The Learning Curve That Keeps On Curving

In all my years as a writer, writing teacher and blogger, I’ve never run into anybody who claims to know everything there is to know about storytelling.

That’s because the more you know, the more you realize how complex and deep it all can be.  Stories are like people, no two are completely alike, and therefore each needs to be regarded, analyzed, appreciated and repaired separately.

That said, certain fundamental principles and physics apply. 

Just like they do to people.  And they can be learned.

And yet, while nobody is claiming to know it all, I have run into writers who claim they don’t need to pay attention to those pesky fundamental principles and storytelling physics.  They say something like this:

“Don’t over-think it, just sit down and do it, let the story flow, trust your instinct, do whatever the hell you want, keep working on it and it’ll turn out like it’s supposed to. There are no rules.”

Not long ago I flew into Salt Lake to give a keynote and writing workshop at a major conference.  The young writer who picked me up at the airport was curious about my book (which is all about writing fundamentals and storytelling physics), and in the course of our conversation told me that one of writers who would be attending the conference – an older guy who had been writing for years – said my book was ridiculous, that there are only three things a writer needs to ultimately know, the rest is just hot air: the beginning, the middle and the end.

That’s it?  Who knew.  All these years, I’ve missed that one on the writing shelf.  This is the same guy who claims all he needs in life is “three hots and a cot.”

I asked now many books this guy had published.  The answer was none.

Interesting.  While I have run into writers who line up behind this simplistic belief system, none of them – zero – have been published.

Coincidence?  I think not.

And when it does happen – and I’m sure it does – it isn’t proof of the theory.  Rather, it’s the writer not understanding what just happened.

There are a few Big Names out there who claim to be listening to some muse, that they simply sit down and channel it.  But the truth (IMO) is one of three things: this is a transparent stab at modesty, they have a great editor, or they’re truly clueless and therefore just lucky to be where they are.

I don’t think the last two are it.  Such writers probably write organically, on instinct… but what is instinct if not the expression of something that has been learned?

In essence these writers are saying that they’re some kind of genius. 

Diana Gabaldon comes to mind.  As does Stephen King, who is a genius, but in talking about “how to write” laughably discounts the fact he’s published hundreds of stories over many decades, which by definition means he’s learned something along the way, which again by definition means if something can be learned, it can be sought-out and it can be taught, if nothing else through acknowledgement.

Just because you haven’t filed a flight plan, it doesn’t mean you don’t know how to fly the airplane.  No, that part you have to learn.

Life itself the palette for the art and craft of writing.

Nobody argues that craft cannot be learned.  It is always a learned thing. 

And because few argue that life can be fully and completely understood, that the learning about life stops at some point, the same must be applied to writing about it.

We are always in school.  The learning is always available.  The only time we are excused from class is when we turn our back on it.  And then, we are very much on our own.  In which case you better be a genius to get anywhere.

Great storytelling is hard.  It is complex.  It is a pool with no bottom, an ocean full of darkness and beauty and forces we do not understand.  And so, some minds shut down and turn to the quote given above, instead of learning how to swim.

At a glance one might suggest that old-timers have been exposed to all the learning, that the only available growth option is practice.  But I promise you, every day we live, and every time we read a story or see a film, we are learning. 

The proving of a truth is, in fact, a means of learning that truth.

The ignorance of a truth is, too often… fatal.

You can’t go out there and prove the earth is round. 

You just accept that it is.  You have pictures from the space shuttle that make you believe.  Just like we have stories that make us believe, even when we don’t understand the forces that make them work.

But you can go out and prove that a story without certain things going for it won’t work.  In fact, it’s actually harder to prove that it won’t than it is to prove that it will work.   

Doubt this?  Go ahead, write a story without compelling dramatic tension, with a hero who is not easily empathized with or easy to root for, without emotional resonance, without pace, without sub-text, without thematic depth, without voice. 

You can prove that these principles work simply by writing a story without them.

Watch what happens then.

The proof is that the story will be rejected

And it will continue to be rejected until you learn to apply the truth about storytelling fundamentals and physics.  Even then, though, it will need something else, including a dash of luck, to stand out from the crowd.  To prove that it can work.

Successful storytelling isn’t about the math.  Sometimes it doesn’t add up.  It can’t work if certain fundamental principles and physics are not there… yet it might work if they are.

You get to choose which game you’re playing.

That is the art of it.  An art that depends almost entirely on the craft upon which it is based.

Check out the March/April issue of Writers Digest… I have an article on page 55, about how to deliver “voice” in your stories.

I also recommend Andrea Hurst’s webinar, “Crafting Fiction and Memoir that Sells: An Agent’s Point of View,” this Thursday at 1:00 pm (Eastern). Click HERE to learn more.




Filed under getting published

23 Responses to The Learning Curve That Keeps On Curving

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    The part I’ll never understand isn’t people who think things like “all you need to understand is there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end,” but that such people don’t at least explore the alternatives with an open mind first.

    Until you at least try something different, you don’t actually KNOW what’s better. Admittedly I do it far more than I should, but I’m constantly looking for different takes on everything. Dialogue, story structure, you name it. Because to become the full ‘you’ you need to try a bit of everything. And damn it, most of the buffet of writing techniques has at least something worth your while in experiencing it.

    I’ll just take it for what it is though, a chance for me to get a leg up on those silly enough to ignore all the free and cheap advice that’s actually good out there on how to become a better writer. C’est la vie

  2. RT

    Diane Gabaldon does talk a lot about how her stories grow organically. However, she also talks about her years of learning how to plot through work on non-commerical fiction projects (I can’t recall what it was exactly though, although I’ve seen her name names, etc.).

    I feel like what you are saying here is that she is somehow fundamentally wrong to say that her stories grow organically. And that bothers me because when she talks on the topic, she isn’t speaking on structure, but on creativity – her own, personal creativity.

    I honestly don’t disagree with the importance of understanding story structure (I LOVE story structure). But people are different. People do things differently. People implement the addition of story structure (etc.) in different ways. That’s not a bad thing.

  3. @RT — I appreciate your point of view, and I think you’re spot-on about Diana G’s approach. Trouble is, too many writers hear it wrong, they think that the underlying craft isn’t required, that this, too, is something you can make up as you go, which it isn’t. It’s a framework into which one pour’s creativity, however summoned. So thanks for contributing, we don’t need to agree to disagree, because I think we’re on the same page here. L.

  4. Ben

    I love this post. I think many writers who disdain story structure in favor of winging it already have an innate understanding of story structure, but simply don’t realize what they are doing. Which is sad. It leads so many young writers to misunderstand what true creativity is.

    What conference were you in Salt Lake for? I live there and would have loved to go listen to you speak, had I known about it!

  5. I took a fiction writing class at our local college a few years ago. The “go with the flow artistic mystique” is still being taught as the only way to approach a story. Any indications that a writer might want to consider reaching an audience is shushed. That’s one of the basics to storytelling that even the Diana G’s forget when they talk about their journey as a writer, the desire to reach an audience. Stories are written for an audience of readers, this includes agents, editors, and the marketing professionals at the publishing house.

    Writers are forever encouraged to write the “story of your heart” as it fulfills the writer enough to keep them writing to The End. But, if that story is destined to reach a broader audience, or if you want a career as a writer, literary brilliance is only the first step.

    I will never know everything about storytelling or writing, but I do know that my primary motivation to engage in both is that I reach an audience. If it is an audience of me, myself, and I – I write it one way. If it is an audience that may be enticed to purchase it for the entertainment or enhancement of their life, then I write the story in a way that can be understood by someone who doesn’t live with my muse.

    My vision is that I – as the writer – is the filter between the muse and the audience. As the filter, I have to keep clearing the muck and making the holes smaller until only the purest and brightest aspect of the story hits the page.

  6. spinx

    Sooooo………………how did it go down with the guy who hated your book?

  7. If you are going to do something, anything, you need to study the art of it. Some things you disregard others you take to heart.

    I write by the seat of my pants and I don’t outline but I do know when I begin a story the high points of it and how my story is going to end. As I am writing, I look for emotional tension and at the pace and is there conflict. (This is something I’ve learned and my writing is better for it)

    If you want to improve at something you do it by continued learning. If you don’t care close the door and do what you’ve always done.

  8. I spent years creating stories “organically”, mostly for my own pleasure, and I didn’t realize I was following a structure until I read your book, Larry. (My “AHA” moment…) I learned the structure without knowing it, by reading – beginning in pre-school, going through Classics Illustrated and Marvel comics, and then into any and every book I could get my hands on – and by writing story after story and abandoning the ones that didn’t work even for me. Having read King’s “On Writing”, I got the impression that he did the same thing. I actually think comic books are a good way to learn structure!

  9. And people forget that Stephen King – everyone’s most popular writer to take to task – was an English teacher first. He didn’t learn something along the way, he already knew it. Nor are King or Gabaldon the only ones who advocate that the story comes first – Anne McCaffrey was another. I’m not sure if this is the old argument about pantsers vs. plotters, but the basic point of knowing the necessary skills is a valid one. However, I think the point they were making is that you have to have a decent story first – however you manage to achieve it, whether just sitting down and writing it, or plotting every chapter.

  10. @Spinx — well, he never “outed” himself. Stayed in the crowd. I found the driver and asked him to point the guy out — wanted to introduce myself, drill down into his observation a bit — but he wouldn’t do it. I think it was the driver himself, to be honest. Over the three days of the conference he avoided me like the plague… maybe because I told this story to 800 folks in the opening keynote. (Talk about a pound of flesh…). “-”

    @Valerie — I agree. My next book is called “The Search for Story,” which is precisely what you suggest here… we have to “find” our story somehow, whatever works for you, and once known, THEN certain principles and structures apply. Old pros like Galbadon and King get this, they know it, and they apply them from whatever source of learning they experienced. Trouble is — and this is the great abyss for new writers who don’t get this yet — some writers don’t understand that once the Search for Story has been achieved, that’s when the real writing of a workable draft BEGINS. As opposed to taking that “search draft” and thinking that’s the one. Some draft in their search, some plan as a means of searching, but once that milestone (story discovery) has been reached, both approaches give way to “story shaping” through drafting or outlining. Great stories end up in the same place, however it got there. Thanks for contributing here, Valerie. L.

  11. Great advice, Larry. Stephen King, and others who follow their muse and succeed, are like great cooks, not chefs, who go into the kitchen and whip up a delicious meal without following recipes. Are they simply geniuses in the kitchen or did the learn from something?

    It’s the latter; they learned somewhere. They watched mom, grandma, aunt Betty or whoever, they spent some time reading about food or watching the Cooking Channel. Then, they experimented, based on what they had learned. They know, for example, that a little salt sweats onions better than no salt. They know a pinch of black pepper in a chocolate cake makes the flavor pop. In short, they did learn from a lot of sources. They appear to be geniuses at cooking.

    Your book, for me, was a shortcut to learning how to plan a story. It’s all there in your book. Saves time if one approaches it like a student and studies, does homework and practices. Eventually, I think, I can sit down with an idea and, because I have infused your lessons, I can “appear” to be a genius pantser.

    Finally, there is this: Stephen King is Stephen King. We’re not. However, somewhere along his journey he’s met someone like you. Just sayin’.

  12. While I believe it is possible to over-think it, that sometimes you need to just sit down and let it come out however it will, I also know that the story isn’t magically going to fix itself and you must learn about the craft and art of writing and storytelling the entire time you’re a writer. Scientists don’t go to school for four years and then know everything about science. Instead, they learn in the field rather than the classroom.

  13. Barbara Rae Robinson

    Hi, Larry. I’ve read Story Engineering and love the book. And I’ll be in Vancouver at the conference the end of the month. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the process. How long do we have to wait for Search for Story?


  14. Just saw a talk by Michael Crichton from 2005 (Smithsonian Associates). While it was about environment, he really emphasized complex systems.

    We can’t fully control a complex or chaotic system, those are the nature of the beasts. To a great extent, every story is a complex system; a small change in just one input might create a great change in the story itself. Perhaps something as small as a character name might have an effect.

    But, we as writers have to know at least the inputs to that complex system known as a story. We need the Six Core Competencies to know where to work and then need a whole ton of creativity to get everything in the proper balance we desire.

    The result is our best shot at the best story (this novel, at least). Yes, after that, the readers and “luck” determine whether or not it sells.

    Go write something great.

  15. I like the idea of your driver being the guy who wings it, but is too nervous to say it with you in the car. Then he blames an older guy. It’s always the older, been there/done that guy you’ve never heard of who rejects what might be helpful. And they’re usually not old enough or successful enough to either feel sorry for, or let their work stand alone.

    An open mic is a great example. You need a song to play and sing, not a kazoo and a heavy boot to stomp. That’s not music anymore than knowing the alphabet means you’re a writer. Good stuff, Larry.

  16. spinx


    Ohhhh-ohooooo—–you are a little devil, Larry.

    @ the one who suggested comicbooks as a tool of learning structure.

    You just got a high five from me!
    That´s what got me into screenwriting books, MARKS acting blog, and, finally, into writing itself.

    Peace out, people T

  17. People who have said, “All you need to know…” always ruffles my feathers because the learning DOES continue, no matter what craft or vocation you are engaged in. I do agree there are those who are genius and have a natural sense to do what needs to be done, of which Gabaldon is one (I’m reading her Outlander series), the elemental principal of struture is always there.

    BTW, Larry, I spent the last year reworking my writing process that includes learning more about the craft and using your book as a manual of sorts. I have finally experienced the fruits of that labor this week. For the first time since I’ve committed to the task of being a writer, I have completed my first story from beginning to the end without any stops or periods of prolonged procrastination. I think it was indeed my learning and comprehension of the story structure as well as whatever talent I may have.

    15 more to go.


  18. For many years I suffered with the not-me-malady; the belief that my work was exempt from the rules of storytelling. This belief worked like some kind of magnetic force and soon I was surrounded by those who held the same belief about their own writing. The occasional mentor stepped in, of course, and spoke of mysterious concepts like mid-points and back story. It all sounded businesslike and very non-artistic.

    Looking back on it, the super-writers who professed that they simply wrote and that was that had a big hand in this unproductive stage of my life. I still enjoy their work, especially S King, but when I think of the wasted pages and years I want to get even. Any of us who’ve succumbed to the virus should want the same. We should do so by knocking them off the bestseller list – agreed?

  19. I think the fact that writers improve the more they write is proof that what you’re saying is true.

  20. Larry~Another fine post. Several observations come to mind: 1. Recently I led a retreat that involved part generation of new material and part craft talk. One person kept asking the first two days what if she just wants to engage the process and not think about what she’s going to do with it. I encouraged her to do just that, first. Too much haggling over craft when drafting disrupts some writers’ intimate relation to the discovery process. And their writing becomes rote; their story lines, wooden. 2. This same person started the week saying she hated description. Couldn’t stand it. I bit my lip until the right craft talk. And you know what? She got it. She started to understand how description can be purposeful and intentional and engaging. 3. Then, as an ongoing theme of the week, I said to her and to the group (and to myself): Draft to discover. Craft to design. I think it essential we get messy. That we – as Robt Olen Butler and other dedicated writers suggest – find our means to get into our “trance,” that deeply felt space with story that doesn’t have to be framed in woo-woo mysticism. But it is equally essential to craft. And to craft to design. That crafting to design is for audience engagement and experience. It’s the pay-off for all of the hard behind-the-scenes work that makes exceptional stories seem effortlessly written (and it’s that false appearance that perpetuates so many misconceptions). 4. Finally, a client recently finished the first draft of his novel – actually in record time and with some direction in story-crafting. But he had a long, long way to go. At first, he blanched. Then, 24 hrs later he devised a plan and has executed it. “This is a lot of work,” he said. Indeed. But if he makes the work appear effortless there might be a pay-off. Thanks as always for your good work, Larry. Cheers.

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  22. No doubt a thought-provoking and and educational article, but I think the reason why the “beginning, middle and end”- faithful exist is because any method attributed to the ‘madness’ of creativity/writing takes the romance out of it.

    Of course, writers who look at writing overly romantically almost never succeed, and the famous ones we all love and want to emulate were almost all practical and protective of their time/routine/philosophies.

    The new generation of hyper-netwoking Ebook writers is probably the best example – the language or the story is often shite, but they spend hours and days committed to marketing and promoting and blogging and facebooking, and ultimately sell copies. Marketing is as much a part of “writing”, as writing!

    Of course, whether being published, or selling a million self-pubbed ebooks is indicative of the quality of your work is a different matter all together.

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