What Writers Are Saying About… This Stuff

I’ve dropped nearly 500 posts on Storyfix.  About 425 remain in the archives, the others having migrated to various ebooks. 

Sometimes, when that little voice tells me it’s time to get something new up, I feel like I’ve circled the wagons and don’t have something fresh or worthy enough to add.

And sometimes that’s when the best stuff happens.  Fear is a great motivator.  Stretching is a terrific mantra.  Reaching… not so much.

Goes for our fiction, too.  Step into the fear, but try to avoid stepping on those steamy little piles of, well, you know, that await along the path.

I had another topic in mind for tonight, but as i sat down to write, this one took over.  It’ll keep.  Yeah, I’m pantsing my site sometimes. 

I get a lot of emails from readers.

Aside from the occasional and well-deserved wrist slap or correction – love those, too – the warmest and fuzziest of them are when readers tell me how the Storyfix take on craft is hitting them.  Changing them.  Awakening them to truths and points of leverage that they can apply to their own work.

Here are some recurring themes.

If you see yourself here, know that you are not alone.  And if you don’t, well, there’s value in revisiting the basics and principles that make a story live and breathe.  If someone else is getting this, maybe there’s a limiting belief system — a fatal gene in the writing DNA — blocking it for you.

Here’s what writers are saying about this stuff:

“I can’t watch a movie now without seeing the four-part structure in play.  Amazes me that it’s always been there and I haven’t noticed it before.  I can’t un-see it.”

“I’m amazed to see everything you say about screenwriting applying so directly to writing novels.  Vice versa, too.”

“Universal is univeral.  These principles apply to any kind of storytelling, period.”

“I keep looking for a published story without a first plot point.  Still searching.  I hate rules, I want so desperately for this to be your opinion, rather than a universal truth.  So far it seems to be the latter.”

“I used to be a panster.  Now I see the value in structure, guided by mission-driven narrative and its milestones.  It’s the missing link for me.  Now I can continue to pants, but it’s within a box that doesn’t let me drive over a cliff.”

“After reading some of the blow-back on today’s post, I’ve concluded that our school system has not done an adequate job of teaching children what the work “formulaic” even means.”

“It’s amazing how free and creative one can be when writing between the lines of structural expectation.  Those who claim that structure is restrictive are being boxed in by their own refusal to acknowledge the gravity that governs the storytelling world.”

“Don’t let the bastards get you down.  In every crowd there is always someone who wants to gun down the voice of reason and clarity. Killing the messenger is a subconscious human drive, and some writers would rather type than listen.”

“Because of you I now have to rewrite my NaNoWriMo novel from page one.  Because now I know how all-over-the-place it was.  Actually, I knew it beginning on about November 6th, but now I know why.  I can’t wait until next year.”

“Took me three years to write my last novel.  It sucked.  Took me three months to finish my new one, using the principles to which you ascribe. It doesn’t suck.  Coincidence?  I think not.”

“The principles you teach don’t make writing easier.  They make it possible.”

“It’s like the fog parting.” 

“Why do so many published authors stick to their position that they just sit down and write whatever comes to them in the moment?”  (Larry: because they don’t know, or want to admit, that their sensibilities are already recognizing and applying the principles of story architecture and dramatic theory.  So much more romantic to claim that you’re channeling some cloud-dwelling muse, which is a failed cover for a humble claim to genius. To say that “it just comes to them” is the antithesis of humilityWhen an unsuccessful writer says this, it’s an explanation.  When a famous one says it, it’s hubris.)

“Keep the analogies coming.  Great teaching tool.  My favorite: writing a story without understanding the underlying principles is like thinking you can do surgery because you watch a lot of Grey’s Anatomy.  You can read all the John Grisham you want, but until you can dissect the layers and how he’s building his stories, your patient won’t make it off the table.”

“So many people say there are no rules.  That’s semantics.  Call them what you will, the principles that divide the inbox into two groups — those that work, and those that don’t — don’t care what you call them.  Natural laws are just that, in science and in art.  Gravity still sucks, literally, even if you can’t describe how it works.”  

“Top ten lists… my ass.”

“I’m writing like a fiend now because of your direction– thank you so much.”

And then, to be fair here, there’s always a few like this, from an Amazon.com review on my book, Story Engineering.  It’s my all-time favorite critique, from a 17-year old girl, an unpublished writer who seeks to straighten the rest of us out:

“Going into writing a book, yes, you need a game plan, but you don’t need a roadmap, otherwise it’s not YOUR story being told. Artists don’t use the same sketches; builders don’t take each other’s blueprints. If the story if worth writing, then it will flow easily without too much coaxing.

Now, I hate to bring age into this, but I’m only 17. I am frantically working on a book that I hope to publish on Kindle late this summer. I have worked through many of the problems older writers have in just the past year or two. I have the story laid out pretty well, characters are mildly understood (isn’t it always that way, though? Can you ever really understand your ‘children’?) Some people may learn a lot from Mr. Brook’s book, but I found as I read it that most of what was said I had already learned for myself. Again, I’m not trying to say that somehow I have bypassed the system, or have discovered a secret ‘key’, but everyone has their own way of writing, and mine is not with someone else’s instruction.”

L: So there.

Feel free to add to the conversation.  What has been your experience with the princples of storytelling and the underlying physics and principles that make it work?

Signed up for my new monthly newsletter yet?  First edition of “Writers on the Brink” comes out next week.  It may just keep you from jumping.


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18 Responses to What Writers Are Saying About… This Stuff

  1. Brian Mann

    Regarding your 17 year old critic, he’s correct that builders don’t use each other’s blueprints.

    However, a house builder does always use a foundation, some sort of walls, and a roof.

    Also, “Catch-22” obviously wasn’t worth writing, since it took Heller 10 years. 🙂

  2. Haha! 17-Year-Old cracks me up. But, I have one of those living in my house right now, and you know what? They really do know everything. 🙂

    Love your comment, Larry, that even those who don’t sit down and create a definite structure are still intuitively following the basic story architecture. Without it, stories don’t work.


  3. Laureli Illoura

    I knew it all (about writing) at 17 too!
    You gotta love the confidence that comes forth from such ‘natural innate knowledge’… though if his book doesn’t make it he would be a sensational comedian.

  4. Laureli Illoura

    PS – love the new site upgrades despite the pop-up.

  5. Once a person starts learning even a bit of Craft, they start to see the elements everywhere they look. Applies to most any profession, too.

    We writers often have to “shut down” that element for a while when reading “strictly” for pleasure. I’ve read quite a few (amateur) stories which have decent plot but very little to no structure beyond the fact that it ends.

    Now that you folk are getting Crafty, go write something great.

  6. trudy

    if i knew at 17 what i know now….i’d be rich! lol oh, Lar, you must have the patience of Job, xo trudy

  7. A seventeen year old is an easy shot. I can only wish at seventeen I had been writing. My brilliance took me in another direction. Writing would have been a tad bit more productive.

    Frankly, I like his/her moxie and willingness to try to play in an adult world.

    He/she may be more reflective of that world than we want to admit. Unless, of course I’m the only ” grown up” left who on occasion catches himself basking in the light-shine of his own stunning intelligence. 🙂

  8. Larry, finding you and StoryFix.com has changed my entire fiction-writing life. Before story structure, I was lost in a sea of pantsing all my stories and ended up with drafts that went nowhere (and are still sitting in a drawer today). After story structure, I have complete outlines for 3 of the stories that have been swimming in my head directionless for the last few years. Am I converted story planner now? You can bet your ass I am!

  9. Every since I studied the ‘six core competencies’ my awareness concerning books and movies has changed. I can’t stop being on the lookout for the milestones vital for stoytelling. Even writers a long time dead, such as Jack London or Mark Twain, used the same milestones for their stories. This still amazes me, since it clearly shows that some rules in writing are universal.

  10. Just listened to your Dec. 31 podcast interview on KRUU’s Writer’s Voices. Thought James Scott Bell was more than enough, but might have to add yours to my shelf (or brand new Kindle?) too.

    Can you direct late-comers like me to your blog post with a circus tent illustration of story elements? Thanks for all the helpful advice and encouragement

  11. I’m a dedicated Pantser. Yep, that is how I work, that is method. Like a musician who learns to play by ear, I learned to write by trial and error without using an outline. You nailed what I do in one good sentence.

    “You can discover the story by drafting.”

    That’s exactly what I do. Your articles on structure and process have given me the means to edit them well. Many drafts I didn’t think of as workable could be repaired and made good. Your template is a checklist to apply to my rough drafts as soon as I pick them up to fix them.

    All of your articles have been useful, even if my methods and career path may not be exactly the same. I expect to live on my writing when I succeed. Your articles help me every time. The times that they reaffirm things I knew felt right give me a clearer perspective on how to get those good results consistently.

  12. @Brian — actually, the example of builders using blueprints… unless they’re an architect, they ALWAYS use someone else’s blueprint. As writers, we are both architects and builders, and therefore, the blueprint remains a critical step. And yes, there are many forms of generic blueprints out there, just cruise through a residential development, those floorplans are all the same. Different interior designers set them apart (we writers are that, too). Genre fiction in particular lines up with this analogy, but even literary stories are built on the same set of dramatic physics, and to a great extent, the same structural blueprint. L.

  13. Lynette Robey

    In regards to the 17-year-old…I always say…I wish I knew now what I thought I knew when I was eighteen. Lynette

  14. Ian Porter

    17, eh? I used to own a label like that. The one I got now has the same digits but the order is reversed. My greatest regret about writing is that, after arming myself with my first typewriter at 17 (a Czech Consul machine if I recall correctly), I fired off my first short story to some long-dead publisher, got a rejection slip, and promptly gave up.
    Well – there was always something more interesting to do back then: hanging out with the guys, playing cards, chasing girls, learning to smoke (yuk).
    54 years later, I’m back on track – this time armed with a different tool – ‘Story Engineering’. (And I have a better incentive – I’m broke ).
    So, thanks Larry. Now I know how my 87,000 word novel starts, middles and ends. My first Plot Point is just a couple of chapters away and I know exactly what all my milestones need to achieve.
    If I hadn’t read ‘The Book’ I’d still be pounding out pages of pointless verbiage, stumbling around with no clear idea of where I’m heading, or even how to get there.
    The blueprint analogy resonated with me – I was a house-builder in another life – and reading Story Engineering generated one of those light-bulb moments: I suddenly realized that there was no way I could have built any of those houses without a plan. It would have been impossible to brick up the basement without concrete foundations; tile the roof without walls to support the rafters.
    I’ve seen a lot references to writers who don’t plan, who just ‘pants it’. I don’t believe that this is true. It may very well be that some are able to sit down and bash out a best-seller from beginning to end without a script and hardly a pause for coffee.
    But I’ll bet that the ‘plan’, the ‘architecture’ of their story, was there all along – in their heads. And that once they’d started with an idea, a premise – they knew exactly what they wanted to say next because of their instinctive understanding of the way stories work. Such people are lucky – they get to read their new story as they go along. Their characters say and do things that they don’t expect.
    However, this doesn’t mean that the structure that Larry describes doesn’t exist – it just means that some of us know how to create that structure without a ‘conscious’ plan.
    Like, I could build a house without a paper plan because I know exactly how it’s done – the system is ingrained in my thinking. But I would still do the building in the correct order – foundations, floor, walls, roof etc.
    Oh durn – I’m doing it again. I don’t know about the rest of you guys and gals, but if there’s anything that writers like to do more than writing – it’s talking about writing. Or thinking about writing. Or writing about writing, lol. I’m off.
    PS: Good luck to all you writers out there – 17 to 71. Just remember that if there’s any single concept that will bring success, in any endeavor, it’s this: PERSISTENCE.

  15. J. A. Self

    Larry, just bought Story Engineering and very much looking forward to the read. Thank you for your work.

    Cheap as it may be, I’ll take a shot at the teen. You can say that no one can dictate a method to you, but reader/viewer expectations are completely out of your control. If your story doesn’t follow the structure they expect you’d better be a grandmaster writer who has well-thought, deliberate, explicit reasons for using a different structure (or accept criticism later when it fails to meet expectations).

    Also can’t resist saying:
    “You can build whatever you want, out of any material, it just has to lie somewhere within these nine cubic meters.”

    As penitence I’ll admit that I used to be a teen-twenties writer that thought lectures on structure were against the spirit of creativity. (I had read some books on the subject that were just plain wrong, though).

  16. Hi All – I’ve been lurking for a while. Love your Story Engineering Book, Larry, and I stumbled on it just in time.

    I just wanted to say that the 17 year old is completely wrong about artists not starting with a structure. The fastest trip to a bad painting (sculpture, drawing, etc.) is just to start slopping paint on a canvas and hope that it will all work out. There are artists that don’t seem to follow the structure, but if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll usually find it. Yes, great artists break rules, after many long years of learning what the rules are. As for “outlining”, the art version is called sketching. Sketching is not doodling around. It’s careful planning of the different elements of a painting. Another good thing to do before you start making art. 🙂

    The only thing her review has accomplished is to prove that she’s 17 and will be a long time learning to write.

  17. Liston

    Hero’s Journey, Hero’s Journey, Hero’s Journey. And specifically, Kal Bashir’s version. It’s enlightening. Read Campbell and Vogler but never really got it until Kal started putting videos up on youtube.

  18. akellettt

    Liston, except when it’s not, as in James Bond (with one exception), Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.