Three writing conference attendees go into the hotel bar. The bartender, sensing a conversation – because writers are always great fun to talk to—asks them what they do in their day job.
First one says, “I’m a forensic pathologist. I take apart dead things to find out what made them dead.”
Next one says, “I’m a doctor. I examine the living to find out what needs fixing.”
Third one says, “I’m a coach. I break down the athlete’s game and try to make it better so that they can get out there and compete. I also yell a lot.”
There is no punch line here, because this is not a joke, except perhaps the part about writers always being fun to talk to. It’s an analogy for what I do: I’m a story coach. And it isn’t always pretty. Which is a good thing, because the whole point, the reason this has value, is to learn from the mistakes of others.
Copy editing, it’s not.
I confess I’m not an editor, per se – I wouldn’t know a dangling participle if one was hanging from my lower lip. Nor am I a creative partner in the project. Rather, I’m the guy who reads and evaluates your story, compares it to accepted standards of conceptual, structural, thematic and narrative excellence, then assesses your chances. With a few fixes and value-adds thrown in to help get you closer to your goal.
A human MRI machine for fiction, in effect.
The Dirty Little Secret of Storytelling
Doing this for any length of time throws the covers off a few rarely spoken truths about storytelling. One soon realizes that the stuff that stands between success and frustration – for the writer and the reader – begins to congeal into a cliques of literary toxicity. Buckets of common weaknesses and omissions. For the most part we, as readers, don’t see these flaws in the published books we read, they’ve been revised into oblivion along the road to publication, often by someone like me. Because of this our personal learning laboratory is limited to critique groups (full of peers who may not know, either) and the rare ability to self-diagnose.
The Low Probability of Self-Diagnosis
If every writer could on a regular basis read what doesn’t work, and then recognize the underlying cause, they’d more easily side-step these story-killers in their own stories. Or so the hypothesis goes. But writing stories is always an inexact craft, made all the more unreliable due to the fact we almost always suck at assessing our own work.
A successful story is more than simply putting a great character, or a killer premise, or a powerful theme onto the page, followed by a few cycles of stir, rinse, repeat. Because even when you nail all the requisite story elements you may still end up unpublished. Success is ultimately the nuanced sum of a story’s parts, with a little secret sauce thrown in.
You can’t just make this stuff up.
The principles that make a story work are ancient, universal, flexible yet unforgiving.
More than a few writers study and attend workshops and write drafts for decades before they understand the standards against which stories are evaluated, and when they do it’s like a choir of angels singing the theme from Titanic. Others never get there because they reject those basic principles out of hand as formulaic. A vastly smaller but nonetheless hopeful group fails to fully grasp what a story even is, in the mistaken belief that it can be anything at all.
I confess, that latter group makes me crazy.
The simplification of these principles is like trying to define love itself – it masks the complexity of getting them right. But unless you want to leave your story to chance, leaving you with lottery-like odds, awareness leading to craft is your best strategy. Because each of these elements of craft, and more, can and should be targeted in your story development process, and then professionally assessed once it’s on the page.
Rest assured, when you put your story in front of an agent or editor, that is precisely what is happening – it is being professionally assessed. And those waters can be cold and unforgiving.
Among the many potential pitfalls that lurk along the writing road, three stand out as those with the most story corpses rotting in their bowels
When Premise Lacks Conceptual Appeal
It surprises some to learn that concept and premise are not the same thing. One begets the other. Even agents and editors get this wrong in a vernacular context, using these terms synonymously, thus rendering the writing conversation even murkier. Trouble is, we can write a story with virtually no conceptual essence at all, like that “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essay you once turned in to rave reviews. It’s just that it won’t sell. Concept is the centerpiece, the notion, the Big Idea, that imbues a premise with compelling energy. Concept is not story, premise is story.
A story about two people falling in love… that’s the beginning of a premise. A story about two people falling in love in a nunnery, or during Army boot camp and one is the drill instructor, or one is a ghost… those are concepts.
Superman without the cape and those superpowers, he’s just another rejected, concept-void novel about a farm boy wanting to make his dad proud.
When Episodic Narrative Drives Exposition
We come to our stories for various reasons. Often it is a fascination with a time, a place, an issue or a situation that we hope to showcase for our readers. For example, you set out to write a story about racism in 1960s Mississippi, so you write a whole bunch of scenes that depict what it looked like, what it felt like, the injustice of it, one after the other. Sometimes this becomes a sort of biography of a fictional character, almost memoir-like in execution. But unless you are clearly writing within a “literary” genre, ala Jonathan Franzen, this rarely works until a dramaticplot enters the proposition.
Something that requires resolution needs to span the entire story. Great stories aren’t just about something, they are about something happening.
Luckily Kathryn Stockett understood this when she wrote the mega-bestseller, The Help.
In that one she took the cliché “shi*t happens” to a literal extent, delivering a multi-voiced story – Skeeter and her book, requiring the assistance of the maids to get written – that framed its racial themes with dramatic tension that arced the entire novel, not just an episodic portion of it.
When Character trumps Dramatic Arc
Character is good. Absolutely necessary. It is one of what I call the six core competencies of successful storytelling. But character without a compelling dramatic arc to experience in the story is like putting a player into a uniform and shoving them out onto an unlined field in front of a crowd… with no ball and no opposing team on the horizon.
This can work, but it’s rare (don’t try this at home unless you’re writing a “literary” or biographical story), because it underplays the very thing that makes fiction work: dramatic tension that arcs the entire story. Harry Potter had a specific problem or goal in each book, it wasn’t just about showing us what life was like at Hogwarts. Same with John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, rich as it was in theme. That story was driven by dramatic tension – characters with things to do and problems to solve, always in the face of antagonism, and all connected to a core dramatic spine.
Theme and character, when done well, are almost always the consequence of a conflict-rich stage upon which they are allowed to show themselves.
The Missing Key
All three of these pitfalls have the same solution: give us a hero facing a challenge or a goal that changes their near-time life, launching them on a quest to solve the problem or attain the goal, with something opposing that objective (usually the villain, but sometimes a force; in either case, the story works best when that opposition is external rather than an exclusively internal demon), with meaningful stakes hanging the balance.
This is as close to a non-negotiable imperative as it gets in the fiction business. It’s like gravity itself – defy it at your own peril. And when you do, make sure a parachute or a pair of wings is involved. As a story coach, the violation of this principle, usually in one of these three uniforms, is the most common undoing of stories I see.
Those writers I mentioned earlier who don’t even know what a story is? This is what they’re missing.
And I confess, even though watching a story perish on the page may be illuminating and reinforcing of the principles, it is always sad. It is the death of a dream. I much prefer the story that soars on the wings of a compelling dramatic proposition, populated with characters that come alive on the page to pierce the thin translucent curtain that separates our fiction from our lives.
The things that make that happen are what story coaches look for, assess and urge toward excellence.
Learn More at the Writer's Digest West Conference Sept. 27-29 in L.A.
Larry Brooks will be speaking at the Writer's Digest Conference in Los Angeles, September 27th – 29th, along with many other authors and agents. The lineup of speakers is one of the best and the conference also includes the famous Writer's Digest Pitch Slam, where you get one-on-one time with agents to pitch your ideas.
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