The Seductive But Deadly Sin That Wants to Kill Your Story

See if you can diagnose the writer’s problem in the following fictional – but all too common – exchange.

I have it all too frequently as I coach writers on their stories.  At conferences.  In emails.  As part of my new story coaching program.  It goes like this:

“What’s your story about?” I ask.

“It’s about a woman who needs to find her place in the world.”

“I see,” I say.  “A coming of age story.  Excellent.  So what’s the concept?”

“A woman goes into the world in search of herself.  To find her way.”

“You realize I asked for your concept, but you gave me thematic sub-text.”

A blank stare ensues.

“So…” I press forward into this abyss, “tell me what your protagonist wants in your story, and what she does to get it.  What she is up against.  Her problem.  A goal to strive for.  What she must do or accomplish, what is at stake, and what opposes her in that quest.”

A moment of quiet pondering usually inserts itself here.

“Well,” says the writer, “she needs to find her way in the world.  That’s her problem.  She’s lost her way.  Actually, she’s never found her way.  What opposes her is herself, her lack of confidence.  My story is about that.  That’s my concept.”

Now it is me who is pondering.  Pondering a way to turn this ship around.

“Okay,” I say, “let’s try this. What’s the conflict in your story?”

“She doesn’t know who she is, who she needs to be.  The story is about her finding out.  She can’t… that’s the conflict.”

“Maybe she could,” I suggest, “if you put her into a situation in which she has to.  In order to survive.  Or simply thrive.  To find love.  To change.  To gain something.”

“Oh… you mean, like.. a plot?  This is a character-driven story.”

“Fine,” I say,” but what does she DO in the story?  And what DRIVES her to do it?”

“What does she do?  She tries to find herself.  She lives her life and learns her lessons.”

 Stares are once again traded.  One blank, the other patient.  For now.

“How?” I finally ask.

“Well,” I often hear at this point, “she has these experiences and adventures, and eventually, because nothing is going well for her, she finally discovers who she is.”

“Who or what is the antagonist?” I ask.  “You know, the bad guy.”

“Oh that?  There is no bad guy.  It’s just her.  Her lack of self-confidence.  She has no dream, no direction.  Like millions of people out there.”

I want to say she has no plot, either, but I press on.  “How far into it are you?”

“I’ve finished a first pass at it.”

“Great.  How does it end?  Does she find herself?”

“Yes she does. That’s how it ends.”

How does she find herself?” I ask, trying to sound as redundant as possible.

A slightly confused expression almost always manifests before I hear, “She just realizes she’s had enough of her old self, and decides to be different.  She wakes up one day and it’s suddenly clear.”

“That’s how it ends?”  Ah, the old wake up and smell the coffee ending.

“Yes.  She had to find herself, and she finally does.  Life happens, we live and learn.”

“But you can’t tell me how.  Process wise.  What on-going, connected, dramatic path led her to it.”

“Life doesn’t work that way,” I am told.  “One day we just realize who we are, we live and we learn, and then it happens.  My story about that.”

“With no bad guy.  No problem to solve.  No drama.  No stakes.  Just her and her inner demons.  Walking through life together.  Another day, another thing.  The story of her life.”

“Yes.  The story of her life.  What’s your point here, Mr. Storyfixer dude?”

I get this a lot. 

With thrillers or dramas, this isn’t usually the problem.  They are about dramatic tension… which is a good thing.  If anything, those stories are challenged by heroes without an inner landscape, but that’s another post. 

But with “softer” stories, so-called character-driven stories, especially inspired-by-the-author’s-life-experience stories, the focus on character arc can be fatal, if it consumes the writer’s focus to the point they forget to give us a reasonable, compelling plot

One plot.  A strong, single dramatic arc that leads the protagonist through the discovery and growth process by having them square off with external conflict and tension.

It’s a death sentence when that doesn’t happen.

Because the story won’t work.  Or at least it won’t work well enough.  It doesn’t stand a chance.  Here’s why.

There is no EXTERNAL CONFLICT in play. 

And there needs to be.  Always.  External conflict provides dramatic tension, which is one of the most power essences of story physics available to us.

Even love stories, including romances, have external conflict-driven storylines in play. 

But in these problematic “personal growth” stories, what little dramatic tension there is takes place sporadically, episodically – just snippets and moments from real life, showcasing the hero’s flawed inner self – without ever developing into an actual story at all.  Without a connected arc. These episodes unfold much like a series of short stories, each isolated from the others, each about how she feels rather than what she does. 

There is no external conflict.  There is nothing for the hero to do.

Allow me to repeat myself.  This is something you should staple to your forehead, written backwards, so you see it every time you look in a mirror.

An effective story isn’t about something.  It is about something happening.

It’s great to write a story in which your hero needs to find herself.  Or come of age.  But there’s a way to do it right, and there’s a way that will get you rejected almost every time.

The way you do it right is to give your hero a problem, and/or a goal. 

Give her (or him) something or someone standing in the way of what she needs and/or wants.   Give her obstacles to conquer on that path.  Give her something to DO in facing those obstackes. Make sure there are consequences hanging in the balance (stakes).  And have her DISCOVER WHO SHE IS – allow her to summon her inner hero self – along the way to becoming the primary factor in the conquering of those obstacles and the resolution of her problem, need or goal.

It boils down to this: her old, insecure, directionless self couldn’t solve the problem.  So she is forced to grow, to change, in order to succeed in resolving the problem or reaching the goal.

That’s how she’ll find out who she is.  Not through real life, not through a bunch of episodes and short stories masquerading as a novel or screenplay.  Give your story a spine, a drama.  Make it an EXTERNAL spine or drama.

You’ll find almost no exceptions… at least on bookshelves and on movie screens. 

Chances are you have been enchanted by stories of personal discovery. 

The hero comes of age.  That’s the thing that moved you.  Perhaps moved you so much, in fact, that you failed to notice that these protagonists were given SOMETHING TO DO in the story, a task, a problem, a goal, that put them in growth’s way.  A quest that forces the hero to face herself and make changes, to do something differently.

Success in storytelling can be summed up in two words: EXTERNAL CONFLICT. 

Designed to test and prod and lead and tempt and pull and seduce and affirm your hero… the one with the self-image and personal vision problems.  The external drama becomes the catalyst, the STAGE upon which the inner demons of your hero are slain, upon which the hero redeems and discovers and validates herself.

I see so many story plans, in the form of summaries and synopses and outlines, in which this critical – this NECESSARY – element is completely missing, or under-valued.

Don’t let it be you.  If you find yourself describing your story strictly in terms of your hero’s inner journey, make sure you have a killer external drama to thrust upon them.

Redemption may be organic in real life, the sum of experiences seasoned over time… but it usually makes for one boring read.  We (readers) don’t want reality, we want a provocative ride that we can translate into our reality, on our terms.  Without external dramatic tension in play, we’re pretty much left with a fictional diary… and unless your name is Anne Frank, diaries don’t get published.

Then again, poor Anne had quite an external drama to live through… just sayin’.

A great story isn’t “about” a theme.  Theme is the result of a successful story  Theme is sub-text. No, a great story is about something HAPPENING.  Theme emerges from a dramatic landscape… it rarely IS the dramatic landscape.

See my earlier post, “When Your Passion Kills Your Plot,” for more on this deadly little story development trap.

Want to see if your story cuts the mustard?  Check out my new “Amazing $100 Story Coaching and Empowerment Adventure,” (click HERE, or see the sidebar)… just possibly the most exciting and affordable story development opportunity… ever. 

The Big Bad Questionnaire I’ll send you is, alone, worth twice the money… but you get so much more in the form of actual feedback you can trust and apply immediately, no matter where you are in the process. 


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

24 Responses to The Seductive But Deadly Sin That Wants to Kill Your Story

  1. Oh boy. I rarely get more frustrated with other writers than when they stick out their chest and flare their nostrils and proudly proclaim their fiction is “mirroring reality” — and then they slap a lump of spine-less meat on the table and ask it to dance.

    Along with the type of story you mentioned also comes the substance-less story arc ridden by the “average Joe” type of character. It’s supposed to be a character driven story with a protagonist that could be “anyone”, one that makes all readers cry with sympathy, but the character is so shallow and melodramatic that no amount of outrageous, contrived plot can justify his exaggerated internalizations or the path of his character arc.

    Unfortunately too many inexperienced writers think themselves portrayers of “real life” without an ounce of understanding how the human learning process even happens (that we only change when forced to, and only beat the odds when our life or sense of self is severely in danger) or how the human mind best internalizes information (through cohesive and increasingly compelling demonstrations, aka dramatic plot). Argh.

    Anyway, I love reading your posts! Thank you for stating the ultimate principle of fiction again with so much clarity, Larry.

    “An effective story isn’t about something. It is about something happening.”

  2. Yes, well stated! Something happening!

    Two words, but they clearly state my dilemma every time I approached the memoir I was writing – and need to return to… There not only had to be something happening in each vignette but what was happening had to promote some change or growth toward the goal, even if only in perspective.

    Did you know that “something happening” can also be an addictive drug that immobilizes us from taking action? When there is always something happening, we don’t have to assess our internal issues. Which is the other side of the coin – too much external conflict and plot – not enough character growth. Lots of explosions. No one cares.

    I once told a writer friend that her concept of the end of all life as we know it wasn’t compelling enough for me. Of course, she now has a successful demon/romance series on bookshelves and I’m just giving her grief about her marketing strategies.

    Something happening. Personal stakes. Character growth. Inspired choices. External plot. Hmmm…. That a lot of two word slogans that matter in a novel. How do so many writers miss the message?

    See… I’ve got this novel that needs to be “fixed” as it’s been considered as “almost” but I’m expecting the phone call that will send us out-of-state for a funeral, and my daughter almost lost her mortgage application because a collections judgement hadn’t been reported as settled, and the old barn cat on our property is probably close to expiring… But the little old man across the street is really proud to feed her while we are gone…

    I wish I was kidding.

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  4. Great post, Larry. A writer comes to you for advice then tells you why they don’t really need it. Priceless. They wouldn’t do that with lessons from a golf pro even though both use the same club and ball.

    I hear the inner voices during the stare-down:

    Writer: “What doesn’t he understand about my story?”

    You: “Where is the story?”

    Writer: “I see a re-make of My Dinner With Andre.”

    You: “Seinfeld can do a series about nothing and not get canceled, and he’s it.”

    Writer: “Why does this feel like the session with my therapist where he thought I was the one with the problem?”

    You: “This story is the tip of their problem iceberg.”

    Writer: “Why is Larry giving me the chilly look?”

    You: “The lights are on. Is anyone home? Helloooo.”

    Thanks, Larry

  5. You’re right. A story both needs external and internal conflict.

    For example, in a love story, there can be a lot between lovers. Friends, families, jobs, debts and commitments, and even society and natural disasters. Also, it seems unlikely that a person would just wake up one day suddenly different unless an outside force is in play.

  6. Michael

    Well said, Larry. This is highly representative of the sort of thing I often see in amateur critique groups (I was the monitor of one for three years). Often, this kind of stuff is rationalized as being a “vignette” or “slice of life story” that, I suppose, was popular decades ago. It can also be a by-product of folks who actually listened to their well-meaning high-school and college English Lit. teachers.

    Unfortunately, a good many inexperienced writers don’t understand the simple story dynamic that the main character’s internal flaw is what puts him in the way of the story to begin with, or that real change (the character arc) only comes about through overcoming the pain brought about by suffering and loss (conflict and setbacks). Nor do they understand that there is no true gain without loss. We (writers) are trying to remind people that the gain can be worth the pain and “life is not a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing,” as the 17th Earl of Oxford put it.

    Inexperienced writers often forget, or haven’t yet learned that fiction isn’t supposed to be real, it’s supposed to be realistic. It’s a lie told to reveal the truth so it has to be about something, and like practiced slight-of-hand, it mimics reality in a way that encourages the audience to allow magic to happen.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Fabulous post!

    Real life, we already got. We go to story for something more.

  8. By the way, I linked this from a writer’s forum. While they agree with you, a couple said they found your tone to be quite condescending.

  9. Very good post. When I took a creative writing class at college, a few of the students pulled this too. Their stories would revolve around characters who did little else than sit in coffee shops and remarkably reflect on every single decision they had ever made in their life up to that point. Ever. Then they’d get up and leave, deciding that they’re not going to be the same-old-same-old person anymore.

    It was frustrating to read those because they never went anywhere and they were too unrealistic, and this is coming from someone who only wrote science-fiction in the class. One cup of coffee will not solve all of your problems, and neither will half an hour of internal dialogue.

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  11. I *think* I get all of these things with relation to my story but it’s hard for me to put it all into words. Boiling the story down is a toughie for me.

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  13. I hear this one all the time from new writers, and I fell victim to it once or twice in my early days, too. Defining the conflict is absolutely necessary, and one good piece of advice I hear given a lot is to figure out your beginning and your end (especially your end), and then outline the middle. This works pretty effectively for me.

    Ditto on the point about characters being forced to change, referenced here in the various comments. I touched on this a while back on my blog — throughout history, generally change agents were only created as a result of involuntary external circumstances, for example Tecumseh’s experiences growing up during the westward expansion of the United States.

    “Real life, we already got. We go to story for something more.”

    Love your quote here, Autumn.

  14. @Jonathan — amen, brother. Thanks for getting it, spreading the word on your site. and for contributing here. Much appreciated. L.

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  16. Okay, here’s my Sunday morning AMEN! Great post, Larry, and some really good feedback and comments from your insightful readers.

  17. Thanks for another great post.

    Love this sentence:

    An effective story isn’t about something. It is about something happening.

    That’s so well said.

    Blessings, Renee-Ann

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  19. Michael

    Good post and good comments. I see this kind of writing often in amateur critique groups. New writers often fail to understand the difference between a story and a tale, which is what is described above. A tale is a series of events, told as a narrative of an event. It usually (but not always) conveys some moral. The difference between that and a story is, as you said, action. But more, it’s the characters’ decisions based on each others’ actions within the context of the plot (their interaction). What makes a story deeper and richer is that, by its nature, a story is a logical solution of an arguement (the inciting incident) which upsets the characters’ world in some way.

    For a story to be complete, it must explore four areas of change the character(s) take in order to solve the problem. These four area are: Learning, Obtaining, Doing , and Understanding (not necessarily in that order), and are the underlying reason for four acts in complete stories. Without the whole story, as it were, the piece feels unfinished or contrived.

    Tales lack this underlying psychological structure, and so are incomplete (and often unsatisfying) stories.

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  21. Anya

    I have to confess I am one of those people that wants to write a character driven story, while having problems with making things happen.
    I have been using your advice on story structure and its helped me a lot. But here’s my problem. I’m writing character driven drama. I have lots of things happening to my heroine and also because of her. But its the inner conflict the antagonistic force that makes her not achieve her goal. I hope my readers will still be able to cheer for her as she has fought off her inner demons, but goal achievement through actions, there is not. So is this a bad story?

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  23. amber

    I think I’m going to sell my furniture, get rid of my 300 cable channels (there’s nothing on anyway) and eat top ramen so you can coach me!!! You should have a contest and the winner (me) will get free coaching. I wish we were related! Do your relatives get free coaching? I’m so excited I found this site your advice is priceless! I have a husband and three children so I will have to get creative to pay for coaching.Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  24. In a lot of ways, I am recognizing some of my old writing. I never had people finding themselves. They were busy with lots of little adventures, but the adventures weren’t actually going anywhere. They had no point except filler so I could figure out what the book was about or where it would end.

    I don’t know if I have a good book yet, but I know it is a far better book than the 9 that came before. I know how it ends, I have the main highlights of the story (thank-you for your story physics), and I am now writing out a summary of the book. If nothing else, my character’s little adventures are all part of the larger goal of the book. I even came up with a good villain.

    In summary, you are right. Conflict is important, and so is planning. I hope to begin writing the actual book in another week or two. It has been hard to wait for this point, but I’m there!