Lately the question I’ve been asked most often is, “What’s the biggest mistake writers make?” It’s a great question, especially since the answer is surprising: they don’t know what a story is. So even though they have a great idea and their prose is gorgeous, there’s no story, thus no sense of urgency, and ultimately, no reader. It’s as simple – and heartbreaking – as that. And it’s extremely common.
A big part of the problem is that writing is taught everywhere, but story, not so much. I believe that’s why about 98% of what is submitted to agents is rejected out of hand. And you want a real eye opener? Flannery O’Connor’s observation that “most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one” often applies to those who evaluate stories as well. I recently spoke with a long established editor at a major publishing house and a very successful agent both of whom echoed what Justice Stewart said of pornography, “I can’t define what a story is, but I know it when I see it.” So the people whose job it is to help you get your story to market may not even know what a story is, either.
In other words, it’s up to you to deliver a story to them from the get-go. Sure, your novel might still need work, but unless they can see the story there on the page from the very first sentence, you’ll be one of the 98%. And don’t think self-publishing will make a lick of difference. While you can bypass traditional publishing and put your novel out on your own, if it’s not a story – if it doesn’t grab readers – what good will that do?
So what is a story? Here’s my definition of the essence of a story:
A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (which is what the story is actually about).
In other words, story is internal, not external. A story is not about the plot, which is why external story-structure models, including the over-revered Hero’s Journey, often lead writers far astray. A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist.
Why is this true? Because stories are simulations. Their biological purpose is to allow us to feel what it would really be like to deal with something unexpected that forces us to make difficult decisions. As readers our hardwired goal is to experience what the protagonist is experiencing without having to actually take the escalating risks she does. It’s as close as we come to having our cake and eating it too.
Thus, first and foremost, a story is about how the protagonist makes sense of what happens, and how she then reacts as she pursues her goal. In short, it’s not about what she does, it’s about why she does it. This is often revealed in the difference between what she says aloud (i.e. her cover) and what she’s actually thinking, which is where her real agenda is conveyed, and where we can see and feel what it’s actually costing her, emotionally.
There are five illuminating reasons why the story itself often goes missing, and knowing them can help you make a neat end run around them:
1. The first job of a good story is to anesthetize the part of your brain that knows it is a story.
Story is the world’s first virtual reality – when you read one, you are there — and the last thing you’re doing is trying to figure out how the writer has created the illusion. In other words, we’re hardwired to not see the actual bones of the story.
2. Plot and the words used to express it are the most apparent thing we see when we read a good story, so it’s easy to believe that they are the cause of our pleasure.
That’s why – and this is especially true of the literary set – writers tend to believe that the more lyrical the language, the more compelling the novel. Not so. In fact, lovely words that do not in some way move the story forward, stop it cold.
3. Good novels very often trick us into believing that the writer never ventured into the protagonist’s mind, when in fact, that’s where the story unfolded.
Pull just about any novel off your shelf and look specifically for how the writer is conveying the protagonist’s internal reaction to what happens; you’ll see it everywhere. When reading for pleasure it’s nearly invisible, precisely because it’s how the novel gives us the sense that we’re in the protagonist’s skin. That’s why it’s maddening that writers are often warned not to include internal thought. Why is this advice given? Because when done poorly, internal thought can turn into long, rambling, irrelevant monologues that derail a story. So the best advice is simply this: learn to write internal thought well. After all, it’s what lets us know how the protagonist is really responding to what’s happening, and that’s where the power of story lies.
4. Writers often suffer from what scholars Chip and Dan Heath have dubbed the “Curse of Knowledge” – that is, when you know something it’s very difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it.
You know your story inside and out. You know all the characters, their motivation, their hopes and dreams, what their internal reaction is to what happens, and the outcome of everything; after all, you made it all up. It’s natural to tacitly assume that your reader knows all that, too, but unless you put it on the page, they won’t know jack.
As proof the Heath brothers point to a fascinating experiment done by Elizabeth Newton in 1990 at Stanford. She separated people into two groups: tappers and listeners. The tappers were asked to tap out simple songs, for instance, “Happy Birthday to You,” for the listeners. They were then asked to gauge how many of the songs they were tapping out the listeners would recognize. The tappers estimated that the listeners would get it half the time. In fact, out of 120 songs, listeners only got 3; in other words, they were right 2.5% of the time, instead of the 50% that the tappers estimated. Why the wide discrepancy? Since the tappers could “hear” the song in their head as they tapped it out, it didn’t occur to them that what the listeners heard sounded a lot like random tapping.
Equally illuminating was the tappers reaction. Here it is straight from the Heath brothers’ fabulous book, Made to Stick: “In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seemed to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers expressions, when a listener guesses, “Happy Birthday to You” for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless: How could you be so stupid?”
This is a cautionary tale for writers, who can unintentionally become impatient with readers who don’t “get it,” and brings us to the last reason writers often work overtime to keep their story off the page.
5. Writers are often taught that it’s talking down to the reader to actually let them know how the protagonist is reacting to what’s happening.
Writers are often told that if you simply show something happening, the reader will intuit what the protagonist’s inner response is. In almost every case, this is patently untrue, and instead of inviting the reader in, it locks the reader out.
The deeper problem this tends to fuel is the notion that it’s the reader’s job to “get it” rather than the writer’s job to communicate it. Thus the writer tells us, in passing, that Enid has always loved vanilla ice cream, expecting that when she then breaks up with her fiancée Hugo the second he makes a point of ordering chocolate, we’ll know exactly why she did it. I mean, how could we not know, especially since Enid believes all chocolate lovers are brutes (a fact that has not been actually spelled out, mind you, but implied by the way she always glares at people who eat chocolate). Writing like this has a passive/aggressive feel to it, sort of like when your beloved seems a little distant, but when you ask why, sniffs and says, “Well if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.”
When it comes to story, tell us! Sure, there are times when you will have to trust your readers to “get it,” but only once you’ve given them enough specific information so that they actually can.
The good news is that once you understand what a story is, you have a way to make your beautiful prose genuinely compelling and give it deep meaning — which comes from the story itself. I’m not saying that being a great writer isn’t something to strive for. It is. But what’s the point of having a great voice if it isn’t saying something that people can actually hear?
Which brings us to a question that writers often forget to ask themselves.
When you’re writing what are you more focused on: your prose, or the story your prose is giving voice to? It’s tempting to say both, isn’t it? Because, of course, to some degree that’s true. But here’s the secret: in the beginning, it’s all about nailing the story. When you get to that last draft (which will most likely be many drafts away), it’s about polishing the prose. But if you concentrate on the prose from the get-go? It’s like frosting a cake you haven’t baked yet.
What about you? What’s the balance that you’ve found most effective?
Photo courtesy Flickr’s umjanedoan