The Irrefutable Algebra of Story

Don’t be scared off by the implication of forthcoming mathematics.  

I know, writers aren’t known for their affection for numbers, but I promise you this particular story problem will be right up your alley.

This post is inspired by a recent story coaching client who answered this question — What is the core dramatic arc of your story? — with this response: My story is about a woman seeking to discover her roots to find out who she really is.

This answer, almost to a word, is very common. It is also, as a story development metric, almost completely worthless.

That said… it may be fine (too often it isn’t) if the context is a cocktail party or passing an acquaintance on the street, or as the first line of a premise that goes on to offer more.  And it’ll look great on the back cover of a trade paperback.  But as a window into the story itself, its source of drama and action and character arc… as a test of the writer’s awareness of what a story actually requires… as something that really answers the question about dramatic arc… this all-too-familiar answer falls far short.

It is missing the dramatic heart and soul of the story itself.

But as a pitch — this being germane because an agent will almost certainly ask you this question in some form or another — this answer is a disaster, with a one hundred percent certainty that the agent or editor sitting across for you (or on the receiving end of your email) will ask you what the hell that even means… by asking you to describe what happens in the story.

Which you haven’t accomplished with the answer you’ve given.  Dramatic arc is what happens… which means you’ve just outed yourself as being new and uninformed.

Actually, that’s not accurate… make that less then 100 percent, because some agents will trash your pitch based on such an answer alone.

Because, you see, “finding out who she is” is an outcome.  

It is a goal, something the hero pursues.  It is a dependent consequence of what the hero actually does to reach that goal, but without telling us what that might be.  Drama doesn’t reside in the outcome, it is found on the path that leads to an outcome.

Such an answer is more an idea, an intention, than a workable story.  It’s like saying you want to be rich… worthless without a plan.  It is the kind of thing that occurs to a writer in the first minute of awareness of the story idea, rather than an outcome of weeks and months of cultivating what you might do with such an idea.

Too often it indicates that you don’t really know what to do with your idea.

When that agent asks for more detail, you better have a meaningful answer at the ready.  Which, if your original answer is any clue, you probably don’t.

Let’s look at this in algebraic terms.

This isn’t an equation, nor is it a formula.  Rather, is is a universal calculation and construct of fiction, a postulation that applies to and empowers any story in any genre.

Let’s call your hero X.  Then let’s call your story resolution, that outcome you are in love with, Z.   Which too often leads only to this: “In my story, X pursues Z.”

Again, that answer is a terrible, fatal way to pitch your story.  Because…

Do you notice something missing?

Let’s hope you do.  It’s not math, in this context, this is first grade English — we’re missing a Y component, because the fuller, better, more professional sequence is X, Y and then Z.

X deals with, encounters and confronts Y… to reach Z.   The math is that simple.

Let me say, before I go any further, that this broken hypothesis — X pursues Z — has caused more rejections than you can imagine, because when the attention turns from pitch to manuscript too often an author who would indeed pitch it without the Y element would also write it without a full and properly formed Y element.

Which is a deal killer each and every time.  X and Z are easy… it’s Y that separates the dreamers from the doers.

Because Y is what the story is all about.  

Y is the dramatic arc of a story.

Let me repeat that.  It’s not X, the hero… not Z, the outcome… the dramatic arc of the story is Y.

Y is the narrative itself.  Y is where the scenes are.  Y is where conflict comes in.  Y is action and decision leading to further action and decision.  Y is the stuff of story sequence and structure.  Y is the catalyst for character arc.  Y is the vessel for the conceptual essence of the story. Y is what the reader engages with, roots for, empathizes with and relates to.

Y is the path that leads to Z.

And yet, too many new writers leave it out completely when pitching their story.  

Which is a sure bet they don’t understand the value of the Y component in their story.  It’s like pitching The Hunger Games like this: My story is about a girl who must overcome a dystopian society ruled by a cruel President.

Tell me that doesn’t completely leave out the entire heart and soul of that story.  It’s not wrong, per se, merely incomplete in a way th at renders it ineffective.  But what is does do is demonstrate the lack of a nuanced understanding on the part of the author, who hasn’t demonstrated that they know what makes a story tick.

Agents and editors have an ear for that, just as much as they are listening for the story itself.

Here’s the real algebra of a story that works:  

The hero (X)… must engage with, confront, battle, navigate, outwit, outplay, overcome or defeat an antagonist (all this comprising Y)… in order for a specified outcome (Z), which is the hero’s goal, to manifest within the story.

It boils down to this.  Feel free to print this out and tape it to your monitor:

A story is not just about something.  Not just, or primarily, about a character, a setting, a theme, an issue, a piece of history, or an ending.

Rather, a story is about WHAT HAPPENS to reach whatever conclusion serves the natural outcome of scenes that depict conflict stemming from a hero with a goal and an antagonist that opposes that goal.

Some writers read those two sentences and can’t see the difference.  Those writers are in for a long haul, because the second sentence is where the gold is.  It is what professionals know and they don’t.

That second sentence is the key to everything.

Wrap your head around this at both the contextual and narrative level, and you will have, merely by doing so, risen into the top quartile of unpublished writers striving to lose that tag.

Our friend Art Holcomb (check out his blog) has supplied us with an illuminating video and short article on “The Power of Storytelling,” where this math will be obvious.


If you’re interested in seeing how you’d do – which means, seeing where you are on the story learning curve – with one of those Coaching Questionnaires, see the menu to the left, or click HERE for more information.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

11 Responses to The Irrefutable Algebra of Story

  1. An incredible video and a powerful post. You’re such a talented coach, Larry. With regard to story, Y marks the spot. 🙂

  2. Luther

    Maybe I’m the only one but what is the Y in the hunter game example?

  3. @Luther – guessing maybe you didn’t read the book or see the movie. The point of that example was that the story was not “about” Katniss confronting the evil President, it was about her surviving the game (the “hunger games”) themselves. That was the dramatic centerpiece of the whole story, definitely the “Y” of that story.
    Katniss (X) had to survive and win the 74th annual Hunger Games (Y), an annual death ritual put on by the folks who run the country, before (and so) she might become the face of the rebellion and lead the districts toward an overthrow (Z) of the dystopian government that oppresses them.

    Without the Y, there is no story.

  4. Yes indeed, it’s too easy to jump from start to outcome and forget “what happened” is the thing that makes the tale.
    Another example: if you tell someone “I finally made it to New York” (in a way that makes that the end rather than the start of the story), they won’t say “great story!” They’ll say “but why was it so hard, what did you have to do?” Just saying there is an ending doesn’t mean you can skimp on the good stuff in the center, the whole process of getting there.

  5. Luther

    That’s the was the missing part. I understand lessons with theory and hen example. Thanks Larry for fulling the last hole.

    Wow. Great post on the fundamentals.

  6. As a guy who’s written loads at a website called “Finding Why” I’m loving this post about Finding Y as a writer . . . yeah, pretty sneaky swapping in a letter that sounds like the greatest question word.

    My greatest writing goal is to ratchet up the conflict the way my favorite authors do: just as it looks like things can’t get any worse, of course they can because I’m a writer and you’re my victim character.

  7. Victoria

    Perfect. Just perfect.

  8. Jeremy

    Y is journey and Z is the destination.

  9. Bill

    @larry …. Your grasp and ability to get the “Y” across to us, The Great Unpublished makes all the difference. I’m watching the James Patterson masterclass videos and they are fun and entertaining, but not educational in the way your individual help and your blog are. We all appreciate your nuts and bolts approach. Almost done polishing the story you analyzes for me and I have to say, I like it!

  10. Terrific post! You’ve made it clear, with such a simple example, what I’ve been missing in my blurbs. Clear as crystal now.

  11. Larry, you’ve nailed it with the “Y.” Which is what the query letter has to do. Your post is one of the clearest explanations I’ve read of what forms the heart of an effective pitch. “Y” is the ingredient that allowed me to successfully option my screenplay. And it’s the secret sauce of the query letters I write for my author clients.