As writers, we (okay, I—and I'm hoping I'm not alone here!) obsess about the sound of words, the effect they create when they are strung together like Christmas lights on the strands of our sentences, and the images they grow in our minds. But the more I write and explore the business of publication, the more I'm coming to realize that creating publishable books isn't about the writing as much as it is about the story and the characters that live and breathe between the pages of that story.
You Can't Make a Silk Purse . . .
It's true in writing, too. A weak or dull story isn't going to work no matter how beautifully we tell it. Average, lackluster characters aren't going to sell. The same story that's already been told a million times isn’t going to get a contract unless we bring something new to it—and these days, new better be thrilling. There's just too much competition out there. Too many people with great ideas and computers that let them work on polishing sentences until they are good enough if not strictly great. A wonderful story with bad writing is probably easier to fix than a bad story with wonderful writing.
What Makes a Great Story?
Larry Brooks, the author of Story Engineering, put together something he called the "six core competencies of successful writing." These strike me as a fantastic starting point for any discussion about what is, or isn't a good story. Here is his list, including my quick interpretations of his definitions:
- Concept: A question that demands an answer. What if . . .
- Character: Surface affectations and personality; backstory; character arc; inner demons and conflicts; worldview; goals and motivations; decisions, actions, and behavior. (Note the order in which Larry puts this, because you'll notice that everything builds to how the character acts and behaves.)
- Theme: What the story means.
- Story Structure: The universal milestones and guideposts of story. The turning points, including the set-up and inciting incident, the character's response and descent into more trouble, the ordeal, and the resolution.
- Scene Execution: The bricks of dramatic action or exposition that build the structure of your specific story and the connective narrative and transitions that glue your scenes together.
- Writing Voice: The words in which you tell the story—Larry calls this "the coat of paint . . . that delivers the story to the reader."
Over the next few months, I want to go back and do a tune up on what I've learned about writing so far. A refresher course. Because I tend to learn by writing out my thoughts, because I haven't done any meaty "craft posts" recently, and because I had such a great time putting together the guest post for Lisa Gail Green's fantastic Paranormal Point of View blog the other day, I'm going to turn my thoughts into a series of posts following Larry's structure of competencies. I'm going to incorporate different source books and craft posts, plus examples from young adult novels that I've had the pleasure of reading recently, and I hope you'll help me out by pitching in with things you've read or discovered along your own writing journeys.
If you have thoughts or resources for me, posts you've done or seen, or books you've read that you think illustrate a particular idea in the core competencies or a particular aspect of story craft, please let me know. Either post a comment here or email me. I'd love to hear from you!