The Most Important Storytelling Challenge of Them All

Sometimes the blank page mocks me.  I face it many times each week in the creation of these posts, and each time I ask myself, what can I say that might make a difference? 

How can I help my readers reach their writing goals today?

Sometimes it feels like this daily calling sends me, and this site, bounding off down a circular path.  Revisiting the past, retreading previously covered ground.

If I hadn’t been an athlete all my life, this might be the source of anxiety.  Okay, it still is, but I draw upon my sweaty past to reconcile the fear that readers will feel like they’ve been here before.

Those who protest this cycle – show me something new, damnit! – are the poster children for the reason we need to revisit the basics.  Over and over and over again. 

Because those who do not value the fundamental principles of storytelling, and who are assumptive about their command of them, do not publish.  Ever.

Are you in command of them?  Really?  Don’t nod too quickly.

Because the most obvious one of all is the one that will bring you down quickest.

Writing a story is no more or less complex than mastering a sport. 

If you’ve ever tried to do that, you know what I mean.  The subtleties and nuances of the game make or break you.  At least if you are aiming for a professional level of performance.

And if your goal is to publish, that’s precisely the level you need to reach.

In sports, though, retreading the hallowed ground of fundamentals isn’t bad, it’s an expectation.  It’s called spring training in baseball, training camp in football and basketball, and while it doesn’t have a name elsewhere, pre-season training is a fundamental part of the process in any sport.

It’s called practice.  And inherent to it is an understanding of the game itself.

In writing, more writers who claim to be actively pursuing professional status don’t understand this game at the most fundamental of levels, than those who do.

Never has a coach opened pre-season practice by saying, okay folks, today we’re going to show you a brand new way to swing a bat.  And yet, during spring training each player takes hundreds, even thousands of swings under the watchful eye of a mentor who knows.

Because if you get it wrong you will fail. 

And if you don’t practice it – in the case of writers, if you don’t understand it – you will eventually get it wrong.

Whether we’re professional writers or relief pitchers, we rely on – and should return to – the fundamentals on a regular basis.  We study them, we exercise them, we commit them to muscle memory. 

Because we know we cannot succeed without a mastery of them.

Here’s the wisdom, though.  When we say success depends on subtlety and nuance, this assumes that the fundamentals are solidly in place.

And that isn’t always the case.  Writing conferences offering programs full of subtlety and nuance are full of such case studies.

Subtlety and nuance without an underlying base of fundamental understanding and mastery is nothing short of a nice try.

Most rejected stories are nice tries

They bear a resemblance to the texture and nuance of a professionally told story, but something is missing.  Something is wrong.  Something isn’t good enough.

And sometimes – too often, in fact – everything is perfectly executed at a professional level, complete with nuance and subtlety… and the story still doesn’t sell.

There’s a reason for that.

The reason goes back to the most basic fundamental principle of all. 

It resides at the very genesis of the decision to write a story. 

The destiny of a story is cast in that moment, before a single word has been written, before a single neuron has been employed to bring it to life.

The single most critical, sensitive and all-powerful moment in the story development process is when the nature and power of the idea announces itself.  The story’s heart and soul, it’s concept.  It’s reason for being.  Compromise here, and your story will punish you for it.

If that idea is weak, no degree of artful execution on the planet can make it compelling.

Is your story idea worth of the year of your life you will sacrifice to it?  Why will anyone care about this?  What are your standards for answering that question?

More than any other, this issue divides the published from the unpublished.

For every 1000 manuscripts submitted, perhaps only 100 are actually competently told to the point of being publishable.  In other words, these writers have delivered on the six core competencies of storytelling required to reach that level.

Why, then, will only 10 of those 100 get a publishing contract? 

Because those 10 winners have a more compelling story idea than the other 90, which in some cases may actually deliver equal or even superior execution.

A great trap awaits at the very gateway to the process of writing a story. 

And that is the fact – the phenomenon, really – that the allure of storytelling itself, the very notion of actually finishing a manuscript, makes the writer blind to the prerequisite power of the idea itself. 

The writer is so enthralled with the notion of writing a story, so attracted to the mechanics of it and so seduced by the vision of seeing it on a bookstore shelf, that they adopt an idea that is less than it must be to succeed.

It’s like falling in love with someone else because they are beautiful.  That attraction is addictive and wildly exciting.    

But you don’t know until you live with the person if the relationship is going to last.  That initial attraction is never enough to stand up  over time.  More is required of the lasting relationship that sexual chemistry.

It’s like a group of athletes trying out for one last spot on a roster.  All of them have an equal grasp of the game and the same basic skill set.  Who gets that uniform?  That one that, at her or his core, is the better athlete.  Even if their skills aren’t as good as some of the folks who will go home empty handed.

So it is with our stories. 

Are you in love with your story idea, or are you in love with the notion of writing it? 

 Just give me an idea and I’ll make it work… is the epitaph of deceased writing dreams.

One of the biggest breakthroughs you can have is a writer is the realization that you can’t make any idea work.  Even if you execute the hell out of it.

You can’t breath live into the dead.  The six core competencies model isn’t a formula to bring life to the dead.  Indeed, a compelling story concept is one of those six core competencies.

You can’t turn a cow dropping into a silk purse, even if you have the most expensive and beautiful sewing machine on the planet.

Because there is no market for purses made from cow droppings.  No matter how well crafted and aroma-free.

Is your story idea a cow dropping or a sheath of beautiful silk?

You can’t save an inherently dull or inconsequential idea, even if you slather it with character and stakes and poetic prose.

This decision-point – is my story idea good enough? – is where art resides, every bit as much as it does in your words.  Some people can smell a great story idea, some can’t.  Personal taste and aesthetic preference is something that can be neither taught nor channeled.

The former get published, the latter usually don’t.

Think of your story idea as a life force

… that spark of energy that causes the human heart to beat.  All our medicine and technology cannot bring life to the still-borne, nor can we save a patient whose body wants to release its life force to the universe.

We can only put it on life-support, a functioning body with no soul.  And it will never open its eyes.

You can and should play God with your story.  Indeed, if you don’t who will?  And within that analogy, you need to do what God does – she/he, however you define God, infuses the body with life

So it is with our stories.

Wrap your head around that principle, then get honest with yourself about the stories you’ve chosen to write.   When you create a balance between the life force and the nutritional regimen of your story, you’re on your way to success.

If the idea, at its heart, isn’t as good as your ability to write it, then don’t sell yourself or your writing dream short. 

Place the bar high.  It’s the only way to give your story the wings it needs to really fly.


Filed under getting published, Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to The Most Important Storytelling Challenge of Them All

  1. Dave Hebert

    Convicting post, and I agree with you.

    Now, how do you put an idea to the test?

    It’s tough to walk out of the woods of an idea so you can take the whole thing in and decide whether or not it’s got life.

    Writers can, of course, share ideas with other people who they know will shoot them straight (a sometimes-excruciating-but-necessary process).

    Other thoughts? Thank you for putting these posts together.

  2. 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.

  3. Nice to meet you, Bruce. Finally, someone who leaves comments as long as mine! Couldn’t agree with you more. Great post, Larry; crucial concept. I’ve been away for a while, and it was good to come back and find that you’re still so passionate about your core concepts that you haven’t run out of the inspiration or passion to get them out there in as many ways as possible.

    When I write, if my piece doesn’t move me, I know there’s little chance of it moving anyone else. If a piece arrives out of nowhere and has me in tears at the keyboard, I know there’s a chance it’ll affect others the same way. I’ve become greedy for that feeling over the years, and choosy about what I share. I first experienced it when I was a singer and knew immediately if an audience was moved, touched or captivated.

    I don’t want to write mediocre prose but I know in my heart that I haven’t got ideas powerful enough to power a whole story or form the canvas that holds the embroidery together. One thing this site has done for me is to save me from wasting months of my life trying to fabricate stories that aren’t compelling. But luckily, like the musicians mentioned above, I love the practising.

  4. So powerful. I love this post. I may need to memorize it.

  5. This post is the first you’ve written that hit the exact spot of most of my self doubt when it comes to writing. i love the idea that spawned the novel, but is the idea good enough to be published?

    This is the one competency that can utterly cripple all the others, and as a new writer i have no way of judging if the concept i’m writing about is strong enough to work. Most of the time i struggle with explaining a concept or theme from the manuscript i have because the story i started will take another volume to complete. While working through the questions on Larry’s ‘Single most important page’, the concept and theme questions have completely stonewalled me. Think i need to study these topics a bit more before continuing on my revision.

    Great post, as always. Time to dig into a little research and then focus on revising my rough draft. Thanks for the direction!

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

  7. @@Dave – other thoughts, indeed. This has turned out to be an interesting discussion. My latest post continues it, and I will write more about this over the next few days, as it has my head spinning. Thanks for contributing, much appreciated. L.

  8. JW Newcum

    I am fortunate in that I don’t seem to have a problem coming up with ideas, but I have only recently found a tip gleaned from reading “Save The Cat” on how to determine if an idea is worth developing. In that first glimmer in my mind I know what the story is about, but I need to convey the ‘what’s it about’ to others. I have found that if I can produce a coherent 35-40 word ‘logline’ (or ‘one-line’ or ‘premise’ or ‘concept’ – take your pick) that succinctly says what the story is about, and I get good feedback (“I like it!”) from strangers, I have something to work with. Most often I can’t come up with a decent one, and in trying to I uncover what’s wrong with the ‘idea’. Larry, can you expound on this sometime, and better than I’m doing?

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

  10. Chris

    I get so lost while writing that I really feel like I’m in my story. I’m not sure if this means I’m crazy, or if it means I’m on the right track. When you write, do you feel like this?

  11. @Chris — same thing here. Feels like the story is my real world, and it’s easy to get lost there. I think this is precisely what leads some pantsers into a dark corner, and it’s why I rely on an outline (in the form of a beat sheet) to keep me heading in the right direction. When I feel the pull of a new idea while I’m lost in my story, I can weight it (and its consequences) against what I’d already given my confidence too, to make sure it’s not sirens (lurking in rocks) that I hear.

    Thanks for commenting. L.

  12. Chris

    Thanks for the reply, Larry. I think the “beat sheet” idea may just help me finish my story. I’m looking forward to your future post.