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?
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
“The Elements of Story: Transforming Your Novel from Good to Great”
Regular price is $89.99… but you can score a $10 discount just for reading Storyfix (read on…).
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:
A $25 discount on either level of my story plan evaluation service (see links above).
A free copy of two of my ebooks:
Warm Hugs for Writers
Get Your Bad Self Published
To get these additional spiffs, just forward me a copy of your registration confirmation from Writers Digest and I’ll send them right out. Again, click HERE for that, and a full description of the webinar topics.