How To Craft A One-Page Synopsis Using Story Beats

The dreaded synopsis. Anyone who’s chosen the traditional path into publishing know that these pesky buggers are enough to drive a writer to drink… literally.

I have good news and bad. The good news is I’ve found a solution to help keep your liver in tact. The bad, no matter how much you might hate writing these little darlings a synopsis is the only way of selling your book to a publisher. You will have to learn.

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Over the years I’ve read so many posts on this subject it felt like my eyeballs were bleeding. What surprised me most was that very few ever mentioned story beats, never mind using them for a synopsis. Which is why I’ve decided to share my discovery.

When you use story beats to create your synopsis something amazing happens. All that pressure weighing down your shoulders, crushing your literary spirit, while you try to boil your 400 page novel down to one page, immediately eases. Because now you’re only dealing with the beats.

I know this because I wrote my synopsis this way. It took me no time at all, gained me a full request within an hour of sending it, and I actually enjoyed the process. I can hear the shaking of heads in disbelief on that last comment, but stay with me. It does get better; you’ll see.

First you need to know what story beats are. In simple terms, story beats are the milestones you hit when telling your story. The tent poles that hold your story up and keep it from sagging, the foundation on which your story stands. Those of you who plan your novels in advance know exactly what I’m talking about and can skip over the next part. For pantsers without a firm knowledge of structure, this becomes more difficult. You’ll first need to find your beats. Which you should do anyway to make sure they’re placed properly. Without structure your story could sag in the middle, have an early start, reduce tension, or veer totally off course.

Believe me, I have drawers full of novels like this at various stages, written before I learned to plan my stories. Now, however, since I know where my story is going and how to get there, I am less apt to trash a novel half or three-quarters of the way through.

Let’s get down to it.

STORY BEATS

HOOK: A scene meant to introduce the hero and hook the reader, keep them from putting your book down, entice them to read on. The reader must either relate to, or empathize with, the hero. Contrary to what some believe a reader does not have to like a main character. There have been plenty of unlikable heroes that have hooked us for an entire novel. Why? Because we empathize with them. Like them or not, the reader must root for them. And that’s key.

Many new writers start their story too late. Thus, not allowing the reader to care what happens to the protagonist. I’ve done this myself — more than once — and had to go back and rewrite the hook.

INCITING INCIDENT (OPTIONAL): Not every story has to have an inciting incident in the way I use the term. Some call the Inciting Incident the First Plot Point. I refer to it as a foreshadowing of the First Plot Point, placed earlier than 20-25% mark, but without affecting the protagonist. And that’s the difference here. Having an inciting incident, however, does not relieve you of properly placing the First Plot Point. It merely sets it up, foreshadows what’s to come. It can even be an entirely different event, one that relates to the main plot, but is actually a false start.

FIRST PLOT POINT: Here’s where your story really begins, perfectly placed at 20%-25% of the way into the story. For instance, in a 400 page novel this would occur around page 80-100. The First Plot Point is the single most important scene of all the beats because it kicks off the action and sends the hero on a quest, which IS your story. Even if it’s been foreshadowed or hinted at, the first plot point shows the reader how it affects or changes the protagonist. Get this one wrong and your story will fail.

FIRST PINCH POINT: A peek into the antagonist force preventing the hero from reaching her goal. If you missed my post on Pinch Points you can find it here. The First Pinch Point comes about 37.5% into the story, or at the 3/8th mark.

MIDPOINT: Placed smack dab in the middle of the story, or at approximately 50%, this scene changes the protagonist from wanderer to warrior, attacking the problem head on.

ALL IS LOST MOMENT: The title says it all with this one. Here’s where your hero is at her lowest point, believing she’s failed. It occurs right before the second plot point, also known as the second plot point lull.

SECOND PLOT POINT: 75% of the way into your story, this scene launches the final push toward the story’s conclusion. This is the last place where you can add new information, characters, or clues. Everything the hero needs to know, to work with, or someone to work alongside, is now in play by the end of the 2nd Plot Point.

SECOND PINCH POINT: You must devote an entire scene to this pinch point, which comes in around the 5/8th mark, whereas with the first pinch point you don’t. It’s another glimpse of the antagonist force in all his glory, now more frightening than before because, like the hero, he too has upped his game.

CLIMAX: The hero conquers the antagonist force or, in some stories, martyrs herself. Personally, I’ve never read a story where the hero dies, but it is an option. And here’s when it will happen. The main thing to remember is that the protagonist must be the one to thwart the antagonist and not merely be present when it takes place. After all, this is her story you’re telling.

RESOLUTION: Completing the quest, stronger for the effort, the resolution shows the hero in her new life.

Okay, now you have your story beats that show the overall plot of your story. Don’t be concerned with subplots in your synopsis unless you’re allowed more than one page. Which rarely happens. Your one-page synopsis should have three or four paragraphs, depending on whether you use a three or four act structure. One paragraph per act.

Briefly tell what happens in each beat. This is not the time for showing. Use as few words as possible. Don’t worry that your story sounds as dry as burnt toast with no butter. If you’ve done it right — brief being the key word — you should have extra room to spice it up.

Once you’ve got your beats in paragraph form go back to the beginning and look for places where you can tighten, where you’ve used two words instead of one, etc. Refer to a thesaurus, or read the notes you took on your favorite novel and look at how the author condensed his/her words. If you’re not a note-taker check out the mini-synopsis on any book cover. You can bet your favorite author has chosen his/her words carefully.

Now, go back and add a short line of dialogue here and there, and/or sprinkle adjectives that paint a better picture. Be direct when describing your protagonist. For instance, for my latest novel, MARRED, instead of just saying my character’s name, “Sage Quintano”. I could say, “Sage Quintano, a grief-stricken writer.” That’s four extra words, but it gives the reader a better understanding of who she is. Unfortunately, “grief-stricken” is cliché, so I want to change that and see if I can whittle it down further. “A despondent novelist”. That’s only three words, more direct, and it raises a story question: Why is she despondent? Keep in mind that you will have to answer any questions you raise. Nothing irks agents and editors more than a writer teasing them in a synopsis. Save that for your query letter.

Write the synopsis in third person, present tense. It doesn’t matter that the book is in first person or deep third, past tense. This is a rule, and it’s clearly stated on agents and publishers website. Break it at your own peril. Above all, relax and have fun. And don’t forget to breathe. LOL

With writing in general as well as crafting the perfect synopsis…

MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT

Message Stones

If you’ve written a successful synopsis and have any pointers not mentioned here please share in the comments. As always, I wish you huge success. If the synopsis you write using this method aids you in securing representation or a publishing contract please let me know so I can help you celebrate.

If you haven’t received your FREE copy of 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters you can read a sampling and sign-up here, or click the title.

Pinch Points In Fiction Writing

A few people have recently asked me what Pinch Points are, which made me wonder if others are struggling with what they are and how to use them. After a quick Google search I realized there isn’t really much written on the subject, oddly enough. And they are crucial milestones in fiction writing because they show the face of evil in its purest form. The Pinch Points demonstrate what your hero is up against, what causes him/her to jolt straight up in bed, the bogey man in the nightmare.

“We need to see that antagonist form in its purest, most dangerous and intimidating form. Or if it isn’t dangerous then at least we need to feel it for ourselves.” — Larry Brooks

“An example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonist force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience.” — Larry Brooks, Story Engineering

evil eye

Two pinch points in every story

The main difference between them is the placement. The First Pinch Point comes midway between the First Plot Point and the Midpoint. Since the First Plot Point comes at 20%-25% into the book and the Midpoint comes at 50%, then the First Pinch Point would come at the 3/8th mark, or approximately 37.5%.

With the First Pinch Point the reader needs to see the antagonist form for herself and not merely hear it referenced or discussed. She needs to experience it, either through the hero’s eyes or through the antagonist himself. In crime fiction this can be a murderer planning his next kill or stalking his next victim. Or a kidnapper beating his captor, and enjoying every minute of it. Or even playing the captor’s recorded screams over the phone for the hero.

The simpler and more direct the pinch point the better. The important thing to remember is that the reader must feel it. Even if you choose to use a cutaway scene of the evil the protagonist is facing then you’ve fulfilled the need of the First Pinch Point.

Anyone who’s ever read a James Patterson thriller has seen these many times in all their glory. They stick right out because he uses short chapters that show what the antagonist is doing — planning, scheming, killing. Make no mistake, he knows exactly where to place them to keep the reader flipping pages.

The Second Pinch Point should appear between the Second Plot Point and the Climax. Regardless of whether you use a three or four act structure the Second Pinch Point should appear around 5/8th mark.

This time you need an entire scene devoted to it whereas with the First Pinch Point you don’t. A pinch point is a demonstration of the nature, power and very essence of the antagonist force. And now, it’s more frightening then ever. Because at the Midpoint shift your character changes from wanderer — where he or she is trying and failing — to a real hero attacking the problem head on, your antagonist force will also up his game. And the Second Pinch Point is the time to show just how evil he really is.

The Second Pinch Point could be a discussion between one character and another reminding the reader of what he or she is up against, even if the antagonist force is within your hero, depending on your story.

I love this analogy in Story Engineering…

“The First Plot Point, Midpoint, and Second Plot Point are your big meals. Don’t skip them if your goal is to add dramatic tension and jack the pace to your story. The Pinch Points are like nutritious snacks between those meals — mid-morning and mid-afternoon. They’re good things. They give you energy, they nurture you. You wouldn’t eat them too soon after a big meal, nor would you eat them right before a major meal. No, they’re right smack in the middle of the gaps between those meals. As for any other snacks (moments in which your bad guy does his thing), well, remember that in this analogy you’re trying to gain weight… so go for it. The more calories you stuff down the reader’s throat the better.”

As writers we often concern ourselves with the hook and the big twist ending, perhaps even the Midpoint. Without well-placed pinch points, though, the story will lose its sense of rising action and tension.

For example, in Silence of the Lambs the First Pinch Point comes when Hannibal Lecter gives Clarice the location of a storage facility where she finds a jarred head of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. In their twisted relationship this is akin to him giving her a dozen long-stemmed red roses. The Second Pinch Point comes when Hannibal gives her the map of Buffalo Bill’s murders, which ultimately helps her break the case and find the killer.

never lose hope

Let’s have a little fun and tell me what the first pinch point is in your story, or an example in your favorite book. Leave it in the comments below.

In my novel, MARRED, the First Pinch Point comes when a killer, responsible for a string of murders, calls Sage and tells her he has her sister Chloe and if she doesn’t obey he’ll kill her, mar her like he did the others — eyes and mouth X’d out with black wire, erased from her ghostly pale face.

Your turn. Go!

Power Of StumbleUpon & How-to Add Sharing Button To WordPress.com

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StumbleUpon drives massive traffic to websites and blogs. In a earlier post Brand Building On Social Media I discussed how to use StumbleUpon to your advantage, along with Twitter, FB, Google, Pinterest and Reddit. For those who haven’t read this post, as an author your brand is you, not your book. That’s your product.

The Power of StumbleUpon

Whenever I added a blog post to my “likes” on StumbleUpon, including my own, that site received a burst of traffic. But I had no idea how or why it worked.

Until recently.

To help illustrate my point I’m using an infographic from Column Five.

Stumbleupon-lifecycle-web-page-c5-1

As you can see StumbleUpon drives more traffic than Twitter, FB and Reddit — combined! This infographic shows that 51 pages per minute are added to StumbleUpon. Think about that a minute. That’s 3,060 pages per hour, 73,440 pages per day, 514,080 pages per week.

Now, as far as the infographic showing FB as the number two site… Sorry, I don’t buy that. But I’m guessing it’s because so many people on Twitter use bitly.com or something equivalent to shorten links. This, in turn, can skew the results. Regardless, Twitter will never surpass StumbleUpon. Ever.

This is why…

StumbleUpon is essentially a browser add-on, which adds a second menu bar that shows a thumbs up/thumbs down button, allowing you to “stumble upon” random sites geared toward your interests. Any post you give the “thumbs up” to is automatically added to your “Likes Page”. Your “likes” are built over time.

StumbleUpon isn’t simply a sharing site where you physically plug in a blog address. But you can certainly use it that way, too. What it does is it grabs other posts off the internet and suggests them to you. If you’ve tagged your post, or someone else’s post, properly StumbleUpon will suggest your site to everyone with similar interests. Which, in turn, drives huge traffic to your site that you wouldn’t normally receive.

Therein lies its power.

For instance, recently Nicholas Rossis wrote a very inspirational post (click link to read). I, then, added that post to my “likes” and tagged it “inspirational” “writing” and a few other things. Anyway, within one hour he received over 700 views. Why? Because I gave his post a “thumbs up”. Yes, it only takes ONE person to drive that kind of traffic. Now, imagine if two or three others also gave a “thumbs up”. His numbers would have been astronomical. Another example is my Q & A With A Real Undercover Operative – Part I. In less than an hour I had over 2000 views. Meaning, more than one person gave it a “thumbs up”. That three-part series garnered more views faster than anything else the previous year. Incidentally, if you missed this interview you can find Part II and Part III by clicking the links.

I’m always surprised by authors that don’t use this powerful site. I can only conclude that they don’t realize its inherent magic. Hence, my motivation for this post.

Still not convinced?

Let’s take a look at the life of a post. Herein referred to as a link. Because StumbleUpon grabs posts by “interests”, which is why proper tagging is so important — that’s a post for another day — it doesn’t matter if that post is one year old or three years old. See where I’m going with this? You got it. Your old posts are magically resurrected with StumbleUpon. Which is why I don’t shut comments off. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a new comment on a six month old post, and often times that leads to a new subscriber. As a reader of blogs I find it frustrating to not be able to leave a comment when a post really resonates with me. This, of course, is up to you. But why not encourage communication regardless of date?

Here’s the next half of the infographic…

Stumbleupon-lifecycle-web-page-c5-2

With Twitter and Facebook the half-life of your link is only a couple of hours. Meaning, that’s how long it survives so others can share it. With StumbleUpon that same link lives on for 400 hours. And that’s only half the life. Take a moment to look at the life cycle of a link in the lower half of the above infograph. This is not to say that a link will die after 800 hours. As stated earlier, since you know to properly tag your posts your link can survive for years after it was first posted… with StumbleUpon.

Below is the last part of the same graphic…

Stumbleupon-lifecycle-web-page-c5-3

Nowadays people don’t spend much time reading blog posts. Instead, they skim. Personally, I still haven’t figured out how to do that. Anyway, StumbleUpon beats out Twitter and Facebook by 25%. Incidentally, that’s longer than the average web page view. A StumbleUpon session, where people are reading the “suggestions” lasts for over an hour. Where with Twitter and Facebook most people only spend a little over twenty minutes browsing links.

If you’re still not convinced of StumbleUpon’s power there isn’t much more I can say to change your mind. All I can suggest is try it. See for yourself what it does to your traffic and how many more page views you’ll receive. The proof will be in your stats.

Problem is, when WordPress.com changed our sites around again — the so-called “improvements” — we lost our StumbleUpon sharing button. After noticing a pattern I took a look at my own site and was absolutely shocked when I find it gone. This isn’t okay with me. And it shouldn’t be all right with you either.

Don’t fret. I have a solution.

Go to settings > sharing > available services

Available services is where it shows your sharing buttons. Only now you will no longer see StumbleUpon as an option. You’ll need to install it manually.

Click “Add a new service” and a pop-up window will appear. In the “Add sharing url” input: https://www.stumbleupon.com/submit?url= (and then choose your variable from those listed below) I use: %post_full_url% But you can play around and see what best fits your needs.

Like with most improvements in WordPress.com they tell you that you can add any variable to your sharing link. I tried them all. None of them worked by just adding the variable to the end of StumbleUpon’s url. You must include this: /submit?url= And then the variable. Without this formula you’ll either get an error message that says StumbleUpon can’t locate the page, or it violates the site in some way.

If it’s easier for you to just copy what I did the entire url looks like this:

https://www.stumbleupon.com/submit?url=%post_full_url%

In the box below (same window) it will ask for the icon image. Here’s where it got tricky because most sites want you to buy image icons. What I did was to Google “StumbleUpon Icon” click “image” and then copy and paste the image into my library. I then took the url for that image and pasted it into the “icon url” box. Voila!

Within that same window press “Save” Then drag your new StumbleUpon sharing button into “Enable Services” window and press “Save Settings” at the bottom of the page.

Since I wasn’t able to find a StumbleUpon icon image that fit the perimeters of WordPress.com, under “Button Style” I chose “icon and text” instead of my usual “icon only”, and then dragged less important buttons like “print” “email” “pocket” etc. into the shaded box of “Enable Services”. What that does is it adds a “More” button to your lineup that readers can press that will show the other sharing buttons you offer without taking up a lot of space.

And that’s the power of StumbleUpon. I hope this helps to increase your blog traffic and make you all hugely successful. If anyone finds a better icon image I’d love to hear about it. Also, if you use a self-hosted WordPress site I could probably help you figure out how to add sharing buttons. Just shoot me an email or fill out the contact form on the main page.

Want to take it for a test spin? Press the StumbleUpon sharing button at the bottom of this post and give me a “thumbs up”. Tell me in the comments, leave a link to your post (once you add the button) and I’ll do the same for you. And isn’t that what the writing community is all about, helping one another?

If you haven’t received your copy of 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters you can get a sampling and sign up by clicking the title or go here.

Badass In Heels – Nerve Strikes

As a crime writer I often write my main character into and out of deadly traps. How I do that is to make her powerful. Incidentally, these techniques can be used for everyday women like you and me, too, should we find ourselves in a dangerous situation.

This post is geared toward the more petite woman, because often times they feel like they can’t defend themselves due to their size. Not true. For instance, I only stand five foot two, on a good day. A pipsqueak, as my husband would say. However, he also knows I could kill him 50 different ways. Don’t know what I mean? See my post and grab your free copy of 50 Ways to Murder Your Fictional Characters.

Let’s get started.

Your character’s elbows, knees and head are the bony parts of her body and, therefore, built-in weapons. Regardless of size, have her leverage her weight. It’s this principle that forms the foundation of martial arts like jujitsu and other self-defense programs where a smaller person is able to defeat a larger one.

Most women cannot go head-to-head with a man by throwing punches. Especially when there’s a huge size difference. That being said, your character wants to injure her attacker as soon as possible so she can either flee or end him with a weapon, depending on what kind of scene you’re writing.

Dark Alley Move

Let’s say Greg has murder on his mind and confronts Lacey as she’s walking through a dark alley — a shortcut home from a party. As Greg approached from the front he grabs Lacey’s left shoulder, the shoulder closest to him if Lacey’s on his right. Thinking quickly — because you, as her writer, have prepared her — Lacey sets her hand over his and grabs his thumb, shifts her weight, and bends Greg’s wrist back into his body. Which will cause Greg to bend forward at the waist. Now Lacey has the advantage. She’s still standing. Once Greg’s face is below Lacey’s hip she knees him in the face — hard — shattering his nose.

Impressive, right? This move would work perfectly fine in a novel and in life. But what if we want to make our character a total badass in heels?

I’m talking about…

Nerve Strikes

A sudden strike to the auxiliary nerve — the nerve that connects the deltoid muscle (top of shoulder) — causes a topic discharge, the uncontrolled firing of electric signals. Receptors in the brain overload, which signals pain. As the circuit overloads disruptive signals race to the limbs. Calcium and potassium flood the body. In a thunderous storm of zapping charges the entire system shuts down. Hence, the term “shooting pain”. Certain points on the body create the greatest density of nerve endings, like bundles of exposed wires, called clusters.

Now that we know what they are, how do we use them?

Ulnar Nerve Strike

ulnar nerve

The ulnar nerve is the bottom yellow one in this picture.

If you look at the underside of the upper arm the ulnar nerve runs down the middle, directly under the bicep muscle.

How does your protagonist use this to her advantage?

As the attacker reaches for her, she grabs his hand with one hand and, with the other, using the last two knuckles of a closed fist — top ring and pinkie knuckle — jabs an upper cut to that nerve. She wants to punch in and up, catching the nerve with those little knuckles. In turn, this sends shooting pains up/down her attacker’s arm giving her time to flee or grab a proper weapon.

Lung-6 Nerve Of The Arm Strike

radial nerve

It’s about dead center, in red.

Located on the radial nerve. Moving from the elbow to the wrist it’s about halfway down the inside forearm. If anyone has ever hit this nerve by accident you’ll know exactly where it is, because shooting pain runs down the arm into the hand. Ouch!

If the attacker had a knife, say, in his hand this move could save your main character’s life. As the attacker moves in with the knife your protagonist — using the bone of her forearm — strikes down on that nerve. Instantly, the weapon falls and shooting pains stun the assailant.

The Mental Nerve Strike

mental nerve

To see the mental nerve look at the chin.

Facing the opponent draw a line straight down from the corner of the mouth to the chin. Bingo — you’ve just found the Mental Nerve.

Let’s say your protagonist is laying in bed and wakes to find a masked man intent on raping her. The most effective way to use this nerve to her advantage is to dig the middle knuckle of her index finger into the nerve while holding the back of his head.

But suppose he’s moving around and not allowing her to dig her knuckle into the top of his chin. Her only alternative is to utilize vibration. How? Again she grabs the back of his head with one hand and, with the heel of her other hand, throws quick, firm, smooth jabs to that nerve. Which, at the very least, causes extreme dizziness in the assailant.

Listen, this is not the time to fight fair. Keep jabbing and jabbing until she disorientates her attacker enough to flee, or grab the gun off her nightstand. By continuously striking that nerve she’ll release the spinal cord in his neck, making her look like a total badass, and saving her life in the process.

Note: She must have one hand on the back of her assailant’s head with both moves. To utilize this nerve properly it needs double contact.

WARNING: I’m all for practicing real-life techniques to get the feel, smell, touch correct to make my scenes more believable. But, I must caution you, dealing with nerve strikes is extremely painful for the opponent. So don’t practice on your loved one, dog, best friend… anyone. If you must experience this in order to write about it only practice with a professional trained in this sort of combat.

Most of all, have fun. Nothing’s more sexy than a badass in heels.

Feel free to visit and use my Crime Writer’s Resource. (click title)

Are you struggling with how to commit the perfect fictional murder? Grab your FREE copy of 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters. This post has a sampling of what you’ll receive. (click the title)

A Voice on Outline Driven Writing

Sue Coletta:

As some of you know I’m working on a deadline, trying to get Timber Point ready for submission to a publisher whose window closes on Saturday. So, I came across a perfect post to reblog instead of writing one, and save myself time in the process. Win win. Hope you enjoy it. And please, tell me what you think.

Next up: I’ll continue with the series, Badass in Heels.

Have a great, productive day, all!

Originally posted on James L'Etoile:

Outlining versus Free Form writing is a hotly contested debate in author circles.  I know, I know, the subject doesn’t carry the weight of  discussing a solution to violence in Afghanistan, or searching for a missing jetliner in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  But the fact that writers seem willing to spill blood over the issue, says something about us – we’re a bit too tightly wound for our own good and the voices of the characters in our heads start to take over if left unattended too long.

Image courtesy of getkjfit.com Image courtesy of getkjfit.com

I’ve written a few novels using a detailed outline and others in a free-form, or more commonly called the seat of your pants method, used by “The Pantser.”   Both methods work, but recently, as I wrote a section for a novel from an outline, a voice called out…

Voice:  Hey!  Whatcha doing?

Me:  Writing.  Hush…

View original 694 more words

A Heartbreaking Goodbye

Many of you know that my dog, Gideon, has been gravely ill. And I thank you for your patience while we’ve gone through this terrible time.

Today, we had to say goodbye.

In remembrance of my baby Gid I’ve posted this poem. A kind soul posted this on my FB page when Gid’s illness took an awful turn. Grab your Kleenex. You’re going to need it.

THE LAST BATTLE

If it should be that I grow frail and weak
And pain should keep me from my sleep,
Then will you do what must be done,
For this — the last battle — can’t be won.

You will be sad I understand,
But don’t let grief then stay your hand,
For on this day, more than the rest,
Your love and friendship must stand the test.

We have had so many happy years,
You wouldn’t want me to suffer so.
When the time comes, please, let me go.
Take me to where to my needs they’ll tend.

Only, stay with me till the end
And hold me firm and speak to me
Until my eyes no longer see.

I know in time you will agree
It is a kindness you do to me.
Although my tail its last has waved,
From pain and suffering I have been saved.

Don’t grieve that it must be you
Who has to decide this thing to do;
We’ve been so close — we two — these years,
Don’t let your heart hold any tears.

~Unknown

Interview with Bestselling Author Larry Brooks!

It’s no secret that today’s guest is my favorite author. In my opinion, he’s written two of the best craft books ever written — Story Engineering and Story Physics. Matter of fact, he has a new e-bookstore in the works, with craft books ranging from .99¢ – $2.99. Once he releases an official page I’ll add it to the Crime Writer’s Resource and link for easy access.

Larry Brooks is the author of six critically acclaimed thrillers, and the guy behind www.storyfix.com, one of the fastest-growing and most respected writing sites on the internet, voted one of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers every year since its inception. His latest novel is The Seventh Thunder, released April, 2014 by Turner Publishing. Other titles include Deadly Faux, Darkness Bound, Bait and Switch, Pressure Points, Serpent’s Dance, released as trade paperbacks.

I’m reading Bait and Switch — and it’s AWESOME!

Story EngineeringStory Physicsstructure demys

Hi Larry! I am so excited to have you here.

In Story Engineering you focus on the Six Core Competencies of Storytelling. To help explain what each core competency is I’ve taken quotes from your book.

This sums it up nicely… 

“A Story Viewed As A Living, Breathing Thing” 

“A story has many moods. It has good days and bad days. It must be nurtured and cared for lest it deteriorates. And it has a personality and an essence that defines how it is perceived. Just like human beings. In fact, comparing a well-told story to a healthy human being becomes an effective analogy to better understand the interdependency of the parts and the delicate balance of chemistry and biomechanics that allow the body– and the story– to move, to thrive, and to grow.”

“When applied to the story development process, you end up with an approach that is based on nothing short of what it is, in essence, story engineering. It works for writers for the very same reason it works for the folks that build stadiums and skyscrapers. It’s based on natural law. On time-tested, basic truths. For builders, that’s physics. For writers, that’s the Six Core Competencies. In no way does using these compromise the experience of the writer or the value of the end product. The Six Core Competencies create a story development model that leaves nothing out of the writing equation, except perhaps the need for an abundant number of drafts.”

“Execute them at a professional level and you may find yourself in the hunt for a publishing contract.”

The Six Core Competencies are: CONCEPT, CHARACTER, THEME, STRUCTURE, SCENE EXECUTION and WRITING VOICE.

In Story Physics you look at the six essence of storytelling. Physics are essence, forces, catalyst for an outcome. Competencies and Essence are “Completely different things… Yet connected at the hip.” The six basic essences of storytelling are: COMPELLING PREMISE, DRAMATIC TENSION, PACING, HERO EMPATHY, VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE, and NARRATIVE STRATEGY.

Writers: I found it best to first read Story Engineering and then delve deeper with Story Physics. When put together these books will transport your writing to a whole new level. For today, though, we’ll concentrate on The Six Core Competencies of Story Engineering. Perhaps at a later date Larry could be persuaded to come back for Story Physics, or one of the many new craft e-books (click the cover to go to Amazon page).

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Let’s get into the Six Core Competencies…

CONCEPT 

“The idea or seed that evolves into a platform for a story. Best and most powering when put as a “what if?” question. The answer leads to further “what if?” questions in a branching and descending hierarchy, and the collective whole of those choices and answers becomes your story.”

Many writers struggle with the difference between PREMISE and CONCEPT. I know I sure did before reading Story Engineering. When I was first taught PREMISE by a college professor he phrased it as a “what if?” question, and I think that’s why the two — PREMISE and CONCEPT — are so easily confused. Can you define the difference for us, please?

Writers: Larry gets into a higher level concept, or ascending value-add, and a lateral, or a descending value-add, that drills down deeper into the actual storyline. There’s so much information in this book it’s difficult to pinpoint what message is more important than another. Which is why I’ve only concentrated on the difference here.

Over to you, Larry…

LB:  To simplify even further, the two context-setting essences required for a story to soar are CONCEPT and PREMISE, the latter being what you just referred to as “a lateral, or a descending value-add, that drills down deeper into the actual story line.”

This is both a pothole and an opportunity.  It’s a pothole because too many writers don’t recognize the difference between them.  Because there is a natural affinity between them, writers just plow ahead.  It’s like a student going to medical school (that’s a concept, “I want to be a doctor”) and then, before graduating with the skills and knowledge necessary, they begin practicing dermatology in their spare time.  The actual practice is composed of hundreds or even thousands of pieces of information, specific protocols, criteria, benchmarks, models and sequences, the sum of which, while flexible, constitutes a successful practice. And yet, “being a doctor” remains a singular idea that fuels the whole thing.

With concept, we are looking for something fresh, compelling, provocative and inherently interesting.  It’s a notion, a proposition, a “what if?”  Or an arena, a landscape, a specific social or geographical or historical playing field for the story (like, a  love story about firefighters who live together for three days at a time… that’s an arena that is inherent interesting, because the only way we can enter that world is vicariously).  Or, it can be something about a character around which you can build a story, such as a terminal patience, someone with supernatural gifts, someone who is a psychopath or immortal or the best looking/ugliest person ever… all of those precede a storyline, but they all create a CONCEPTUAL context for one.  That’s the goal of concept.

Premise, however, isn’t all that simple.  While it can and should be stated in one or two sentences, those sentences need to cover a lot of ground – what the hero needs and wants in the story (your hero’s journey or quest), with a goal, something opposing that goal, something that creates conflict and tension and urgency, with clear stakes involved, and some sense of what the hero must DO to reach the finish line.

Every genre except “literary fiction” has this criteria.  No exceptions.  And each genre becomes, in a way, its own conceptual essence, but we need to add another layer to it within the parameters of the genre.

Get them both right – concept and premise – and you’re in the game.  Take one for granted, or lightfoot it, and you’re already behind, or even DOA.

CHARACTER

“Don’t leave home without one. Every story needs a hero. We don’t need to like him (contrary to what your high school composition teacher told you) but we do need to root for him.”

It would be great if you could explain the three dimensions of character. Understanding this really helped me on many levels. I know agents/editors use this as a reason for rejection quite often. Writers get a form letter with “I didn’t connect with your character” and no explanation. And I think the three dimensions of character will help with understanding why and hopefully how to prevent it in the future. Writers: that’s not to say if you nail this one of the six core competencies you won’t get rejected. You need all six — executed correctly.

LB:  Character isn’t over-rated, but it’s often misunderstood.  Seeking to tell the life story of a fictional character rarely works, and yet many new writers go down that fatal path.  Rather, the story is about the hero’s journey and quest (with the criteria mentioned earlier), and it is through the hero’s decisions and actions TOWARD the pursuit of that goal that becomes the tapestry of the story’s character arc.

The acid test is easy.  If you have a scene that is solely, without linkage to the plot, about showing who the character is, then chances are you’re already off the mark.  You can get away with only one of two of those, but they must be in the first quartile, before the First Plot Point really launches the core story (hero’s journey/quest).

One other note.  If the hero’s goal is to “be happy” or to “find love,” that’s not it.  It’s what they must DO or CONQUER – decision and action – that will empower them to be happy or find love that becomes the fodder for the story.  Story isn’t about happiness and love, those are OUTCOMES.  Rather, story is about WHAT HAPPENS to get to that ending.

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THEME 

“Yes, it’s like putting smoke into a bottle, but it can be done. Not to be confused with concept, theme is what your story is illuminating about real life.”

To show the importance of theme I’ve taken another quote from your book: “If your concept doesn’t naturally align with a journey for great characters and deliver a thematic punch along the way, one that makes people resonate with their own humanity, it isn’t a good concept after all.”

This is where I think I had my biggest epiphany. Sure, I knew about theme. At least I thought I did. But I had no idea just how big of an impact it made on a story until I read Story Engineering. And while reading The Seventh Thunder, your incredible, heart-thumping secular thriller, I saw theme in action. For those who missed my post about The Seventh Thunder you can find it here. 

In Story Engineering you reference The Da Vinci Code, along with others, to help drive home the importance of theme. I, too, have referenced a secular thriller, The Seventh Thunder. But I don’t want to give writers the impression that theme must relate to religion. You talk about exploring an issue vs. making a point.

Theme is such an important factor in storytelling — theme as a whole and when it refers to character. To truly grasp the intricacies they need to read the book. ;-)

Did you hear that, everyone? You need to read the book!

So, what can you tell us about theme?

LB: Well, I agree, of course. (grinning)  Theme can easily be overplayed.  Often it enters a story naturally… you can’t set a story in an orphanage and not have it be thematic by definition.  It’s simply the “issue” or “life experience/lesson” that the reader is being asked to engage with in the story.  The hotter the buttons being pushed, the better.

STRUCTURE

“What comes first, what comes next, and so forth… and why. And no, you can’t just make it up for yourself. There are certain expectations and standards here. Knowing what they are is the first step toward getting published.”

There’s a lot to structure. In the book Larry talks about four buckets. Each bucket represents an Act. He goes into depth about what each bucket should contain, where it appears in the story, and why. In the interest of time, so we can get more in-depth in other areas, could you please explain the difference between Story Structure vs. Story Architecture?

LB:  Structure is the grid, the skeleton.  Story Architecture is what you hang on the skeleton.  Engineers pay attention to structure first, because it bears all the weight.  Architectures, while totally engaging with structure also think about aesthetic choices, colors and surfaces and art and design.  In writing, these two become separate focuses, yet are sequential and eventually one in the same.  If you put a great character into a cool setting but the structure is off, it won’t work.  Conversely, if the structure is stellar but the story isn’t, then you’re not there yet.  We need both.  They are the same, but different.

SCENE EXECUTION

“You can know the game, but if you can’t play it well you can’t win. A story is a series of scenes with some connective tissue in place. And there are principles and guidelines to make them work.”

Here’s my favorite quote in this section: “As for your writing skills… it isn’t always the fastest or more athletic player who wins, or even becomes champion. It’s the player who has the most heart, the player who won’t quit, and the player who gets the most out of what she knows and has been given. To which she is always striving to add.”

Isn’t that empowering, folks? Fabulous!

Here’s another place I had epiphanies galore. In the book you talk about “ushering the reader into a new scene” and how every scene must have a mission.

LB:  I believe that the single most illuminating, powerful and career-changing principle is just this: every scene needs an expositional mission, IN ADDITION TO illustrating character and place.  The plot must be visible in every scene, and it must be either in the process of being set up (in the first quartile) or being forwarded (beginning with the First Plot Point forward).  It’s that simple: what’s the mission of the scene?  If the answer doesn’t forward the plot, then the answer isn’t good enough.  Yet.  Fix it.

A reminder, “literary fiction” has a different set of expectations and criteria.  The plot/conflict criteria is lower or absent, while the character and writing voice benchmarks are vague, elusive, and considered to be higher.

The ushering part is a function of how well the story adheres to a solid structural plan.  Because each scene is forwarding plot exposition, the each scene can be – should be – developed in context to full knowledge of what happens before it, and after it.  Which, in turn, facilitates transitions between those scenes.  That in itself is an art form, the sense of where and how to end a scene with an open-ended moment, something that compels the reader to keep going.  Television does this really well (especially drama), pay attention to the last moment before a commercial, that’s all by design, you really want to stay tuned.

WRITING VOICE 

“The coat of paint, or if you prefer, the suit of clothes, that delivers the story to the reader. The biggest risk here is letting your writing voice get in the way. Less is more. Sparingly clever or sparsely eloquent is even better.”

This I’m not going to ask you about, because, frankly, it’s too involved. Writers: you’ll really want to know what he talks about in the book with regards to Writing Voice. There’s only so much room without making this post way too long. You know what to do. Buy. The. Book. I promise, it will be the best investment you’ve made in your future thus far.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Larry.

Thanks for having me here, I hope someone out there has a little Epiphany or two from this experience.

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To learn more about Larry Brooks and his work visit his author’s page here or go to his website, Storyfix.com. Larry also offers coaching and story empowerment services… four levels, all really affordable. Find out more here, or by visiting his website. Also, he’s in the midst of publishing shorter tutorials (more than just those pictured in this post).

Below are Larry’s pulse-pounding thrillers (linked at the beginning of this post). If you’re looking for an un-put-down-able read you can’t go wrong with any of these talented author’s books.

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