When Your Passion Kills Your Plot

 I wanted to call this one, “The Great and Silent Story Killer,” but I chose to put the real two-by-four-between-the-eyes point in the headline instead. 

Because passion is an intoxicant.  A promise without a plan.  And its addictive.  It is cheering rather than playing the game. 

Good to have, worthless as a story planning asset.

In fact, your passion for a story, the very thing you might believe is your biggest asset going into the writing, might instead be silently, insidiously overwhelming it to the point it smothers the story entirely.

Like a lover who drowns you in affection, yet gives you nothing that you need.

A politician can rant for years about how a proposed tax cut can help the middle class.  But can he shut himself into a room in the back of IRS headquarters and rewrite the tax code that will make it happen?

Not a chance. 

Some of us want to save the world with our novels.   

Some reign that back a bit, we merely want to save a few souls or at least unburden our own.  We are serious about this.  Our novel is important, it is necessary, a story that must be told.  It matters.

If you asked Kathryn Stockett what her novel, “The Help,” was about, you might get two answers.  The first is a thematic target and rationale, the other a window into the story that reflects a narrative plan: 

The Help is the story of black maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi and their oppression and injustice at the hands of their prejudiced white employers. The story will show the strength and humanity of these women, and how they helped change the course of racial history in this country.

Yeah… but where’s the story? 

The Help is a story of a young writer looking to break into publishing, who senses a story in the experiences of the black maids of 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.  She struggles to enlist their help for a book that sheds light on these secret injustices, and in doing so discovers both darkness and humanity that exceeds her vision and, in writing it, threatens her own position in the community.

Now that’s a story.  Theme will EMERGE from this story organically. 

A writer needs both answers, always.

Because great craft and an understanding of the mechanisms, architectures and chemistries involved – a compelling dramatic premise… tension and conflict… antagonism causing that conflict… optimal pacing… heroic empathy… a vicarious reading experience (the ride)… stellar craft in execution… 

… that’s the real work behind the thematic promise. 

These should be the things the writer talks about FIRST, and become most passionate about once the work is underway.  Because inherent to this understanding is the certainty that the thematic promises – exciting and important as they are – aren’t even in the ballpark until these players are in the shower. 

Thematic power is the product of dramatic effectiveness.  If your passion is on the wrong end of that sentence, then your story needs a bodyguard, because its life may be in danger.

What is your story about?   

That last word is a loaded gun pointing at the heart of your manuscript.  Your answer exposes you, strips you naked in the light of your story’s commercial and mechanical viability.  It tells you what you know, and by its absence, also exposes what you don’t know. 

Which is how to make this story compelling in execution… through plot 

Passion without plot will drag your manuscript to the bottom of the Priority Mail bin on its way back to you.

A great story is about a problem, not an ideology.  It’s about a person, your hero, who has something to win or lose in squaring off with their problem and their issues.  An external antagonist (bad guy) who stands in their way.  A journey to take as the battle builds, ebbs and flows, and allows the hero to grow into the nametag (Hero) and begins to act in a manner that solves the problem. 

Your hero doesn’t need to be a soldier in the problem, but the problem issue needs to contextually bear on whatever conflict-driven path you put them on. 

Read any published story, these dynamics will be there.   

Read any unpublished story, and they might not be.

Too many writers don’t even consider this when approaching a story about pain and injustice and healing and finding love again.  All of those targets are themes, and when they work, they are the product – the outcome – of a story well told.   

A story with a plot.

I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately in my work as a story coach.   

I have a couple of programs in play where writers send me either an entire manuscript for review, or just a few pages of summarized outline and intentions.  I’ve done about 50 or so in the last couple of months, and I see a trend. 

A disturbing trend. 

Writers are summarizing something that isn’t a story.  Instead, they’re describing the issue they want to write about.   Passionately so.  World peace.  Finding love.  Finding one’s true self in a cold cruel world.  Resolving family stuff.  Forgiveness.

I read these opening paragraphs intended to convey the idea and concept of the story, and I have to ask… “Nice theme, but where’s the story?  Where’s the concept?  Because a concept is NOT a theme, though it may lead to one… and vice versa, a theme is never really a concept, it’s an intention, a goal for an outcome.” 

Paragraphs then ensue describing the politics of the day (in historicals), or the backstory of the hero and the dysfunctional family.  About how the character feels.  And, in a misguided attempt to resolve the story, about how the problem (if there is one) is resolved when the hero one day wakes up and realizes something.   

As if the juice of the story resides there.  It doesn’t.  It resides in the power of the conflict you bring to it, and in the hero’s ACTIONS to make things right. 

Still no story.  The writer is practically weeping onto the page.  This pet issue of theirs, their NOVEL, will be their cathartic salvation, and they get all of their pain and rage and passion into it.  Often because it’s their story.

But into what?  There’s still no story, I tell them.  No hero’s problem.  No external antagonist.  No overriding problem to solve, just a litany of internal issues holding them back.  Nobody, and nothing, to root for. 

They don’t see what I mean, until I tell them this:

A story is about a character, a hero… not a theme.  Theme only emerges from the vicarious emotional participation on the part of a reader who empathizes with (and roots for) the hero as they face a problem, a challenge, a need, and launches them down a path of reaction to this new quest, under pressure from the antagonist, with a ticking clock,  then proactively managing it toward their desired end. 

Variations on this model abound.  Without really ever shifting it.

That’s a story.  Hero, problem, antagonist, respond, change, attack, regroup, grow, DO SOMETHING HEROIC, solve the problem. 

The word “theme” isn’t in there.  It doesn’t mean anything… until it does.

A story is about characters DOING things.  That’s it in a nutshell.  The sequence and sum of what they DO is the story.  Its not what they see, what they feel, it’s what they DO in response to pressure and stakes and need. 

What the story means is sub-text, not the narrative point guard.  And in that little model you’ll notice that it isn’t there.  Themes – the messages and focuses you are so passionate about – are OUTCOMES of your narrative efforts, like fruit from a planting. 

Bad dirt, no water, no sun, no care or craft… no fruit.  And here you are, having promised everyone a lovely fruit salad. 

Once you realize that the power of your intended thematic outcome is in your hands, you must comprehend the limits and the upside of what this means

This isn’t about bombs and criminals and murders… this is about ANY story.  Because they ALL need conflict, they all require a PLOT.  And they can all lead to strong thematic resonance. 

Plot is the stage upon which your characters reveal themselves.

Characters are the catalytic moving parts of the plot. 

Emotions are the currency of everyone’s involvement in the plot.

Stakes are the consequences of the ACTIONS of the characters in context to that involvement. 

A good story coach won’t care much about your theme, or the issues.

We’re looking for story, in all its phases, contexts, forms and functions.  Just like a doctor doesn’t care about your upcoming promotion… the doctor just cares that you’ll be upright and breathing when the day arrives. 

******

About the Storyfix newsletter… it’s now a bi-monthly distribution, to ensure rich content.  The July-August issue will be out around August 1… you can sign up HERE (input your email only, don’t need your street address). 

Coming soon… an announcement about how you can have your story basics – premise, concept, basic structure and narrative plan, including your 9-sentences – evaluated for… well, you won’t believe how affordable and easy it is.  Just answer a few questions and submit up to 10 pages of outline or beat sheet… I’ll tell you how your core competencies and story physics are lining up, and how to take them to the next level.  

There’s never been a story coaching concept like this… it’s like a physical exam and a training protocol prior to entering an extreme sporting event (and believe me, writing a novel or a screenplay is totally an extreme undertaking), telling you where you’re strong and where you’re vulnerable before you actually finish the work.   

Have your story appraised and improved… so you can not only get it right, but get it nailed, too.  It’s called “The Amazing $100 Professional Story Coaching Adventure,” and based on feedback from the beta test, it changes the game for writers who are serious about getting it right.

Coming soon!

18 Comments

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18 Responses to When Your Passion Kills Your Plot

  1. spinx

    Great post!

    And a nice summerization of all the things done wrong by me in the past four months. I too realized, that while the flow was there, and the sentences came flowing, I was doing something severly wrong.

    I was writing about the theme. Pages and pages, and it felt good too, but when my sister asked me, what my story was about – I was at a loss to tell her. Yes – I had my theme, and damn – 30 pages of it – but nothing ever actually happened in those pages!

    I was not writing characters – I was writing biographies. Great difference! Great, great difference!

    While writing a character meant following them through life, having them DO things, GET things, FEEL things – writing ABOUT a character meant dates, like writing history – learning the year.

    That´s why the first is well translated as a film, and the second on biography channel. And that is also the reason why biographies of famous people never translate well into films.

    But yeah………………………i like this one….character is best revealed on a stage, with a heavy plot.

    I remember how hard it was to translate, from one to the other, as writing pages about theme had very little to do with actual storyarchitechture, (no real plotpoint, midshift point, ect….)

    Gotta go – peace out!

    (Great one, Larry ;T)

  2. Keep up the good work! We, at the Fairfield Writer’s Blog, just nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award. http://fairfieldwriter.wordpress.com/

  3. Oh, very nice. While Theme is one of the Six Core Competencies, it is more of an outcome than part of the initial planning.

    Sure, we can get a decent idea of the theme during our initial planning, but it could change. If we’re really good/experienced, the theme we start with in our plan might well be the one we end up with.

    On the other hand, after the first draft, part of the reading should be to determine what theme seems to be appearing. If we’re “happy” with that, put it back into the planning while doing the reviews/edits so it can shine through clearly. Ever read a good story with multiple, often-conflicting themes?

    Planning and Craft are meant to convey emotion (in fiction) through action of the characters. Get your Craft correct and you can be as passionate as you wish; it might just work.

    Now go write something great.

  4. As a new writer, I make that exact mistake of replacing theme with concept. Thanks for sharing, this was a real eye opener.

  5. J. Madrigal

    Hi Larry,

    I’m about 70% done with your book ‘Warm Hugs for Writers’ (which I found due to Kay Kenyon recommending it on her website) and I just wanted to thank you for putting that knowledge and wisdom out there. I knew something was wrong with my work and your book helped me narrow it down. I bought your other book today too.

  6. This is weird… just checked in here on another issue, and I found that somebody had hacked into this post and created several live links to 3rd party sites (obviously selling something). Wasn’t me. When I went into WordPress to get rid of them, they were gone, and when I came back here to check that, still gone. Never seen this one before… anybody know how this happened, and how? Thanks — Larry

  7. Larry, you are so right with this post. I have sold four books to major publishers and three movie scripts and for each one (even the two nonfiction books) I began with a one-sentence synopsis (called a logline in the movie business) that boiled the entire story down to 30 words or less. That one sentence keeps me focused on exactly what the story is ABOUT.

    Most of my one-sentence synopses begin with the hero, not by name but by a two-word description. (There’s no room in 30 words for names unless it’s someone like Abraham Lincoln.)

    Examples:

    “A troubled detective chases a serial killer and discovers a dark secret about himself.” SOLD as A KILLER LIKE ME

    “An ex-vice cop fights to prove his innocence after being framed for a robbery and murder at the Mafia-owned brothel and casino where he works.” SOLD as novel and movie HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN.

    “An ex-federal agent tries to escape a cartel’s wrath and the police after he steals $2 million in drug money.” SOLD as the movie END OF THE GUN.

    These aren’t the greatest loglines, but they represent the premise of each story and they kept me focused.

    Larry knows what he’s talking about. I suggest you pay attention.

  8. Sam Witt

    Larry, sounds like your comment spam plugin (Akismet, probably since you are on WordPress) hadn’t quite gotten to killing the spam comments when you first saw them. When you went in to delete them, the spam guardian had finally deleted them.

    On the other hand, if you mean the links were in the post itself, there are a few possible issues. If your WordPress install isn’t up to date you may have been bitten by one of the old link injection exploits. Updating WordPress will fix that.

    Did you see the links on one computer and then go to fix them on another only to have them go missing? In that case the links might have been the result of a virus on the first computer.

    Hope that helps, or gives you a couple of place to start investigating the issue.

    Oh, and great post as always, even if it did give me a little stab of anxiety that I might be committing the sin discussed.

  9. Derek T

    Another great post. This is a pitfall I probably would have fell into. I generally think of theme alongside story. Since I found your site and books, I always look at the structure of the story first over “the message”, but it is hard not to include that message when trying to outline and pitch the story.

    I look forward to your “The Amazing $100 Professional Story Coaching Adventure”. I also can’t wait for the input on my flash fiction. Again, I know your busy and it is no hurry. Thanks again for the guidance once needs when starting out.

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  13. Another great post, Larry. I appreciate the clarification, though I’ve always more been one to focus on what the story was about. In my WIP, I was lucky that the story’s theme made itself clear after I wrote the first draft (which I had outline, but not enough). It confirms what you say — the theme is the outcome of planning and writing. I know now not to worry about theme until later in the planning and writing stage.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your $100 Coaching Adventure.

  14. Ray Peden

    Larry: I’ve been pouring over Story Engineering all weekend, reading, focusing, re-reading, underlining, wiping blood off my forehead, in an effort to extract that sharp edge that has been missing from my almost-finished manuscript. (BTW it was successful, although I’m still concerned over the current late location of my 1st Plot Point.) For a breather I decided to check you out on StoryFix and, as internetters amazingly do, found my way to your old blog post in 2011 on The Twins. A welcome respite from the intensity of my SE weekend study session. Thanks for the serious stuff and the off-beat as well. I imagine you enjoyed writing SE, and it was obvious you enjoyed writing The Twins.

  15. I have struggled with this concept for a long time. Only recently did I realize (and then want to smack myself in the head) that I must concentrate on the plot and structure of the story. That’s what MAKES the story. Without that, it’s just a random collection of scenes. Bo-ring. I just can’t believe I didn’t figure that out sooner. Geesh.

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  18. Amber

    Thank You for saving my dying story that had NO plot to hold its lifeless body!