The Trifecta of Storytelling Power

Beyond Craft… Embracing Greatness 

Oh what a tangled, slippery-sloped, viper-infested, self-sabotaging path we fiction writers tread.

What seems so simple — because we read excellent stories all the time, and they really do seem, well, if not simple, then at least clear and clean, and therefore not beyond our means —  turns out to be anything but.

The blank page both calls to us and mocks us.  And so we fill it up with what we have to offer, arising from the pool of what we know, fueled by dreams we dare not utter aloud… sometimes soured by what, either in ignorance or arrogance or simple haste, we’ve chosen to ignore.

Because, in spite of all the books and workshops and websites and analogy-loving writing gurus out there, we cling to the limiting belief that there are no “rules.”  The mere mention of that word causes you to rebel, even conclude that principles and standards are really “rules” with polite sensibilities, and from there we decide that we can write our stories any way we please.

Because this is art, damn it.

Often we don’t find that out that what we have to offer isn’t good enough until the rejection letter arrives.  Or the critique group pounces like Simon Cowell on a bad day.  Or when a story coach doesn’t tell you what you want to hear.

As one of the latter, my job involves telling writers — frequently — that their story is coming up short, and why.  That the wheels fell off, very often at the starting gate.  It’s the “why” part that allows me to sleep at night, because I’ve been on my share of the sharp pokes this business delivers.  But like a doctor giving a screaming kid a vaccination shot, I take solace in the hope that once the sting subsides the writer will see the pit into which they are about to tumble.

And you can’t write your way out of the pit.  No, the pit requires avoidance rather than rescue.

The Trouble with Craft

Craft — the mechanics and architecture and sweat of putting a story together — is complex, if nothing else than for its sheer immensity.  It’s anything but simple.  Even in those stories that inspire us, bestsellers and favorite authors and even the classics, we’re witnessing the symmetry and fluid power of simplicity on the other side — beyond — complexity.

In my work I’ve sought to put fences around it all, create labels and levels and subsets of supersets and connect those dots in ways that facilitate navigation on that  aforementioned path.  (My friend Randy Ingermanson is nodding now, as he’s doing the same thing, and very effectively, with his Snowflake story development model.) Six core competencies, six realms of story physics, and about five dozen subordinated corners of the craft aligned under those twelve flags.

Trouble is — just like in love and careers and gambling — you can get them all technically right… and your story can still fall flat.  And that’s the thing — the holy grail of “things” we need to understand — that separates craft from art.  Unpublished from published.  Frustrating from rewarding.

So without minimizing any of the myriad corners and nuances of craft — indeed, they remain eternal, consistent and the non-negotiable ante-in — allow me to simplify.  To break it down into three buckets, three qualities, three goals, that any successful story will embody to some extent.

Three things about your story… things that readers will, upon finishing your story, notice.

Three essences to shoot for.  Three qualities to evaluate about your story plan, and then your story execution.  Three things to grade yourself on.

If at least one of those grades isn’t an “A,” then you’re not done.

The Fiction Trifecta

One of the reasons I ask my clients to pitch me their concept and their First Plot Point is that, almost without exception, I can assess two things from the answer: the writer’s understanding of these three critical elements, and the potential for the story to deliver them, in whatever combination, with sufficient power and artfulness.

Here they are.  No surprises here.  But be honest, have you really evaluated your story on these things, regarded alone as criteria?  Have you asked yourself what your strategy will be to optimize one or more of these things?  Now you can.

In no particular order, because each stands alone as a potential windfall:

Intrigue – A story is often a proposition, a puzzle, a problem and a paradox.  When you (the reader) find yourself hooked because you just have to know what happens… or whodunnit… or what the underlying answers are…  then you’ve intrigued your reader.  It may or may not have an emotional component to it — mysteries, for example, are usually more intellectual than emotional, they’re intriguing because the clues will always lead somewhere, and we want to know where, even see if we can get their first.

Mysteries, as a genre, are almost entirely dependent upon reader intrigue.  Not necessary “dramatic intrigue” within the story itself, but rather, the degree to which a reader is “intrigued” with the questions the story is asking.

But this kind of intrigue isn’t limited to mysteries.  Sometimes the intrigue is delivered by the writing itself.  A story without all that must depth or challenge can be a lot of fun, simply because the writer is funny.  Or scary.  Or poetic.  Or brilliant on some level that lends the otherwise mundane a certain relevance and resonance.  Make no mistake, this, at is core, is a form of intrigue.

Emotional Resonance – When a story moves you, which so many great stories do, it’s because we feel it.  It makes us cry.  Laugh.  It makes us angry.  It frightens.  It’s nostalgic.  Important.

Les Miserables isn’t the classic it is — book, stage and now screen — because we must find out “what happens.  No, it works because it makes use cry.  John Irving’s Cider House Rules is a modern classic because it pushes buttons, makes us choose, forces us to behold the consequences of our choices.

Same with The Davinci Code, another modest success.  Every love story, every story about injustice and pain and children and reuniting with families and forgiveness — name your theme — is dipping into the well of emotional resonance for its power.

Vicarious Experience – reader, meet Harry Potter.  Go with him on an adventure to a place you’ll never experience otherwise.  Or Hans Solo.  Or James Bond.  Or Sherlock Holmes or Merlin or some alien with an agenda.  The juice of these stories isn’t the dramatic question or the plucking of your heart strings as much as the ride itself. The places you’ll go, the things you’ll see, the characters you’ll encounter, the things you’ll see and do.

Of course, emotional experience can be a ride, as well — a story about falling in love, or getting fired, or winning the lottery — and when that happens you’ve been given an E-ticket on the Slice of Life attraction.  These stories strike two of these Trifecta chords by making us feel the experience of falling in love, or feeling loss or simply walking a mile in shoes that seem compellingly familiar.

The common factor here is this: something compelling about the story.

Either intellectually, emotionally, or on some other level (usually the result of a combination of these three gold standards).  An allure that resides beyond the tricky or original or otherwise “interesting” nature of its concept.

Your concept, however tricky or original or interesting, isn’t compelling until it lands on one or more of those three powerful forces: intrigue… emotional resonance… vicarious experience.  A story about aging backwards, about going to another planet, about a secret code… about something conceptual… isn’t enough.

Until you juice it with some combination of the Trifecta elements.  Until that happens, that’s all it is: a concept.  And in this business, concepts are commodities.

Which is why a “compelling premise” is only one of the six realms of story physics.

It functions as the stage, the landscape, upon which these truly powerful essences can emerge to transform a story into magic.

Or better stated… into art.

When these three essences become the goal, the criteria of your concept and your craft, then you have a real shot.  Because now you’re risen above a bevy of concepts — rehashed, reheated and retreaded — crowding the inboxes of agents and publishers out there.

They’re not looking for the next great “idea.”  Or even the next great voice.

They’re looking for the next great story.  And intrinsic to that definition you’ll find The Trifecta… three compelling story essences that are waiting to make your story work.

And when it does, it really is art, after all.


About this post…

It’s been a while.  So long, in fact, that when I went into WordPress to post this I actually had to look up my password.

I’ve agonized over this one.  Wanting to launch the new year with something big, something important.  It didn’t come to me until today, when one of the stories I’m coaching sent me, in a bit of a flurry, to this topic.

I just want to share… that after an intense few months of story coaching, of year-ending nit-picky stuff, it was good to get away from my desk (I was the guy in the corner at McDonalds with a mocha and an iPad for three hours) and focus… to be a writer again.  To wrestle with thoughts and words.  To engage with the subject matter, and you, in a way that forwards the conversation and contributes toward our mutual momentum.

That’s what writing is.  Engaging.  With others.  With issues and dreams.  With ourselves, in so many ways.  And with life itself.

It was a good day, and I hope you like the post.  Chances are there’s a typo in there somewhere — those buggers haunt me, and I’m usually too impatient to wait on a proofreader — but it is what it is.  Sooner or later we all have to hit the SEND button.

My best shot, for now.  Write on.






Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

23 Responses to The Trifecta of Storytelling Power

  1. Ken Brand

    Thanks. This is appreciated.

  2. Good stuff as always, Larry. It’s nice to see those three spelled out. Because we do wonder. We check all the boxes, sometimes, and still feel something missing. This gives a good start to filling that hole.

  3. Gayle Messick

    Thanks for posting. All good. I have to add something that light a lightbulb in my darkest corners of my mind – the 4 parts and how the hero acts differently in each part. Wow! It seems so simple but I could not see it until I read your book. I always write 3 disasters and an ending (which lines up with your Plot Points and Mid Point, but until your book I did not distinguish the Hero’s actual change for each box. So helpful in creating the scenes.

    Just one wish – please expand on sequencing. I follow Swain-Bickham-Ingermanson scenes and sequels approach but how does sequencing fit?


  4. bill

    Interesting and captivating as always… just want to wish you a happy new year and happy writing! 🙂

  5. Thank you, Larry. Three good, strong points to carry us into the new year.

    Hope it’s a prosperous one for all of us, and I hope to see some books published by your readers!

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  7. Karen

    Thanks, Larry. I’ve been taking a break from writing for the last couple of months. Lots of changes here are channeling my creative energy in another direction. Your posts are a lifeline.

  8. You knocked this one out of the park. Those three things are exactly what I want out of a story. Now to figure out how to put them into my story…

  9. Good to be back here reading your words. Still battling the flue and a hard 2012, but I always feel better after reading your words.
    Write on indeed.

  10. Martha

    Another great one from my favorite storytelling guru. Thanks, Larry, and if I may say so, agonize no more. You hit a home run with this one — but then, you always do.

  11. Robert Jones

    I would say, in your search for something “big” to launch 2013s first storyfix post, you’ve hit on something very important. It takes me back to something another writer once said, that when testing the strength of each scene, we should ask ourselves what is the strongest emotion it might convey to the reader.

    “Mission,” was a key word that ended 2012 for us…taping it to our walls, computers, foreheads, for testing each scene’s worthiness to either remain or be cut. 2013 gives us the next word for our checklist for strengthening each of the scenes who have found enough of a mission to stay, “Emotion.”

    Looks like we’re off to a good start and moving right along…

  12. Larry, when I read this my first thought was, I hope it wasn’t my structure analysis that prompted you to write this. But, then I thought, I hope it was. It may hurt, but I want that shot in the arm to get better. This is the kind of insightful, honest, feedback I’m looking for. What impresses me is that you never just post content to fill your blog. You think hard about this stuff, even agonize over it, and we are the better for it. Thank you for all you do for the writing community.

  13. Frank

    You told a story that had meat and bones that walked up and smacked me over the head. Thank you.

  14. First, I’m a little concerned that you write at Mc Donald’s; after 3 hours in a corner, trust me, there are mothers of Happy Meal eaters now watching you.
    But, it was worth it – great post. Thanks for sharing, Mindy

  15. Thanks, Larry. I always appreciate how you get to the essence. I’ve been a lurking blog reader /writer for a couple of years. Have Story Engineering and other stuff. I’m writing creative nonfiction biography. Will have to see how it all works for me, but it has definitely given me good points to work with. All the best in the new year.

  16. Bill 'Cliff' Hanger

    Oh great! Someone’s story coaching material is so amiss that it sent you into a flurry and inspired a whole special column. Plus it caused you to hang out at Mickey D’s for three hours to do it. And I just sent my story coaching questionnaire in two days ago. Way to start the New Year. I’ll be looking for mocha stains on my evaluation.

  17. Michael

    Powerful post, and at precisely the perfect point (okay, I’ll stop). Once again, you’ve nicely summed up what we need. There may be a few authors out there who can hit the mark on a subconscious level, but every artist can’t be DaVinci, although I often wonder if he didn’t also work out the rules and just chuckle into his sleeve at his contemporaries.

    I have an additional thought, though. I would suggest that we assign where these elements gain importance in the story as a subliminal cue to what kind of story we’re proposing. For instance, an inciting incident heavy with vicarious experience promises the reader a roller coaster ride (i.e. one of the good Bond films, or perhaps a Vince Flynn book). Start with an emotional resonance and we’re off toward traditional literature, romance, or perhaps a good comedy, but throw the intriguing question in up front, and we have thriller, mystery, etc.

    The other elements can (and should) be added as well at the appropriate time and in varying degrees, but that’s the art of getting and holding reader interest — to make the promise and then not only deliver, but give the reader more than she expects.

    Beautiful, thought-provoking post, as always. Looking toward more in the coming year.

  18. Thanks so much for this inspiring and directive post! I blog a “how to write for genealogists” and have kicked around the idea of writing fiction. The stumbling block to me has always been just what you describe. I have a lot of stories, but never feel I have a real point.
    Im going to be really “stewing” this for 2013. I may be closer than I thought 🙂
    Thanks !

  19. A great post to begin the year, you made it don’t worry!
    Indeed, writing is complex, art has always been complex. After all, easy reading is damn hard writing, uh?
    But it’s its complexity that makes it so fun and lovable as a wonderful adventure!

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  21. Happy new year, Larry. I’m looking forward to another year of learning from you.

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  23. Hi Larry,
    Thanks for writing the article. It’s great. I’m trying to go from being a storyteller – in my blog and in life, to being a full fledged writer. I retired from a satisfying career in teaching and consulting to start two new ones, photography and writing, being at a semi-novice level at both. This article validates that I’m a good storyteller, but discovering how to get beyond that and developing the intrigue that will take me beyond a paragraph or five, is a puzzle. Your article helps, and I’ll subscribe to your posts. Wish me luck! 🙂