EVEN THOUGH it is hurtling toward an outcome that it cannot fully control or anticipate. And this is what makes it a “premise” … the fact that NONE of the following three outcomes can happen:
(a) The players cannot “do nothing.”
(b) The players cannot “stand still,” or hit the “pause” button.
(c) The players cannot pick-and-choose what happens next. They are not gods.

And in this regard, what @Larry is endlessly preaching ;) makes perfect sense … namely, that “the premise” is either Solid, or Not. In other words, no matter what “your particular story” is or isn’t, if your characters don’t have a bomb in their backpack and a gun in their gut, the most sensible thing for all of them to do is to step out of your story and hang out at the coffee shop.

Robert Jones March 4, 2014 at 7:31 pm

@AJ–Re: Compared to the pedagogies of other artistic disciplines (painting, sculpture, music), we are friggen horse-and-buggies while they seem to be Maseratis.

This is a discussion I’ve had here before, as have some other from an arts background. It’s interesting and frustrating to define a process that nails everything down to absolutes. This is a blessing and a curse, depending on how you veiw the situation. The curse is fairly obvious…as stated by yourself so aptly. The blessing, not always so obvious, is that there’s a lot of flexibility in certain areas to explore–or even freeform within all the infinate possibilities like a jazz musician. The trouble is, many get lost and can’t find their way out of the other side of the melody.

But like any of the arts, opinions are numerous, and it is encumbant upon the writer to sift through a lot of scraps to find whatever absolutes that have been established. Techniques are plentiful as well here. And like an artist testing brushes to find the right one, so techniques must be tested to see which work and which ones are flawed. I’ve likened the learning process to winding one’s way through a maze filled with scraps of paper filled with tips to sift through and sort, with a some really good books on writing buried in there midst. It can be frustrating locating the good ones because so many people have jumped on the bandwagon and put out different variations of the same themes, many of which are aimed at the person who decided to write a novel yesterday and cover a very generalized overview…again and again and again. With that useful scrap or three, usually in the chapter marked “Advanced Techniques.” I could start a good sized bonfire with the many books supposedly written on craft that I’ve read that geared me up, got me exited, then turned me loose on the page with nothing real as far as tools to get the job done.

That being said, Larry’s books comes within the top three in terms of what I have personally found most useful. And as for structure, I have yet to discover anyone who took that part of craft further. And if you studied no one else, you would gain a good working knowledge of fitting a novel together with real tools. If you want useful techniques on prettying up your manuscript, along with other solid advice, you may want to try Sol Stein’s books on writing. Great advice on a vast number of things, but absolutely zero in terms of structure. For fleshing out scenes (as well as many other useful tips), Robert McKee’s “Story” is a huge volume that I found very useful. There are others with solid advice worth pursueing, but next to SE and SP (and the collection of posts here on SF), you can find the bulk of what’s out there in terms of these three huge tentpoles for craft, IMHO. But as Mike said, it takes real study and application.

I personally had my outline and notebook in front of me and gave myself little homework assignments on every chapter. Because it’s one thing to read through a very informative book and another to absorb it. As readers, I think many of us come to books with the idea of moving at a fast pace. However, even those of us with the best aptitudes cannot come to any craft and intellectually absorb them by reading, as if through osmosis. If a musician can spend years practicing before giving a recital, why do people believe they can write a book and have it become a symphony immediately?

Stein (and a few others) says people have an idea (possibly ego based) that they can write since given their first assignment to write about what they did over summer vacation grammer school. We link words together to form sentences, we have an idea we like–and therefore believe it’s good–the rest is just putting it down on paper, right? I once talked with a high-school student who wanted to write. I gave a few examples I thought would make a good place to start, and the response I received was, “I know how to write very well, thank you.” An A in English class does not mean you understand craft because it just isn’t taught in high-school. We go from defining the parts of sentences to reading Shakespeare…and no one at that age has any appreciation. It’s an academic test to pass or fail. English lit degree–not a whole lot better. Though you have a better store house of novels in your brain by the time you’re finished. Then you still have to figure out craft, the artistic part.

I can only give tips from my own perspective, and maybe some observations from reading posts here. Which is great when people actually step up to the plate and share their experiences. Learn structure first. Get the foundational criteria firmly in mind up front. Because the better you understand the structural grid, the canvas for which all else will be painted on, you can more easily place the rest of craft into a better context within that framework. If you go about it in reverse, picking up the 101 in so many fragmented pieces, then come to structure, it might seem confining to look at the canvas on one side of the room, comparing it to the huge pile of tips and techniques on the other side. The first question I see from many is, “How do I make it all fit onto the structural grid?”

A painter never asks this because we are used to seeing paintings within the confines of their frames long before we decide to paint ourselves. We are not used to fitting writing into a given framework. If anything, we are used to seeing TV and movie characters just sitting down and blasting away at their keyboards…and we form the idea that a story will just unfold before our eyes. But you only need to sample the millions that did this and put ther work on Amazon to see how small a percentage this worked well for. Add to that that it’s a small percentage making a living at any of the arts and you’ll see that few have the patience and dedication required to give their dreams and creativity the required energy. If at first you fail, don’t do it again because it’s too much like work after that.

I remember an art teacher who said to his first year students, “Whatever you think of as hard work, you’ll work harder here.” So my final tip is, keep at it. Everyone says you have to be persistant, but what they don’t tell you is how persistant you REALLY have to be. And don’t try to learn it all in a heartbeat, or all at once because you’re such a good multi-tasker. Multi-tasking is a social myth. The human brain does one task at 100%, two tasks at 50%, and so on. Craft is learned by absorbing one tent peg at a time as far as I’m concerned. The more secure you can make your tent, the more odds you stack in your favor.

Larry Brooks March 4, 2014 at 9:41 pm

@Jim and AJ — yeah, wouldn’t it be great IF there was concrete, unassailable definition of writing terms, especially idea-concept-premise? Why “especially?” Because this is where a HUGE percentage of stories come up short. They confuse concept and premise, and too often, short-change one or both. It is a critical differentiation.

Me thinks you should read the post again. Because the definitions of these three terms are about as “concrete” as they ever get, and frankly, nobody else (that I know of) if even writing about them. If you don’t get it… well, some do, some don’t… some of the former publish, some of that latter (more of them) don’t. Not everyone is cut out to be a brain surgeon, either, even though they be a “consumer” of this practice. This is NOT a study-long-enough-and-you’ll-finally-get-there proposition. Precisely BECAUSE there are no concrete, hardline definitions of these terms.

In fact (as I I state in the post), the conversation muddies precisely because so many people in the field, including those who should know better (agents and editors) improperly and confusingly use these three terms (four, if you throw in “theme,” which is in the running for most-misunderstood story element) interchangeably. That’s sad, because the differences between these four terms are critical.

Of he 400-plus story plan evaluations I’ve completed over the past 18 months, over 50 percent get this WRONG. They confuse concept and premise, and that leads to one or the other getting short-changed. And the story is dead before its even written.

To review (again, this is in the post; if you can find better, more concrete definitions that are valid within the context of writing fiction, by all means share it with us… but I’m not holding my breath)… here is some concrete for you. Stir, add water, and allow to dry, maybe it’ll stick this time:

IDEA: anything. A unit of thought. Worthless as writing ingredient, if you accept than once you have one (an idea), you have to understand what it IS and what it ISN’T, and then understand that what you DO with it going forward is what leads to a story that works, or one that is stillborn.

CONCEPT: something CONCEPTUAL. That’s it. A landscape for a story. A stage for a story (if you like that analogy better). Not limited to setting (time or location), could be a culture, speculation, alternative history, the collision of imagination and compelling essence, a “what if?” proposition. The Hunger Games is ONLY a “what if?” proposition at the conceptual level (what if the leaders of a dystopian society used a cruel game to keep the masses in fear of them?. That’s the criteria: a good concept attracts, it compels, even BEFORE you add characters and plot. Concept is NOT character and plot… it is what makes character and plot interesting, because it is what FUELS a premise that springs FROM the concept. Concept is NOT premise. Concept is the ground upon with a dramatic structure is erected.

PREMISE: a dramatic framework within which characters pursue goals in the face of opposition, with something at stake. State-able in one sentence. It is the collision of character and conflict.

Sorry, that’s what they are, that’s all they are, it’s what you get. If you aren’t clear, then keep studying.

Maybe an example will help.

Idea: write a tragic love story with an OMG ending. An idea only, a worthy goal, but worthless as a TOOL to move forward, other than being a key in the ignition.

Concept: Two longtime feuding families have children that meet and fall in love. Hijinks ensue. That is NOT a story yet, it isn’t even a PREMISE yet. It is a story landscape, the EVOLUTION of the original idea, and it is intrinsically compelling before you add a PLOT (which is a judgment call; thus is explained why not everyone writes a bestseller, what rings your bell may not be remotely commercial or even viable).

PREMISE: a boy from one family and a girl from the other meet and feel sexual chemistry, they scheme to find a way around their family legacy so they can be together. But the families aren’t giving any ground, so drastic measures are called for, leading toward a tragic ending.

THEME: love sucks sometimes. Check in with your partner before you do something drastic.

Hoping you can see the difference between concept and premise here. If you need more, I have two books on the subject, and about 50 of the posts on this site, many of them recent, deal with precisely this issue. It never gets more precise than this, because it can’t. If you need precision, try being a math teacher, the fiction game will make you crazy if you can’t “get it” without a higher level of precision. It’s like trying to define “love” for your teenager, and then differentiate it from “love making”… good luck with that. L.

newguy March 5, 2014 at 6:01 am

The difference between concept and premise is not mystical. It is on clear display in the movie Predator.

concept – What if an advanced alien race hunted humans for sport?

premise- Dutch is the leader of a covert ops team sent in to rescue Americans who have been captured by a guerilla force deep in the jungle. When Dutch discovers that he was tricked into doing the bidding of higher ups in the US government he heads for the team’s rendezvous point only to find that the journey will not be so easy…

Concept is a neat thing, like an alien race hunting humans for sport, that is particularly recognizable in many sci-fi and fantasy stories. In Predator the concept is interesting because it puts humans in the shoes of the prey and not the predator. It sort of has a moral to it. Humans kill things without so much as thinking about what our prey feels like. What if that happened to us? This is partly why it can be considered the concept. Also there’s cool Sci-fi weapons and alien makeup. The premise is written around and is bound to the concept.

MikeR March 5, 2014 at 6:52 am

Notice also that “premise” is where the -action- words first appear: “collision,” “pursue” …

Action!! (Ticktickticktick …)

The characters are now driven forward. And they’re driven on courses that will conflict in interesting and dramatic ways.

The concept of Predator is hungry space-aliens. (This is what drives the multi-million dollar special effects budget, and it’s a lot of what makes the story interesting.) But the premise of the thing belongs to the Star of the Show … Dutch. He’s dropped into the situation, and, gosh darn it, he lost his communicator so he can’t say, “Beam me up, Scotty!” He has to fight to survive, figure out how to do that, fight to finish his mission, figure out what his mission really is or isn’t or whether he actually has one, while we’re flipping pages furiously to see what happens next.

(Scene 143: DUTCH, gasping for breath, stumbles against a smooth wooden post. Startled, he steps back, looks up and sees that it is a sign post. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he struggles to read it: “PLOT POINT TWO.”) ;-)

A. J. Abbiati March 5, 2014 at 8:21 am

@Everyone–

First, thanks for the well-thought-out comments! This is probably the closest to a true craft-based writing forum that I’ve run across, and I’m glad to be here. Second, let me echo Jim by saying that in discussing the aspects of the craft I in NO WAY want to appear disrespectful to anyone. I wouldn’t be partaking in the conversation if I didn’t respect Larry and the rest of you.

The reason I’m here is that I always try to push the boundaries of my understanding. You never stop learning and you never know from where or from whom you might learn something new and/or interesting. I’ve earned a couple of degrees on the subject and have published fiction and a textbook on prose construction, so I’m coming at this with a little experience, both practically and academically. What I’m attempting to do here (as I do with every writing book I study) is to fit what Larry is saying into my overall understanding of the craft to a) confirm, correct, or enhance what I already know, and b) add any new skills or tidbits to my existing knowledge on the subject. To do that, I often have to put what others are saying/teaching into my own context.

As an engineer by day, and having already gone through this very dilemma in my textbook, I firmly believe idea/concept/premise can be expressed concretely and explicitly. Again, the problem in doing this (and the problem I faced) is that these are advanced concepts and build on lower level concepts. If we don’t have a universal understanding of, and terms for, the lower level concepts, the task becomes exponentially more difficult.

Let me also say that I understand idea/concept/premise. The challenge is to sharpen the understanding by defining them concretely.

Let’s look at IDEA: Yes, we all know how generic this term is. In the context of this discussion, though, I think it is actually far less generic and more than just a unit of thought. As I reverse-engineered in my original post, an “idea” (based on SE/SP and everything I’ve read here) is the original spark that gets the story going. So what’s a spark? A spark is the first component(s) of the story that comes to the writer’s mind. What’s a story component? Well, without an agreed-upon set of terms/definitions, let’s say a story is made up of at least three structures — a “story” structure, a “thematic” structure, and a “dramatic” structure. (You can learn a lot about these three if you spend some time with the screenwriting community — John Truby, Micheal German, Alexandra Sokolof, etc.). It also has a narrative structure, which is my area of expertise. Each structure contains a set of specific components which can be defined explicitly and concretely (and have been…again, see screenwriters and a ton of other sources.) So, a concrete definition of an “idea” in our context would be:

“The initial component or components (story, thematic, dramatic, etc.) a writer uses to begin the story-writing process.”

We can apply ALL the previous “idea” examples/analogies to this definition and, provided we understand what the structures are and what their components are (again, we need that agreed-upon set of terms/definitions), this seems to work. We can see that a writer could start with a just one component (high or low level) or a slew of components up to the point of the story coming to the writer fully formed. The warning I took from Larry’s original post was that you probably WON’T start with all the components, so you have to build on the idea until you have the minimum set of components required to tell a properly structured story. If you understand the structures and their components, this should be a given.

PREMISE: Again, like I reverse-engineered before and as Larry defined in his last reply, the premise is the dramatic framework (structure) of the story. Dramatic structures are defined explicitly and concretely in a ton of different places, but I found German’s take on it in Plot Control (a screenwriting tool) to be the most useful, though I did have to modify it a bit. So…if you understand what a dramatic structure is, explicitly and concretely, then a concrete definition of a premise would simply be:

“The dramatic structure of a story related in one or two sentences.”

CONCEPT: Though I understand idea and premise and can and did (*I think*) define them concretely, this one is harder. I do understand it, but defining it is a bit more difficult. Part of the problem is that a “concept” can come at various levels. At the very top (broadest) its a genre/category. At the very lowest (most specific) it’s a premise, as the concept has been expressed in such detail that it describes what the story is about in terms of the specific dramatic structure. I suppose you could define “concept” concretely as:

“The subject of the story, expressed in broad or specific terms.”

Looking back at the examples/analogies I believe this works. You can then apply restrictions/caveats to explain other takes on concept (i.e. high concept, etc.)

I suppose that’s a very long winded way of saying that as long as we have an agreed-upon understanding of terms/definitions, we should be able to define idea/concept/premise concretely. I’ve found that we “artists” are often too quick to dismiss something as undefinable or unteachable. Yes, there is a line where craft becomes art, but we can sometimes put that line in the wrong place…

Larry March 5, 2014 at 8:43 am

@AJ — thanks for your thoughts. It’s all good. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over years of doing this (and as a conference speaker), is that no one single theory, or process, or belief, hits home with everybody. There really aren’t any absolutely concrete definitions, because who gets to say what’s concrete and what remains fuzzy? Not me, maybe not you, either. No matter how much concrete you pour, somebody’s gonna step up and say, “I don’t get it.” So we keep throwing words and thinking at it. Again, it’s all good.

Which is why writing fiction is as much art as it is engineering. And — here’s the gold, which you ALREADY get, yet many don’t – it’s as much engineering as it is art.

That said, your definitions are good, very solid. I don’t find them any more concrete or clear than any of the other definitions offered here (in fact, while your explanations and background are very interesting, the actual words you summon to it are part of the circle of the same contexts already put forth; sometimes one has to work through the rationale for themselves before the words click).

I hope working this out has helped you, and helped others. At some point, something clicks… or it doesn’t. L.

A. J. Abbiati March 5, 2014 at 9:03 am

@Larry —

I agree 100%. It’s unfortunate that some contemporary of Newton’s didn’t figure out the ‘engineering side of writing’ way back when. If someone had, this whole conversation would be moot, as we’d have one definitive, concrete pedagogy (like math does). All one can do now is try to develop one’s own, which is why we have books like yours (and if I can say so, mine) that shed light into the more problematic areas.

FWIW – I found no one else in the industry who described high concept and three-dimensional characters CONCRETELY. I used both those sections of SE to modify my story-planning process for the better.

MikeR March 5, 2014 at 10:13 am

Man … sometimes the best part of schooling is the discussions that take place among the students, with the instructor in the room, but after the lecture is over. :-D

Robert Jones March 5, 2014 at 10:31 am

Great thread!

AJ–I can appreciate where you’re coming from. I’ve given myself numerous brain cramps trying to define various aspects of craft. It’s fun and interesting because craft is such a vast pool. It’s also frustrating for the same reasons. What I’m gathering from your last post is that you’re coming into this with certain experiences and learning in other areas–which are also craft based. At it’s heart, all of life really is a craft, or creative project, most just pantsing along and allowing it to unfold arbitrarily. There are are parallels in all of it, which are not always obvious.

I’ve worked in, and studied, sequential art and story boarding, which has it’s own criteria for story-telling, albeit on a different canvas. But coming to writing, I saw different definitions. So I took it on as an entirely different art form and tried to reinvent many of the wheels that I already understood, but in a different context, different media. It took me a while before I saw exactly what you and Larry have effectively demonstrated in your last posts. The definitions are the same on many levels, just worded differently. So when it clicked and I could frame these things in a way that I already understood, many aspects of writing became crystal.

I heard several people say exactly what Larry did about his lectures. You could bring a dozen (or more) different speakers to a platform at a writing conference, have them all say the exact same thing a dozen different ways, but until someone framed it in a way that clicked with a specific person, the “I get it” button won’t be pushed. But what about the other eleven speakers that came on stage before that one that hit paydirt with an individual–were they wasting their efforts on that person? I don’t think so. The learning process is always a series of building blocks. For me, one subject might take 3-4 blocks before understanding blooms. For someone else, maybe it took 12, someone else got it 1–and we all said, “What did he see that we didn’t?” It’s all subjective. By the same token, try explaining any of this to a non-writer and it sounds like pig-Latin spoken in Russian…if such syntax is even possible, but you get the idea.

And I believe you’re right when you said there are those who say certain things can’t be taught without first attempting to widen their gaze. Pace was at one said to be unteachable (probably still is by some folks), then someone came along and saw some common threads between novels where the pacing was strong and layed done some paving stones that lead many writers to a better understanding. Structure–call it 3 or 4 part, or a rose by any other–has been around for a very long time. Yet, until Larry layed down better definitions of what went into each of the four parts, it was not very well defined by many novelists. Screenwriting did a better job, but many teachers of craft were so vehement that writing a screenplay was such a different animal than writing a novel that the two were often segregated into seperate compartments. They are very different, but many key elements of writing still apply in different proportions.

When Larry, through whatever circumstances lead him to be able to observe that much of the structural criteria was the same–then ran with it into locking down better definitions–that gave many of us a real wakeup call. At least it did for me. Yet this was just another example of what I’ve been saying. Common bonds are always there, the definitions vary, and some who are very good at craft (who are just human beings, after all) would rather see the differences than admit we share similarities. A painting is certainly not a movie, but an establishing shot, or even much of whatt is played up to an emotional peak in film, must capture the same emotions, or composition, a painter must capture to move an audience. I suppose if we boiled down all art to its most common denominator, it would be about human nature and capturing the emotion of experience. Vicarious experience in the parlance of SF fame.

The interesting thing is that after learning Larry’s methods, I went back to some of those authors who saw only differences and re-read their novels–only to discover the same structural criteria applied. And I wondered why so many weren’t sharing this. Surely they didn’t stumble into it by accident. I’ve also wondered if that at one time, this was the closely guarded secret of agents and editors during a time when in-house editors took new writers under their wing and guided them through certain changes in order to make their work more marketable. Which pretty much meant as long as certain criteria was a guarded “industrial” secret, very few outside of that industry was going to be able to observe such things on their own, much less craft/market their own wares as effectively. Less competition that way, dont’cha know?

I’m loving how this thread has grown and how we’ve hammered the definitions of idea, concept, and premise hard to see if anything further could be shaken out. And so we might all hammer these definitions thoroughly into our brains.

MikeR March 5, 2014 at 10:55 am

In part, it simply takes a gifted teacher. It’s =hard= to teach, let alone to do so in a mass-market paperback series and then a blog.

Easily, the biggest take-away that I’ve gotten from both books – one which I stumbled-upon, the other which I snapped-up – is that THERE IS a process that can be applied to writing a work of this kind. And, that said process can aptly be described in terms of “Engineering” and/or “Physics.” It is a descriptive analysis, not a prescriptive one: there’s no such thing as “Instant Story, Just Add Water.™” (Well, there probably IS, but you don’t want to be the one to write [another …] one. Heh.) But what it gives you, most of all and most precious of all, is … Efficiency. No, or at least Less, wasted time.

You =can= fill out that questionnaire. (If you can’t, you’re certainly not ready yet to write anything.) Then, you =can= recognize hidden-rocks just based on that. Going further, you =can= write a few pages of highly condensed synopsis, and discover more hidden rocks. All =before= you invest the amount of time that it takes to write a major work of fiction. The fact that you did all these things, and that you are now developing the story from that synopsis/outline, tremendously improves your chances for success.

Fiction, like music, is a very deceptive thing: all of us encounter it, but we always encounter finished works, and the process that goes into making the stuff is pretty-much hidden from view. People who by experience have become highly-skilled at doing it might find it difficult to explain just what they’ve done. We’ve all thrown a book down in disgust; we’ve all changed the channel or hastily hit the “Back” button in a browser session. But what, what =exactly(!)=, made us react that way? Figuring that out, depends entirely upon having a good standard of reference and the right point-of-view from which to apply it.

Robert Jones March 5, 2014 at 1:41 pm

In part, it simply takes a gifted teacher. It’s =hard= to teach, let alone to do so in a mass-market paperback series and then a blog.

I can certainly see that just in the way Larry keeps coming at these things in so many different way to try help people understand on so many different wavelengths.

So I certainly hope I didn’t come across otherwise. Simply that we all learn at different levels. And hoping with practice we can nails a few craft things down even further one day. Like mad scientists, if we keep searching, maybe someone will have a breakthrough. But you’re right. If it became like filling in a questionnaire, or a children’s game that filled in blanks to create a story, there is definitely a cap on how much is too much.

Endings, for example, might be nice to have nailed down better. Most writers I think have trouble here. Yet there’s no number of ending we can’t look at in both film and fiction to figure which ones we like, which ones work and which do not. I’ve tried to look for more common denominators. Maybe there are none. My own research has taken me into areas outside of fiction. I found a book of reprinted articles about writing, one of which mentioned how to end a magazine article. I figured, what the heck, let’s see if they have anything to say here that might show some parallels to fiction.

The article in summation, went something like this: So little has been written on the subject of endings. And I’m afraid we can add nothing further. Sorry about that.

I had to laugh. Maybe it was designed as a comfort piece for all those who struggle with endings…as in, we’re all in the same boat, so don’t feel too badly about it :D

Jean Murray March 6, 2014 at 7:23 am

I’ve been struggling with this for over 6 months. I’ve read Larry’s books, even paid for Larry’s story coaching, and had him tell me I hadn’t yet figured out the difference between “concept” and premise.” And I have a PhD (in business/management), but I just didn’t get it. Until now. After reading all of this thread and the examples, the light bulb finally went off. I think I’ve got it!

I don’t know why this stuff is so difficult, but for a newbie fiction writer, it is. I’m working on my first novel, spending way too much time on the structure, but I recognize if I can figure it out now, I’ll have it for all the other novels I want to write. The learning curve on this thing is pretty steep, but worth it. The whole “pants” thing is ridiculous. Sure, Steven King can do it, but I’ll be he didn’t for his first few.

Thanks to Larry and all.

Kevin March 6, 2014 at 8:21 am

Larry’s posts on Idea vs. Concept vs. Premise have worked wonders for two of my novels (which started out as side projects on the verge of abandonment), but my current project is kinda different…It’s a third person superhero novel with various characters who affect each other by working towards specific goals but for different reasons. My “idea” is the setting and world building. So that’s done. As Larry mentioned in one of his posts “the concept of a superhero story is the superhero”. I’ve done a lot of work on my hero and main villain’s motivations so that’s concept nailed down.
The premise is where this little story ship starts sinking gradually like the titanic.
Superhero stories/comics, whether they are about vengence, self discovery, self indulgence or any other theme, lean more or less towards being episodic: It’s the story of (insert person), who had X happen to them so they became X and rest of the premise follows as a result of this event…
At this point I’m not sure if it’s I’ve got one of those multi-faceted type stories or just a nicely wrapped pile of ideas and concepts waiting to blow up in my face. My biggest fear is giving my readers a high concept story with a muddled premise or worse, bombarding them with an overcooked premise(s), because there are many pathways/interpretations of the story.
Am I missing a solid premise or just overthinking things?

Robert Jones March 6, 2014 at 9:53 am

@Kevin–Superheroes can be great fun, but tricky, depending on whether it’s your own characters or those owned by a larger company. Also whether you’re working on a graphic novel, or thinking of a monthly series. Continuity on a regular series can be like scrambled eggs with every left-over in the fridge tossed in for flavor. And some editors will try to hold you to some ridiculous point of view that effects nothing, but flushes your story down the crapper.

That being said, there have been some great stories, even great runs. Some written by very talented writer, others written by folks who read nothing but comics most of their lives and want to rehash the same stories they loved as kids with a slightly new twist. And it all combines to make it a very hard place to learn structure, or concept. As Larry once pointed out, the idea of Superman is a concept all its own. But as the “adventures of” go on, they become very episodic and can lack in strong conceptual notions that don’t come under the heading of: Lex Luthor has a brilliant scheme to bring Supes to his knees. Or, New bad-ass villain bent on mass destruction.

It’s the way Luthor, or the new villain makes their plans that takes things for a fresh spin. Stakes can be tricky too. There’s always collateral damage. But it can be very pointless if we don’t see how that damage effects real lives and the superheroes as well. I believe that’s what they were going for in the current “Man of Steel.” *Spoiler Alert* Not so much that Superman had to choose to take a life, but that he was forced into a situation that would cost him personally in either event. Otherwise, what do you have but Clark Kent bumbling into the Daily Planet after the fact and reading Lois’s latest headline about how Superman save the world…again! As Clark give the camera that little knowing look, or wink, as in the old cartoons, and all is right with the world once more.

If a story doesn’t effect the hero in some important, emotional way, it’s an episodic adventure, not a novel, or even a graphic novel. There’s nothing “novel” about it if the character doesn’t learn something, or grow. The format might change, the language and content might become a bit more mature, but it’s just another adventure in a fancy package.

Heidi Loney March 6, 2014 at 5:07 pm

@ A.J. Abbiati

Completely off-topic but I just love, love, love your book covers! I’m not surprised Joel gave your book an award.

Cheer,
Heidi.

A. J. Abbiati March 7, 2014 at 5:39 am

@Heidi — thanks so much!

Robert Naber March 11, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Larry,

I love Story Physics just like I loved Story Architecture. As soon as I’m finished with The Help I am starting on Deadly Faux sitting on my nightstand.

I see where Robert “Received your free e-book/analysis of “Deadly Faux.”
How do I get a hold of the analysis? I went on Amazon and they never mentioned it.

Carolyn P. March 20, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Thanks for the illuminating posts, Larry. This post in particular and the one following it (you know, the case study one – props to the brave writer for letting you post it) have helped me immensely with my WIP.

A while back you highlighted my analysis of story structure in the first Harry Potter book on my blog Write Like Rowling (thanks again for that). I got a lot of great feedback from your readers, along with numerous requests to analyze some of the longer, more complicated books in the Harry Potter series. Well, I finally got around to it and I just wanted to let you know that, although I’m sure you’ll be happy with the results, you probably won’t be surprised (tinyurl.com/po44lfv). It seems that – even if your plot is extremely complex, even if your book is in the middle of a lengthy series, even if you’re a billionaire author – all (good) stories, when everything is said and done, follow story structure!

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