Your Story: It’s All in the Mix

Mixer board

You may be aware of my penchant for analogies.  A tool that paints a clear picture of the complexities and choices and skillsets involved in writing a great story.  I did a workshop this weekend and managed to cram about eight of them into a single 50-minute lecture.

Only one person fled the room.

I do this because I like mental models.  Writing a story is not, in my view, intuitively complex – although that’s a false mask, the truth is it is magnificently complex – and yet it is the absence of complexity that can render a story flat and vanilla. 

So when we compare storytelling to other avocations and tasks that seem, at a glance, to be linear and singular in focus, and discover that success at the professional level depends on the mastery of nuance, balance, harmony, complexity and the unspoken… all rendered with the touch of an artist, those examples become windows of learning for us, we who are storytellers.

It is that mastery of nuance that imbues the work with artfulness. 

Without it, craft only takes you so far.

So consider this: writing a story casts you in several critical roles: designer… architect… general contractor (big picture)… craftsman (for the detail work; use of the word here intended to be gender-free, by the way;)… and – don’t short-change yourself by taking this one for granted – engineer.

You are the producer of your story.  Before, during and after your role as the composer and artist of your story.

Here’s the analogy of the day: this dynamic parallels the means by which music is composed, compiled and rendered to a hard disk in a studio. 

If you’ve seen a mixing board in a professional studio, you know it competes with the cockpit of the space shuttle in complexity and options.  More knobs, gauges, levers and buttons than one who is not a sound engineer could possibly comprehend.  And yet, to the engineer, they are all viable candidates in the ultimate mix, each controlling some nuance of the whole, each subject to artful taste and a vision for the end product.

The touch of an artist, extending that of the composer and the performer.

Notice, too, how in this analogy nobody is playing with those knobs all that much while the musicians are jamming behind the glass.  No, the mixing takes place after the tracks have been laid down… which parallels our process of revising and polishing our stories after we’ve discovered them via planning or through drafting.

A great story is just too complex to pour out of your head as a fully nuanced whole without consideration, after the discovery of the story, of the mix.

Facing the variables in your story.

Here’s a list, off the top of my head. 

Certainly not complete – mixing boards come in all sizes. 

You can create music by attending to only a few of the myriad sliding levers, or you can consider them all… some get a nudge, others are jacked up to eleven. 

It’s always your call. 

And while some of those choices are made in the studio while the tracks are being laid down, most often the genius touch of the engineer comes forth in the mix, turning the live performance into harmonic, layered perfection.

Okay, that list.  Here are the knobs on your story mixing board:

Conceptual strength and focus… originality… a fresh twist… leveraging the familiar… scene strategy… chapterization… arena… setting… time-frame… social context… credibility… genre… target readers… marketability… visualization…

…dramatic tension… story complexity… layering… degree and nature of set-up… power of the hook… context… stakes… sub-plot… sub-text… pre—plot point worldview… sequencing… twists… plot points… pinch points… the mid-point…

… the whole row of knobs and sliders that comprise story structure… (opening, prologue, hook, part one, plot point one, part two, first pinch point, mid-point, part three, second pinch point, second plot point, part four, denouement, close, epilogue)…

… antagonistic nature… antagonistic force… that backstory… bad guy’s goals and motivations… obstacles offered… obstacles encountered… the dark game plan… antagonistic metaphor… window into life itself…

… hero backstory… inner demons and obstacles… character arc… the hero’s journey… the hero’s need… the hero’s stakes… the shifting landscape of the story… secondary characters… catalytic characters… background characters… sidebar moments… flashbacks… fast-forwards…

… imagery… point… counter-point… theme… vicariousness… empathy… likeability… or not… emotion… meaning… relevance… hypothesis… history… fact vs. fiction… legality… gray areas… sex… violence… reader manipulation…

…voice (first person? third person?  both?)… volume… harmony… humor… point of view… backgrounds… foregrounds… dialogue… exposition… pace…

… outcome.

That’s a lot of little knobs and sliders to consider. 

Each one an entire workshop.  No wonder it can take years to even crack the surface of an understanding of this thing we call storytelling.

Each one is addressed in context to what took place behind the glass, where the voices and instruments are: melody, harmony, structure, tonality, emotion, musicianship, voice.

All those knobs, staring up at you.  Waiting to be set just so.  Hoping they won’t be ignored, because if they are, they’ll set themselves in context to the rest of the settings, and do so at a lowest common denominator.

You are the story engineer.  Before, during and after you are the author of the story itself.  At some point they become one in the same. 

Just know that when you change hats, and how, will make a significant difference in how your story ultimately works.

Check out my latest guest post, now up at The Chicken-Egg Paradox of Storytelling.  There are links to five other guest posts at the bottom of the page.

Image courtesy of Samuel M. Livingston.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

16 Responses to Your Story: It’s All in the Mix

  1. Lovin’ the new text size. Content rocks too. As always.

  2. I like this analogy. So the musicians are really the muse and there has to be cooperation between the muse and the engineer.
    The musicians, as the muses, are the raw talent and that blast of story in the primary concept. They may even be able to stand on a stage and deliver a good performance. BUT without the engineer, the mixer, recording and refining the muse into a perfected product for distribution, it will just be musicians on a stage to an audience of one.
    OR, to take it one step farther, the musicians are the synopsis. 😀
    Great post as always.

  3. Great analogy. Reading this makes me feel less bad when I have to tell my non-writer friends that no, I have not finished my story, yet. They may not understand, but at least I do. Good things really do take a heck of a lot of time!

  4. Pingback: The multi-faceted: The writer « Deb E

  5. spinx

    I’m a director (who also writes the script!).

    And I am so powerful and powerhungry that I also do the casting, down to the guy who flips the burgers.

    I film so many scenes, from so many different angles – to my hearts delight – only to then take that load of material to the cutting room.

    THAT`S where my movies are made.

    Cut, cut and cut – specialeffects, a super tracklist, and VOILA—-my ten hours of material have been neatly cut, polished adn edited into something that actually makes sense.

    (I love the way your new posts flow, Larry ;t)

  6. Thought provoking and insightful, as usual. Thank you for the analogies! I need them.

  7. Laureli

    You’re right on with your analogies Larry. The professional realm is something the beginning writer either can’t completely conceive of (and therefore forges ahead with gusto), or CAN conceive, and therefore hits the blank page like a wall – or perhaps they just get drunk on their own words.
    Unless there is someone like you, offering guidance at every step and turn to make sense of it all, to keep it in order, to help develop all the nuance…
    We have a music room with a flute, a few harmonicas, 5 different electric guitars, a banjo and two acoustic guitars, amps, mikes, and an old ‘simple’ keyboard – with options that range from ‘underwater’ reverberations (with the ‘ping’ of a submarine if you wish), to what sounds like crystal snow or stars, falling in outer space, choral voices (like angels), honkytonk piano or the haunting sound of the viola (string instruments). There’s a knob that give you options of background beat in the chord notes you desire, at a speed from ‘dance club’ to ‘polka’. The drum machine gives options too- everything from primal Celtic drum tones to bongos that can be pitched to techno speed, and then that editing device you speak of, with sound effects on the track recorder – where the engineer gets to play with and adjust every separate track you’ve recorded. Did you ever want to sound like you’re the announcer, echoing across Wrigley Field? Some fun stuff!
    But when you DON’T know what you’re doing, all you’re doing is having fun- or frustration.
    If something comes out on the disk that sounds ‘cool’, then it was a miracle. Knowing that makes it intimidating to even start, even when you have a desired effect for a complete music piece in mind. Not knowing which knobs do what, wastes a lot of time. And that’s AFTER you’ve created your multiple tracks of perfected music – having chosen from that myriad of instruments you must already know how to play.
    Not to mention the lyrics and singing voice.
    Spinx says he decides to do it all, then cut, cut, cut… Not me! I know that if I create that way, I’m going to accidentally land on some combination of sounds that I find so beautiful, unique, or profound, that I can’t “cut it” – even if it doesn’t fit the whole – or what my original purpose was. Instead, I would have to keep it and change everything else to do so! That idea for creating a disk of bedtime lullabies for my 5 year-old grandson could be wiped out completely in favor of Christmas dittys! Well ok, at least you created SOMETHING!

  8. Wow! I keep returning here because you draw so many “wow”s from me. 🙂 That analogy has my brain reverberating. I’m going to print out this post, maybe laminate it, and keep it handy as I write. I’m used to the “building” analogies, and I love them, but this provides another way to look and “hear” what I write. It reminds me of the story about the two bricklayers who were asked what they were doing. One said, “I’m building a wall.” The other said, “I’m building a cathedral.” I want to be the cathedral builder! Or in this case, perhaps, the symphony composer/engineer. Thank you for a burst of original thought about the nitty-gritty components of fashioning an outstanding story.

  9. Excellent analogy. This post illuminates this sometimes hard to understand area in a unique way that I found very insightful.


  10. Fancy

    I am married to a musician and our daughter is also a muscisian–they are also both songwriters. Our back room IS a music studio with all those dang knobs and sliders, so this analogy made a lot of sense to me. I love the knobs on the story mixing board–what a great list to help me remember what I need to focus on after the first draft. But my favorite part was “others are jacked up to eleven.” Nigel Tufnel lives on!

  11. Good analogy, even us unmusical ones can understand :). The line I took away from here is no one can write a fully-formed story, it will take skillful editing to make a great Mix. Loved this post.

  12. It’s interesting to look at this metaphor. Some parts of it start going over my head, because I’m not much of a musician or music fan. When I try to explain writing processes I wind up comparing it to painting and drawing because I’m very skilled at those.

    There are ways in which all the arts are the same. There are right and left brain processes. There’s a steep learning curve. Competence, even basic competence, takes mastering a whole long subset of skills or you get the same flat results as any beginner – in music it’s a sour note. In art it could be a bad composition or poor color harmony or clumsy brushwork or shaky lines. Any of those things used by a master deliberately can be jazzy and cool!

    So thanks for a good metaphor. These are always helpful because someone experienced with music can understand this a lot easier. The subtleties of nuance, refinement and personal style come out the more the craft is mastered. All beginners paint or sing or write the same, there are natural beginner errors that most people make in the learning curve. The more that gets learned, the more individual esthetic choice starts to shine.

    It’s like handwriting. After you learn the alphabet and get enough practice to be legible or even semi-legible, your handwriting is so unique that banks and governments trust it as proof of your identity. Your stories are the same thing. What happened to you at five and what you ate when you were ten and which parent you have sentimental memories about (if either or any) and what knocks life pounded into you are all unique – and all part of human experience. If you weren’t knocked that much, you knew people who were and their stories moved you. Love and fear and grief and hope are common to all of us.

    So is the instinct to create – be that by painting, by story telling or by music.

    I think there is a level down in our genes where the rules of story, the rules of poetry, the rules of art and music and esthetics are as instinctive to being human as building pretty bowers are to bower birds. We are clever enough to keep inventing new ways to record stories besides memorizing them word for word perfect – yet before all these modes of writing, the best stories were polished through successive storytellers to a level of perfection that to this day, you can rewrite them and have a good story just by changing the setting and making it your own.

    And because the world changes and our cultures change, there is always a screaming need for new stories – the stories that make the world of now make sense, give some shape to expectations of the future and some understanding of the past and why things are different.

    Tonight I’m still working on Garden of Earthly Delights. I finally spotted the flaw that led me to abandon it halfway through despite a sound plot and good backstory and great setting. The problem was characterization. The only plausibly nonwhite character in this deliberately by their ideas diverse colony group was the Hindu doctor. I didn’t understand her ideas and theology at the time nearly as well as I do now or her importance to the series backstory. She is a major character and may wind up being the heroine.

    The painter fellow remained too – he can still be white, he’s who he is, had a strong character and has his own growth. He was a good character, memorable enough that he stuck. The rest of them faded to nothing because they just weren’t true or solid. They were bland and they were cast color-blind but all pretty much white in their backgrounds and beliefs.

    It just went from a shallow book to a powerful one with a stronger theme. It had that theme before but it’s got to have it at all levels.

  13. spinx

    Larry – I have one question.

    If I am not mistaken (which might very well be the case) you mentioned that your first sold novel only took you one revision.

    How did you do it then?
    In what way do you revise your story?

    I have been meaning to aks you for a long time…..a very long, long time…….what did your beatsheat for “Bait and switch” look like? How complex was it? Did you decide for the other layers in this early stage?

    You have loads of work, that I am sure of – I should not even ask – that too, I know.
    An answer, any answer, would be honey to my ears.

  14. Celia

    I like the music analogy.
    I sing with a choir. Sometimes it’s in close harmony, sometimes there are deliberate discords. We sing in French, English, German. Mostly the sopranos get the melody; at other times a different voice takes the lead and sopranos sing descant.
    We sing a wide variety of composers, both traditional and modern and in everything we sing, once we’ve learned the piece and perfected the notes and timing, the thing that makes a performance stand out and really sparkle is . . . the DYNAMICS.
    You get loud; you get very loud. You get soft; you get very soft. Crescendo and diminuendo. Slowing downs and speeding ups. So smooth that the notes touch each other like pearls on a necklace, else staccato as exclamation marks.
    And, sometimes you get VANILLA, Larry. It’s when all the other decorations stop for a moment and one note overrides everything.It’s so effective, it’s a surprise.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Larry. I’m glad I joined.

  15. Bruce

    Larry, I’m almost through Story Engineering and I’m sure it’s going to help as I embark on my first draft. I’m an outliner (to a fault), so I’m particularly interested in your approach to story architecture: parts, plot points, pinch points, etc. Your downloadable PDF is a good summary of everything one needs to consider, but I’d really like to see some kind of diagram showing the relationship of the parts to plot points, pinch points, mid-point (i.e., where they appear). A “blueprint” if you will. I’m probably going to make one for myself, but I think this would be invaluable to your readers as the story architecture is such an important concept.

  16. General comment to your blog.

    I’m a pantser. I’m the pantser who understands what you’re talking about and uses your tips. I view that as “When in the process I check out these things and fix them if they need fixing.” I know I never outline.

    Not formally, not written down in an organized way.

    But last night hanging out online with a writer friend, we were brainstorming our respective works. I realized that I spent three hours building up backstory on three new characters, planned several necessary plot incidents and of course took for granted that I knew how the story ended.

    Say what?

    Oh. I don’t outline by “writing it down” and I don’t do it in a way that I could turn in before doing the project on time to a teacher in school. Naw. I just ramble with friends in chat or throw 10,000 words of speculation in a disorganized way into notes that I don’t bother to reread before writing. That’s my filter – one that serves very well.

    Anything that’s mediocre never makes it to the final cut. Any character or incident that is memorable and essential never goes away. It comes up again and again. I’m not working in a way that would make collaboration easy – a formal outline is something that would help a lot if I have a co-author who’s say, taking over writing all the scenes that are her character’s point of view while I’m writing another character’s point of view. We’d both need to know the timeline, the facts of the backstory, the details to keep consistency and save a whole lot of rewriting.

    But when it’s just me, I use my poor memory as a quality filter. The crud gets forgotten. The good stuff – it sticks the same way the good stuff does in a book I’ve read. I have never abandoned a good character or an essential incident by doing this. But I have blithely ignored hundreds of forgettable characters, extraneous sex acts or fights, irrelevant backstory descriptions and general fluff.

    The funny thing is, my method is evolving to about half pants. My prep work sometimes takes years of rumination but I usually have multiple projects in that “steeping and thinking about it” stage. By the time I’m ready to write – whoosh, the rough draft goes down as fast as I can type it.

    So that’s another reason that I can usually trust my plots to fall soundly into the patterns you describe. They go through these pre-rough drafts in fragments and in all the times I bored friends by telling them the story. If you can find friends who enjoy hearing the synopsis of future books, cultivate them. They are rare and precious. They give plot feedback!

    They get excited when the plot’s on pace and they get bored and fidget even if they’re forcing themselves to be nice about it in the dull bits. They don’t even have to say it – watch their body language for what catches their attention.

    I have to laugh at myself though. I do have a structure in mind when I start, no matter how much it feels like I’m plunging into the unknown. I know the gist of the story and I discover the details.