The Heart of the Story — A Guest Post from Bruce H. Johnson

Yesterday I offered up a rather long-winded rant on the importance of understanding the core idea of our stories, and how that understanding bestows the power to push the story to a higher level of effectiveness and reader resonance. 

The post generated some fascinating responses (click HERE t0 read the post if you missed it, or even read it again, and then scroll down for the comments… feel free to add your own, too), including one of the most thoughtful and powerful reader comments I’ve received since launching this website.

So on point, in fact, that I’ve decided to run that comment here as a guest post.  The writer is Bruce H. Johnson, who operates a great writing site called Free Spirit Universe, where he’s in the middle of a terrific series entitled “Tech Writer to Fiction Writer” (he’s on Part 7, but the others are listed for easy access).   I highly recommend this material. 

Bruce and I are singing the same tune, but this isn’t a mutual back-scratch today.  In fact, he doesn’t even know I’m using his comment for today’s Storyfix post.  Fact is, the guy is worth reading, because he’s interpreting the very fluid and less-than-precise act of writing a story through the eyes of an engineer, assigning sequence and structure and mission.

If that’s sounds familiar to you Storyfix readers, then you know why I admire what this guy is up to.


Craftsmanship isn’t everything. Craftsmanship is having the details/fundamentals down so thoroughly they appear effortless.

I played the violin for many years in my youth. Ever listen to a virtuoso of any music? Perfectly in tune (if the music demanded), never misses a note, perfect tempo and the lot.

There are tons of technically-perfect artists. On the other hand, there are very few who can touch our hearts to laugh, cry and give us a powerful emotional experience. Those who can have found the concept underneath the music, character (for actors) or the story itself.

As Larry said, you’ve got to find and have that sky-high concept at the very beginning before you even start practicing the piece.

You’ve got to have the best craftsmanship possible to convey that emotion and concept — but without hitting us over the head with the methodology. When you investigate a virtuoso, you find he’s practiced fundamentals probably 90% of his time even before he spends 10% working on the actual part or piece. Now he can deliver the emotional experience.

The better the artist, the more picky he is about what he’s delivering — he wants a worthwhile impact, not just “that was pretty” or “he did a good job.” They are (and you should be) after delivering the highest possible concept.

Listen again or watch again some artist/actor who is acknowledged as a true virtuoso. The craftsmanship and fundamentals are obvious, but you really don’t notice them because you’re pulled into their world and get that emotion and concept they are conveying.

Who’s really interested in reading or hearing about Howdy-Doody on Mars? If it’s your grandkid, that’s fine — go for it. You’ll “sell” at least one copy.

If you don’t have that sky-high goal, that idea or concept which just might touch people’s hearts, all your writing will doing is letting your readers listen in on the practice session where the virtuoso is practicing scales, harmonics (stringed-instrument term), types of vibrato and so forth. Interesting, but not what the virtuoso provides his audience.

You’ve got to be a virtuoso. Have the fundamentals (Six Core Competencies) down so pat you don’t even have think of them during your writing. That requires tons of hard work and practice. Then, when you find and develop that beyond-the-sky concept or idea for a story, you can appear to deliver it almost effortlessly because your fundamentals are in. Your readers won’t notice your fundamentals or methodology (unless they’re writers, too, then it will probably be on their second or third read), they’ll simply get a profound emotional experience on something worthwhile — that underlying concept.

It doesn’t have to be a “beautiful” concept, either. Many of Shakespeare’s most enduring works are tragedies, such as Romeo and Juliet.

Learn and practice your Six Core Competencies. Study. Practice more. Now, work out 5, 10, 15 or more high-level, worthwhile concepts that are worthy of all the work you will be putting into the delivery of that concept.

To get published is hard work. There’s plenty of mediocre stuff available that did manage to get published. Some even make best-sellers — for a week.

If you’re going to pour your attention, learning, practice and hours/days/months into a story, make it worth it to start. Get that underlying concept, then you too can be a virtuoso.

Bruce H. Johnson is the creator of Free Spirit Universe, which offers abundant and valuable stuff for writers on the path toward understanding the infrastructure and physics of telling a great story.


The issue of concept generation and worthiness is a critical and challenging realm to explore for the serious storyteller.  Which is why my next post will continue to focus here, with a deeper look at a question we all ask ourselves — some of us beat outselves up with it — and one that I get asked frequently: how do we know if our story idea is good enough?  Stay tuned.


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10 Responses to The Heart of the Story — A Guest Post from Bruce H. Johnson

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    The interesting part with mastery is there are at least two sides to it (I’m probably missing some, but coming from a software dev background these are the main two things I see in my own exploration of mastery of that side of things, and I try to bring some of the tricks over to improving as a writer as well).

    The first are the things this post (great stuff from Bruce) discusses and you beat us over the head with (necessarily, I admit). Fundamentals are everything in any act you do. Writing a story, playing an instrument, building solid software. You need those fundementals.

    However just doing the practice over and over won’t cut it. You have to go find examples to help wrap your mind around what the goal of your practices are. What things do you want to see in the final result, based on other final results that worked. Once you are past a certain point, this becomes much less necessary, as you know the rules well enough to break them wisely and to great effect. But until you’ve seen others do it well, THEN taken that knowledge to practice these fundamentals, it’s just masturbation. SOMETHING must shape your goal.

    I think that’s one of the things I liked best about your story structure book, Larry. It used an extremely concrete example with Dan Brown’s super huge selling book to show what the pieces of SS were, and then you explained what the benefits of him doing it that way were, and why we should follow suit. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what you were trying to convey (though I already felt a resonance with your posts before then) and I have never actually read The DaVinci Code, amusingly enough.

    It does make me wonder if there is a specific point of rough balance between examining and practicing that must be sought as a starting point before you begin deviating to find your own road. Though how one could figure out such a thing is beyond me, my knowledge about learning mostly comes from reading blog posts on the topic.

    Hopefully the discussion continues, it has given me a lot to think about, and from the prior post it sounds like many others as well.

  2. @Patrick – I think this is extraordinary insight, and something I will read over again and again to fully absorb. The entire proposition of fundamentals versus practice versus risk… it’s all a dance, one we must embrace within music of our own making. Okay, that’s a little out there, but in the end we’re always stirring all these elements at a pace of our own choosing.

    It’s deep stuff. Thanks for taking us deeper. L.

  3. Shirls

    Larry, the last two posts are really the heart of the matter and exactly what I’ve been struggling with for years. The idea. Now there are uncountable ideas out there and it is evident that sucessful authors have used them and published best selling novels. However I think that to get it right , the “idea” has to somehow resonate with the writer. An idea that seems like nothing much to one writer may be picked up and made great by another. Do you agree? I’m feeling a bit like Chicken-Licken wandering around the the idea stratosphere asking “Are you my mother?”

  4. Awesome comment and awesome post. This especially:

    “When you investigate a virtuoso, you find he’s practiced fundamentals probably 90% of his time even before he spends 10% working on the actual part or piece. Now he can deliver the emotional experience.”

    Thank you, Larry. And good to know you Bruce.

  5. Wow, I didn’t expect this. Thanks for all the feedback.

    As an additional offering, keep writing down those ideas. Some are probably pretty neat, right? Perhaps not wide enough, high enough, etc., to create an entire story. On the other hand, you can probably use them as subplots or even scenes/sequences on some bigger concept. Sure nothing wrong with that.

    As you’re designing for your big idea, glance over at some of your “quickies.” You might be able to twist them into a very satisfactory sequence which carries your story along.

    Keep writing that synopsis, perhaps as part of the initial design process. Knowing where your Plot Points, Mid-Point Shift and Pinch Points set, some of your “lesser” ideas might well serve as part of the road from one to another.

    In writing my Sorcerer novels, I had several scenes, revelations, or what have you that I knew I wanted. I had a good idea when in time they should be, then stitched together a sequence of actions to get from one to the other. Many of these sequences involved smaller ideas/concepts which forwarded the overall concept.

    One blog somewhere said that nothing you write is really wasted. I agree to some extent. Practice does make perfect, if you’re practicing the correct thing the correct way. When I started the first Sorcerer novel, the target genre was erotica, so there had a lot of sex. I eventually decided I was satisfied I could deliver a decent sex scene (I found out, just as other erotica writers did, that it’s really tough after the fifth or sixth scene), that the sexual acts took a back seat to the characters’ emotional involvement with each other during the sex.

    There’s 40,000 words of sex scenes I deleted from the first two novels, not including trimming most of the others down to probably 50% of the original. These are ideas that didn’t work out to contribute to the story progress.

    Beyond the sex, there were several ideas I looked at developing, but decided not to do so — they were “good” ideas but didn’t contribute sufficiently to the story.

    None of this “extra” writing which I later either didn’t develop or edited out was wasted, though. They were practice in exactly what I was attempting to deliver.

    Get the sky-high idea. Plop it into the 4-Part Structure and see if it works out. Now brainstorm it some more and make it even bigger; perhaps that original idea/concept now makes an excellent Plot Point.

  6. Pingback: For Your Consideration: Questions at the Heart of Your Story Idea

  7. David Dunne

    I recently found out about your web site storyfix at the southern Oregon Willamette Writers meeting and I find the information very informative. I started receiving your emails with part 9 and would like to receive parts 1 through 8.

    Thank you –

  8. @David — nice to hear from. Parts 1 throught 8 are available on the website. In fact, all 140ish posts (articles) are available… go to the “Categories” header in the middle column, then click on “Get Published,” you’ll find all the parts there. Hope you enjoy, and thanks for visiting the site!

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