Posted On August 6, 2010 by Print This Post

Dirty Little Secrets

The Dirty Little Secret of Storytelling

By Larry Brooks

Nobody likes to talk about it.  Much less admit to it.

Even at writing conferences, where hopeful authors pay good money to hear workshop leaders they may have never heard of school them on the fundamentals of spinning a publishable story.

If you write within a genre, including romance – especially romance – the language of its cover-up doubles.

One of the primary reasons this dirty little storytelling secret isn’t talked about openly is that only a fraction of the people lining up to learn – and in many cases teach – the craft of storytelling aren’t even aware of it.

Or if they are, they use vague concepts and diversionary language to describe it.  That doesn’t change the fact of its existence.  It’s like the world being round, it just is, even if you’ve never seen it from space.

Leaving a smug minority who, quietly and competently, leverage it all the way to the bank.  Or at least to the bookstore for their next signing.

This group of authors divides into three categories: those that know it but won’t cop to it, those that don’t know it but somehow stumble onto it through the revision process, and those who get lucky and never realize what they’re onto.

The latter are one-hit wonders, at best.  Because you don’t get lucky twice.

The former are the name-brand authors you see in the window at Borders, year after year.

What is this dirty little secret?

Are you sure you want to know?

It might ruin your illusion of writing being the artful process of channeling the overflow of passion and romantic swoon onto the page through the lens of your fantasies and experiences.  Great fodder for cocktail parties and critique groups.

But that won’t get you published.

The dirty little secret is this: there’s a formula for storytelling.  A structural expectation.  A rather rigid order of exposition, with specific things the story needs to do at specific places.

In other words, you don’t get to write your story any way you please.

To publish it, you need to write it the way agents and publishers expect it to be written.  You can’t invent your own genre, or your own structural format.  Any more than a dancer can ignore the music, or a golfer can aim for any green they choose.

Almost 100 percent of commercial fiction published today, in any genre – and that includes romance – aligns with that formula.  That’s right, the craft of writing novels that sell is blatantly, inescapably formulaic.

Once you know what is you’ll see it playing out in every novel you read and movie you see.  Once you know, everything about your writing and reading experience will change forever.

Do you know what the formula is?

If not, you’ve just defined what the next part of your writing journey should be.  You need to internalize this, every bit as much as a chef needs to understand how to turn on an oven.

Good analogy, that.  Because the oven is where all the heat comes from.

Here’s the really dirty part.

Your chances of writing something that has a shot at publication are almost non-existent if you don’t fall into one of those three categories.  Which means you either get it, you somehow find it, or it finds you by random chance.

“It,” of course, being the nature of that structural expectation.

This doesn’t change what you think you know about storytelling.

It just builds a solid foundation beneath it.

Behind all the rhetoric of hunky heroes, even more beautiful heroines, powerful prose, sizzling romantic encounters, exotic settings, tears and cheers and sweaty sex, there resides a set of storytelling principles that any writer seeking publication must understand and execute.

Those principles are the antithesis of episodic, this-happens-then-this-happens storytelling, which is the bane of the new, under-informed author.

Some of the principles are openly acknowledged, and yet newer writers sometimes struggle to grasp these dramatic principles.

Such as… you need a protagonist the reader can relate to and root for.  You need to give her or him a goal.  You need to have an antagonistic force blocking the hero’s path toward that goal.  There needs to be stakes attached to that goal. The hero’s journey summons an emotional response on the part of the reader.

In other words, fiction 101.

You’d be shocked how many writers today don’t grasp these principles, much less execute them.  They have a vision for a cool character and a concept for a relationship, and it ends there.  No deeper than a diary.

Without those other principles in play – conceptual appeal, dramatic conflict, character arc and vicarious reader empathy – it won’t work.  Ever.

The key word there is conflict.  Character unfolds in context to conflict.  Not the other way around.

Those are the non-secret principles of storytelling.  And yet, they remain among the most challenging aspects of our craft.

Just as critical to your story is the nature of its linear structure.  Which is the dirty little secret… because the standards for it, the expectations for it, never change in a substantive way.

It’s a non-genre-specific formula.

Carve it into your forehead.

People who write romances are bombarded with structural models that smack of formula, so this may not seem like news.

But this might: the most basic formula, even for romance writers, isn’t expressed in terms of character.  Of girl meets boy, girl can’t have boy, girl does something to snag boy, boy resists, girl changes, boy comes around, romance ensues.

Or whatever romantic narrative conventional wisdom you ascribe to.

No, the dirty little secret of storytelling structure is generic.

One that, ironically, applies to all genres (“genre” being the root word for “generic”).  Which means, you can’t tell a thriller writer or a sci-fi writer that it’s as simple as girl meets boy, et al.

Rather, it’s a four-part sequence of scenes, each of which is of roughly equal length, each of which has a different context – set-up… response… attack… resolution.

Dividing those four segments are three critical milestones – the first plot point… the mid-point… the second plot point.

Each of these seven tools – four parts and three milestones – has specific mission and criteria.

That’s the whole seminar, defined in three brief paragraphs.  With depths to plumb like three years of grad school.

Published writers get that.

They aren’t relying on vague, character driven structural turning points – “… then the heroine meets the handsome stranger…” – they are overlaying it, the language of romantic storytelling, on top of it.

Read that again.  You build your story using both layers.

The most basic layer is the same for you, the romance author, as it is for a mystery writer, a sci-fi writer, a historical writer, a thriller writer, or even a so-called literary author.  It’s the same generic four-part storytelling model.

But the skin you put in it – the essence of romantic fiction, in your case – is wildly different among the various genres.

The same, but different.

Now you know.  There are two levels of storytelling you need to wrap your head around.  One without the other won’t get you where you want to go.

***

RU Crew, do you outline your stories using the milestones Larry discussed? What is your process?

Thank you to Larry for a great post.

Bio: Larry Brooks is a bestselling author of five novels and the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional resource for writers of novels and screenplays. His book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” will be published in early 2011 by Writers Digest Books.

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Discussion

9 Responses to “Dirty Little Secrets”

  1. Larry,

    I always learn so much from your posts. I use the outline method but as my learning increases the outlines have improved – thank goodness. Best of all with the outline and the formula it is much less work or less painful to build the layers.

    If you want to build a series and you work with the outline method how much of that 1st outline can you use for the next story? I can see this would be a good way to refresh your memory and plan the next story but how do you change it up?

    Posted by Holly | August 6, 2010, 6:37 am
  2. Hi Larry,

    Thanks for sharing the dirty little secret. For the first time, I tried outlining a new story. It seems I have a problem forecasting what will happen beyond the midpoint. Any tips?

    Thanks, Tracey

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | August 6, 2010, 6:52 am
  3. Hi, Larry. I’m a plotter, so the structure you outline in your book (Story Structure Demystified) made me absolutely giddy.

    My question is similar to Holly’s. I’m currently working on a book I’d like to expand into a series. I have ideas for books two and three, but I’m wondering if I should plot out the series like I would a book. Maybe book one has a “turning point”, book two has a midpoint, and book three has the second turning point? I’m thinking each “turning point” in the series would reflect growth for my protagonist.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | August 6, 2010, 7:53 am
  4. Morning Larry!

    What a great read! I’m a pantser at heart, but it gets me into serious trouble. I started doing an outline a few months ago, and that helped tremendously with figuring out where I was going and when!

    I’ll definitely be printing this out and referring to it often.

    Thanks for the post!

    =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 6, 2010, 8:59 am
  5. Hi Larry!
    Boy are you right…..and boy could I have used this information a few months ago. Early in my writing I took a course on writing fiction at my local community college. I purchased books on craft, learned the three act structure, but still did not get the structural format of writing a category romance. I am lucky that a publisher/editor liked my voice enough to work with me while I perform the arduous task of attempting to convert my story into one that fits their formula for a character driven romance that meets the publishers promise to its readers.

    Posted by Wendy Marcus | August 6, 2010, 11:44 am
  6. Larry –

    Thanks so much for visiting RU. Not only have I purchased one of your e-books, but I’ve read almost everything on your blog. What a fantastic resource for writers! I love the idea of each plot section being a box, where only certain things belong. As a born organizer, that makes a lot of sense to me.

    Best,
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | August 6, 2010, 1:58 pm
  7. @Holly — there are two kinds of series: the return of a protagonist, and the ongoing thread of an unresolved story. The latter isn’t mandatory, just bring back the hero(ine) and the series continues.

    The first book, especially, needs to stand on its own, as if it’s not a series. Which means, the outline needs to stand alone, as well. If there is an unresolved sub-plot or sub-text — like Harry Potter finding his parents’ killer — then this can carry over.

    In my view, each book needs its own outline and resolution. A series isn’t a convenient way to break one long story into chunks, it’s a sequence of stories that work on their own, while linking to future entries.

    Posted by Larry | August 7, 2010, 5:19 pm

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  2. [...] focus more on word length, tone/setting preferences, and other marketing limitations). And, the dirty little secret is, structure is structure is [...]

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