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.