If you've read other books on how to write a great story, this probably won't hold much new for you. But this was my first book on this subject, and I loved it. Changed the way I pay attention to movies and novels. Makes me want to write a novel.
Writers are, and have always been, among the most powerful people in the world.
Art is fire plus algebra.
We have an innate belief that we know what makes a good story - after all, we can quickly recognize a bad one.
The first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality.
You have to be as honest about your story as you would a movie you begin watching with one finger still poised on the remote.
Pinpoint where each trouble spot lies and then remedy it before it spreads like a weed.
Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them. A way to explore our own mind and the minds of others, as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future. Story helps us survive not only in the life-and-death physical sense but also in a life-well-lived social sense. What’s the worst that could happen if I had an affair to spice up my boring life as the wife of a country doctor? How can I avoid a suicidal confrontation with raiders who want my land today without looking like a coward and thereby ceding it to them tomorrow? The answers are to be found in any bookstore or any video store.
Our expectations have everything to do with the story’s ability to provide information on how we might safely navigate this earthly plane.
What a story is supposed to do: plunk someone with a clear goal into an increasingly difficult situation they then have to navigate. When a story meets our brain’s criteria, we relax and slip into the protagonist’s skin, eager to experience what his or her struggle feels like.
A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.
Create what appears to the reader as reality, only sharper, clearer, and far more entertaining, because stories do what our cognitive unconscious does: filter out everything that would distract us from the situation.
What does your protagonist have to confront in order to solve the problem you’ve so cleverly set up for her? That problem is what the reader is going to be hunting for from the get-go, because it’s going to define everything that happens from the first sentence on.
Nothing focuses the mind like surprise.
“How he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about.
We’re jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass. This means that from the first sentence we need to catch sight of the breadcrumb trail that will lure us deeper into the thicket.
What we’re hoping for in that opening sentence is the sense that something is about to change.
There has to be a ball already in play.
The three basic things readers relentlessly hunt for as they read that first page:
1. Whose story is it?
2. What’s happening here?
3. What’s at stake?
We need to meet the protagonist as soon as possible - hopefully, in the first paragraph.
Choose a book based solely on its first sentence.
“Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.”
All three questions were answered in a single sentence.
1. Whose story is it? Joel Campbell’s.
2. What’s happening here? He’s on a bus, which has somehow triggered what will result in murder. (Talk about “all is not as it seems”!)
3. What is at stake? Joel’s life, someone else’s life, and who knows what else.
What hooks us, and keeps us reading, is the dopamine-fueled desire to know what happens next. Without that, nothing else matters.
Zero in on the point your story is making.
A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question.
A few telltale signs that a story is going off the rails:
We know who the protagonist is, but she doesn’t seem to have a goal,
We know what the protagonist’s goal is, but have no clue what inner issue it forces him to deal with,
What happens doesn’t seem to affect him or whether he achieves it.
The story isn’t about whether or not the protagonist achieves her goal per se; it’s about what she has to overcome internally to do it.
The theme, is what your story says about human nature. Theme tends to be reflected in how your characters treat each other.
The plot itself - the events that relentlessly force the protagonist to deal with her issue.
Theme actually boils down to something incredibly simple:
• What does the story tell us about what it means to be human?
• What does it say about how humans react to circumstances beyond their control?
Ask yourself, What is it I want my readers to walk away thinking about? What point does my story make? How do I want to change the way my reader sees the world?
MYTH: The Plot Is What the Story Is About
REALITY: A Story Is About How the Plot Affects the Protagonist
Only when embodied in the very specific does a universal become accessible.
In the abstract, universals are so vast they’re impossible to wrap your mind around. It’s only when expressed through the flesh-and-blood reality of a story, that we’re able to experience a universal one-on-one, and feel it.
“Show, don’t tell.” It’s the story’s job to show us the theme, not the theme’s job to tell us the story.
Define what, exactly, your story is about before you begin writing.
The most important, yet often overlooked, element of story - letting the reader know how your protagonist is reacting internally.
You may be in only one head per scene.
Common mistake writers make is using body language to tell us something we already know. Body language should tell us something we don’t know. At its most effective, it tells us what’s really going on inside the character’s head.
Make us feel. Tell us what to feel, on the other hand, and what we’ll feel is bullied.
The less you tell us how to feel, the more likely we’ll feel exactly what you want us to.
When we read a story, we really do slip into the protagonist’s skin, feeling what she feels, experiencing what she experiences. And what we feel is based, 100 percent, on one thing: her goal, which then defines how she evaluates everything the other characters do.
We succeed only as we identify a single overriding objective, and make all other considerations bend to that one objective.
Readers assume that everything the writer tells them is there on a strictly need-to-know basis.
Nothing is ever better than finding out what makes people tick.
The brain is built to think socially.
Adding external problems adds drama only if they’re something the protagonist must confront to overcome her issue.
Make sure that everything your protagonist faces - beginning on page one - springs specifically from the problem she needs to solve, both internally and externally.
The moment one of those erroneous implicit beliefs is formed - everyone’s only in it for themselves, so the nicer someone is, the more you know they’re out to con you - we blithely misinterpret everything that happens to us.
We don’t even know we’re doing it until something happens that proves us wrong.
Stories often begin at just that moment, as one of the protagonist’s long-held beliefs is about to be called into question.
Writing a story, where is the best place to start?
Pinpoint the moment long before, when she first fell prey to the inner issue that’s been skewing her worldview ever since.
Story is about something that is changing.
The exhilarating time when things are in flux, giving the reader the illusion that it really could go either way.
We tend to find abstract concepts thumpingly boring.
Thus the whole point of a story is to translate the general into a specific, so we can see what it really means, just in case we ever come face to face with it in a dark alley.
We also think in metaphor. Metaphor is how the mind “couches the abstract concepts in concrete terms.” Believe it or not, we utter about six metaphors a minute. Prices soared. My heart sank. Time ran out. Metaphor is so ubiquitous we rarely notice it.
Metaphors have resonance only when we know, specifically, what they’re supposed to illuminate. Otherwise, although it definitely sounds like it’s meant to tell us something really important, we’re left thinking, I know this has great significance, but I have no idea of what. Nor should we have to spend even a nanosecond decoding a metaphor. It should be “gettable” when reading at a clip, and its meaning instantly grasped. What’s more, metaphors need to give us new information and fresh insight rather than simply restating something we already know.
Unless they convey necessary information, sensory details clog a story’s arteries.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
You can’t hum the scenery.
Every story has more than one versus, here are the most common:
• What the protagonist believes is true versus what is actually true
• What the protagonist wants versus what the protagonist actually has
• What the protagonist wants versus what’s expected of her
• The protagonist versus herself
• The protagonist’s inner goal versus the protagonist’s external goal
• The protagonist’s fear versus the protagonist’s goal (external, internal, or both)
• The protagonist versus the antagonist
• The antagonist versus mercy (or the appearance thereof)
A major reveal is the surprise near the end that twists the meaning of everything that came before it. It’s Darth Vader booming, “I am your father, Luke”.
Reveals are shocking, yet they are completely believable the second we hear them. Why? Because up to that moment, although the story made sense, we couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was more going on.
The writers gave us a specific pattern of hints all the way along. And so, although each story made sense up to that moment, in light of the reveal it makes even more sense.
Make sure that the story gains something by withholding specific facts for a big reveal later.
Follow a cause-and-effect trajectory beginning on page one, so that each scene is triggered by the one that preceded it.
Answer the “And so?” to everything in the story. Ask this question relentlessly, like a four-year-old, and the minute you can’t answer, know that you’re likely in the company of a darling, a digression, or something else likely to cause your story to go into free fall.
Craft a plot that forces her to confront head-on just about everything she’s spent her entire life avoiding.
The harder she tries, the harder it gets. Ensure that everything the protagonist does to remedy the situation only makes it worse.
Men often bear little grievances with less courage than they do large misfortunes.
Expose your characters’ flaws, demons, and insecurities.
Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.