The Biggest Mistake Writers Make and How to Avoid it

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

 

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Lisa,
    Thanks for these outstanding insights. I am a character driven writer and I believe plot is overrated. It is what happens to the character and how it changes her that keeps me reading stories . Thanks for a great post.

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    • says

      Thanks, CG. And I couldn’t agree with you more — I actually think that most books that are categorized as “plot driven” actually keep us reading for the very same reason: we’re drawn into how the action is affecting, and changing, the protagonist. It’s just that there are more earthquakes and tornadoes and aliens and giant spiders.

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  2. says

    Fantastic post. A lot of this information is stuff that your gut intuits but your learning overrides. In the last several years there have been best sellers that the writing community has criticized for poor writing. My response has been, maybe, but they spin a good yarn that readers enjoy.

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  3. says

    Very helpful post. I’m one who didn’t know how hard it would be to write a story until I sat down to write one. Now, though, you have me tapping out songs with my fingers.

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  4. says

    The problem with the over-revered Hero’s Journey is too many writers treat it as a magic story formula–just add water and presto, a gourmet novel rich in archetypal goodness.

    The Hero’s Journey is a powerful archetype precisely because it is about the protagonist’s internal transformation from being ordinary to extraordinary. Indeed, in its mythic form, the Hero’s Journey is about transcendence. The external quest only matters because it provides evidence of the main character’s internal evolution.

    If you reduce the journey to a series of plot points, you have something no more significant than a ride at Disneyland.

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    • says

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Deren. The truth is that story structure is the byproduct of a story well told, not something that can be applied from the outside in. The only thing I’d add is that it’s not just that the external quest provides evidence of the character’s internal evolution — it’s that the external quest is waht to forces the hero to dig deep, confront the inner issues that’s holding him or her back, and thus evolve.

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  5. says

    Wow. This is a fantastic post.

    I was just doing some editing work on a novel written by another free-lance editor. I kept telling him that certain parts of his characters’ story weren’t clear because the text wasn’t giving the reader enough info about the story. I also mentioned that maybe there were also some elements of plot that were MIA.

    He finally snapped, “I’ve been an editor for longer than I’ve been a writer; I know what story is!”

    Wish I had had your excellent post a few months ago. Thank you for giving us all this great reminder . . . I certainly need it too!

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  6. says

    I LOVED this post! Thank you, Lisa, for sharing these ideas and tips. When I first started writing fiction, I swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, first info dumping all over the place and telling things that weren’t important to the story, then cutting too much of the “telling the story” out because of research that told me it was a cardinal sin. It took years of work and revisions — and writing a whole other novel — to find a decent balance. And I agree that the character’s thoughts and reactions are an important part of that.

    In first person, I have found the trick (for me) to be writing the character’s thoughts into the narrative, because if we’re seeing the story through her eyes, that feels natural.

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    • says

      Thank you, LynDee! And I couldn’t agree more about how to write the character’s thoughts into the narrative when writing in the first person. After all, everything they’re telling you is laced with their take on it — the same way in real life, everything we say is laced with our opinion, our spin, our beliefs (even when we think we’re being “objective”). That’s why it’s so important to know what the protagonist’s worldview is before you begin writing. Otherwise, how do you know what their reaction to anything will be, right?

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  7. says

    Very helpful post. I was especially intrigued to read your take on the Hero’s Journey, an approach I am currently exploring but which I have felt for some time is not the be-all-and-end-all. It’s a useful tool and with your perspective added, a whole new approach opens up. Want to check your book out now!

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  8. says

    Wonderful advice, Lisa. The emotional connection with the characters is the only way to leave a lasting impression on readers. You explain this beautifully.

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  9. says

    You are absolutely right: story is all about what an event means to the protagonist. Some genres are lighter on story–such as formula mysteries–but the great stories change the MC as much as he or she changes the world.

    Per your question, I myself am a “discovery writer.” I plot very little in advance and carve out the story as I go, so for me the first draft of a chapter is all about what happens. Once scene contains everything necessary to advance the plot and reveal the MC’s reaction, I will do a second pass and clean up the language. Once the story is finished, I do a complete re-read to polish the language and color the scenes some more. (This last step could take forever, but I’ve finally learned there is a point where it’s “good enough” to let it go to publication.)

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  10. says

    “It’s like frosting a cake you haven’t baked yet.” How well said is that? Love it. I’ll be recommending this link in my novel prep academy at the end of October. My agent used to send all of her clients – even ones who had already published many books- a sheet on What a Novel Is to keep that in our heads as we were working on our next stories.

    And if you look at a lot of negative reviews on novels on Amazon, they typically say one of two things: underdeveloped characters – I didn’t care about them; and, boring. I didn’t feel like I wanted to finish it. Both speak to the lack of a strong story.

    Thanks, Lisa!

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  11. Carmel says

    These words of yours define story for me: “something unexpected that forces us to make difficult decisions.” I have Wired for Story on my Kindle and pages and pages of highlights. Thanks for your book and this great post. I needed the “frosting on the cake” thought today.

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  12. says

    Lisa, I recently read Wired for Story, and I will never look at my craft in the same way again. I took handwritten notes, incorporating my own work to your segments, and I review them often as I work on my rewrite. I think I may be headed for the next level, finally.

    I encourage anyone who happens to read this comment to go and download your book this very instant, while it’s top of mind! Thank you for illuminating what I do!

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  13. ML Swift says

    Wonderful post. The story…of course!

    I loved the whole article, but these two quotes stuck out:

    “Writers are often told that…”

    I left it open-ended because we’re often told endless rules of thumb concerning what to do – or what not to do, in most cases. But each rule of thumb has its exception and can be used (such as internal thought) if the second quote is followed.

    “So the best advice is simply this: learn to write _____ well.”

    While you gave internal thought as an example, it applies to all, especially if it’s a technique that’s goes against convention. Write the story, but write it well.

    Thanks for some great insights. I’ve already copied a couple of these jewels and pasted them in my “things I need to bang into my head” document.

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    • says

      Thanks so much, ML. I just love the idea of a “things I need to bang into my head” list. In fact, thinking about it, I realize have a pretty long list myself.

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  14. says

    I have been writing non-fiction articles and for most of my 68 years but have always been drawn to telling stories. I found your article compelling and very informative. The ‘light bulb’ in my head turned on several times as I read it… thanks so much for sharing your insights. I look forward to getting your book.

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    • says

      Thanks, Thom, that means a lot coming from a non-fiction writer who knows the ropes. Glad you’re drawn to telling stories, and I’m betting you’re pretty good at it already.

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  15. says

    Wow. This post came at the exact moment I needed it. You’ve clarified something that has been bugging me for ages. Can’t thank you enough. Story first. “A big part of the problem is that writing is taught everywhere, but story, not so much.” I must work this in to future workshops. But first, I must work on my own manuscript. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  16. says

    Thanks so much for this informative and enlightening post about story. As a story person, I was pleased to see your emphasis on it, but your thoughts about what story really is gave me a lot to think about and strive for in my own writing.

    And I also learned that the beginning of The Stars Spangled Banner really does sound exactly like Happy Birthday to You, when tapped out. Fascinating!

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    • says

      It’s great to meet another story person! And I just tried it, and it really IS true, isn’t it? The Star Spangled Banner and Happy Birthday To You do sound identical — the listeners were absolutely right.

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  17. says

    Lisa,

    Thanks for emphasizing point #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.”

    I find myself falling into that trap with my own writing. So often we hear the critique “show, don’t tell” and sometimes giving direct insight into a character’s reaction feels like too much telling. And then, you end up with confused readers. It’s a tricky balance to show a character’s reaction in a way that will come across to the reader.

    Thanks for your tips!
    Andrea

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    • says

      My pleasure, Andrea — and thanks! I totally agree, “show, don’t tell” is one of the most mis-taught and thus misunderstood writing adages out there. What it almost always means is, don’t tell me THAT something happened, show me WHY. This, more often than not, translates to: show me how the protagonist is making sense of what’s happening in the moment — which brings us right back to giving us her inner reaction.

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  18. says

    Great post! I’m definitely one of those writers who is so plot-driven that I often forget the character arc. But I’ve learned if I flip it the other way and think about how my character will change, etc., I can adjust my plot points to make for an even better story.

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  19. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Thank you for this post, Lisa. I am printing it and pinning in on my bulletin board directly above my writing computer. I’m going to read through it whenever I begin to doubt my direction.

    And your book rocks.

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  20. Ronda Roaring says

    Lisa, for me, this was a thought provoking piece. and I appreciate you writing. But, I have a question for you. I recently met Alexi Zentner, the author of Touch. At the time, I hadn’t read his novel, nor did I know anything about Zentner’s work, so I asked him the genre. He said it was literary fiction. I asked him what HE meant by literary fiction. He said more emphasis is spent on character development and less on plot. When I read Touch, this was exactly the case. The main character comes back to the place of his birth to bury his mother and remember relatives from his past and their cultural heritage. Since there was very little “plot,” would you then say that there was little story?

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    • says

      Great question, Ronda! And while I haven’t read Touch, so I can give more than a general answer. That said, my answer is no, I wouldn’t say that there was little story at all — but nor would I say that there was little plot. Here’s why — “plot” doesn’t necessarily refer to big events that take place externally in a story (this is a common misconception, and in a way it sounds like what Zenter was referring to). The plot is what forces a character to come to grips with something internal, and — when done right — can revolve primarily around memories as a character makes sense of what’s happening in the moment. It sounds like that is what happened in Touch, with that “something” being the protagonist’s mother’s death. Does that make sense?

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    • says

      Absolutely, Carleen. When I saw that picture on Flicker I had the exact same response. Plus it made me wonder what the story was behind naming it “Story” road. Was it something mundane, like someone’s last name, or was the city planner (or whoever it is that names roads) dreaming of someday being a writer. Hmmm . . .

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  21. says

    Thank you, Lori. I was happy dancing throughout your piece. As writers we must always remember that the plot is only the means-where-by the ultimate conflict for the characters is explored. This was one of the first points I learned when I studied directing. It’s also a piece of advice that keeps on giving. Thanks for sharing.

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    • says

      My pleasure, Josoca, nothing makes me smile wider than the thought of inspiring happy dancing! And I love how you put it — “plot is only the means whereby the ultimate conflict for the characters is explored.” Well said!

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  22. says

    Great post, Lisa!

    I fully agree with your perspective on stories being simulations of possible realities. This has been my belief ever since I was a child, and reading your book Wired for Story (on page 215 now, and out of orange post-its) I’m thrilled to meet so many of my thoughts on the underlying principles of effective storytelling explained so eloquently and clearly. :) Your advice is a feast for my psychology-greedy synapses.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  23. says

    Ah, lovely! The music tapping story makes it all so clear. Might have to ‘borrow’ this one occasionally when asked about writing. yes indeed, the story’s the thing!

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    • says

      Thanks, Katy. And I know exactly what you mean. When I first read about the tappers and the listeners in Made to Stick I had the exact same thought!

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  24. says

    Lisa-

    There’s a contradiction built into the way fiction writing is understood and taught, and I think you’re tapping into it (as it were) in this post.

    The contradiction is this: story (extrenal events) is paramount but the interiority of characters (internal experience) is how that story becomes meaningful.

    Or, to put it differently, how can you balance the need to move story forward with the need to illuminate how characters are experiencing it and changing?

    Or, very simply, how much time on externals (action), how much time on internals (change)?

    You write, “So the best advice is simply this: learn to write internal thought well.” Quite so. But how?

    I’ll add to your excellent post this: passages of interiority work when they do the following: 1) Introduce thoughts that are new, and 2) when such passages create tension.

    Many interior passages in manuscripts rehash what the reader already has apprehended and felt. What’s needed are fresh worries, questions, insights and illumination.

    Exposition is effective when it increases the reader’s uncertainty about what will happen next. When it doesn’t it’s dead weight.

    Love your book, BTW. It’s a really original approach, and thank you for focusing on the inner journey.

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    • says

      Don, it’s so funny, when I wrote the post I knew someone would ask that question. I toyed with saying more, but it would be a whole other blog post. So I’m very glad you brought it up, and I love what you’ve added here — it’s spot on.

      I’d like to add two more pointers to help writers figure out when to weave in internal thought:

      1) Internal thought should tell us something we need to know in the moment, often providing insight into how the character really sees the situation, or letting us know what his or her actual agenda or plan is.
      2) Internal thought is almost always part of how the character is making sense of what is happening in the moment, and deciding what to do as a result. That’s why it’s such a great way to work in snippets of backstory. After all, it’s exactly how we process information and make decisions: we recall relevant bits of the past to help us decide what to do in the moment.

      And thanks SO much for your kind words about my book – that sure made my day!

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  25. says

    Thank you Lisa. What a fabulous litmus test for current pieces I am working on. I will be tearing them apart tonight for sure as I hold them up to your definition of the essence of a story.

    I really appreciate the clarity and guidance that this tutorial gives and picked up great suggestions from the comments as well!

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    • says

      You are SO not alone, Mari! My advice is always, give us too much in the early drafts, because the deeper you go, the more likely it is you’ll uncover something incredibly revealing about how your protagonist sees the world. That then becomes a “keeper” and you can edit out the excess. It’s a win-win.

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  26. says

    I love love love the first half of this post — and as someone who has a degree in creative writing, I can absolutely attest to being taught writing but not story. Your bolded statement of what story is? Perfection!

    However, I do disagree somewhat with the idea that we should include a lot of internal thoughts and/or telling… Like LynDee, I think it’s important to find the right balance. (But I do think readers need/want a lot less than writers tend to give. :P)

    Lately I’ve been using a camera metaphor: Think of how much gets conveyed by the objective, distant view of a camera in television and movies. Barring voiceovers (which, like dreams, are often a crutch) we don’t get to hear the internal thoughts of the characters — but we can infer them from what the characters say and do. (And often from the contrast between what they say and what they do.) I think the connection between author and reader — and between characters and reader — and thus between story and reader — is strongest when it’s a relationship built on trust. Trust that the reader can connect the dots, and trust that the author will provide those dots clearly.

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    • says

      Thanks Kristan! And as for including lots of “telling,” when done right, giving internal thoughts isn’t telling at all, it’s showing. That is, showing how the character is making sense of what happens. The big difference between film, television, and the camera notion is that prose actually gives us entry into the one place it’s otherwise impossible to get to: someone else’s mind. That, I believe, is what the reader comes for. I totally agree with both you and LynDee that it’s all a matter of balance – and of truly giving the reader clear enough dots to actually connect. That’s where the art comes in, don’t you think?

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  27. Lisa H says

    I was in a writers workshop last year where the instructor made us all take a Meyers Brigg personality test. I thought it was nonsense at first, until we saw the results.

    The test measures things like whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, or whether you like structure or lack of structure. But there’s one key marker — whether you’re an “N” or an “S” that really pertains to writing. “N”s tend to be very intuitive and see patterns in things that aren’t directly related to one another. “S”s, on the other hand, need to see or hear things to get the message.

    The instructor pointed out that while less than 10 percent of the population is “N,” every single writer she’d had for the past decade had been an “N.” Writers just “see” things that 90 percent of the public does not. She told us that that was why we’d get notes about how things that seemed totally clear to us needed to be spelled out. (Another writer I know calls this “subtitles for the nuance impaired.”)

    It was really eye-opening to realize that readers don’t necessarily see the nuances and patterns that writers intuitively do.

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    • says

      Lisa–

      This fabulously explains why one of my parents (an N, and actually the same personality type as me, INFJ) understood the “what really happened” behind a literary story I wrote in college, and why my other parent (ISTJ, I think), did not.

      And my writing professor and fellow workshop students were probably all Ns as well, which explains why the majority of them got it, too. It’s something I’ve thought of off and on over the years, so thanks for this mini-epiphany!

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  28. says

    Stories must show change to be defined as such. If a series of events occur but there is no change, then those events are random, not the cohesive whole we call a story. Of course, learning to write internal dialogue and internal or external reactions well is a critical step in learning to show that change and make the story complete.

    For me, the hardest part has been figuring out how to show character emotions without being too vague (e.g. having them make some random movement that most people won’t automatically connect to a particular emotion) or too obvious (flat-out telling every different way a character feels). Sometimes it’s OK to tell a little bit, and sometimes if you show too much in a really vague way, the readers won’t get what you’re trying to say. (And that isn’t their fault, btw.) I think I’m getting closer to finding that balance, and just like with dialogue, observation has helped me. Don’t just pay attention to how others talk, but pay attention to what they do when they receive bad news, hear something wonderful, are bored, etc. How do they move? What happens to their faces? Sometimes a person’s body language is so strong that you can almost read their thoughts on their forehead. Even if you don’t want to dictate a character’s thoughts on the page, you can show a lot about them through mimicking real-life actions in equivalent emotional states.

    And if you do show a character’s inner thoughts, make sure the reader is getting something new, something they couldn’t infer from the text around it.

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    • says

      Oh Kristin, I couldn’t agree with you more on this — and it’s so well said! It’s so true, too, that body language is the one language that it’s nigh on impossible to lie in. The only thing I always want to hit home is: don’t be afraid of dictating what the character is thinking; it’s what the reader comes for. Not long meandering trains of thought, but thoughts that fill in the gap between what things look like on the surface, and what they really feel like.

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  29. says

    I love this post. I think it was only recently that I realized an old idea I’ve had floating around in my head since 2004, and that I’ve taken, I think, three separate stabs at since then wasn’t working because I had it structured so that my protagonist couldn’t change. Absolutely horrible, and I am so glad I at least could tell something wasn’t working, so I didn’t make the mistake of thinking it wasn’t submittable.

    I’m working on a different project now, and the change of my characters is always at the forefront of my mind.

    Thanks for the concise distillation of what makes a story a story!

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    • says

      Thanks, Amanda! And I have a question: since the story has been floating in your head since 2004, and you’ve taken three stabs at it, clearly something about it has you hooked. Is there another angle you could come at it from, or a dent in its structural armor — or even better, your protagonist’s — that you could pry open and so allow (make that force) her/him to change? Just curious! Sounds intriguing.

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  30. says

    Love this. I consider myself a storyteller who turned to writing because I can’t make a living spinning tales in the village market in this day and age. Character, and especially character growth, is my holy grail. I define my protagonist as ‘the character who changes the most during the story’.
    My writing process is definitely focused on story over prose. I start with a bare bones synopsis and go through three or four expansions, filling on more details and subplots each time. Also catching plot holes and problems. Only when I’m satisfied that the story has been completely told do I turn to polishing the prose.

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    • says

      Thanks, Jessica! Sounds like you’ve really perfected your process. And the fact that you embrace rewriting (and, I’d bet, even enjoy it as the story begins to shine through) really makes you a pro. Yes!

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  31. says

    I find that last point to be most encouraging. I’ve been taught to fear on-the-nose writing, but when I look at the bestseller list right now, there’s no question that an explicit inner life and arc is welcomed by readers. (My opinion.) Since I read your fantastic book, I’ve relaxed about what I’ve been doing.

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    • says

      I SO hear you, Jan! I think the biggest problem is that genuine to-be-avoided on-the-nose writing is VERY different from what writers are so often taught to believe it is. As a result, writers keep the real story (the internal story) off the page. It’s that alone that tanked a huge percentage of the manuscripts I’ve read. It’s heartbreaking.

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  32. says

    A really helpful blog, one I’ll keep handy to reread.
    A writing edict that can mislead beginning writers like me into holding back from putting the story on the page is “Show don’t tell.”
    I might think I’m showing a sad, lonely child when I write about her walking home from school slowly, alone. But the reader could just as well picture her enjoying the opportunity for peace and quiet as she goes home to her twelve brothers. Maybe she walks slowly because she’s luxuriating in the pleasure.
    Conveying the character’s attitude, emotions, thoughts without telling the reader what they are takes lots of hard work and practice.

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    • says

      Thanks Skipper, that makes my day. And I couldn’t agree with you more — Show, Don’t Tell is one of the most mis-taught writing maxims out there. It’s not you! Your take on it is spot-on.

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  33. says

    This is brilliant. I’m in the “know it when I see it” camp, and I’m shattered to admit that I’ve never thought of story in these terms. Writing the character’s inner conflicts just seemed natural to me.

    Thinking back I can see that when my initial reaction’s negative to a piece of writing it’s because there’s no story.

    I’ve never been able to articulate it, beyond “nothing’s happening”.

    (To which the response is always “But there’s plenty happening…” Well, there might be, but if we’re not experiencing it, it’s not happening for us. :-))

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  34. says

    I agree with your every word, Lisa – again! For me, the story is the engine, and plot and character are like cogs in a machine, working together effortlessly to help drive the story forward. The true story arc is always the growth & change of the characters as they overcome obtsacles and learn key lessons.
    Lovely to read all the other comments too – such a great community of writers!

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  35. says

    Oh, I felt into this trap soo many times, during my first attempts to write short stories. I used to create extremely cool characters that eventually winded up doing… nothing. There was no story. It took me a while to realize that and fix it.

    Thank you for this article, it was very helpful!

    Regards,

    Iulian

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    • says

      My Pleasure, Iulian. It’s something it took me a long time to learn, I often fell into the exact same trap. Truth is, as with most things, it’s so much easier to figure out what’s missing when you’re reading someone else’s work, right?

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  36. Denise Willson says

    Genius, Lisa, pure genius. And your timing couldn’t have been better. I’ve been reading / editing a friends manuscript and wasn’t sure how to put my suggestions into words of value. Not anymore! Along with my notes, this post will help take her plot driven novel to new emotional levels.

    Thank you.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  37. Kristin says

    This is amazing. Can the story question and goals change with the character or does this dilute/derail/somehow mess up the story?

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    • says

      Thanks, Kristin, and great question! Very often the protagonist’s goal shifts, but it’s from one specific thing to another that solves the same problem. For instance, in romantic comedies, very often the protagonist’s goal is to win the love of one woman, when we know pretty much from the get go his real goal should be someone else. Or, to learn to make it on his own. Very often, the real “goal” is for the protagonist to realize that he’s going after a false goal. The story question, on the other hand, stays the same, even if the goal shifts. It can help to think of a story as a single problem that complicates. What do you think?

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  38. Daniel Myatt says

    Question is: where was this article — the most helpful I’ve read in a long time — when I began my novel? Thanks so much!

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  39. says

    Fantastic!

    I’m a children’s television writer as well as a novelist so I have a better grasp of story than the average prose writer, I’m guessing, but you’ve brought to the fore HOW to get the characters’ reactions and feelings onto the page and make sure the story is sign-posted properly.

    I have a screenwriter’s tendency of aggressively showing-not -telling, and the internal monologue and reactions of my characters have taken me plenty of work. After all, there are no actors to do this work for me in a book, I have to be the actor as well.

    Very helpful for the book I’m currently writing … thank you!

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    • says

      Thanks, Alexa! On the flipside, I have tremendous respect for screen and TV writers, because the format “looks” so easy, and yet is so incredibly, deceptively difficult. BTW, I love the cover and synopsis of Slave Girl — my kids are grown, but it’s exactly the kind of book I let them stay up late to hear, because I so enjoyed reading it to them. ;-)

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  40. says

    What an amazing post, I agreed with everything you said. That’s precisely what I’ve run into in a lot of books, a lack of story. Sometimes they start off with one and then lose it. It’s rather unfortunate, because while beautiful prose is worth the read and very much admired by many, what we’re really looking for is a story well told. Telling your reader exactly what’s going on is especially important, vagueness simply kills. You can still keep them in the dark about certain things, but they have to be there with the character. Thanks for this!

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  41. says

    Wonderful post. Years ago when I was in college — somewhere about the dawn of time — my professor gave this one-sentence concept for novels: A likeable character battles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal.
    He did not, however, mention anything about the journey of change within the character. I only heard that a few years ago, and it made a difference.
    I plan to keep this blog and refer to it from time to time and get your book.
    I’m in the process of rewriting — for an ebook publisher — my third novel.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
    Bob Stewart

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Trackbacks

  1. […] 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.  […]

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