Writing A Publishable Novel: What “Finally Getting It” Really Means

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by Larry Brooks on May 8, 2014

Three Things You Must “Get” Before You Really Get It

Writing a great story can be so easy to mess up. Take one thing for granted, miss one step or fail to nail one necessary dramatic essence, and the story will likely be stillborn.

Sure, it looks easy enough when you sit down with the latest Baldacci or Rowling or Grisham – but when you sit down to turn your Big Idea into a crackling good novel, things don’t always turn out as planned.

Maybe there’s something about this writing thing you’re not getting.

It’s even worse when you have no idea it hasn’t turned out as well as you thought. Which means those rejection slips will confuse and anger you… “what do they know, anyhow?”

Answer: “they” know something you don’t. And it has zero to do with your narrative prose talent.

Some writers get it. Some take years, even decades, to get it. Some never do.

But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Not saying it’s simple. Or even obvious.

Until you know what “it” is. Then it is obvious. Because you’ll see it at work in virtually every published book you read.

There are six core competencies that go into the creation of any good story.

And there are a million ways to mess it all up. Many of them fall into one of the three categories of “things you must get.”

Let’s say you have – because you probably do — what you believe to be a Big Idea for a story. Good for you, that’s certainly a prerequisite. But what you may not realize is that a Big Idea – if it truly is big – is only ONE of those six requisite core competencies a good story must leverage.

The problem here comes, too often, when the writer wants to show us something. When that is the concept itself, the highest order of intention.  A time.  A place.  A character.  A situation.

Versus showing us something that is happening. That, right there, is the key.

All of those are required — time, place, character, situation — but if that’s all you have in your narrative… then you’re guilty of not getting it on this issue.

Those things alone, without other absolutely necessary elements, are not a story. That’s vicarious experience, but without a plot. Because if nothing is happening, you have no dramatic tension.

No dramatic tension… no story.

Mr. X goes to Boston… grows up there… does stuff… isn’t Boston wonderful… he falls in love… has appendicitis… goes to a Red Sox game… gets audited… wins the lottery. The end.

You think I’m kidding? That story arrived in my inbox a few months ago.

The story becomes “stuff that happens to X when she/he is in Y.” In other words, “The Adventures of X.”

That’s #1 on this list of the three things you need to get.

It doesn’t work. Your story, if it’s like that, will be rejected.

Or – here comes #2 – you write a story about a character who needs to get over something from their past, the conquering of an inner demon. Just that. That’s what you’re using as conflict in the story, the hero has no self-confidence or can’t forgive or is afraid of postal workers, whatever. And so, you take him/her on a narrative journey to find it.

To have experiences in which this inner limitation rears its debilitating head.

Thing is, in this type of story… the reader is merely watching. There is nothing, or not enough, to root for in a story like this.

This is similar to #1, but critically, dangerously different: you think you have a plot, because there is conflict, dark stuff, but what you really have is a character arc. Which, without a plot – the hero, in such a case, a case with a plot, would be trying to solve the problem, rather than simply confronting it over and over, with something specific at stake – isn’t sufficient to get you published.

In other words, for a story to work it needs a PLOT.

For which there is a short but critical list of criteria – benchmarks – that need to be considered and honored. Without tension, without the hero wanting or needing something, without the hero DOING something to solve a problem or attain a goal, without something or someone blocking that path and being at odds with that quest-goal, and without something at stake…

… in other words, without giving the reader something to root for, versus simply observe and marvel at…

… then there is no plot.

The report card is in.

And the verdict is… these are challenging constructs to absorb. Too many writers out there aren’t getting it.

Are you one of them? Evaluate your story against this criteria: Is your story about the hero wanting or needing something, about her/him doing something, or is it about the character being somewhere, possibly in a certain situation, asking the reader to observe it all, perhaps marvel at it… without giving us something to ROOT for along the hero’s journey?

I’ve done over 500 story plan evaluations in the last two years, focusing on concept, premise, the first plot point, the dramatic question and the unfolding dramatic arc that brings the hero to the point of resolving that dramatic question?  Out of those 500 stories, only TEN got this completely right. Even then, they may or may not be publishable, based on the quality of the manuscript that ensues. That is another evaluation entirely.

Of the other 490, another twenty or so got it close enough to tweak into publishable shape without going back to the conceptual or dramatic drawing board to redesign the whole thing.

The rest, all 470 of them, messed up on some combination of those two story-killers.  Those writers, many of them at least, were possessed of perfectly fine writing voices. But they didn’t get it.

Oh, one more thing… this being…

… the third thing about stories that you must get.

All of this needs to be COMPELLING. The misjudgment of that – what’s compelling, what isn’t… what’s compelling to you, prompting you to assume that it’s compelling to a broader readership – is a third category of what you must get.

What happened in early 1900s Iceland… it may be compelling to you, but really, how many people are dying to spend money on story to find out about that? Moreover, how many publishers are willing to place a bet that there are like-minded fans of Icelandic history out there?  You can get all six core competencies right, nail them dead on, but if i’s not compelling it won’t matter.

This is the stuff of bestsellers, by the way. The core notion is compelling, and the execution is usually – not always — stellar.

It’s your job to make it compelling. And the only way to do that is to deliver on the other five core competencies available to you.  And then, it all lives or dies on how compelling it is.

Not just to you… that’s easy.  Your job is to write something that is compelling for a readership.

You have six buckets (categories) of storytelling tools to make that happen: concept/premise… character… theme… dramatic structure… scene execution… and writing voice.

Five out of six… not good enough. You won’t get it published. They’re all story makers, and they’re all story killers, depending on your choices. That’s just a true statement. You need to bat six for six on these story criteria.

It isn’t writing about what you love… that can kill your story. If nobody else loves it like you do, and if that’s all you do… if you only showcase that love (Iceland, for example) without framing it with a dramatic proposition.. then your readers won’t get it, either.

Get this stuff right – these three Epiphanies – and you’re suddenly in a small club that may actually find themselves published one day.

*****

Want to check in on your story plan’s awareness of these three issues?

Click HERE for the Kick-Start version of my evaluation service ($95), and HERE for the full story plan level ($195).

Also, if you’d like a peek at what this process looks like, check out the recent case studies here on Storyfix to see actual submissions and feedback.

*****

If you’d like to dig into these issues even further…

Attend my Writers Digest WEBINAR — May 22, 2014, 1:00 EDT

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Click HERE for more information, including your free incentive (an evaluation of your story concept).  To get your $10 DISCOUNT for being a Storyfix reader… just enter this code — WDS522LB — in the appropriate box on the enrollment form.

As a further incentive, I’ll toss in some freebies of my own:

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{ 17 comments }

Joel D Canfield May 9, 2014 at 10:11 am

Do you think those other 470 *writers* could get it with the right help?

I ask because I’ve discovered that the folks I can help most are those who get it (whatever we’re working in) and letting the rest find their way to a place they’re ready for my help. I used to try to give even the neo-est neophytes a leg up, but it didn’t seem the best use of anyone’s time and energy.

But maybe SE and SP are their path to getting it if they’re willing.

Somehow Story Physics has been buried under other stuff in my reading pile. Thanks for the reminder to put it back on top.

Larry Brooks May 9, 2014 at 10:26 am

@Sean — an astute, totally valid point. So many times, on Storyfix and face to face at workshops, I’ll give this my best teaching attempt, and I’ll get back some combination of a blank stare or utter confusion. Even anger, on occasion. Some writers, clinging to what is perhaps a romanticized notion about it all, embrace the struggle and chaos. They actually cherish it, as if it’s some kind of holy rite of passage, pain that must be suffered before you stumble upon the right story recipe, and anything that short-cuts that is blasphemous.

Pain is optional. It really is. Thanks for chipping in here. L.

Laureli May 9, 2014 at 11:59 am

Thanks, Larry, at least there is a reason to continue to hope!

(I don’t care about publishing at this point, I care about finishing, just to keep the thing from it’s constant need of being fed. (As Frodo says, “I see it with my waking eyes!”)
But, I want to do it RIGHT; it has to b good, remarkable, meaningful. Something I can leave for progeny to glean something from, and it not be relegated to a box in the attic.)

Trevor May 9, 2014 at 4:25 pm

I am about 3/4 through SE and am a bit confused, and hoping you can help. I read “Hooked” (hopefully you are familiar) prior to picking up SE and you both use Thelma and Louise to point out the inciting incident. Hooked says it is when Thelma has a conversation with her husband at the beginning of the movie (and then makes the decision to go on the trip with Louise). SE says it is when Louise shoots Harlan outside the bar (which leads to the FPP of Louis and Thelma having a discussion and deciding to go on the run). SO who’s right? Hooked says the inciting incident should always be the first scene in the book, mainly because our sitcom attention spans won’t sit through a story to get to the inciting incident unless it’s upfront–right away in the story opener.

Please know, it is not my intention to stir the pot between two authors, I am just looking for clarification. Understanding this for my own story depends on it.

If I had to choose, SE seems to make more sense on this one example, plus it fits what I did in my own story so hopefully it’s the right way to go. I’d also like to know what you think the inciting incident and FPP is for Christopher Moores “Island of the Sequined Love Nun” (which is the major example deconstructed in Hooked). Hopefully you are famliar with the story. It seems weird to me to open with him hanging in the tree, then backstory for what seems like 100 pages, and then returning to Tuck hanging in the tree. Seems gimmicky to me. I love that story, have read it more than 5 times, but never really undestood it the first time because there was just so much happening at the beginning.

SE has helped me immensely. I’m half pantser and half planner and in my own novel I can now see some scenes where I wrote for character rather than an actual mission. Something I wouldn’t have picked up on without SE. Luckily, I think my book is salvagable without a total rewrite. The core elements seems to be there. Whether it’s compelling enough, well, that’s the question.

Larry May 9, 2014 at 5:26 pm

@Trevor — yeah, it’s easy to get hung up on the vernacular.

The first scene in a story is a HOOK. Which is an inciting incident.

There can be multiple inciting incidents in the first quartile (Part 1) of a novel, the “hook” is only the first.

NEITHER of those is the all-important First Plot Point. Which occurs at about the 20th to 25th percentile mark, and launches the hero’s core journey. Because of that, the shooting of Harlan is the FPP, because it launches their journey, after the scenes that have set that moment up (including an initial hook and perhaps another inciting incident or two), including the stakes of the story. The stake are: they killed someone, if they get caught there is no going back. So they don’t.

The softness in these terms is precisely why I wrote SE (as stated in the Introduction). The FPP is the Most Important Moment in a story, and any confusion between it and a hook is a mistake, plain and simple; and confusing ANY of the several places an inciting incident can be placed with the FPP is another hazard.

If you get one thing from SE, it should be this: understand the FPP, and how it is critical and unique, and where it goes in the story (there is little flexibility on that one.

Hope this helps! Larry

Jason Waskiewicz May 9, 2014 at 10:03 pm

I have mentioned the nine failed novels in my basement. I’m now on novel #10 and for the first time ever I made it to a second and, now, a third draft. I don’t know if this novel is merely “less bad” or actually good. But I do know that Mr. Brooks is exactly right.

A clever idea is not a story. I have a few of those among my failures. This one almost went that way, but I was lucky to get a wake-up call from K.M. Weiland and a lot of more specific help from Mr. Brooks. To me, shipbreaking makes for a nifty setting. But, it’s not a story.

And that leads to another mistake I always made. Most of the last nine novels were a series of mini-adventures within the setting. When I watch movies like this or read books like this, I think, “Filler.” #10 has min-adventures, but each one actually advances the main plot.

I’ll admit I never fell for #2. My heroes were always very bland. Book #10 does have a hero with some pretty serious inner demons. But, his personality is good for this. And, his demons were not in the original plan for the character. They developed to help propel the story. So, I would suggest that anyone creating a character pick flaws and demons that are related to the story, not standalones to make the character more relatable.

To me, #3, the compelling part, is the most frightening. I don’t know how compelling my book is yet. But, what I do know is that a great tool for creating a compelling book is an outline. My outline looks nothing like what my English teachers taught me. But, it enabled me to see at a glance when things dragged, when information should be shared, when I needed action, and the rough location of my plot points.

In all honesty, the greatest single tool that has improved my writing has been the outline and all of the planning. The book I ended up writing bears only some similarity to the original image in my mind. The outline and all the planning and brainstorming are the reason why. The original plan was about a boy growing up in the slums by a breaking yard. But, I realized that interesting part of his story started when he was age 38. That part became the novel. The rest made for a really compelling background. In fact, this character has so many demons that I can see a total of 3 novels coming out of him.

And the “compelling” part of writing is what led me to Mr. Brooks. Now that I’m on the third draft, I’m focusing more and more on his “Story Physics.” And, I’ll admit that I am someone with a physics degree, so I was a sucker for his title. Nevertheless, he put names to ideas that I needed to consider. Without names, I only know that a story works or doesn’t. I don’t know why. I hope someday to come here to say I have published a compelling novel and that I need to thank KM Weiland and Larry Brooks for helping me with the writing!

MikeR May 10, 2014 at 7:21 am

I’ve heard it said that the “inciting incidents” are the tasty bait that’s tossed into the water; the things that start the story moving in a definite and distinct direction – and the FPP is when the fisherman suddenly hauls that hook (and, vicariously, you!) right out of the water and flops you on the sand where you can’t breathe anymore. In order for that first point to succeed in throwing the hero into a peril that he can’t simply walk-away from, a whole series of little setups precede it. You know why the two characters are there, and are doing what they are doing, at the time that she impetuously pulls out that gun and, with a slight motion of the second finger, thrusts the story irrevocably beyond the point of no return and drags You … gentle Reader/Movie-goer … right along with them.


I’ve also never understood why people had trouble with the idea of “outlining,” or of “story planning” in general. You really can’t do -anything- without a plan. It’s both pragmatic and practical to simply sit-down and work out possibilities, say in the cells of a spreadsheet or by hand on 3×5 index cards, instead of wasting the time to write a twenty-page scene “yet.”

Importantly, when you do it this way, you see that they ARE: “possibilities … one among many.” That’s key, no matter what it is you’re creating. “There’s more than one way to do it.™” You’re not deep-in-debt to the first idea you came up with, so, go ahead and brainstorm – you can “pick a card, any card” later. You’re not deep-in-debt to the notion that it must be placed in the first place that you thought to put it. You can flip back-and-forth, rearranging the cards, virtually or literally penciling notes on them. As more ideas come out, new possibilities will be uncovered, and now it’s no big deal to act upon any of them. If a card hits the bucket, well, it was just a card. (But: put those “discards” in a box, instead, and don’t tear them up. Keep ‘em. Forever.) Obviously, when you actually start writing prose text, you’ll have a lot less options – so you =defer= that step until you’re really and truly ready. And, you will know.

The process of “coming up with ideas” is separated from “arranging them” is separated from “turning them into prose,” and the cost-to-you is pushed-down as low as it can go. It works. For everything, even business presentations.

Bill Cory May 11, 2014 at 1:47 pm

I was a pantser, or “organic writer,” as Larry calls it in SE. I had read Stephen King’s entertaining little book. Following his misguided lead, I started and almost finished a first draft. I stopped two chapters short of the end. I decided to read it and build myself up to the ending and found, to my surprise, that the hero was weak, the antagonist was undefined, the problem in the plot was not compelling … etc. Dang it. 95K words of practice. I just set it aside.

But, KNOWING that I have a strong concept, I reinvented the hero, the problem, and the antagonist, rewrote the premise, and started over. “Pantsing” again. Got that draft done in 77K words. It’s better than the first. Good characters, good antagonist. But, it was missing something, and until I read SE, I had no idea what that was. I knew well the three-act structure from studying screenwriting, but that long “Act 2″ didn’t work for a novel, so I didn’t even think about it.

Now, having discovered Larry Brooks’s formula (which it really is, after all, even if it does work), I realize why I could never before make an outline. I didn’t know what a story had to do or how it had to do it. Now, at least I’m clued in. As I’ve read the pdf of Story Engineering, a TextEdit file open beside it, I’ve made notes and in another type color, added revision notes for my book. NOW I think I can create a decent third — and final — draft.

Thanks Larry — you may have just saved a compelling concept and strong premise from destruction at the hands of a newbie. My hat is off.

Larry May 11, 2014 at 2:28 pm

@Bill Cory — thanks so much for this feedback, and for sharing your journey. There are so many imprecise factors that fold into the proposition of selling a novel, or writing one that people will buy, that the point of craft and criteria becomes not that, but rather, the discovery of clarity, hope and empowerment. That’s your success story, and it isn’t inevitable. You have to do the work of assimilation and application, which you’ve done. It already puts you in an elite league, congrats on that. I really appreciate you sharing this. Larry

Robert Jones May 12, 2014 at 11:21 am

I wanted to comment on this line from Jason: “I would suggest that anyone creating a character pick flaws and demons that are related to the story, not standalones to make the character more relatable.”

Based on some of the story plans Larry has posted–and even some past commentary–it would seem that a lot of folks aren’t getting what Jason has figured out in the above statement. We’ve spent a lot of time here on concept/premise because of it’s importance. Based on how many people struggle with figuring out these two definitions, what I’m about to say might go right over a few heads. Then again, it may help to clarify the definitions of the former if we better understand Jason’s statement…because it’s really all part of the same thing.

Understanding a concept from a premise can help immensely when laying the foundation for our core story. However, it might help some people if they looked at the other side of that coin: building the hero and villain into that core story. Because nothing about them stands alone. Inner demons, wants/needs, possibly their entire life’s purpose is hatched right along with your core story. Each thread concerning your hero Vs. villain (core story) is braided into a rope that becomes inseparable from your plot, blazing a trail right back to concept/premise.

Let’s use Jason’s statement about inner demons as a spring-board: The hero has inner demons that might look pretty debilitating from the start, get in the way of solving problems, overcoming road blocks, etc….but sooner or later in the story, we’re going to find out those inner demons may have inadvertently left some unfinished business that effected the villain, pissed him off in a large way. Or vice-versa, the villain did something that caused the hero to have his particular inner demons. There are hundreds of ways you could mesh the threads of these two lives in a way that brought about the conflict that is your core story. And depending on the stability of the characters you’re working with, it may seem like something very inconsequential to one, but the other allowed to snowball out of control.

Let’s try a specific example: Two high school rivals who are in love with the same girl. One an athlete, the other a total geek. The athlete wins the girl’s affection, only to take her on a date where they end up in a car accident and the girl dies. It’s a traumatic event that effects the outcome of both lives…and how they feel about each other. That’s the birth of the hero/villain/core conflict.

Years later, what if the geek (always a smart guy) is now wealthy, heads up a big corporation, but never married because he never allowed himself to love after the trauma that ensued after the death of his high school sweetheart. He then discovered the ex-jock who cost the girl her life is an employee and decides to use his position to destroy his rival. That’s the premise.

Boil that down to a “What if,” in its most basic form (a level from which many stories might be gown): What if the accidental death of a high school sweetheart became an adult scheme for vengeance between the girls two most ardent admirers? That’s the concept.

All is intimately interwoven. All the pieces are grown from the basic conceptual foundation–once defined. Nothing is a story by itself, or lives outside of the core story/conflict. Everything is just a different facet of the whole.

If the jock is currently married and/or has a family, that marriage has problems that stem from his early relationship issues involving the girl who died in his car. Nothing is left unaffected. The seed of the concept is like a virus that infects all participants and all of their deeds/misdeeds.

MikeR May 13, 2014 at 5:37 am

@Robert – I suggest that a good way to look at “characters and story” is that =story= should come first, and the cast-of-characters should be devised to maximize whatever story that story is. In other words, “what sort of person is going to be the strongest possible contributor to the telling of my story?” He or She, like your story, can be anything you want. Therefore, the character should be =devised= to advance some aspect of the story … and, of course, of the many sequels that your adoring fans are now clamoring for. :-D

It’s =all= artificial. You’re making the =entire= thing up. The gloved-fist might be the part that delivers the knockout blow, but the entire body is what put that fist there. The fist knocked-out an opponent that you also invented; the setting is your invention; you even picked the placement of the bleachers where the audience now sits. You did everything. And, you did it all for a calculated purpose. It all fits together – it all exists(!) – to drive your story. Which you also invented.

Robert Jones May 13, 2014 at 9:02 am

@Mike–Good points. It can also be a very long argument (depending on who you talk to) as to whether story comes first, or character. A very good writer/editor–that I was fortunate enough to have a rapport with at one time–insists that characters are your story, that everything within the plot grows out of having a character with an interesting want or goal. What that want is and how your character goes about achieving their goal, being blocked by a villain who opposes their want, becomes interesting to watch as the conflict escalates.

I think what goes into creating those characters–as we’ve previously discussed–is the emotional heart of the story, or core conflict. I’ve learned some very important things from that writer concerning this, and other aspects of craft. However, it can become an open ended proposition without structure. You can meander all over your fictional universe. Even if you have a great ending to shoot for, there are just too many steps in between for most writers to launch themselves into the fray with just a great character with an important goal to reach.

I’ve also read some who insist that plot, or situation, comes first. Probably the most famous among this set is Stephen King. King also has a knack for small town characters that populate his stories But this is also most of Hollywood’s take on how a story should be handled. Most of whom do not have a knack for characters. Proving that even if you have a solid structure, a bombastic plot/situation is seldom enough. The emotional depth brought about by strong characterization is missing so it becomes a roller coaster ride with people screaming and fighting while bombs go off and a car chase cuts through the middle of it all.

My personal take is to be aware of both sides of the argument, realize the importance of both, and find a way to zip them together as seamlessly as possible. My mind doesn’t work the exact same way every time in terms of how it selects interesting ideas. It might strike upon an interesting situation, or it might come up with a character who has a unique, or eccentric take on life. Seldom do they come in the same package. So for me, if I feel strongly about the one, it’ll prompt me to go in search of the other. But until I have both, my story is going nowhere.

I can’t have a character standing in the middle of the road spouting his interesting views in Shakespearian prose. He has to get moving, take a journey, show it unfolding and moving forward. And I can’t have a vehicle (plot) moving forward with a brick weighing down the gass pedal and no driver to steer, brake, or map out a quest.

So for my money, which come first is irrellevent. You still need to make sure they’re working together as strong codependents.

What you’re saying though is all very true in terms of all of it being ours to make up. We just have to consider that whether we are sculpting out story out of clay, or marble, eveything takes shape from the same unified substance, is a working part that serves the unit as a whole. Which is the very genius of Larry’s books and questionnaires–they strike at what is foundational and open our eyes to the bedrock on which our stories are structured. Understanding this, from whichever side of the equation that works best for each writer, is something we all need to either work from–to discover within our story what it is we are sculting before we grab a hammer and chisel and start making a mess.

MikeR May 13, 2014 at 6:58 pm

@Robert – No arguments here; “two sides of the same coin.”

There’s no question at all that the reader will identify with the Hero (or, in some cases, the Anti-Hero) character. Therefore, in the final delivered story, the Character is the star of the show, and the story is perceived by the Gentle Reader “to utterly and completely revolve around that Character.”

Which character is, by this point in time: “au fait accompli.”

This is key.

It would never occur to anyone who’s absorbed in watching “The Game of Thrones” that there ever was – that there ever could have been – a point in time when a then-screenwriter literally DREAMED UP a character, named him “Jon Snow,” and decided, not only that he should be a bastard, but everything else about him. It also never would occur to them that, well before this time, a guy named George Martin was thinking of writing a fantasy novel and was pondering (as the current issue of “Rolling Stone” has a VERY interesting – as usual – interview about) what sort of story it should be and what sort of characters would be found in it.

At some finite (but largely indefinable) point in time, we have to think about two things: chickens, and eggs. (You get to complete the rest of this paragraph.)

But in any case, whether we dream up Jon Snow and then imagine what sort of story would suit him, or we dream up a story and subsequently award the coveted part to an actor named Jon, both pieces of the magic had better fit together SO seamlessly that it makes us look like genius.

In the end, of course, people are going to identify with … people. We don’t just “read about” Harry or Aragorn or Jon – we “inhabit” them, and that’s a lot of the fun of it all.

But, when we’re standing ankle-deep in mucky water, trying to piece-together a story that nobody believes in yet … that nobody even knows about yet … those “people” are still very much artificial. The “story” that we invent must mesh with the “people” that we also invent, and … well, we’re just not famous yet. There’s no “Rolling Stone” reporter soliciting us for our nuggets of wisdom. Yet. So we just have to somehow work both ends against the middle. Even though one day (in our wildest fantasies) millions of people will read magazine articles about “a bastard named ‘Jon Snow’ who is a lead in ‘The Game Of Thrones,’” while others read about “An epic story called ‘The Game Of Thrones’ which features a bastard named ‘Jon Snow,’” we’ve got to invent =both= of these things, =and= somehow match them up.

. . . and, when Fame eventually comes to call, smile modestly and say, “it was nothing.” ;-)

Robert Jones May 14, 2014 at 9:26 am

Speaking of TV and movies…here’s another tid-bit some folks might not be aware of. But it explains a lot in terms of movies. The theory that is accepted by many screen writers and actors is that the words are the least important tool you can bring to the process. As a writer, how does that make you feel?

It’s not a new theory. Just one that’s become more and more accepted. I think the proof Hollywood holds in its hand is the mega-millions from movies that are big on visual effects and short of characters and dialogue. But I think it’s something we can learn from that becomes part of successful planning.

What’s more important than words to writers and actors? Emotion. Robert McKee says that if you orchestrate each scene correctly, the audience will pick up on the emotions and be bouyed forward by their current. That’s paraphrasing, but you get the gist. Planning scenes is a turning of emotions, and it’s done in the form of a tennis match through a combination of words and action, until one participant slams the ball at his/her opponent in a way that can’t be returned. An emotional climax ensues, cut and thrust into the next scene while the pulse of the audience is pounding.

The “cut and thrust” is the way Larry terms it–which I like. McKee terms it as opening an emotional gap that opens for the audience. And like individual scenes, the story as a whole becomes a larger tennis match and is played until the final emotional gap is opened in such a way that the conflict is over, a final victor emerges–or not.

Will our brilliant words go over the heads of a large percentage of our audience? Will they remember the emotional sturggle, the sensory perception, over the best lines we painstakingly worked to perfect? I think that’s true for some people. However, I personally believe Hollywood is underestimating a good portion of its audience. What I believe on a personal level is probably a weak argument compared to the large stacks of money that bury such notions within the film industry.

On the other hand, we would be fools not to recognise–and invest in–planning for that emotional bounce within each scene. Then, imagine what such an emotionally charged orchestration of sensory perception might be capable of if it actually sparkled with good dialogue and characters we cared about?

Ah, there’s the rub. Hollywood can center as much energy around sensory manipulation as it likes, but the audience is not only pulling their investment away from their words, but their characters as well. We have favorite actors, not favorite characters these days. I believe that’s why so many comic book movies have become popular because those characters have already been established elsewhere. Hollywood just opens the door and says, “Come see our live action version.”

We don’t come out of a theater these days and say, “X was such a great character!” Instead we say, “Y was great in that roll.” Or, “The effects were amazing.” Pretty soon actors won’t even be important as far as their skill…so long as they look good in tights. Soon we won’t even need their bodies. Computer animation can make a graphic that looks like anyone they want, looking as sexy as they like. It’s all sensory anyway, not mention cheaper than paying big name actors.

It’s a rabbit hole every form of entertainment travels down at some point–each instance never learning the lessons of their predecessors. Until they start losing money then it all becomes a dead issue. They’ll say movies don’t sell, just lke books are no longer selling. And they’ll figure out something else. It’s always a dicey game when big money becomes the foundation. Because big money only like what makes more big money. Everything else becomes expendable.

The bright side is that all you have to do is look at those family trees in the back of the GOT books to see that story wasn’t figured out by flipping a switch. Good ideas are always needed. Hopefully good writers as well. It pays to take in as much as possible in order to be as diverse as you can.

One every level of your story, make it count for something.

Jason Waskiewicz May 14, 2014 at 4:42 pm

Mr. Jones’ comments about emotion are interesting. I think sometimes this is what we call “fridge logic.” In other words, we are caught up in a movie, love it, and then later as we stand at the refrigerator getting our next meal together we realize, “Hey, that movie didn’t really make sense.”

One movie I can think of involved aliens coming to Earth and marking up fields so that they could land and grab humans for food. The weakness of these aliens was water. Funny, why did these aliens come to such a wet planet to eat such a wet food source. The movie itself took place in a humid part of Pennsylvania. (I’m from Pennsylvania originally, so I know.)

I didn’t notice any of this when I watched the movie because the emotion and the characters propelled me forward so well. It was thinking about it later that I noticed. In books, it’s much harder (though not impossible) to hide these kinds of gaps because the medium requires more audience participation. Many more pieces have to come together in a book.

I remember reading a book last summer in which the main story (something about a kidnapping) kept flipping back and forth with the domestic trials of the two main characters: one was a divorced father and the other was a woman who felt trapped by her marriage to a Christian. I kept expecting these stories to all intersect somehow: maybe the man she had an affair with would be one of the kidnappers, or the children would be put in danger somehow. Nope! Totally unrelated except that the woman got grumpy at work once in a while. Without the distractions of a movie, I noticed!

Robert Jones May 14, 2014 at 5:17 pm

@Jason–”Fridge logic,” I love it!

It’s been a long time since I’ve viewed “Signs.” I may have to go re-watch–just for the lesson in fridge logic :)

Anita Diggs May 27, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Great post, Larry! You’re right, a novel needs good characters, a plot, and to be compelling. If it’s helpful, find whatever problems are not working in the plot, and just take one issue at a time. Once you finish with the plot, go on to whatever else is not working, but taking one thing at a time is the main thing.

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