Everything can be broken down. Plant and animal. Fact and fallacy. Art and science.
Sliced, diced, eviscerated, deconstructed, analyzed, charted, graphed, melted, spectra-analyzed and debated. Sometimes this yields precision, other times a vague generality.
Either way, from this process of breakdown comes illumination. Visibility. Clarity of purpose, design and effectiveness.
And then… often only then… understanding.
Some resist the slicing and dicing of craft.
They believe it to be antithetical to the “art” of storytelling. IMO, that couldn’t be more wrong, or naïve.
Imagine building something without an understand of the physics involved. Imagine healing something without a keen awareness of the principles that make healing possible.
Telling a story isn’t like driving a car or flying an airplane. Telling a story is like designing and building a car or an airplane. You better know your way around the engineering phase. You better know your physics.
Because whether one looks or not, the underlying physics of things are always there, dictating parameters and outcomes.
No matter how loud one yells “this is art, dammit!”
The more you know about them, the better your pantsing ways might actually work (writing on instinct… instinct being a innate, even subconscious grasp of these principles), and the less critical a deep planning phase becomes.
It’s one of the purest cases of irony I’ve ever seen. One of the best examples of knowledge begetting art, too. You just can’t beat a learning curve.
Writing stories is never only craft and never only art.
The second you honor one above the other you are toast. It is always a dance with both, to the sound of music with these three harmonies.
In your creation of art, do you really believe you are inventing a new type of canvas, a new formula of paint, a new kind of brush that nobody has seen before… that you’re really rendering images that have never been visualized before? That you are really the Chosen One that is licensed to ignore all that is true and powerful about what makes art – in this case, a story – work?
No matter what the image, there’s always the same set of reasons residing under the paint that it does.
There are three levels of storytelling art and craft.
Recognition of these three dynamics opens the door to an understanding that will elevate your art while empowering your craft.
Think of your story as a building. That building has three fundamental levels, perhaps better thought of as “realms of dependent development” – it sits on a foundation, which, if not strong, will ultimately collapse or slide away… it is built in a certain way intended to comfortably and safely house inhabitants of some kind… and it has a unique presence or personality to it. Or not.
The terminology here is mine. The principles are universal and belong to all of us. Make no mistake, a story that works has all three of these going for it. Whether the writer knows it or not.
Professional writers – no matter what they say about their process – do know.
Level One: The Underlying Physics.
Stories have gravity. Literary law that is very much like physical law. Non-negotiable. The management and leverage of gravity resides at the core of everything we build – our constructions must bear weight and withstand pressures.
There are a handful of basic storytelling physics available to us. We get to choose whether we manage and leverage them, or not. The latter (“or not”) usually results in rejection, because nobody is going to publish (or buy) a story without…
… dramatic tension… character empathy and arc … a vicarious experience (including a specific arena; this is also known as setting)… emotional resonance… an effective delivery mechanism (the voice of the story).
None of these directly dictate the nature and flow of your story. These are the qualities of your story. The factors that give your story power and originality.
When you plan your story – whether ahead of time, or via a series of drafts – your goal should be to jack these through the roof.
Level Two: The Ways and Means of Execution
Of course, those story qualities are basic and obvious. And yet, they too often get shoved aside in the focus on execution – you get too focused on plot or character, or you begin to preach a theme – and to an extent that they get short-changed.
To create a tight union between the underlying physics and the process of story development, there exists a set of tools that channel the energy of the former into the design wrought by the latter.
I call these the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling. In essence they are an organized, criteria-based menu of ways of making sure you have adequate power and balance among the underlying physics… that your story is designed in such a way that these parts coalesce in to whole that exceeds the sum of their parts.
They are: concept…. Character… theme… structure (the sequence of the story)… scene execution… writing voice.
Virtually every aspect of the process falls into one of these six buckets. None are optional.
Level Three: The Sensibility of Optimization
One of the scariest parts of professional aspiration can be explained from two contexts.
First, you already recognize how complex and necessary those first two levels are. They may not be new to you, but they are always challenging, even to the best of us. You understand that knowing does not equate to doing.
But here’s the scary part, the other context… they’re just the ante-in. The baseline level of proficiency that gets you into the chase.
To emerge from the pack of otherwise solid submissions you need to wield those tools, based on those underlying story physics, with power and nuance and the sensilibility of an artist.
Yes, the word art finally applies. Right here. Prior to this level, it’s all craft.
Some call this phase talent. Others, experience. Some… an ear, a sense, a knack.
Call it what you will… you’ll need to cultivate it to raise your story from a bedrock of dramatic theory supporting a masterpiece of architecture, into the realm of publishability.
Doable. Especially when you see this three-lane road ahead of you.
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Are you new to the Six Core Competencies? Use the search box to find posts on any and all of them – concept, character, theme, structure, scene writing and writing voice… or you can find them all in my bestselling writing book, “Story Engineering.”
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