Your Story… On Steroids

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by Larry Brooks on December 13, 2010

Steroids for writers.  Hmmm… what an interesting notion.

A magic pill that will make you stronger, faster, better and more successful, almost immediately.

I’ve got just the ticket for you.  And it’s not even illegal, immoral or, once you let go of some old school brainwashing, controversial. 

In fact, it’s not even debatable.

This is the dirty little secret of writing fiction.

You’ve been looking for something to take you to the next level.  To put you into the game.  Do this, and do it right, and your learning curve will go vertical, and your career will suddenly kick into a higher gear.

It won’t give you talent.  But it will unleash the talent you have.

Here’s a tough truth: if you don’t go for this idea, you’ll have to find another way to discover and inject into your brain the exact same things it’ll do for  you… only it’ll take you years, even decades to get there.

What same things?  If you have to ask… you need this steroid.

This steroid changes you almost immediately.  Overnight if you’re a fast reader.  No, I’m not selling you my book or ebooks here.  I’m pointing you toward a strategy that just might be the most significant milestone in your fiction writing learning curve.

Guessed it yet?  I bet not.  That’s because…

It’s not what you signed up for. 

It might even offend your very expensive grad school aesthetic sensibilities.  You might consider this akin to learning how to whip up a perfect Pomodori Secchi e Basilia sauce (sundried tomato and basil, after a year of cooking school in Paris) by first learning how to bread chicken.

Or, you think that because you’ve taken all the workshops and written a rather significant pile of manuscripts, that your learning curve is moot and it’s just a matter of time for you.

If that’s you, I submit to you that it may be this very skewed sensibility that is holding you back.

It doesn’t make you better if it takes you years to discover what’s at the core of this craft.  It only makes you a slow learner.

Because you can discover it almost immediately.  If you know where to look.  (Yes, I know this reads like one of those red-ink splattered sales letters… that’s by design, because I want you drooling for this by the time I reveal it.) 

Are you ready to let go of your critique group  promulgated, let-the–characters-speak-to-you mumbo jumbo approach to storytelling, and cut smack to the sweet spot of dramatic and narrative truth?  The physics of dramatic narrative?

Quick side note: characters don’t talk to you.  Never have.  That voice of dissent and resistance is your inner intuitive storyteller telling you there’s a better narrative path ahead.  That you’re heading down the wrong road, or least not the best available road.

And by the way, this same phenomenon is every bit as available in a pre-story planning phase as it is mid-draft.  And in that case, the consequences of listening don’t force you to trash dozens of pages or commit to a less than linear or logical path.

But I digress.  Back to your storytelling steroid shot.

Are you tired of trying to stuff a cloud into a sandwich bag, sweep a puddle into a colander or build a house made of pink ribbons and ice cream? 

Does your Big Idea flame out around page 90?

Has the muse been ignoring you lately? 

After this steroid shot, you can fire her fickle ass and get on with the business of furthering your writing career.

Here it is.

It can be defined in two words: study screenwriting.

Even if you not a movie person. 

I’m not talking about becoming a screenwriter here – that’s a different drug altogether – I’m talking about knowing what screenwriters know.

It’s the same stuff you need to know.  Identical.  Only in screenwriting, they start there.  They don’t circle this wagon like they do in novel-focused learning, they use it as the basis of everything.

I’m talking about structure.  About pacing.  About setting things up to optimize reader involvement.  About sub-text, character arc and thematic resonance.

It isn’t rocket science.  But it IS screenwriting.

This works.  Even if you believe that a novel is a five year commitment to drafting and sweating blood in context to nothing more than some mythical muse – the one you can now demote – speaking to you from deep within your subconscious.

The muse doesn’t know what makes a story work any more than gasoline knows what makes an engine run.

No, you have to light it on fire before it produces energy.

The muse is just an idea that excites you.  Which are a dime a dozen and worthless without… well, knowing what screenwriters know.

Screenwriting basics are the match for that fire.  Screenwriting basics are, in essence, storytelling on steroids.

And they absolutely can and will make any novelist better.  Immediately.

Here’s why.

No matter where you stand on the issue of storytelling structure, dramatic theory, the presence and criteria of six discreet yet interdependent core competencies and the complete and the utter unfairness of the wavering bar that comprises the publishing business, this is true:

All successful stories have the same set of fundamental essences and forces in common.  Identical literary physics residing beneath what appears to be – and should be – very unique and completely original outer layers of narrative content, context and voice.

There are no exceptions.

The next commercially successful story you encounter that you may consider to be outrageously original will, in fact, be built upon these very same fundamental essences and forces. 

Do you know what they are?  You may think you do, but… are you published?  If not, why not?  You know you can spin sentences and concoct ideas with the guys in the window at Barnes & Noble, so… why not?

It’s not because the world isn’t fair.  It is, perhaps, because you don’t fully understand what screenwriters learn in Week One and published novelists who haven’t studied screenwriting have managed to wrap their mind around, usually over many years.

Study screenwriting and you can wrap your head around it in just a few days.

It’s almost literally the equivalent of steroids for your writing muscles.

Stories are just like people. 

Take away the clothing and the skin and disregard height and weight — all that exterior stuff — and we all pretty much look identical on the inside.  Because people and stories are built identically in the inside. 

Same organs, in the same place, for the same reasons.

When one of them breaks, we hurt, we limp and we die.

Same deal with the stories we write.

It is our hearts and souls and programmed socialization that makes us unique in an infinite number of ways, and that is analogous to what the writer brings to the inherent, commonly-held and commonly-bound physics of storytelling. 

It is why no two stories are every really the same.

Screenwriting will teach you this faster, quicker and better than any writing workshop you’ve ever attended.  Because…

Screenwriting is rooted in the fundamental physics of dramatic narrative.  The forces that make a story work.

Traditional novel-writing methodologies don’t go anywhere near them without veiled, imprecise terminology often dripping with literary pretension. 

Right up there with: listen to your characters when they speak to you.

They don’t have to speak to you if you know how and where to lead them.

Screenwriting is almost all narrative craft.  Read a script sometime, you may find the eloquence of a grocery list (or, you may find genius).  Either way, writing style is never the point.

Novel writing… the grocery list doesn’t stand a chance.  And yet, too many new novelists have this exactly backwards.  They are obsessed with narrative skin and the exterior realm of an idea.  The one the muse fed them.

Novel writing aspires to art.   As if craft somehow manifests by the mere aspiration to art. 

But literary art is nothing more than craft taken to a level of excellence at which – like great architecture, sculpture and staying married for more than ten years – assumes a veneer of awe. 

Art is really just craft done better than pretty much anyone else at the writing seminar can do it. 

The muse left the room the moment the actual storytelling process began. 

At that point, you need to take over.

If your muse was a screenwriter, she’d stick around to make sure you do this right.

How to inject this steroid into your storytelling bloodstream. 

No needles are required.

Read the book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field.  A better title would have been: Screenplay: The Foundations of Storytelling, Period.

That’s the only book you need to gain access to this steroid.  There are many others that cover the same ground, including my stuff, but none with the clarity of entry-level illumination quite like Field’s.  He didn’t invent it, he just gave it amazing and empowering access.

The initial resistance to the notion of this steroid at this point,at least for some writers, is the completely erroneous belief that storytelling for film is somehow different than storytelling for novelists.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  It’s only different on the outside.  The guts of it are identical.  The fundamental physics – the forces and structure that make a story work – are the same.  And if you can’t bring yourself to quite believe that, continue reading and then do it, and you’ll discover this to be true.

You may never look at a film, or a novel, quite the same way again.  And hopefully, you’ll never write one the same old unpublished way again.

You may want to get your hands on a few actual scripts to see this implemented with your own eyes.

Then, or in place of actually reading a script or two, start watching movies in context to what you’ve learned.  You’ll be blown away by what you see. 

After that, start applying these very same physics to the novels you read.  You’ll find them valid there, as well, hidden among all the eloquence and wit and poetic and/or snarky genius of the narrative.

Yep, everyone from Stephen King to Jonathan Franzen (I found Franzen’s First Plot Point on precisely the exact page it is supposed to appear, according to basic dramatic theory, in his current #1 bestseller… I’ll leave the cause and effect of that to you) to Janet Evanovich is already doing what you’ve just discovered.  Already implementing what screenwriters know at the most basic, elemental level of storytelling. 

Finally, apply those principles to the novels you write.

Quick note — do this discovery with modern commercial films and books.  Don’t expect Bill Shakespeare or Leo Tolstoy to become your contrarian banner wavers.  You can’t write like them or their immortalized peers, and nobody is publishing them, either, so how they wrote their stories is a moot point.

Trust me, you’ll get a rush from this steroid. 

It’ll be like the curtain rising on your writing future.  Like a massive light bulb the size of a stadium tower going off in your brain.

Precious few screenwriters know how to write a novel.  Frankly, they’re too busy chasing real money in the movie business to sit down and bang out 400 pages, when for them, 120 pages might make them rich.  Only a few do both, because only a few can.

But you, the novelist, are already in possession of that which can’t easily be taught: the sensibility of artfully combined thoughts and words.  When you add that to what the screenwriter knows – and what published novelists know, too, though perhaps without calling it what it is or giving credit where credit is due – your future suddenly looks much different.

Like an athlete on steroids.  Only you’re not cheating.

Look in the mirror.  That suddenly buff, confident, beaming literary athlete staring back at you with a grin that says it’s time to crush it out of the ballpark…

… that’s you.  Because now you know.

Once you know, you’ll never go back.  Or backwards.  You can’t unlearn this.

And you won’t ever be asked to testify before Congress, I guarantee.

Have you experienced the breakthrough realization taught by screenwriting, or perhaps through the applied six core competencies model presented here on Storyfix?  Please share your experience with writers who are holding on to their old school resistance.

They’re out there.  It’s up to us to save them from years of plotting and plodding in the dark.

Over at the wonderful ProcrastinatingWriters.com, Jennifer has written a killer review (insert blush here) of my latest ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published.”  Hope you’ll check it out.

(Storyfix is an Amazon.com affiliate, but only when you buy something from a link here.  Otherwise they’re on their own… and I hear they’re doing fine.)

{ 19 comments }

Elise Stephens December 13, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Hi Larry,

Thanks for making this emphasis. I am a fiction writer who was recently introduced to studying screenwriting for the purpose of understanding general story structure.

I have found it enormously helpful to study some well-written movies such as Tootsie and Casablanca and watch the way the structure of the writing makes everything lead seamlessly into the next act or scene.

I am currently working my way through Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which was written for screenwriters, and I’ve added Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting to my list.

I appreciate you taking the time to make a “hard sale” out of this concept that novelists should study screenwriting. I think there are a lot of writers (myself included) who need to keep hearing this.

Patrick Sullivan December 13, 2010 at 6:48 pm

I picked up Field’s book when I first saw you mention it a year plus ago. It’s an amazing read and I learned a ton from it, totally agree on how amazing it is.

Also recently picked up Dramatic Writer’s companion by Will Dunne which seems promising. Still early in it since I’m splitting time between finishing my novel (so close, just need to go back and do the parts I skipped for draft one to finish), reading to stay current in the genre, and day job… but what I’ve read so far is fascinating and also very applicable to novel writing.

I tried reading Dramatica but it’s so dense and feels mostly like fluff but I may give it another spin when I have the time to really sit down and make notes/digest it, since some people have claimed it’s the next evolution of Syd Field/McKee/etc. But the free ebook is 300+ DENSE pages so it’s tough going. Well, that and right now I’m trying to work on some of my nuts and bolts stuff before I go back and do another round at that level (books on scene construction, dialogue, etc are waiting for me to work through while doing my edit that’s planned for early January).

@Elise – I actually have Vogler’s book on my list of writing books to pick up sooner rather than later, it seems intriguing and from what I hear it’s basically Joseph Campbell distilled into something much more immediately useful to writers, which appeals to me greatly.

Pinbot December 13, 2010 at 6:59 pm

The timing of this post is uncanny! I just finished reading Save the Cat and Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder before taking a fresh look at my WIP. It was like somebody finally cleaned the Vaseline out of my eyes!

I’m not sure if I agree that you have to hit the page numbers exactly as you would in a screenplay. However, if you aim for it, and miss by a just a little, you’re going to have a much tighter structure than you would have otherwise. The most important part, is that you learn what elements you absolutely need and why you need them. Where exactly they go, is a bonus.

Larry December 13, 2010 at 7:06 pm

@Pinbot — I agree completely with your comment about exact page/percentage spotting for story milestones in novels. You said it best: if you’re in the neighborhood you can be confident you are solid. This truth also disarms the “formulaic” pushback that I hear from some writers who resist the structural princples (or even scarier, who have never heard of them), and I always like to stress the “liberty” novelists have with this paradigm. What they don’t have is the liberty to reinvent one of their own, and it’s darn hard to find a novel and especially a film that doesn’t align with these princples. Thanks for commenting on this. L.

J. Dane Tyler December 13, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Larry, you ARE the man, dude. This information is so SPOT-ON and incredibly informative. I’m off to Amazon after that link.

Thank you for calling this stuff out.

Shane Arthur December 13, 2010 at 8:29 pm

@Larry: Have you read Save The Cat? I’ve hear nothing good about this book, but have not bought it yet. If you say Field’s is better than this, I’ll take your word on it.

Screenwriting allows us to See Story Structure Demystified. Movies don’t have a week to hook people like books do, so they have to be on steroids. This is why I love seeing movies and seeing story structure demystify QUICKLY in front of my eyes. Better study guide in my opinion.

Cyndi Tefft December 13, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out!

Cyndi

Tony McFadden December 14, 2010 at 5:03 am

I can’t agree more. Scales from the eyes material. I drove my son nuts for six months after I discovered story structure on your site. Every movie we watched I’d be pointing out the plot points and pinch points and commenting on the fact that they were in exactly the right place until he finally told me he didn’t want to watch movies with me any more.

And while good structure won’t make a good story (there are the 5 other elements) bad structure will sink it.

Just to check, the current, almost finished WIP plots out like this:

FPP 23979 25.23% [25%]
pinch point1 36000 37.88% [37.5%]
midpoint 48118 50.62% [50%]
pinch point2 59780 62.89% [62.5%]
SPP 70804 74.49% [75%]

[square brackets] indicating what the screenplay structure says the locations should be.

Not surprisingly (because we’ve come to expect it after decades of watching and reading the same structure) it flows quite well.

THanks once again Larry. I’m part of the choir.

Tony

Made in DNA December 14, 2010 at 7:02 am

I studied comic script writing (in order to write a script or two — which I successfully completed) and I wrote four short Twitter novels (which published on Amazon this month). Talk about stepping into worlds that are vastly different from straight prose fiction writing. I believe that they, along with Lester Dent’s Secret formula for writing (http://thelastreveal.blogspot.com/2010/02/lester-dents-master-plot-formula.html) punched up my skills because they forced me to look at my fiction in a bare bones manner without losing integrity, plot or the fun.

Judy Migliori December 14, 2010 at 8:33 am

I didn’t hesitate – I ordered Syd Field’s book on screenwriting. Another great screenwriting book as mentioned earlier is Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat – wonderful. Blake Snyder also highly recommended Syd Field’s book. Because I followed the link on your site to Amazon to order the screenwriting book I hope this means you get some kind of payback because I devour your advice, have one of your ebooks and am on the waiting list for your new book through Writer’s Digest coming out in February. You’re incredible!!!!

Martha December 14, 2010 at 9:32 am

Syd Field’s book is ‘way better than Blake Synder’s “Save the Cat”. I have always felt that screenwriting books are the most helpful craft books. They cut through all the pretension and focus on what Larry has been teaching all these years about the architecture of a good, dramatic story.
Lately, I’ve also been reading play scripts and learning from them. In a play, the story and its drama are conveyed by dialogue and character only. Studying how the masters do it is very instructional. Thanks, Larry, for bringing this important information to us all.

Curtis December 14, 2010 at 10:02 am

Larry,
You are generous to avoid mentioning that this argument ended in 2001 with the advent of Nielson Bookscan.

World wide book sales numbers tracked at the point of sale. i.e. the cash register. No shocker. Structured anything has taken the day.

Not that it matters, but My “Bible” on this subject has only the following sources in the Canon.
1. Storyfix
2. Sid’s book
3. “Story” by Robert McKee. I’m surprised his book has not been mentioned. It is Sid’s book on mescaline.
McKee’s discussion of “character vs characterization” is worth the price of the book. Basically, I could toss everything else on my shelf.

The other writing books on my shelf lean, intended or not, toward the ” inspirational” side of things. Fun when I want to have a chat with a writer about writing. But, not so good when I’m trying to solve a problem getting my story down the road.

Looking forward to your CC in February. Since I’m sure it will a Storyfix that I can take to bed, it is already in the Canon.
Cheers.

Bruce H. Johnson December 14, 2010 at 10:15 am

Yes, “literary physics.” Once we get really good at the traditional physics, maybe we could put in a few twists. But in the meantime, better stick with what works; the Universe isn’t quite so likely to whack us along side the head.

A good blog I’ve found on screenwriting and fiction writing is by Alexandra Sokoloff at http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/ Her Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebooks is excellent.

Screenwriting methodology, Six Core Competencies, et. al., are the scales, finger exercises and the basics of the music virtuoso. No virtuoso has become one without mastering those Craft skills thoroughly.

Luckily, we as fiction writers don’t have to practice quite that hard so the Craft becomes “instinctive.” Yet, we must keep to the What we do (the Craft). We can use beat sheets, outlines, synopsis, and all those tools to ensure we don’t wander into that black hole of oblivion by violating the laws of literary physics.

Maybe once we’ve got enough published (by however method) and sold works, that part of the Craft could become “instinctive.” On the other hand, don’t count on going all “Stephen King” (who is rumored to be a pantser) on that new blank page of your word processor.

Margo Lerwill December 14, 2010 at 10:51 am

Another great post. I can’t tell you how many quotes I wish I could use in tough love motivational posters for writers.

Megan Sayer December 14, 2010 at 1:35 pm

I watched “Inception” the other night with my husband – poor man – the first movie I’ve seen since reading back through your blog.

I watched the clock. “Oh LOOK! It’s the mid-point contextual shift! They’re gonna up the stakes now!”. And they did! They even told me so in the dialogue.

This is INCEPTION, one of the best and most complex movies I’ve seen for a long time, and they followed the “rules”.

So thanks, I guess, for this new knowledge. It’s certainly making my writing stronger, although family movie time may be a little less enjoyable for those around me : )

Mike Lawrence December 15, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Larry,

This is so true! Studying screenwriting totally clarified story telling for me. For years on end, I read about plot, characters, theme, and all the usual suspects regarding writing fiction. It all helped me write interesting scenes, but not good *stories*.

Once I started studying screenwriting and deconstructing movies, it all fell into place in terms of structure. Why books and classes about fiction writing don’t do this is beyond me. It’s like teaching music theory without talking about chord progression.

Anyway, good stuff!

Mike Lawrence December 15, 2010 at 3:28 pm

@Megan: I do the exact same thing. Wife always gets a very lucid play by play as the movie progresses.

“Well, Don, we haven’t seen the antagonist in a while and you know what that means.”

“That’s right Bob, we should be seeing the second plot point any minute now. [beat] and there it is!”

Not quite that bad, but the effect is the same. There should be a support group.

Sammi December 16, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I, too, am a compulsive story analyzer. I try to avoid watching movies on TV if at all possible because the commercials make it too hard to time. My boyfriend has learned to put up with me constantly hitting the info button on my DVD player. Luckily he’s a critic at heart so it doesn’t bother him too badly.

Nard4Reynard January 19, 2011 at 5:29 am

Ok… so the point is read something about screenwriting, right?

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