(I am posting this here in the main thread – it already existed as a back-end page – at the suggestion of a reader. It was offered via link in my last post, which was an important one for newer writers especially – and frustrated ones in particular – as literally a prologue to the post itself.
I know how this works, my guess is very few readers clicked through to it. Sort of like not reading the instructions in the box when you get home from Best Buy. But this has some context worth considering. You can click through to the post it preempts, or simply scroll down here, it appears right after this one.)
I have to say, I’ve been amused in the past when people have left a review of one of my writing books complaining that the whole thing could have been covered in a simple article. Writers are not immune to the wide spectrum of human behavior that embraces everyone on the scales of genius, hubris and crazy.
Okay, fine. Pretty much anything can be reduced to its core elements and logic within a limited space. Like, an article or a post. Remember when you told your kids the facts of life? Just sayin’.
It’s just that not everyone can wrap their head around complex theories and multi-element models – some of which seem to contradict that which you have been taught or have been led to believe –without some context and elaboration, even repetition through a strategic breakdown of the content. Sometimes it takes an entire wing in a bookstore to shatter the wall of resistance and the deeply rooted hold of old limiting beliefs – not to mention blind adherence to what some people say, including famous writers who want you to believe their genius is more magic than mechanics – that bind people to the truth.
So now, for cynics or those in a hurry or if you’re just plain curious, here is the principle of story structure for novelists especially, reduced to its core essences… in just under 2000 words. To be honest, I tried to cover this ground in less than 1000 words, but I couldn’t touch all the requisite bases in a way that delivered value.
This isn’t something I’ve made up – I’ve seen references to Larry Brooks’ Story Structure out there… while perhaps flattering (or not), this simply refers to what I’m doing right here, and in my books and workshops and generally on this website. Which is to offer my take on these core elements of craft, arranged as accessibly and logically as I can render it, in a field in which clarity is sometimes in short supply and peripheral opinions are thick as thieves.
And yet, there are still people that tell me they just don’t get it. Right alongside people who tell me that they reject it… it being the existence of an omnipresent story structure model that is visible within nearly every single successful novel you can find. Which is why I keep trying to clarify.
The rationale is this: if pretty much all traditionally-published novels are built around these principles, including bestsellers by authors who aren’t even sure how they got there, what are your chances in this marketplace if you try to invent a new form of storytelling all by your lonesome? That’s like trying to reinvent the hamburger, folks, or even the filet mignon… diners go to those restaurants because they know what they want, and they’ll enjoy the nuance but not a variance from the core thing itself.
Even the titles of famous writers who claim this is heresy and formula – they’re everywhere – end up applying these very same principles to their own work. It’s not exactly hypocrisy – even when it smells just like hypocrisy – it’s actually a case of vocal nay-sayers arguing about process, actually selling you their process as the superior or only option, rather than more accurately focusing on product. They don’t want to consider that their process could actually be made more efficient and effective, as opposed to just sitting down and writing whatever they feel and want to write… and gee, look how wonderfully that turned out for them? That’s what they’re selling you, and leading you down a slippery slope in doing so.
Do it just like Stephen King does it. Or Famous Author X, who claims there are no principles involved, just his particular brand of genius. Just be sure you know and can leverage what Stephen King knows.
Not many do.
If an author infuses these principles into their stories early in the process, that simply means – it actually proves – that those principles have become second nature to them. Derrick Jeter didn’t talk much about his swing, but that doesn’t mean he advocates just standing in there and taking a hack at anything that looks close to the strikezone.
And if it took them many drafts to get there – and they always get there, if the book is out in the marketplace – then that very process of rewriting and editing was about nothing other than (besides some wordsmithing) bringing the errant early story back into closer alignment with the principles of story structure that they can’t or won’t admit to.
Story structure is like gravity. Until you honor its force and truth, nothing really works of you’re trying invent a flying machine. If all you’re doing is taking a walk, then maybe you don’t need to think too much about gravity. Just ask yourself which is a closer analogy to writing a novel: inventing a flying machine, or walking around the block.
It is so much easier to be perceived as a genius of some kind than acknowledge a principle that actually and naturally infuses your story with narrative power. Better to have people believe that all of the narrative power of your work was a product of you, not of a principle that you put into play.
I know one guy, pretty successful (in a genre-club sort of way) and out there on the periphery of the writing workshop circuit, who begins his sessions with a denial of anything that shows us what works and what doesn’t – in other words, principles, which he prematurely lumps into the dark corner of rules, which of course nobody wants to consider – in favor of… wait for it… learning “how to” like he learned it, and then doing it like he does it. Which is… what, exactly? Paying your dues like he paid his? Breaking down his own novels because, hey, this is how he does it? When in fact, he didn’t invent that paradigm at all, he simply backed into “what works – because that is what works – after his own dance with trail and error.
He didn’t invent it. But he’s now practicing it, no matter how he finally encountered it. It doesn’t have be a religious experience after a decade or two of trial and error, applying what you’ve learned.
Because you can learn it right at square one, if you open yourself to it.
Thing is… internalizing these story structure truths become the raw grist of storytelling genius. (This is true for that guy, too, he wasn’t born with it, no matter what he tells you.) Once you begin to think this principle-driven way, to plan your stories this way, you will have stepped into a sort of genius in your own right.
Suffering is optional.
Learning this stuff can cut decades off of your learning curve.
If you’d like elaboration, just type “story structure” into the search function to the right, you’ll be shown a menu with well over 50 articles on the topic, including a couple of graphics that say it all on one page.
For now, on to the 2000 words on the subject I’ve promised you. CLICK HERE to go back to that post.
(Click HERE for a Prologue to this post, if you like your setups heavy on context and real world backstory. There will be a link bringing you right back here for this 2000 word career starter.)
You’ve heard of three-act structure. With a little more resolution and specificity, that translates to a four part narrative sequence (because Act II of the three-act model actually has two parts to it).
So this “theory” isn’t new (is it truly a theory if it is nearly impossible to disprove?), but it is perhaps the most important thing you will ever learn about how to write a novel that works. Almost always, when someone comes out to reject or disprove this, it ends up being the product of some nuance of it they can’t or won’t understand.
Or, they are talking about process, not product. Which is a huge difference.
A novel is written in four narrative parts, always in the same sequence.
Each part has its own defined (meaning, we don’t get to make it up) contextual mission and purpose. Every scene that appears within any one of those four parts aligns with the contextual mission inherent to its definition.
Which is forthcoming.
All of this absolute for genre fiction, and more generally true for “literary” fiction, however you define that. Sometimes the definition of “literary” is something that takes liberties with the expected, so that accounts for something here.
Readers of commercial fiction arrive with certain expectations in place. It is why they come, why they buy or borrow the book. People don’t read classic, pure romance, for example, to come away with a broken heart. The HEA isn’t a rule, it is a core principle that is inviolate. Structure is like that, in all genres. It is how and why you deliver what the reader comes for: intrigue, drama, emotion, stimulation, frustration, fear, seduction, courage, cleverness, vicariousness, darkness and light, hope, entertainment and ultimately, resolution that makes you, the reader, glad you spent the time.
If done right, it will have four contextually-unique parts that deliver all of it, and does so in a certain order. And that becomes an astoundingly powerful tool for the writer seeking to make their story work as early in their process as possible.
A great airplane designer doesn’t forget the wings. Nor do they argue that wings aren’t always necessary. Structure is to storytelling what wings and engines are to airplanes, because they are what houses and delivers the things that readers come for, drama and emotional resonance especially.
Each part has its own contextual mission within the macro-arc of the story.
Those missions are distinct, there is very little overlap. Each leverages what has preceded it.
Each part is separated within the whole by a story milestone (a moment when the story changes), also with its own unique functional mission. These are the building blocks of your story. All your scenes appear within, or as, one of these elements… blocks of scenes that comprise each of the four parts, or the milestone scenes and sequences that separate those parts.
You could view those as four subsets of the novel.
Or even as four different stories within the macro story – four novellas, if you will – that when combined create the full narrative arc of the novel. This is what too many writers miss or try to fight off. They can’t accept that this is basically how all commercial novels are told… are written: in four parts, delivered in a certain order.
Horrors, this screams of the dreaded formula, they say.
By the way, I’ve never heard a credible novelist or writing guru/teacher say this is flat out wrong information.
They may say there is more to it, they may call it something else, but what is true for some is true for all (until you get to process, which is a different argumentative beast entirely). The people who do say this is untrue, or formulaic, or not universal in nature, are either newbies or someone confusing this discussion with process, or both.
It’s not formula, per se, which is just a word trying to explain something complex. And if it ever is, then the genre itself demands that formula; or better put, that application of the core principles (romance and detective mysteries and thrillers, for example). Rather, this is the basic nature – the physics – of modern commercial storytelling. If you doubt it, pick a novel – any novel, from your library or at your bookstore – and see for yourself. Or rent a movie, it’s true there, too. Of course, you’ll need to know what to look for, and where to look for it, and then recognize it when it appears… which it will. That ability is the true essence of someone who knows how to write a novel, versus someone that doesn’t.
The first contextual part of your story…
… is how your core dramatic thread – plot and character – is seeded, foreshadowed and setup, introducing the main players, allowing stakes to emerge, along with essential machinations to get the plot machine moving (often using foreshadowing here). It usually takes up the first 20 to 25 percent of the story. The story doesn’t fully launch in this initial section, but rather, it is set up here.
There, that was easy, right? That’s the first of the four parts. Nailed it.
Then your story changes. It has to.
Something goes wrong. If it doesn’t, in roughly the right place (the 20th to 25th percentile mark), your story suffers from that miscalculated decision.
Which often happens if you are just writing and allow the narrative chips to fall where they may. The difference between an experienced pro and you, perhaps, is that the pro will recognize this mistake and fix it.
This narrative moment is where the sky falls.
Or when doors open. Or a threat emerges. Whatever, this shift thrusts the hero we’ve already met into the need to respond to that new situation/problem. To take action. Which could be described as embarking upon a quest, though they may not realize it yet. Often, to run for their life. Or to run into the chaos and help, or seek help.
This critical story turn is what I (and others, including Syd Field) call The First Plot Point (my friend and colleague James Scott Bells calls this the “doorway of no return,” which it is… we’re saying the exact same thing in this regard). It is what separates (transitions between) Parts 1 and 2 of your story.
That done, we’re now in Part 2.
Your hero has now noticed or engaged with something that requires a response. Because there are consequences (stakes) attached to that response (like, if they don’t succeed they will die or fail, or someone else will, or the crime will go unsolved or wrongly accused, or the love affair won’t work, and so on…), which were framed back in Part 1. The reader relates to those stakes (often a threat of some kind), they feel the emotional weight and the need to take action. And so, driven by that ability to relate to the problem – that’s what it is, your hero now has a problem that wasn’t fully there before – the reader roots for your hero within the framework of this problem.
Roots for translates to: emotional involvement. This is a critical aspect of your story’s purpose. Miss that and the story doesn’t work.
It isn’t a story until something goes wrong.
The First Plot Point, while perhaps foreshadowed earlier in Part 1, is where it goes wrong at a level that the hero cannot stay on the sidelines. Again, which is at roughly the 20th percentile mark, give or take. Everything prior to that is there to help set up this moment.
By definition then, your hero does something in response to the First Plot Point. Not always the right thing (it’s way too early to have your hero experiencing success). Here is where they get deeper into trouble, and/or the darkness that opposes them gets closer, more threatening.
A good story always has an antagonist.
Because a good story always has conflict.
Part 2, where the hero is on a new path that responds to the call to action (or cowardice, whatever it is), and it is the looming presence of a threat (stakes) – often a villain – that makes it work. Part 2 is where the dynamic between hero and villain is put more fully into play (compared to any Part 1 foreshadowing) and allowed to grow in nature and scope.
Things need to get worse, and more complicated, before you can show them getting better.
But any ultimate change of fortune for your hero must be precipitated by new information being put into the story. It may change the story, or it may explain things in a way that wasn’t obvious before. This is the midpoint moment, one of the critical story milestones, this one dividing the Part 2 hero’s response context and the Part 3 confrontation context.
The hero either leverages, or is impacted by, the new information you’ve put into play at the midpoint. It could be a betrayal, or an illusion clarified, or new forces in play, or the proximity of an otherwise incongruous opportunity or tool that might change things. The midpoint shifts the context of the story from the hero responding and running, to one of more cunning and courageous as a pretext for a more proactive attack on the problem.
Part Three is where your hero ups her/his game.
They stop running and starting acting more strategically and courageously. It may not work all that well yet, but it forces the villain to up their game as well… meaning the stakes go up, the pace accelerates and things get more dramatic than ever. Both sides collide here, and in a way that makes your reader wince or squirm or feel something that surprises them.
That doesn’t mean it ends well for the hero at this point. Threat, tension, stakes and urgency all accelerate here in Part 3. Whatever the collision is, though, it happens in a way that opens up an avenue of ultimate resolution for the hero… even though that hero, or your reader, may not see it that way quite yet.
The second plot point (at roughly the 75th percentile mark) is where your story changes again…
… with a major shift in perception and truth for all sides, including the reader’s point of view, right here at the dividing point between Part 3 and Part 4.
And quite simply – ridiculously simply, you might argue – Part 4 is where the fraught paths of hero and villain converge and ultimately collide, with a confrontation that determines the outcome of the story, and sets up the way the hero’s life is changed and is shaded going forward after that point.
Part 4 has a context of heroism, even martyrdom on the part of your hero. It doesn’t have to be fully happy, it doesn’t have to be anything, other than delivering some sort of resolution, full or partial, ironic or on-the-nose, and an emotional end-point for the reader.
There it is: four parts of the story, each with different contexts.
Part 1 sets up the story, consuming roughly 20 percent of your word count, give or take. Every scene in this part has a context of story setup.
Part 2 sends your hero into the game or storm or relationship or opportunity, with clear stakes in play, and with a threat of harm or failure looming and growing closer. Every scene in this part has a context of the hero’s response to the first plot point situation, in further context to the stakes you’ve put into motion.
Part 3 leverages new midpoint information/shifting to empower and embolden your hero, or at least puts their back against the wall in a way that calls for a higher level of response. The villain ramps up their game here, as well. The context for all scenes in this quartile/part is proactive attack on the problem the hero faces.
Part 4 puts all those pieces – of your creation, by the way, which is why you can’t really attach truisms for how your story resolves – converge (even if that’s already occurred) and collide and resolve. Your story has posed a dramatic question – will the detective catch the killer? Will love endure? Will he get away with murder? Will they survive the attack/storm/frame-up/smear/impending doom? The context of the scenes here: driving toward resolution that leverages the hero’s wits and actions.
Four contexts: setup… response… attack… resolution. Separated by three major story shifting devices: first plot point… midpoint new information… second plot point new information or nuance… leading to resolution.
If you want a deeper dive…
… there are dozens of posts on this site (there’s a Search button to the right), and there are many sites out there that explore these principles.
I hear feedback that writers want to learn about the advanced nuances of storytelling. The implication being that they’ve absorbed the basics and are ready to move on.
This is hardly ever true, by the way. You can add nuance to a painting of, say, cow droppings on the side of the road… but at the end of the day it’s still a painting about crap. Understanding the criteria for a conceptually-empowered, layered story premise – the “idea” for your story, which is rarely the first one that pops into your head – is the key to everything if you’re serious about this work.
Okay, cow droppings… that’s a little harsh. But it speaks to my point: a strong premise is a different facet of craft than is strong writing. You need both. Both require nuance. But too often writers sweat the latter without having mastered the nuances of the former.
So how do we render a premise compelling? Answer: understanding the criteria for just that, and the nuances involved. This becomes a nuance in its own right – developing an idea, rather than just plopping down and starting to write about an idea – and is very much part of the advanced level of craft writers are asking for.
Too many stories fail not because they lack nuance, but because they lack core story power. Because the core story idea – the premise – isn’t strong enough. Often, when it isn’t, it’s because it lacks a conceptual layer at its core.
Let me walk you through a couple of real-life examples.
In my workshops I sometimes ask writers to pitch their story concept. This is after a review of the definitions of concept versus premise, which is a career-enlightening nuance once you get it down. Even after hearing that, about half the group gets it wrong, pitching a premise instead of a concept, or pitching what they believe to be a concept when in fact it is… something else.
Sometimes what they pitch, with the belief that they have a concept, is nothing more than a story beat. An idea for a scene.
A single scene is never the concept of a story. Because concept is part of the entire story arc. It is what empowers a premise with compelling energy.
Here’s a nuance for you: the starting gun, the catalytic moment for a story – which usually takes place within a scene – is probably not a functional description of the story framework (i.e., the concept).
Take these pitched “concepts,” for example:
A woman loses her mother’s ashes on the way to her funeral.
An unconscious alien is discovered on the bridge of a starship.
Someone wakes up in a tub of ice with a recently stitched incision in their abdomen.
A body falls out of a window onto the hood of a waiting taxi.
Again, none of these are actually concepts… in the nuanced sense that writers need to understand their concept as a framework for their story.
All of these are scenes. Moments. Story beats. Game starters and game changers, perhaps, but not the big picture of the story landscape.
When the writer begins a draft with one of these, they may experience their first blocked moment of panic right after penning the scene that exhausts the idea itself.
If you saw the recent (and terrific) film Ladybird, you’ll remember the opening scene, where the mother and daughter are in a car arguing, talking over each other until the daughter, in her frustration, opens the door while the car is still moving and ejects herself onto the side of the road.
Knowing the larger tapestry of that story, you’ll recognize that a pitch that sounds like this – “A girl argues with her mother and bails from a moving car, injuring herself” – isn’t the concept of Ladybird, but rather, a scene that launches the narrative.
Ask yourself these four things:
Can you pitch your story concept without borrowing from the premise itself?
How compelling is that concept, even before you add character and plot?
Is your concept a framework for the story, or more accurately described as scene within it?
If it is just a scene, can you elevate your story’s concept toward a pitch that more compellingly and accurately frames the premise itself?
Concept isn’t required for a story to work. Stories that lack a conceptual essence are all over the place… especially in unpublished and self-published work.
But if you want to break into the business, make a splash, get published and find a readership, it’ll require more than your writing voice to get there. You don’t need an idea for a story, you need a story idea that is packed with compelling power at the pitch level. Something that, when someone hears it, they are already in. You need a story that resonates and compels through intrigue, emotional resonance and vicariousness… at the story landscape level, not just via the writing itself.
Concept is your ticket to making that happen. So stick with it. Soon it will become part of your process, which is the most empowered nuance of all.
A guest post by regular contributor Stephanie Raffelock
A few years back I attended a writer’s workshop in Portland. One afternoon, a panel of authors sat on the stage and talked about process. I don’t recall who was on the panel, and it’s too bad because I heard something that day that continues to serve my writing. An author was talking about his work and he said this: “I never write a word of prose until I can tell the entire story from beginning to end without hesitation.”
The Magic Synopsis
Shortly after that workshop, I went to Larry Brooks for some help writing a synopsis of my novel. Like many of my early experiences with Larry, there was a lot of red ink involved. I wound up with a good synopsis and I wound up with a good agent, but the process was a real wake-up call for me, because I realized that I didn’t know my stories as well as I needed to.
How Well Do You Really Know Your Story?
Those back-to-back experiences taught me this: the better you know your story, the deeper you are able to sink into your plot. Under the plot rumbles the meaning of the story, stitched together by theme and the psychological transformation that is taking place in your characters lives. The paradox is this: solid plot and character development leads you to the nuances and the complexities of your story, while at the same time can inform you to how to tell your tale in less than a minute.
How Story Gets to Your Heart
The books and stories that I knew and loved as a child all had one thing in common: I knew the story by heart. It’s such a sweet and meaningful phrase, to know something so well that it’s embedded not just in your head, but in your heart. That’s the place where all the feeling tone and meaning of story is born. But, a writer cannot access that heart-filled story place unless they first know the plot.
I keep reading Larry’s books they keep teaching me the best way to do prep. I’ve taken a lot of crap about the amount of prep work that I do for my novels. Other writers have told me that I’m using the wrong side of my brain, or that I risk making it all formula, “formula” of course, being a pejorative. To know my story by heart, it first has to be engineered. You can’t put up drywall until you have a frame and trying to do so, or think that you can do so as you move along is a recipe for disaster–well, either that or rambling narrative.
Early Morning Dreams
Early this morning, somewhere between sleep and waking, I started telling myself the story that I’m writing. I got excited and it led me to the kitchen for my daily dose of caffeine. I got this. I know this story by heart. And as a result, I look forward to getting down on the page. I tell myself the story almost every morning.
The Bottom Line
A story is about a protagonist that wants something; the antagonist that stands in their way; and the journey that ensues as a result. That’s the basic. That’s where you start. I wish I could remember that author’s name from the writing workshop. I’ve held fast to his words for a number of years: tell the story to yourself beginning to end without hesitation before you put a single word on the page. You won’t be able to do that unless you first sketch out a plot that is so vivid with events and their tensions that it seeps into your pores and breathes into your lungs.
Dear Larry Brooks
Thanks for being a good teacher. Thanks for helping me with that first synopsis. Thanks for taking the mystery out of doing what I love and giving me the pushes I’ve needed to continue on this life-long endeavor of writing the stories that I know by heart.
Here’s to red ink and old friends.
And the Final Question
How much are you willing to invest to know your story by heart? Can you say what your novel is about a minute or less?
I’ve seen several thousand students in my career and, from that vantage point, trends and patterns appear.
One of those trends details things that all developing writers get wrong in the beginning of their careers.
So, today, I want to tell you three truths that you need to face about your own writing, your own personal expectations about yourself and the places where you can go astray.
TRUTH #1 –You often invest in the wrong project.
You all know the feeling – at the beginning of our writing career, we tend to stumble across an idea for story that ignites our imagination. We are sure this notion would make a great play, movie or novel and we eagerly start to work.
And the deeper we go into the project, the naturally more committed we become.
And once we start seeing characters develop and we have a plot pathway for the story, you couldn’t stop us or dissuade us for love or money.
But here’s the deal – Excitement over a notion doesn’t necessarily tell you whether it could actually make a great book or screenplay. And even more likely – in spite of your excitement – there’s probably not enough of an interesting idea there to even make a good short story.
Actually, the mere fact that you ARE so excited about the idea can really blind you to any inherent flaws and weaknesses. Frankly, it is this very moment when you are in the most danger as a storyteller.
Remember: The best writing in the world cannot make a great story out of a weak idea, and the fact that you are in love with an idea – that it fascinates and captivates you and that you are filled with inspiration and energy – is absolutely no real indication that it will make a great story.’’
So – what do you really need to look for when considering a story concept?
First, and most obviously, the idea must be story-capable: That means that all the necessary parts must be there to make a great story.
A compelling HERO,
A palpable and worthy OBSTACLE
A valuable GOAL with life-or death (physically, spiritually or emotionally) STAKES, and
A THEME that can connect and resonate with an audience.
Second, the concept must be something you know enough about to write competently. Military stories, for example – even well-written one, can become a joke in the eyes of the savvy and informed reader if you know actually little to nothing about military lore, procedures, traditions, etc. Unless you read a GREAT DEAL in the genre you want to write in, you may not be familiar with the forms and conventions of that genre to do it justice
And third, a great story must be built – not intuited or channeled. Great stories (and why aspire to write anything else?) are layered and complex things, even the short ones. Working professional writers, from Stephen King on down, do not dream up great stories off the top of their head, regardless of what their reputations say. The “scripting” process – the time spend actually writing the drafts – is but a small portion of the entire process, which must include time dedicated to “story dreaming,” research, consideration and contemplation.
You only have so much writing time in your life and only so much talent. You need to choose your ideas wisely.
TRUTH #2 – You are afraid of self-knowledge.
Your career is capped – and, by that, I mean completely and totally limited by – your knowledge of the complexity and complications of human nature.
And the only human you will ever have any chance of understanding is YOURSELF. You must use that self-knowledge to inform, motivate and humanize your characters in order to give your readers what they absolutely crave – an emotional experience. If you are not someone who’s comfortable with or willing to delve deep into their own life and emotional history for those tools for your stories, you will absolutely fail to write a great story.
One of the secrets to writing something commercial liable is to write something HONEST.
Professional writers – in my experience – do not approach their own writing by asking, “Is this original and groundbreaking? Will it earn me the respect I deserve?”
Instead, s/he should be looking at it from the inside-out and ask, “Does this story move me emotionally? Is it authentic and specifically drawn from who I am? And will this interesting to others?”
TRUTH #3 – You are impatient.
We, of course, believe that everything we write should be published. The mere fact that we’ve completed the monumental task of actually completing our first draft subconsciously means that we’re ready to get an agent and get this thing into print.
It doesn’t work this way.
It has never worked this way.
And the fact that new writers believe this is not their fault. It’s part of the myth of writing – that it is a communication and not a craft (but that’s a valuable topic for another post).
All successful writers are, actually, really very much like professional athletes
We must MASTER the fundamentals – vast portions of what I write are based entirely on the fundamental of good writing. Larry and I have brought you books and seminars and posts filled with this information but, if you do not truly embrace it, nothing great can happen.
We must practice and train. I write practice pieces every day – prose and scripts that WILL NEVER be seen by anyone else, as I practice these fundamentals and learn my crafts. I accepted the fact early on that I might never see my first piece, or even my fifth in print on the screen – but I did know that I would eventual sell if I became good enough. That’s why I practice writing every day – even after 40 years at the craft.
We must be coached. I sought out writers and teachers I believed could teach me something I didn’t know – and then I practiced it – under their guidance – until I became good enough to submit.
No one makes it there on their own. We all stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. We seek out the best advice possible – and that, in part, is which you’re here on this site today.
So – what do we do?
FIRST, GET SERIOUS. You must say to yourself that this is who I am. This is what I want to dedicate my life to accomplishing. Because the frank truth is that a great many of you want to be a published writer, but you do not want it badly enough to do whatever it takes.
SECOND, GET THE INFORMATION AND MENTORING YOU NEED. The Second Pillar says that all writers need to have a constant mentoring presence in their life. That means someone who is helping to guide you through the process one-on-one. This can be through Larry’s books or great video series or through my seminars and writing – or through either of us in person – but it can also be through any writer or teacher that you can make a connection with. Look for someone who has done what you want to do, someone with a track record.
THIRD, REALIZE THAT THIS ISN’T GOING TO BE EASY. Nothing important ever is. If you enjoy the process of writing, if the prose comes easily to you, then there is a very good chance that you’re not working anywhere near hard enough to create the success you desire.
But if you are serious and yearn for that success, you can achieve it. You have found here a community of people with the same dreams and desire – and when you’re ready to move up to the next level of commitment and craft, we’re here for you.
Everyone was a beginning, aspiring writer once. The difference is – will you remain there?
Many of you have heard about the scene I caused at a Starbucks some time ago when I confronted about a dozen writers, working away on their screenplays and novels at the coffee house.
In short, I was very interested in hearing the premises of their stories, but I completely lost it when they told me that, on average, they were on the 11th or 12th draft and had been working of their stories for more than three years.
What I didn’t go into – because of space and time – was that many of these people had never shown their work to anyone in all that time.
Never been to a critique group.
Never, in fact, saw the need to show their work to anyone else – that was, until they could be sure that it was PERFECT.
I think, upon reflection, that this was the only real reason I lost in all over these writers.
The idea that they had spent the past couple of years so lost in their own thoughts, never considering for even a moment whether their work had a chance of entertaining or even interesting an audience, made me realize that these writers – no matter how hard they worked or how long that wrote – were ever going to find any real success.
The Pillars of Writing – the topic of the past couple of posts I’ve done here – is predicated on the thought that you – at some point – are interested in becoming a professional writer and regularly connecting with a paying audience That you’re writing stories, movies and novels with an eye toward finding people willing to actually pay you for your work.
Successful storytellers do not function in a vacuum.
We live for that moment that we can enthrall an audience, when our words and images can so captivate another person that they are transported and transformed by the experience. Writing is ultimately, after all, a communication between two people – one giver and one receiver – and if your story is only interesting to you, part of a world only of your own imagination, then there really is little reason to put it down on paper in the first place.
For the rest of us who seek out a paying and appreciative audience, the short feedback loop is the Mother’s Milk.
We know that we need to make sure that we’re making that connection, that the tales and stories that we weave can be imagined and seen in the mind of a reader. Nothing makes me happier than watching someone listening to my words in a play or film or watching with delight as they approach a great part of a short story I’ve written and I can see the reaction on their face. It tells me that I have what it takes to affect another human being with the power of my imagination…
… and the feeling is indescribable.
So it’s clear that we all need regular feedback. But what does that really mean?
Well . . .
The Feedback must beTIMELY. Waiting until the novel is finished to make sure you’re on the right track means that this information comes much too late. I personally need to know if my story is working at several points during the process:
At the PREMISE STAGE: When I can go to someone I trust and say, “Let me tell you a story,” and then ask at the end, “Did you find this interesting and compelling?” and, “Would you like to hear more?”
At the ROUGH DRAFT STAGE: When I have put the story down on paper and taking my first shot at structuring it in such a way that makes it relatable and interesting to a reader.
At the FINAL DRAFT STAGE: When I am ready to submit and I need to know that it is ready for the outside world to finally see it.
The Feedback must beHONEST: Flattery is more destructive to the creative process than feedback could ever be. And it is a mistake to ask just anyone for feedback because sometimes their comments have nothing to do with the quality of your work. I, for example, do not show my work to family members or non-writing friends, simply because they have to maintain a relationship with me. My wife, children, and relatives might do anything to avoid hurting my feelings and so they might tell me that my work is good when it isn’t. That is just destructive to my cause and can set my efforts back severely.
The Feedback must be ACCEPTED. Feedback is only useful if you are ready to hear it. Taking notes into consideration and having your work professionally criticized is a natural and necessary part of the professional’s writing process. Yet so many writers I come across are terrified of the prospect of honesty about their work. I wish there was a better way of stating this but – if you cannot accept an honest critique about your writing, if you would be destroyed by a negative criticism about your work – you cannot and WILL NOT ever succeed as a writer. Best to know this now.
So, what should you do?
CREATE YOUR OWN GROUP OF FIRST READERS: People that you can count on to give you the feedback you need. This can be the most valuable weapon in a writer’s arsenal. And this may take a while to achieve – you may have to go through a number of candidates before you find some people that you can rely upon. Do not be discouraged – and always treat these people as the assets that they are.
GET USED TO CRITIQUE: Steel yourself against taking these comments personally. Understand the difference between criticism of the WRITING and criticism of the WRITER. Seek out comments about your work at critical stages in the development of your story.
LEARN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A GOOD NOTE AND A POOR ONE: Not all comments mean something. You have to learn the vital skill of deciding whether a note demands a change in the story. This really comes from experience, so be patient and listen critically to what’s being said. It’s not a matter of whether you AGREE with the note – it whether a change based on that note will make the story better FOR THE READER.
CONSIDER GETTING A PROFESSIONAL’S OPINION: The best notes comes from experienced writers and readers and they are very often well worth the money. Seek out experienced writers in for your form and learn from their comments. It can make all the difference in the world.
NEXT TIME: We’ll discuss the fourth Pillar of Writing – the need for accountability.
Until then – just keep writing.
SPECIAL OFFER FOR STORYFIX READER: You can get a FREE copy of my instructional eBook, THE ART OF PREPARATION by sending an email to me at – email@example.com – and telling me the one topic you would most like me to cover in an upcoming StoryFix post.
For the past few years, I’ve been a committed student of story. Larry Brooks remains my great inspiration to learn the craft. He told me that I would probably have to write 4 or 5 novels to really integrate story structure.
In spectacular rookie fashion, I thought– nah not me. I won’t have to write that much for my talents to be discovered. And as if he were reading my mind he added, “talent is just the admission ticket.”
As beginning novelists, the hard truth that we don’t want to hear is: learning to write in a multi-dimensional, heavily nuanced art form like the novel is going to take a lot of practice. And I’ve discovered that writing things other than novels can serve that practice.
Writing Every Day: It’s exhausting to constantly work on a big manuscript. If you hang in there, you’ll learn that you can’t wait for the muse to show up, and a lot of days it’s just damn hard work and determination that gets you through the next scene. I’m a proponent of writing every single day, because practice is how you get better.
Creating In-between Days: Every 10 days I send off pages to my coach/mentor and then I have about three or four days where I don’t touch my big work-in-progress while I’m waiting for notes. On those days, I do a different kind of writing. I’m lucky to have a couple of blogs that publish my posts on a regular basis. I also write bi-monthly for a local newspaper.
What Blogs and Newspapers Can Do For A Writer: If you only have 600-650 words per article, you get word-efficient, quickly. Unless your curly prose turns into essential prose, you’ll never make your deadline. The process of writing for blogs and the newspaper is an immediate one. And the gift of that immediacy is focus. I don’t have the luxury of thinking about whether or not I have something to say, or if my work is good enough, or any of the other sucky things writers tell themselves.
Diversity: One of my favorite writers, the late Norah Ephron, wrote magazine essays, newspaper articles, screenplays and novels. Her stories were complete, her prose crisp and clean, and I’m convinced that part of what made her so good was that she wrote everything.
Fresh Ideas: The thing I love the most about writing for the newspaper, is that all of the articles are assigned. And thus far, none of the topics are things that I would have thought to write about on my own: burlesque, kayaking from Oregon to Alaska, an interview with a comic strip artist. There’s a story idea in each one of those things. I was hooked when the burlesque dancer I interviewed told me that she’d been adopted by a group of drag queens who taught her the business. I’m never going to run out of ideas if I keep doing this gig.
The quest to write novels, really good stories, is a journey of love that fuels purpose in my life. And writing essays, posts and articles often reveals a voice or a conviction that can inspire the larger project. Too, I have to admit, I like seeing my work published on sites other than my own, and the Tuesdays that the newspaper comes out, are always kind of a thrill.
I want to write everything.
One day I’ll investigate screenplays and comic books (one of many reasons to be thankful Art Holcomb is here with us on this site), just as a means of rounding out what I consider to be my writing education.
What about you? Do you work in forms other than the novel? Does that help or hinder your larger works? I hope you’ll share your thoughts with me in the comments section.
Stephanie Raffelock is a frequent and valued contributor to the conversation here on Storyfix. She is an aspiring novelist who writes about the transformational forces of life. She served an internship at The Boulder Daily Camera, and has been published in The Aspen Times and Quilter’s Magazine. She is a regular contributor on SixtyandMe.com as well as a contributing writer for The Rogue Valley Messenger. Stephanie is the Youth Programming Director for Oregon’s Willamette Writers, and maintains a board position with Southern Oregon University’s Hannon Library. You can reach out to her at stephanieraffelock.com and @Sraffelock.
You know this, I’m sure… you begin a project, you may at first struggle to find the heart of the story, or your voice… you keep at it… it just doesn’t feel right… and then, as you go deeper, it begins to click… and suddenly you are unstoppable.
Sometimes it clicks from the first page. The opportunity here, and what I’m writing about today, resides in understanding the true nature of, and sources of, the intentional act of going deeper, and what that looks like.
It may not involve a keyboard or a notepad at all.
When we read about or hear about writers who have experienced this sequence of experience, it can be easy to hear the wrong things. You might hear that it’s perfectly fine to just scribble away until you randomly sink into a rhythm, without understanding that the pages written prior to that sinking-into moment will probably need a rewrite, or at least a rethink.
Or without comprehending what just happened when that moment arrived.
Or, you might believe that this is an inevitable sequence of events, the nature of the game itself. The only writers who say this – and there are legions of them – are those who experience storytelling and writing that way, without allowing that some writers, even those more successful than they are (who often aren’t as loud about it), do it differently.
Those who sit down to write without a clear or vetted story premise in their head, without understanding that a draft undertaken from an incomplete vision are, in fact, engaging in long-road form of story visualization.
And yet, other options remain available, and they are not remotely an inferior means to the same end.
Often, when you can’t find your voice, it’s because you haven’t found your story.
Break that sentence down. Because when you truly know that it means, doors open before you.
When you soldier on, in search of but not quite yet in command of your story… while telling yourself it doesn’t feel right because – and here’s where you may be kidding yourself – it isn’t your voice that’s the problem… know that this is not the universal conventional wisdom on how this is done.
Rather, it is the seductive easy road that too often leads to the edge of a cliff.
Of all the things that empower us to excellence in terms of writing in context to something – in context to your experience, in context to something you’ve read, in context to what you know – the most effective contextual basis of all is when we write pages in context to what we believe to be the best story that has landed in our mind’s eye.
In other words, when you’ve moved on from the search for the story into the realm of development of the story you’ve finally committed to.
This connects to two of the most misunderstand, and thus often toxic, pieces of supposed writing wisdom floating around out there: that you should just write… and that you should write everyday.
Neither may be the best strategy if you haven’t found your best story yet.
This is where we say: writer, know thyself. For many, the best investment of time you can make is to sit yourself in front of a window with a nice view and lose yourself in the contemplation of story ideas, options, variables and alternatives. Don’t move from that spot until you have a compelling dramatic proposition, can visualize a character that will allow readers to access the story emotionally, that asks the reader to engage rather than observe, that isn’t about something as much as it is about something happening, that calls the hero from one state into another, which is an action state, which is propelled by motivated and empathetic stakes and complicated by formidable antagonism, often in the form of a villain or foil, and finally raises your hero up to confront and step into an unlikely and even unthinkable catalyst of resolution, returning only then to a life that is different than what it was when the story began.
You can nail all that down before writing a single page. If you will allow yourself the time and license to do so.
If drafting pages is indeed your richest turf for story development (all of the above), then you may be on solid ground doing so behind a keyboard. But if you don’t really begin to sing until the story is solidly on rails that are leading somewhere rich and meaningful, then just writing and writing every day is like mowing the golf course before you actually begin to play on it.
Nothing wrong with practice. But practice your sentences and writing scenes that don’t connect isn’t quite writing a story… at least yet. At least until it becomes about a story that has announced itself to you as the story you are telling.
Because writing, per se, is just as much about staring out a window to find the compass heading, pitfalls, nuances and opportunities of a story is every bit as much at the core of the work as being hunched over a keyboard, hoping that the next page might shine a light on what hasn’t yet occurred to you.
Know this, too, if you believe that spontaneity and genius comes only when your fingers on home row. The best spontaneous and creative moments come from within the pages of a story that is already cooking, rather than one that is waiting for the burner to come on.
So here’s the bottom line question, one that defines where you reside on the learning curve. And if it catalyzes an emotional response, might just help you understand the next phase of your journey.
What do you know about storytelling… and what do you know about your story?
The highest ground of storytelling becomes available when those two things are in coexistence in your playbook: the principles of the game itself – with an understanding that you aren’t seeking to invent those principles, but rather, than you understand your job is to leverage them – and a game plan for the story you are setting out to create that has been fueled by that understanding.
This is strategic writing. Versus reactive writing.
Trust me, once you feel the rush of unleashing a fully vetted story strategy into your story world, you’ll understand what it really means to find bliss in the work of writing itself. Rather than the frustration of plowing through the pages without a compass, or an end-game.
Or worse, not knowing good from bad or bad from ugly, because you still think any and all story ideas are worthy. They are not.
Stay tuned here in 2018 as Art and I take a deep dive into both sides of that proposition – the nature of stories that work, broken down into clear and accessible detail, including the processes that will make them work for you… and how to apply them to your premises and story plans developed in context to those criteria, no matter how you render them to the page.
Are there any specific aspects of story craft and process that continues to elude, confuse or frustrate you? Are you conflicted with conventional wisdom that seems to contradict what you believe, or know, or have heard some famous author say?
Please let us know so we can focus there. The great thing about principles, rather than mythologies, is that they are provable and can be pointed to, and they are effective even in small doses. Let us know where you are on your journey, so we can help get you to the next level on the wings of knowing, rather than not knowing what you don’t know.
Sudden bestsellers and one-hit-wonders happen, because exceptions sometimes trip and fall into a pot of gold. But an enduring career… that is always the product of an author who knows.
You’ve read my posts here on StoryFix and many of you have taken my seminars, so I know I can speak plainly with you.
So, let me ask you a question:
Are you happy with your progress as a writer?
I spend so much of my time as a writing teacher and mentor dealing with this seemingly simple question. But over the years and through working with hundreds of students, I know that it really goes deeper than that.
The real questions at play here are:
· Are you finishing what you start every time?
· Do you have the skills you know you need to succeed?
· Are you afraid to face your rewrite?
· Afraid to actually send your work out into the world?
· Are you getting the valuable critique that you need to really improve your writing?
I believe that, for the vast majority of aspiring writers, the answer to this is a resounding NO!
But here is the secret that you need to know.
It’s not your fault.
You’re out there working alone, hoping that your story will succeed. Books can help, but not enough. “Top Ten” lists and writing tips from the internet never go far enough to make a difference.
And hope itself will never be enough.
You simply cannot learn to write well without valuable guidance.
Why? Because writing is a craft – a set of skills and experiences that can only come through training.
And what you really need is:
· Real and valuable instruction on the craft of writing.
· Timely feedback on your work to keep you on-track and on deadline.
· A community of writers with whom you can share your successes and problems.
· And a system to get your work done right, on time, every time.
Simply put, any writer who does not have access to these four things may spend YEARS writing a story that never had a chance to succeed in the first place.
Now . . . is that you?
Have you been trying to do this all by yourself without help or feedback? Spinning your wheels and getting nowhere?
Years ago, I started offering my seminars because I found so many of you in this exact situation.
I found this intolerable and so should you . . .
And so, we have done something about it.
From January 8th to February 16th, we are offering THE SUCCESS BOOT CAMP for writers. A six-week, internet-based course designed to give you the skills you need to succeed by leading you through the writing process.
During the six-week class, you will:
· Write and complete three (3) stories for publication.
· Receive written notes and feedback from an expert novelist on each story.
· Get guidance through the rewrite process.
· Be shown how to submit that work to publisher eager to find your stories.
· Be taught a proven system for getting your work done simply and quickly every time.
There will be a weekly seminar that you can listen to at your convenience, as well as video instruction from some of the best writers in the business. And we’ll show you the same techniques that famous writers have used to learn their craft over the past century – that is, learning the skills of the novelist and screenwriter by learning to write short pieces that will receive the critique you need to improve every aspect of your writing. And we’ll all join together on conference calls to discuss our experiences and learn from our fellow writers.
And we’re lucky enough to be joined by Howard V. Hendrix, award-winning author of seven novels and countless short stories, who will be providing the expert notes for each writer!
In all, a boot camp to make you a better writer – all in six week – from the convenience of your own computer.
This boot camp is the same tool I use in my private practice to help new writers begin their careers, now available to you.
We start on January 8th. And since you have joined us on some of our other seminars, we’re offering the boot camp to you for $495 (usually $695 – that’s nearly 30% off).
We only have a limited on spots left and we will be closing enrollment on January 1st.
So – if you’re interested, reply to this email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll personally be in touch right away.
We’ve had great success with this series in the past and some of our past students will be joining us to help you along.
You owe it to yourself, your dreams of writing, and the fans that are out there just waiting for you, to join us now.
Think of it – by the end of spring, you could have stories under submission and valuable tools to use to improve your writing . . .
. . . by the beginning of summer, everything can change for the better.
Remember – time and space are limited. Respond today and we’ll get you started.
I really look forward to having you join us.
Note from Larry: I wholeheartedly endorse and applaud anything Art puts out for writers seeking to elevate their craft and reach their highest potential. His stuff is some of the best in the business.
To be clear, the “we” in this announcement refers to Art and his support team, rather than an Art-and-Larry joint venture. Both of us will continue to provide training and coaching products and opportunities for Storyfix readers/writers seeking a higher level of craft understanding, and both of us will support each other as our individual projects come forth.
One of the things we are partnering on, right here and now, is wishing you all a wonderful, safe and creatively productive holiday season. Get ready for more killer content and training in 2018.
For a while now, I’ve been talking about the six pillars of education needed by all writers to succeed.
Pillar #1 was all about the need for high-quality craft educational information.
But the next pillar is something that most writers know in their hearts they need but never believe that will ever have a chance to get – a constant mentoring presence in their lives.
Now I can talk about all the things a mentor can offer: directions, support, and honest critique. But all those things become meaningless unless you can get the one thing that we all absolutely must have sometimes . . .
Answers to our questions – when we need them.
Let’s break that down . . .
ANSWERS: Your job is to CREATE. Let that concept settle in for a minute.
Writing is all about you taking your native talents and using them to make connections that are unique to you – and then presenting them to the world.
Your writing is unlike anything anyone else is doing.
Because of that, your journey as a writer is unique.
And there will be plenty of times when you hit a road block or become lost. It is at those moments when answers are the most important thing in the world to you.
Here are some of the questions I face regularly – even after forty years of writing:
Why isn’t this working?
How can I say this better?
Am I reaching the reader?
What am I really trying to say?
What is the truth I’m seeking?
What does my work say about human nature?
What the Hell am I doing here?
And here’s where a good mentor can help you. They will know which questions to answer and which one to let you seek out for yourself.
. . . TO YOUR QUESTIONS: Now, in almost every case, your questions will not be my questions. Certainly in the beginning, we seek similar information; if this wasn’t true, there would be no reason for books, seminars, classes and even StoryFix to exist. But your journey is unique and therefore your questions will be unique. And perhaps, most importantly, it is vital that you really understand – truly understand – the answers you get. That is when a personal mentor is valuable – they can make sure you really get it before you move on.
. . . WHEN YOU NEED THEM: The right answer is no good to you if it comes too late. We all know that feeling when we are stalled and have no idea what comes next. A simple word, a brief explanation, the right direction at a critical moment, is all we need sometimes to get us on our way. The ability to ask that question and get the right answer when you need it can make all the difference in the world.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
In my writing life, I have had many writing mentors:
My sixth grade teacher, Pat Hanzad, who first recognized my abilities and encouraged me to express myself on paper.
Sal Orlando, my high school English teacher, who absolutely hated everything I wrote for him.
David Gerrold (of Star Trek Tribble fame), my first real writing teacher, who first showed me what I could really accomplish.
STAR TREK Showrunners Brannon Braga, Rene Echevarria and others at Paramount Pictures who trained me over the sixteen years I worked with them.
And people like comic book legends Len Wein and Jim Shooter, and my great friend – the science fiction novelist Howard V. Hendrix – who were always there with guidance and support.
In each case, I had a personal relationship with the people who helped guide my career.
And that made all the difference.
Books and seminars can really help. Classes and conferences can be inspirations. But a personal relationship with a mentor means that you are never on this journey alone.
Through this relationship, you see that writing really is an apprenticeship rather than a long, lonely trek through a vast and endless desert.
HOW TO FIND A MENTOR
It may seem daunting, but mentors are out there waiting for you…
Use what you already have: Do you already know a writer who has had the kind of success you’d like to have? Is there someone in your circle who has the knowledge you seek? Take them out for coffee and ask whether you can pick their brain. Be respectful at all times, but the best writers know that we didn’t get here on our own – others helped us along the way.
We can never repay them for that kindness, but they might be more than happy to help you as a way of paying those people back.
Join a community: The more you mix with successful writers, the more opportunities you will find. Online Facebook groups can be a great way to meet other writers. Local critique groups, classes, conferences and other educational opportunities can give you a way to making personal connections and find great mentoring relationships.
The key thing is to always:
Seek out writers who are more successful than you,
Be respectful and professional when you approach them and
Be honest and genuine.
Take a DIRECTED class or webinar: If you have a need to work on your dialogue skills, for example, find a class that focuses on that single issue and you will see your crafts skills multiply. But always be sure that you are concentrating on specific and targeted skills sets. A general class may be interesting, but one that is designed to meet a specific need will be much more helpful. Places like The Writer’s Store and others available online can get you started.
Hire a consulting mentor: There are hundreds of writing teachers like myself and Larry who work with developing writers to help move them to the next level of their careers. Sometimes all you need is a quick conversation for some much needed assistance or direction, or some concentrated time spent working on specific issues like dialogue, plot, emotional impact or career guidance. However your needs manifest themselves, there are people out there to help you. Larry’s information and services is listed on the site, and you can always reach me at email@example.com for more information about my seminar and consulting services.
And finally, drop us a comment here: Larry and I are always looking for ways to serve you better. If there is a topic that you’re interested in, or a question that we might answer, it could be of interest to other writers and could make for a good post on StoryFix. Feel free to send me an email with your idea and we can see what we can do!
NEXT TIME: We’ll talk about the third pillar of writing: The Short Feedback Loop.
Until then – Keep Writing!
In addition to Art’s contact information (above), you can learn more about his courses and consulting/mentoring programs on his website.
Also, you may recall Larry has offered an evolving series of affordable story analysis programs, with different focuses, in addition to his video training programs. The latest evolution will be announced next week, when Larry’s next post goes up.