The “Box” is Just a Punk — A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

Once again our friend Art Holcomb knocks it out of the park.

 *****

Writers learn the same way our characters learn.

Consider for a moment some of the great characters of fiction: Jay Gatsby, Yuri Zhivago, Atticus Finch, Scarlett O’Hara, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Harry Potter . . . and Winnie-the-Pooh.

These heroes spend most of their fictional lives failing at everything they try.  And while they eventually find a path that leads them to success, most of those failures come as they try to solve their problem by doing something that’s comfortable,

Something “in their wheelhouse.”

Something similar to what they have already done.

But leaps of faith, “crazy” risks, and bold moves are the ways that heroes solve their problems.  Marlowe and Bond made incredible leaps of physical and intuitive prowess. Zhivago is unyielding. And both Potter and Pooh never stop, never quit until they get what they want.

These risks and acts of faith are not unlike the ones you took when you got up the courage to announce to the world that you were going to be a writer.

The world probably thought this was risky “out of the box thinking” and they were right.

But, sometime in your life, a bold move was called for and you made it.

Now you may be once again at a crossroad.  In your desire to find an audience, you look at how others have found success and are deconstructing stories and reverse engineering the work, trying to find the secret that made these tales popular.

As a teacher and professional, I can tell you that this is a valuable exercise.

But as a writer, I’m telling you that there is a danger here. 

It is vital that you learn about plot and structure – the tools that make your stories powerful on so many levels – and such exercises can teach you that.  Understanding story engineering will always serve your stories regardless of genre, format or interest. But that has to be matched with STORY ART – the creative aspect and personal perspective that make your stories unique.  The thing that only you can bring to the story. Concentrating on structure makes your story sound, but it cannot make it truly and uniquely yours.

For example, let’s consider the vampire story craze. 

Several years ago, both Hollywood and the publishing world decided to ride this tsunami hard. At present, brick-and-mortar bookstores have dedicated entire alcoves to pouty YA vampire tales.  But if you spend any time with these books at all, you’ll see that many of them are interchangeable in terms of story, characters and dialogue – imperfect clones of the source materials. Written that way because publishers, authors, or news outlet said that this was the way to success.

So now, you decide to sit down to write your vampire story . . .

And suddenly, you’re back “in the box” with all these other writers.

Warm.  Comfortable.  Safe.

Boring.

Spending up to a year writing a vampire novel for a market that’s already saturated.

So, here’s my thought – something I want you to try:

Once you’re committed to learning and using excellent story engineering . . .

FORGET the BOX.  Just forget it. You’re better than that.

That warm cozy feeling inside the box is just the mean temperature found at the center of the herd.

You don’t want to be in the box. 

 Frankly, you don’t want to be anywhere near the box. 

The box is bad. 

The box lies to you.

The box talks smack about you when your back is turned. It sleeps with your spouse, drinks from the carton.

Face it, the box is just a punk.

Twilight.  Hunger Games.  Harry Potter

Take any of the literary phenomenons of recent years, stories that have spawned countless spin-offs, rip-offs, homages and pretenders.

What they all have in common is that they, while all the time using excellent story engineering principles and structures – all had a very unique spin on the concept.

You can tell a Meyers, Collins or Rowlings story a mile away.

So, remember – the rule is: If you can’t do it better, do something else.

Or better yet, just plain do something original.

Instead, take the skills you’ve developed – your knowledge, unique perspective and your distinctive storytelling sensibilities -and really use them – in a way that is uniquely and breathtakingly yours. By all means, continue to write your series if it’s successful and meaningful, but take a portion of the precious time you have in order to write something really different. 

Try that new approach.  Build a new literary concoction.

Tackle a new format.

Decide to write your “secret story” – you know, the story you think about just as you nod off at night.  The one that suddenly wakes you up.  The one that frightens you.  The one you’ve put away more than once for fear of what your spouse, girl/boyfriend or parents might say.

The one that is secretly, uniquely and undeniably yours.

Along the way, too, be naturally suspicious of how you judge success.  When you have nothing to lose, you write like you have nothing to lose.  But once you’re successful for the first time, the great “I need that second sale” fear can overtake you.  Once you have a publication and (hopefully) the money from the sale, you can sometimes become desperate for that next sale.  Hungry for it.  Needful of it in a way you may have never known and it will change the way you look at your writing.  You can go from being consumed with “what is good” to “what will sell” in a New York minute.  Changes will be considered, concessions will be made, and you can suddenly find yourself in the unenviable position of being published, but unfulfilled.

Then, once again, you’re in the box.

You always have to do both.  The safe and the insane.

Of course, you have to chase that next sale, just as I do.  But, like your hero, you have to do something new, adapting all the time to your ever-changing circumstances.  The synthesis of what you’re doing now and what you’re not doing now creates your future.

Regardless of their successes, the writers named above all came to view their work in a different way because they sought the truths that can only live in fiction.

The same is there for you.

You must entertain and enlighten.  You must enthrall and amuse.  And as your heroes continue to stumble on their way toward glory, you must keep the box at bay every day.

I think it was the Dalai Lama who said:

“Every day out of the box is a good day.”

Well, maybe not the Dalai Lama, but you get the idea.

Art Holcomb is a successful screenwriter, comic book writer and frequent contributor to Storyfix.com.  A number of his recent posts appear in the Larry Brooks’ collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life.  He appears this summer at the San Diego Comic-Con and the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Conference, and begins teaching screenwriting and graphic novel writing classes at the University of California in Fall 2012. His most recent screenplay is FINAL DOWN (a NFL team disaster film) and his short story OLIVER AND THE FOUR-PIECE, REGENCY-STYLE BEDROOM SET OF DOOM is being adapted for the screen.

18 Comments

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18 Responses to The “Box” is Just a Punk — A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

  1. All the Craft in the world doesn’t make a good story, for sure. It’s the creative/artistic juice that gives it fire.

    As we start our writing career, we need to keep that Craft in a pretty tight box for a while until we’ve got some handle on it how to use it. Then, we can let the box’s sides sag and leak a little bit so we can bend the “rules” a little bit and maybe push the principles some — don’t mess with the physics, though, it will bite you.

    The story is the thing. You can’t fit your creativity in a box, but you need some box to be able to deliver it.

    One of the Core Competencies is Concept. Ideas lead to premises which can lead to part of the basis for a story (or a series). Here, the Craft just says you’ve got to have a What If which leads to a workable premise. It takes creativity to do that.

    Take something you know, twist it, transpose it, put it in a different genre, come at it from a direction a reader probably wouldn’t expect, then see how it works. You won’t find that in the box and it probably won’t be anywhere near it.

    Anne Rice, in my opinion, gave us something like that in her vampire series. Totally different viewpoint, creative what-ifs and premises, and compelling characters with conflicting (usually) motivations along with a fascinating history.

    Can’t get anything near that result by just saying, “What if I write an x story?” Yes, it’s a start, but now beat the literal crap out of it so it’s a different approach from what is “out there.”

    Go write something great.

  2. Great article! Every one of those wildly popular authors was once a new voice in the wilderness as well. Starting a new trend is much better than following along in an old one.

  3. This is great advice. I write in the YA genre and that market is particularly over-saturated with the same stories over and over again.

  4. “The box talks smack” love this post. Thanks, Mindy

  5. Really enjoyed this article, Art. Thanks for the wisdom.

  6. Writing stories we’re giddy to write seem to take care of most of the rest. That paired with avid reading, and more writing, and more writing. 😉

    Thanks for this post!

  7. Is anything outside the box anymore? Or, more precisely, will anyone take a chance on anything out of the box anymore? Songs are being remade, movies are being remade or taken from old material rather than from new screenplays, books are following tired formulas. At first I thought it was because people didn’t have new ideas any longer, but now I’m starting to think it’s because TPTB don’t want to risk money on the unknown when they could just invest in “a sure thing” even at the expense of boring their audiences. I intend to keep following my creative side. I just hope someone gets to see it.

  8. I knew that box had it in for me! Thanks for the words of inspiration.

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  10. Olga Oliver

    In many how-to writing books are reminders upon reminders to make certain your final pages tie up all the loose ends. Do not leave any loose ends dangling.

    Art’s thoughtful “tiptoeing out of the box” article reminded me of an interview with Charlotte Rogan, author of THE LIFEBOAT (12th on The New York Times best-seller list) , that I read on Goodreads.
    Rogan’s answer to one of the interviewer’s question shouts yes, yes to Art’s thoughts.

    Question: How did you decide what to reveal, and with so many moral questions at play, how did you avoid passing judgment on your characters?

    Answer: “What to reveal, what to hint at, and what to explicitly state is a careful balance for a writer. Too many unresolved mysteries can be frustrating for the reader, but books that spend the final pages tying up all the loose ends always seem anticlimactic to me. This can leave a final impression of dissociation rather than engagement, completely undoing the imaginative connection that was made in everything that went before. I tend to dislike pages of exposition and explanation at the beginning and end of the books; my bias was against doing that in The Lifeboat.”

    Many thanks Mr. Holcomb for the five simple words that creates a powerful statement – “JUST PLAIN DO SOMETHING ORIGINAL.”

  11. What a fantastic post. Thank you

  12. marta chausée

    I like how you think. I’ve always hated that effing box anyway. Time to screw up my courage and write my Secret Story. I suspect we all have one. Thanx, Art.

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  14. Awesome post. Thanks. Don’t want to have the box drinking from the carton here…

  15. “You must entertain and enlighten. You must enthrall and amuse. ” – love this line. This is a truly a great post.. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Jacques

    someone else (Staci Troilo) already pointed it out that the box grabs hold of such a large area that it is very difficult to write out of the box.
    My personal problem is that i am writing story that is inside the box (i think) but i have to write because i love it’s characters and story and setting.
    strange thing is that it does feel original to me. But if i would tell someone about my story, they would ask if Harry potter inspired me. Which would make me a little annoyed.

    Larry have you written an article about how to recognisze if your story is in the box? i would like a link very much then. If not may be a idea for a follow up article?

  17. spinx

    And the good old ART has just managed to slap us all – again.

    Heheheheheheh – “the box will sleep with your spouse.” – I very much hope it will not! Not that I am that commited right now. (always single, never alone…….hohohoho)

    I am very glad to have read the sentences just now, when my inner voice has been telling me the same thing, louder, each time.

    Last month – I stepped out of the box. Just one day before I scribbled three words on my notebook …………”officially a writer”…………may, 18, 2012. I will not forget the feeling that those words have errupted in me.

    Soon, very soon……..I will become worthy of them.

    Dang……………one year…….how very chliché – and how very true….but time really does fly. I am just forever thankful for having discovered this site as early as I have.

    I am on to my own journey now – no more formula books for me, no more guiding – I loved the box while it lasted, but there are far more beautiful things out there, waiting to be discovered. And ooooooo – how those things bleed….

    (I liked the box….)

  18. Dexter Letroy

    Thanks for the reminder about working outside the box. I just finished putting together my outline and had almost forgot the reason why I was writing, “The Book That Shall Not Be Named” in the first place. I have that fear of people I know reading my work and looking at me differently. But I know that I won’t be successful I hold back.
    Thanks again. Time to see how far down the rabbit hole goes.