Writing Successful Fiction: When What You Don’t Know Trumps What You Do Know

A tale of mishandled craft sinking the story ship.

Quick story from the writing conference front.

A few weeks ago I was doing a couple of workshops at a major writing conference, and as is often the case at these gatherings, the spare hours between sessions were spent meeting one-on-one with writers to go over their projects. This is always a scheduled coaching session, not just a happenstance pitch in front of the elevators… which also happens, but without the feedback.

I could write for days about how the principles of story architecture – or the lack thereof – becomes a glaring issue in the novels these writers are working on. For the most part they’re totally publishable renderers of compelling prose, so that’s rarely the problem. (As I’ve written here and in my books, don’t get too excited about your way with words, that’s just a commodity ante-in to the game… the agents taking pitches at these things are looking for the next great story, not the next great wordsmith).

One fellow’s novel stood out as a case study in what can go wrong.

It should be said that everything about this guy’s story – including his sentence-smithing skill – was absolutely fantastic. The story had it all, including a really compelling conceptual landscape. I was excited, because at a glance it had a real shot.

But when we popped open the hood to see how the thing was built, the wheels started to come off.

I asked him about his opening hook.

His response was that he’d opened the story with some deep backstory of the hero. I asked if it would link directly to the forthcoming plot of the core story, and he said no, he just wanted to add characterization before putting the hero in harm’s way.

Strike one. Because a thriller needs a killer hook, every time.

Also, a thriller is not a character-driven vehicle, but rather, a conceptually driven narrative, one with a compelling character chasing a specific goal, against specific exterior antagonism.  Which means the hero’s crappy childhood is not a primary story variable.

Opening with backstory – unless it is a prologue with a direct plot connection that later becomes poignant, clear and perhaps ironic – is rarely a good idea.

But I didn’t tell him that… yet.

I wanted to see how badly he’d mangled other principles of dramatic structure before I got specific about what it should look like.

That’s when I asked the deal-breaking question: “So when in your story do you put your hero in harm’s way?”

He quickly answered, “When he gets his assignment to find the guy with the stolen bomb.”

I was already shaking my head. That’d certainly do the trick, but it wasn’t at all what I’d asked for. I had asked, literally: when, within the linear sequence of the story, does this moment occur?

A blank stare ensued.

So I explained, again: the hero needs to seek something in a story, have a need or a mission to engage with, to take action toward, with something at stake and significant obstacles – a villain – in his/her way.

You know, the 101-level most critical thing that makes a story work.

“Oh sure,” he said, momentarily relieved. “It has that. Like I said, it’s when he gets his assignment. That’s when all hell breaks loose.”

I was nodding, but not in agreement.

“So when does it happen? I asked you about the hook, and it seems that’s not it. So when? Give me a percentage based on total length.”

Mind you, this was a thriller he was writing. Not a literary novel. Not that it changes the answer… the best answer is the same for any genre.

He had to think a moment. Then his eyes suddenly lit up.

“It happens just short of the halfway mark.  Maybe, like, forty-five percent in.”

I think he heard me gasp.

Or maybe that was the sound of his story going of the rails.

I shook my head. Then I asked what his hero was doing in those first 160 to 200 pages of the manuscript, before the boom was lowered.

He said, with some amount of confidence, that he was building up the character, showing us his life before he became a professional in the black ops business, adding a lot more backstory. Mostly backstory.

He said this as if he thought it was a good thing.

I asked why he thought the reader would need, or be interested in, all this backstory exposition.

His expression was as if I’d just asked him if his mother looked good with no clothes on.

Because, he explained with the very antithesis of confidence now, that this is what stories do, or at least that’s what he’d been taught they should do. Introduce your hero, show the reader what he does, who he is, position him, create a setting, make us like him, or at least relate to him, and…

I was still shaking my head. Must have been, because his voice simply tailed off into silence.

That’s when I told him I thought he needed a major revision before it would work.

“How can you know that?” he asked. “You haven’t read it yet.”

I get asked that a lot. It’s always the wrong question.

“That’s true,” I replied, “I haven’t read it. I don’t need to read it. Let me ask you this – did you understand my question about when you begin the hero’s core story quest?  The actual plot itself? And was your answer accurate?”

He assured me that he did, and that it was.

And then I told him the ugly, deal-breaking truth:

He’d just violated one of the key principles of fiction: your setup simply cannot take that long. That the optimal place to turn the corner from setup, via something massively significant happening, toward the path that the hero would embark upon in the story, was closer to the twenty percent mark, give or take.

That when it happens, I told him, its called The First Plot Point, and it’s arguably the most important moment in a story – especially a thriller.

He thought a moment, then I saw a light in his eyes.

He said, “Okay, then. I’ve got it. I’ll open with it. Make it a hook.”

Still shaking my head.

While there may eventually be a way to make that work, simply moving the First Plot Point into hook position wasn’t it. The principles of story architecture demand more finesse than that, that the entire reasons for using those principles – so the forces of story, what I call story physics – have a chance to work their magic on the reader in the best possible way.

I explained that, while his story sounded thrilling, he had made a fatal error in waiting that long to pull the trigger on the dramatic core of it all. Because readers are waiting for that moment, and they’ll get impatient if you make them wait nearly half the book to get to it.

“I didn’t know that,” he said. “But it makes mad sense when you say it like that.”

“Mad sense. I kinda like that. That’s exactly right. That’s what the principles of story architecture are… mad sense. Without the madness.”

I suggested that he dig into this to understand these principles, and pointed to the copy of my writing book – one of two – that happened to be on the table next to us. And when he does, I added, he should test it out there in the real world, look for these principles in play within the books he reads and the movies he sees. Especially thrillers.

Seeing it is to believe it.  It’s the best way to learn it.

“So other genres don’t follow this stuff?”

“On the contrary, all the genres follow it. It’s just that in thrillers its usually easier to see. Like, neon flashing graphics kind of easy.”

We discussed this with as much depth as the remaining five minutes would allow, and I sent him away with what seemed like a sense of purpose and, in his words, much gratitude for setting him straight.

He asked me to wish him luck with his agent pitches.

I smiled, forcing a smile, knowing he would need it.

But the story has an epilogue.

Next day I ran into him, this time in front of those elevators. I asked about those pitches. And he was excited to answer.

“Went great! Two agents want a synopsis. I guess they didn’t agree with you.”

Behold, the great head-scratching paradox of confusion on the part of the over-confident, under-enlightened writer. Which comprises a massive percentage of the manuscripts submitted to agents and editors.

Writers who don’t yet know what they don’t know.

Now I was nodding. Not in humble contrition, but with sad certainty. Because if he had written that novel as he described, he was in for a dark journey of frustration.

I asked if he’d told the agents how long his story setup was, how long it took to get to the point in the story where the hero’s core dramatic journey – the quest – came into play.

“No,” he said. “They didn’t ask about that stuff.  They just liked the sound of it.”

They never ask about this stuff.  That’s the problem.  They just reject it when it doesn’t work.

And it doesn’t work if you manhandled the principles.

“Are you going to revise the draft before submitting?” I tossed out as the elevator doors opened.

“Naw. They want pages right away. We’ll see what happens.”

He smiled, as writers often do when they mistake the uncompleted conversation for the one that affirms their limited skill set.

I  wished him luck. Then waited for the next elevator to arrive, even though the one he entered had been otherwise empty.

And so, we switch into teaching mode here.

This is what happens. This is where rejection comes from.

We don’t know what we don’t know. And thus, what we don’t know squashes our dreams.

Story architecture is very much like anything in life that lives or dies by how functional it is. An engine, a first date, your computer… one thousand moving parts can be perfectly tuned and positioned and connected and humming along, but if one single essential thing is off the mark, if it sputters at all, the whole thing will crash and burn.

And the event will be fatal.

Knowing the broad strokes of how a story seems to be constructed isn’t enough. And while you may have heard it before and dismissed it as just one presenter’s opinion – when what we hear contradicts what we have, that’s usually the outcome – it is just as likely that you’ve heard it and haven’t yet fully grasped it.

You need to know what makes a story engine work.

One bad spark plug and the whole thing won’t start, it will remain stillborn. Or it will sputter and die.

Or in the case of those agents, it will be rejected.

If you’re under contract, you’ll be asked to fix it. But if landing an agent or getting a deal is the goal, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Rejection will be the outcome. Makes no difference that they liked the Big Picture of your story in your pitch. You have to perform over the arc of 400 or so pages. All of it.

You have to get it right, all of it, every time.

You have to know what a core story arc is – what your core story arc is – what a hook is, what a setup quartile is, what a first plot point is, and a few dozen other elements and milestones and story beats and criteria, both  plot or character – before has a real shot at working.

At least, working as well as it needs to work in the heat of competition among writers with equally cool story ideas and wonderful prose, just like you, and who are nursing dreams as lofty and urgent as your own.

And then… your version of right needs to glow in the dark.

Which is a function of story theory and story architecture elevated to a fresh, energized, call -the-publisher-now level, via your craft and the inherent conceptually-driven premise upon which you build that story.

Didn’t know that?

You need to. Not knowing will kill you, every time.

****

Want more story fundamentals? They’re waiting for your discovery in by two writing books, “Story Engineering” and “Story Physics.”

If you’d like to see how your story plan compares to professional standards relative to story architecture and conceptual power, click HERE and HERE to learn more.

17 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

17 Responses to Writing Successful Fiction: When What You Don’t Know Trumps What You Do Know

  1. MikeR

    One thing, to me, is clear enough … clear enough to me “just as a Reader.”

    “A Story Is: S-Y-N-T-H-E-T-I-C.” It is: “F-A-K-E.”

    It exists to persuade me that I really ought to pay $4.95 (or whatever) for the privilege of reading it through. Given that I reserve the right to throw it down on the bedside-table in disgust after the first 20 pages if it DOESN’T deliver upon the unspoken promise of “I am here now … en-ter-tain me …”, it exists(!) to be such a wonderful escape from my mundane lunch-hour that I will remember it and speak well of it (at least to my mundane lunch-hour associates) for a long time to come.

    Thus: it must be synthetic. It must be fake. Because only “synthetic fake-ness” could possibly be more concentrated than my lunch-hour … more extreme … thus, more compelling. It must FIRST grab me away from my wretched bowl of microwaved ramen noodles … only THEN can it tell me why … and in so doing, thrill me as to why it actually matters.

  2. Dead on, Larry.

    There’s a thing in screenwriting called the “mini-movie method”, breaking the story into 8 (fairly equal) parts. Some have told me that this proves that the three-act structure is obsolete.

    Then I tell them the hook is in mini-movie 1, the FPP is at the end of MM2, PP1 at the end of MM3, midpoint at the end of MM4, etc.

    It’s all the same, and if it isn’t there, it’s blatantly obvious as soon as you read it.

    It’s so fundamental to my writing now that until I’ve identified what those key points are, I don’t start writing.

    Thanks again.

  3. @ all – my apologies for the handful of typos and outright sloppy mistakes in this post. I wrote it late last night – no excuse – and while I proofed it, that just shows how late night in-the-moment proofing isn’t foolproof. Better to wait a few hours, or until then day, when these things tend to jump out you.

    The trouble with this is that the less-than-glossy version went out via email. The version you see now, here, has hopefully found and corrected those mistakes. Again, my apologies. L.

  4. PsiB

    It’s almost impossible to avoid rejection. This writer will get rejection and rejection and if he keeps at it, hopefully he’ll find his way, and hopefully he’ll find his way that much faster by taking in the strong advice of mentors and teachers that do care and give informed help. Congrats to the writer for making all these steps and facing criticism, even if he’s not able to ‘hear’ all the criticism right away.

    I mean to say, this writer may not have appeared to have ‘taken in’ the advice immediately, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he heard it loud and clear. As much as we’d probably all hate to admit it, sometimes our pride and ego can get in our way. And even in the absence of that, it can still be hard to change course on a dime, especially when one has invested so much in a project and likely spent a lot of money to attend a conference. Sometimes it takes some hard knocks to learn how to deal with such things in the most effective ways. If we could all turn on a dime, we probably would be more robot than human and who wants to read something written by a robot?

    When he gets home, I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts to process what he’s been told and then begins on a new and improved course, thanks to the advice he was given. Or maybe he will process it after a few more hard knocks… but if he really wants to improve and is determines and loves what he’s doing, he will eventually process the information he was given and be a better writer for it. And the next time he receives good advice, I bet he’ll process it even faster until he can process critiques and advice with the best of ’em.

    Even with the best of advice and the hardest work ethic, it can most of us years to develop excellent craft and write something that people are desperate to read.

  5. Robert Jones

    Hopefully that writer will read Larry’s books–provided he got copies from the table. There’s a lot of bad advice and misconceived notions out there. It takes time to sort them out, longer to understand how much of each ingredient to use in the recipe…and where.

    Backstory, if well done, impresses everyone, helps us to understand the characters. I think the problem a lot of people have is they think of backstory as happing linear, as if in real time. There have been some great stories that began with a birth and worked their way up to present, but those are usually literary stories and pretty far and few between even in that category. It doesn’t happen in genre fiction.

    And sifting through half a story before it gets going is a death knell for any novel.

  6. I had the amazing opportunity recently to sit in a workshop led by Andrew Pyper. Eight of us around a table talking about concept, character, outlines and structure. I was delighted that, despite some differences in terminology, so much of what was discussed reaffirmed things I have learned here, in Larry’s books and in the conceptual review he did for me last year.

    Thanks Larry for the tools to keep me from bolloxing up book #2 the way I did book #1.

  7. Kerry Boytzun

    Man oh man, I just LOVED your post, Larry. I can tell you wrote it off the cuff because it had all the key emotion and animation. The post is litterally almost a story.

    One of the wannabe writer’s issues is a lack of awareness. He believes he knows what people want instead of seeking to understand what other people want. This subtle difference will get you killed in life. I’m in IT and have recently gotten into the Cisco technology. My past specialty is Client-Server (your computer talks to servers). Cisco is about the talking–the network communication. I must totally open my mind to my new endeavor regardless of my beliefs. If I don’t I will miss things. I noticed that the network guys mentoring me troubleshoot problems differently than client-server. The difference is subtle but makes the difference between fixing the problem fast, and spinning your wheels.

    I can’t add to what Larry says about story, but I can relate it to a story I heard the other day about a couple of guys who went to Alaska to hunt bears. These guys were all loaded up with rifles and technology to take the bear out, but they made a fatal mistake. They weren’t open-minded (lacked awareness) to how a bear thinks–instead of what humans think a bear thinks. Overall humans think they’re the smartest oxygen sucking life form on the planet and all others are unworthy opponents, either to be eaten, tormented, or made into a pet (glorfied ornament for most). It’s rare a human will look at, in this case, a bear and maybe consider the bear IS just as smart as a human–even though it doesn’t use a smartphone.

    The guy telling me this story says that in Alaska, there is this type of grass that grows fifteen feet tall, is thick, and the moose plow through it to make trails (a moose pretty much does what it wants and goes where it wants). All the other animals use the moose trails made in this grass to navigate. The guy tellling me this saw the moose trails in the grass from a small plane flying overhead as they went from one city to another. The field with the grass was immense. Take note.

    Back to the bear hunters. Our pair of hi-tech Elmer Fudds headed off to go bag’m a bear. Guns beat Bear, right? Especially smart humans. But, these bears aren’t your Canadian Rockies bear that’s raiding the garbage in your car or tent. These beauties are up to a thousand pounds…huge, fast, and will eat pretty much anything.

    The hunters were walking through the moose grass trails to find a bear. In the trails, you can’t see anything but what’s in the trail due to the grass being much higher than you are. It’s like a labyrinth. The two hunters were walking in a single file. Labyrinths are known for having a minotaur or other monsters…just sayin’. But that’s just in mythology, right?

    This labyrinth of fifteen foot tall grass had a real smart bear lounging around. To be more accurate, it was hiding off the hunter’s moose trail in the grass, unseen. Realize that this sneaky bear had made a long, circling walk to hide its own trail. That’s smart Thus, our Elmer Fudds didn’t see the bear’s trail ! Note that the moose made trails criss-cross all over the place so you would miss this bear’s trail. This is intentional on the bear’s point.

    Our Rambo wanna-bes walked past the invisible bear and kept going. That was the beginning of the end. The bear came out of its hidding place onto the moose trail, snuck up on the rear hunter and knocked him down. But that was only half the job. At this point, this bear surprised me because it then ran ahead and took the out the other hunter, and then went back to ensure the first hunter wasn’t getting back up.

    Ninja bear!

    These humans never heard it coming, never saw it coming, and didn’t believe it could be coming. Lack of awareness and know-it-all-itus (false confidence) is what really killed these humans, and will kill your story.

    Kerry

  8. shelley

    Yanno,
    there’s a little controversy here in what you say. Not for me, but it does give one pause for thought.
    I write Ya and my current WIP is mystery/suspense. I’ve heard a great deal of discussion that the reader needs to know and care about the characters before that great plot point. Case in point: If I Stay by Gayle Foreman, which is now a movie.
    The first chapter of this novel is about a regular morning in the life of this teen, her relationships to her parents and sibling and BF. Then the unthinkable happens in the 2nd chapter.
    My novel starts with the first line, in the first chapter. I’ve had it critiqued and out of six professionals, only had one tell me I needed to start earlier because we don’t care about the MC. But it’s still curious to me.
    I write kinda like I read, and that is, you better draw me in right away or I move on to the next book on my TBR stack.
    Thoughts?

  9. Robert Jones

    @Shelly,

    I haven’t read “If I Stay,” but can give you some age old advice so that you can test that, and any other novel.

    We all know that many mysteries begin with a murder before we ever get to meet or care about the victim.

    Allow me to take the other side of the argument that states if a car crashes and the occupants are killed, it moves us on a stronger emotional level if we know the occupants.

    Either way can work if you understand the principles of craft and apply them properly.

    In the case of those immediate deaths, they are usually made to seem very mysterious, brutal, carry some type of emotional resonance with the reader in order to work effectively. The writer will use those murders in a way that plants immediate questions in the mind of the reader. Curiosity is incited by the how, what, or when of the crime…leaving us to ponder why.

    In the case of getting to know a character, care for them prior to their death, it’s fine if the writer can use the frst chapter to set that up, provided the chapter is short. If it goes on for 20 page or more, then something ominous needs to be planted, something that arouses curiosty, makes the reader feel something unpleasant is going to happen–which makes us want read along to find out what. Maybe even hoping it doesn’t occur.

    First lines are great places to incite a reader’s curiousity, or grab their attention, even place a hook if possible. The best opening lines lure reader’s into the story. I went over to Amazon and read the first line (actually the first two lines that comprise the first paragraph) of “If I Stay.” Here they are for anyone who, like me, hasn’t read the book:

    Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

    This is not the best opening line, or hook–but it does give the reader an indication that something is going to happen. Possibly because of the snow–hey, snow is considered dangerous all the time in the news forecast–and this rings a bit ominous within our minds. And that’s exactly what any clever craftsman will do up front…or at least as quickly as possible in any story. You want to plant the seed that incites curiosity, raises questions that demand answers. Then the readers will follow through setting up the disaster, provided it doesn’t occur on page 38. If you go past page 20, that’s usually death for any writer who doesn’t have a following already. That’s why you can’t always take your cues from big name writers. It’s okay if Stephen King gets a bit loose with craft. But the rest of us can’t afford to.

  10. Robert Jones

    P.S.

    I also thought I might mention that if you’re taking an entire chapter to set of a murder, the aspects shown of the victim’s life had better be important to what happens in the rest of the story. If you’re taking all that time just to make the reader care because the victim is a kind and loving person, then we might have to chat about that. A chapter, or even a scene, all needs to play a part in the story as a whole. It has to do more than simply show us a caring personality. Which can be done in ways that are much shorter than a chapter.

    Example: A woman is seen early in the morning leading her daughter by the hand and making sure gets safely on the school bus. Do we think she’s a kind mother by witnessing that act? If you need more, how about she kisses her hubby goodbye, reminding him not to be late because it’s little Susan’s birthday and you only turn six once.

    If this woman then gets in her car to go to the store because she can’t resist buying just one more birthday present–do we want tragedy to befall her?

    These are all examples of quick characterization. It doesn’t take a lot of time to make us feel like we could be friends with this woman, trust our own children in her care. If the writer plans on killing her off, we will feel bad. And not just for her, but the husband and daughter as well.

    If it takes the entire chapter for her to get to that store, then whatever happens next has to have relevance later in the story or the writer risks losing the reader by wasting time with mundacity. Cleaning the house, baking the birthday cake, decorating…all that would seem extraneous, thus tax the reader’s attention.

    On the other hand, if the writer shows us the woman writing a letter before she leaves the house and signing a name other than what her husband called her, or shown on the mailbox when she took her child to the bus, then that might be something necessary to show us. Or a clever writer might show her doing something that looks mundane, but later in the plot we discover it had a deeper purpose. That would also be a good reason to delay the inevitable.

    In short, everything a writer does is calculated for effect. It all serves the larger story in some way or it’s waste and needs to be cut. No writer worth their salt takes an entire chapter just to make us care. That may look like the overriding message, but I guarantee it’s just one message in a much craftier scenario than what the average reader first deems it to be.

  11. Kerry Boytzun

    What Robert said…as in “relevance”, the most powerful and underused concept in life.

    Solving a Sherlock Holmes crimes is only done by taking the abstract and discarding what isn’t relevant to keep what is. Creating new inventions follow the same path. In fixing computer network problems, we want to know what caused the problem and what we had to do to solve the problem–all of this is relevant, and we don’t care about what is not relevant. The legal system works (is supposed to…) on what is relevant.

    My wife would say, duh! But yet I constantly read books that are full of irrelevant information. Not to mention that it wouldn’t hurt for your relevant information to be INTERESTING.

    Supposed you walk into a public bathroom and you see a purse lying on the floor. There’s nobody in the bathroom, and it’s 2AM, with nobody around outside either. The purse is wet with blood, and it still has the wallet and cash in it. The drivers license shows a female human, and the bathroom you’re in–is the mens. Now that you notice, the door handle to exit (same door you came in) is wet with blood and there’s a good sized splatter of blood on the wall next to the door.

    Did I describe the rest of the bathroom, the tile, the lights, and what it smelled like? **Only if it would be relevant. Sure create your ambiance, but as Elmore Leonard said, “less is more, and your reader’s imagination can fill in what’s left out…plus you shouldn’t write what everyone skims over–edit that crap out.” Pretty much Leonard has said that.

    So a first chapter regardless of genre must be interesting and relevant–to the rest of the story, and you need to have chapter one interesting enough to want us to read–chapter two.

    As for human interaction, make the scene reveal behavior, attitudes, and beliefs that are relevant to the story. This is actually what gossip is all about. Gossip is never about anything that is not interesting and what IS included with gossip is what is relevant to the point worth gossiping. For example, that Joe Blow is an asshole to his coworkers but he was caught on his knees paying his dues to his boss–in the conference room. Did you ask what he was wearing? No. Did I mention that the person telling the gossip story happens to run the security cameras and these guys forgot about the camera? Revenge anyone? Blackmail maybe?

    Keep the scene simple and the structure complex like Larry teaches.

    Good one, Robert.

    Kerry

  12. Robert Jones

    Thanks, Kerry.

    Sol Stein once said that writers need to choose their best images and make a little stand for a lot. If one great image can do it, fine. If not, take two or three.

    Story telling isn’t easy…in any medium. I studied “Narrative Art,” the kind of sequential story telling for illustrating story boards or comic books. The same thing applies there. The old “When in doubt, leave it out” rule comes to mind. Some artists, like writers, are naturally prone to adding detail everywhere. But the problem is, if you pretty the panels up in a story telling sequence, the story doesn’t flow very well. Even if the detail is magnificent, the reader stops to admire that fine array of detail–and while taking it all in the narrative comes to a screaching halt.

    The same thing applies to writing. If you have more than a few details that comes to mind, train yourself to use only the best ones up front in establishing a shot. It doesn’t mean you can’t jot the other details down somewhere because after a few paragraphs or dialogue exchanges, you’ll need to re-establish your scene. Meaning, you can slip in a little more detail later on. Because after those few paragraphs or dialogue exchanges, you can’t leave the reader hanging totally in limbo either.

    Sure, they read your description up front at the beginning of the scene, but imagine a movie that shows you a great establishing shot of the location in the onset of a scene, then plays the remainder of it out with close-ups of talking heads. That would become just as tedious and boring as giving a huge amount of detail up front.

    Readers take in details best a little at a time. Don’t overtax them or stop your story by giving them too much to admire at in a single sip. But don’t rely on them remembering where they are if a scene goes on for several pages. Because they can get just as bored with talking heads, non-stop action, or too few details.

    A good example of this we’ve all experienced is a writer who goes on at length with dialogue. They’ve forgotten readers are turning pages. They’ve gone so far in leaving things out that we don’t even have “he said” or “she said.” And we end up counting lines of dialogue to see who said what.

    There has to be a balance. A good rule of thumb is to make sure there’s something visual on every page of your manuscript. And in dialogue, don’t let it go on for more than a few exchanges without a reminder of who is speaking.

    Getting a little bit off topic here. However, I think for those who grasp this and then go back to the writer Larry was talking about who went on for half his novel just to establish his backstory, I think you might get the idea of just how rediculously extraneous it would be to lump in any large amount of detail like that up front. And to do it all before the story even begins is the same as giving a load of detail before a scene begins. Whether it’s details about a character, or a location, what applies to any part of fiction usually applies to the rest.

    Think of each piece of the big picture of any story as a jigsaw puzzle. Each individual piece is one small sip of the lager story as a whole. It’s pieced together and digested best by making sure the details on all levels of story are sprinkled in a little bit at a time over the course of the entire story.

    None of it is random. For those of us who have been here a while and understand the different criteria for each section of story structure, we understand that to throw too much of something where it doesn’t belong, or too much of anything all at once, the balance is lost. And so is the story no matter how much hard work we put into the rest of it, no matter how great the ideas. Execution is as much an art as any other part of the story.

  13. Jason Waskiewicz

    There is a lot of power in knowing about story structure, and I have found a lot of power in outlining first. I know I need to cut some more set-up before the first plot-point, but that outline means I only need to do some cutting, not restructuring.

    But the larger lesson from this post is the importance of being aware of story structure. It may go by different names, but it is pretty universal. It would be like a musician being unaware of notes and time signatures. Maybe they’ll get lucky, but more likely they’ll just make noise. Of course, there is plenty of room for talent. I know music, but I’ll never be a musician.

    In any field, it is so important to know craft. The writer in this story did not know craft. There are lots of books out there and even free internet sources that are all about craft and give essentially the same message as Mr. Brooks, even if they use different names for the parts.

    But, there are a lot of people out there who think anyone can write. I get that in my field a lot (teaching). And their advice is tempting, especially because rejection can say to the writer, “No one out there understands my brilliance. But they will. I just need to find the right publisher.” Hopefully failure will speak to them, but it may not. It took me 9 failed novels before I finally thought, “Hey, maybe I should do something different.” Others never get this revelation.

  14. Barry Knister

    Hello Larry.

  15. Barry Knister

    Hi Larry.
    This is my first visit to your blog, which makes leaving a comment a little presumptuous. But that never seems to stop me.
    Although I am generally skeptical when writing coaches/experts/gurus put on white coats and treat fiction writing as a lab science (story architecture, story engineering, story physics), I’m pretty sure the lessons you offer make sense.
    But something is missing from your fictionalized dialogue with a student. Other than a link to your own how-to manuals, I see no reference to any books. Whether or not the student ever existed anywhere but in your imagination, wouldn’t you ask him what thrillers he liked best? Assuming he read at all, the student would name some titles, one or more of which you are familiar with. You could then have pointed out to him how and why that book succeeded where his own was doomed.

  16. Robert Jones

    Hi Barry,

    Larry discusses a lot of books and movies he likes throughout. A good place to start and find out why they work is to read his deconstructions of some of those works. Look in the column to the right of your computer screen, or use the search using “Deconstruction” as a keyword. And be sure to let us all know what you think. There’s nothing presumptuous about giving an opinion or asking questions. That’s how we all learn. Feel free to tell us about your own likes and dislikes as well. Some of us would like more people to post more actively and discuss such things more widely because we also learn by sharing our experiences with one another.

    BTW, even if you don’t especially like the choices of stories for deconstruction, the knowledge is still there within the context. Sometimes you can learn more from a book you don’t particularly care for. Understanding why a novel that may seem like it’s written badly still got in print can be a real eye opener. Proper story structure can be a key ingredient that makes even less than fantastic writers look more professional. It’s that way in all the arts. People have various degrees of what we might think of as “talent.” Learning the lingo–things like proper formatting and structure–can make a huge difference. The rest is persistence and practice.

    I remember a saying on an editor’s wall that frequently comes to mind whenever I start thinking of badly written stories or films. It listed three things:

    1) You’re very good at what you do.

    2) You always meet your deadlines.

    3) You’re a very nice person.

    Below it is said: “Pick any two and you’ll get work.”

    Meaning, if you’re nice and make friends easily, reliable, but not altogether a great talent, your persistence will usually still pay off at some point.

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