The Fix Is In: The Square-One Story Killer

Not long ago I wrote about a toxic, epidemic story problem that is killing the chances of passionate, well-intended writers who aren’t aware that they’re playing with fire.  

I’m going to do it again here, from a different perspective… because it’s that pervasive and consistently deadly.

Here’s the SOLUTION – the cure, the fix, the higher ground – that works without forcing you to give up the thing that draws you to your story in the first place.

If someone asked you what your story is about, what would you say?

If your answer sounds like this – “My story is about a woman trying to find her way in the world”… or, “It’s a story about a man who must reconcile his past before he can move on…” – then further questions ensue.  Because those are statements of thematic sub-text, which is a valid answer and a worthy starting point for a story.

But it’s not a story.  Not yet.  It is an idea.  An intention. 

It is not even a concept for a story.  And an effective story is, ultimately, about its concept.

A Bestselling Example

The Help” was about racial conditions in the South on one level, no argument there.  But it’s not a STORY yet, based only on that description.  The racial angle is pure thematic – not conceptual – sub-text.  Powerful, wonderful, effective, permeating everything on every page.  But alone, not enough to propel a story into being.

From the reader’s perspective, that’s what “The Help” is about: racial prejudice.

But from a writer’s perspective – the one YOU need to adopt – it’s about a young woman who wants to write a book to launch her journalism career, and needs the help of local domestic employees to do so, but who are reluctant because it could cost them their jobs in a racially prejudiced community, or worse, put their safety at risk.

That’s what “The Help” is about… on another level… on the level that matters if the story is to work.

What’s your story about?

I’ve been seeing with this a lot lately in my new story coaching service

I’d say that half of the answers to that question – it’s the second question asked in the Big Bad Questionnaire that provides the raw grist for analysis, because it identifies your intention while providing an architectural preview – are just like that: stories that rely on theme without a cradle to grave conceptual arc anywhere on the horizon.

So then I ask another question.  “What’s your hero’s problem or goal in the story, and what opposes it?”  Something you absolutely need to know at some point in the process.

And that answer – if there is one; too often there isn’t — becomes fodder for a concept.  Slap a compelling “what if?” on it and suddenly you’re in the hunt.

Bottom line: if you don’t have a conceptual, conflict-driven answer before you write a draft of your story, then for the story to succeed you’ll have to set out on a search and discover phase — the search for a concept — as you write it.  Which is inherently risky and a low percentage strategy.  

Another approach is to pre-plan the story, nailing the concept before you write.  To know both your concept and your thematic focus is like putting jumper cables on your draft. 

Both search process can work.  Because both have identical criteria and goals for the end game. 

The Big Mistake, the Great and Deadly Pit into which your story could easily fall, is to write a “story” in which your hero wanders around looking for her/himself.  Literally.  Episodically.  Using this as exposition rather than context.  

But there’s a fix for that.  An essential realization that must be nternalized before you can turn such a story – any story – into a winner.

The Fix 

Your hero needs a problem to solve, and a goal to strive for.  There needs to be opposition in play, and stakes evident. 

There needs to be CONFLICT.

And it need to be something other than – alongside and catalytic to – the character’s arc and inner demons. The theme.  Or, in the case of my opening example, the search for self.

That’s the 411 on the 101.  You know that.  If nothing else, because I keep drilling it into you here.

But here’s the way to get to that: you need a story arc that offers EXTERNAL opposition.  External conflict.  Giving your hero something to do… an external problem to solve… an external goal to strive for.

That pursuit is where those inner demons show up to complicate things, and ultimately becomes the stage upon which your thematic intentions get their moment in the spotlight. 

External conflict should never occur episodically. 

This happens then that happens then something else happens… the only connection being that it all happens to the same character, your protagonist.  Few or none of the episodes clearly connects to the others… it just happened, further showcasing the deep cah-cah your hero is in emotionally.

Rather, your scenes should become a connected, integrated and unfolding dramatic sequence – a story thread – that adheres to the principles of story structure.

Every scene, every moment in “The Help” and in any other character-driven story that works, contributes toward a forward-moving exposition of a conflict-driven story,with an external source of dramatic tension providing the fuel.

In fact, it is that EXTERNAL dramatic exposition that defines the four parts of the story and the major milestone scenes that divide them (story structure).  Your intended internal, sub-textual exposition will then naturally align with that structure, because it manifests through what the hero DOES on that path.

The moment you understand and accept this as part of the process, one we all must embrace, is the moment your story stands a chance.  Until then… not so much.

If you’d like to see if your story cuts this tricky mustard, click HERE to learn about my new story coaching program… it costs less than two tanks of gas and can save you months or even years of misdirected work and frustration (half empty)…  and turn your storytelling into the bliss that comes from knowing you are doing it right.

Or, if you’ve already written a draft, this works like an MRI on your story, detecting potentially fatal flaws and weak spots before you hit the SEND button.

8 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

8 Responses to The Fix Is In: The Square-One Story Killer

  1. Larry, you write “Your hero needs a problem to solve, and a goal to strive for. There needs to be opposition in play, and stakes evident.

    There needs to be CONFLICT.”

    I write genre fiction, so that’s probably the easiest part of putting a story together for me. It’s ALL conflict.

    I’ve mentioned before that I look at the First Plot Point as the device used to push the protagonist off their tidy rut of life. The push out of the status quo.

    The conflict (at least the way I’ve been looking at it) is everything keeping the hero from getting *back* to the status quo. (And it’s usually one big thing with a number of smaller accmplices hard at work resisting the hero.)

    Thanks again for another great one, Larry.

  2. @Tony — I like the way you put this (the “status quo” idea). There are so many valid ways to look at this stuff, the more we see the better. And you’re right, genre-centric fiction doesn’t usually present this quandry, bucause the story is usually “about” the conflict. But character-driven “real life” stories — or should I say, their writers — often (too often) fall into this trap. Jonathan Frazen got away with it, don’t ask me how, other than his prose and his attention to detail is pretty darn good. Literary novels can do this if they’re written that well, but that’s a high bar. Thanks for chipping in, as always. L.

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  5. Back in college, I’d sit in my creative writing class and endure a number of stories involving characters who would go to a coffee shop, sit down, stare at their coffee (which was symbollic, I guess) and reflect on all the decisions of their life. Then they’d decide to change and leave. That was it. It frustrated me, because like you said, that’s not a story.

    Then they criticized my stuff because I deal mostly with science fiction. I’d have to point out that even though my character owned a spaceship, he was more realistic than their characters, since he actually had goals and obstacles.

    Excellent post! Thank you.

  6. Pamela Moriarty

    Great post, Larry! I’m one of the 50% who can’t seem to tease out a concept from a premise from a theme to save her life! It’s like I understand the theory that distinguishes concept from premise and theme but can’t seem to translate that theory into actually writing one. I keep asking myself what is it about this concept business I’m not getting? I keep hoping the lightbulb will go off. One did pop when you drew a distinction between what a story is about from a reader’s perspective and what it’s about from a writer’s perspective. It’s like, OK, I get that. Now, can I apply it to my own work? Well, I’m off to find out. Appreciate your willingness to hold our feet to the fire on this one. Please keep doing so. What’s a few blisters if we end up learning how to write a great concept? Slainte, Larry.

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